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Does your spouse miss the signs and signals you give when you want to connect? You dress up, and your partner doesn’t notice: no love making tonight. You ask for help around the house with chores: your mate is suddenly glued to the tube. You plan a fun Saturday: your spouse is tired. Let’s look at the signals you offer to connect.

Here we discuss three roadblocks to clear communication:

  • You miss the signals being offered.
  • You nag.
  • You don’t speak the same language.

 

The photo above is alluring to me because it doesn’t match up. The construction site says danger keep out, but the flowers are an invitation of welcome. Often, when we ask our mate for sex, help or companionship we send a similar message.

When we ask, we are vulnerable: soft like these flowers. Vulnerability, even or maybe especially with your mate, is terrifying. Consequently, without knowing it, we also send a message based in our fear that signals to our mate: keep out.

 

You Miss the Signals Being Offered

Years ago, as my family traveled in Europe, the signs mystified us. We were unsettled by a particular sign: bandas sonoras. We could tell the message was urgent, but my translating dictionary said, “soundtracks.” Our Spanish was meager and we were mystified.

The small Colorado town where we live has only one stop sign, so Madrid and its 10-lane highway, was already overwhelming. The bumper to bumper traffic sped up in an enormous mass. Then, we’d see a series of speed limit signs and this warning: bandas sonoras. We assumed it meant slow down, but that didn’t seem quite right either.

Days later we were out in the country, nothing around for miles but fields and, as we rose over a steep hill there it was again: bandas sonoras! As we crested the hill, immediately on the other side were railroad tracks. We all felt it: the rattle in our teeth as we went over speed bumps intended to put us on alert.

Previously we had been so overwhelmed by the multitude of signs we were scanning in the city that we hadn’t noticed the speed bump sensation. It took repeated exposures to connect the dots.

When my husband and I were starting our family, setting up a savings account gave me security. My husband didn’t feel insecure, and he saw no reason for saving when the world was so full of tools, trucks and toys. His desires drowned out his ability to feel the insecurity that was my experience.

Then, as he got older, he started to get burned out at work. That burn out suddenly awakened his insecurity: if I don’t work, how will I pay my bills? Once his awareness was awakened, he heard everything I had to say about saving. It’s been easy for him to save ever since.

For years I tried to make saving appealing to him: we’ll be able to pay for vacation with cash instead of a credit card but, credit cards didn’t bother him so he couldn’t relate to why that would be valuable. What I didn’t know how to say was, as much joy as it gives you to buy a new truck, I get relief when we buy security with a savings account. Had I been able to frame it in terms of fairness, I think he could have heard me more clearly.

Some signs don’t register with our spouse because we all experience the world differently. If your partner doesn’t seem to see the sign you are regularly holding up, perhaps it is because they don’t feel the speed bumps you feel.

Not only did he have his own experiences that masked his ability to feel insecure, I smoothed the road for him. Any time we had an emergency like the car broke or the kids needed tuition for a dance class, I had money ready to go that I’d been stashing away to ease my insecurity.

Are you holding up the warning sign, but simultaneously smoothing out the speed bumps? If so, your spouse might never wake up to your counsel.

If your spouse doesn’t seem to hear your requests, ask yourself these questions:

  • What is it I truly want?
    • This is the trickiest thing to identify. I’ve only recently realized that I wanted a savings account to GIVE me something: security. Previously I remained pious thinking I was better than him because of my frugality.
  • How am I signaling this desire?
    • Am I making a direct request? I kept wanting to make the savings account appealing to my husband rather than stating clearly it was what I wanted for me. This side step has a big payoff because, again, I get the glowing image of frugal person trying hard to budget, but I get to play with all the toys he buys.
    • Does my spouse also want what I want, or is this for me alone? You get to want what you want. It’s tempting to avoid the vulnerability of a personal desire by pawning it off onto our partner. “Saving will be good for us both.” No. Saving was what I alone wanted.
  • How might I be getting in the way of my mate feeling this need/desire?
    • Do I solve the problem before my mate feels the impact? When I always manage to pay the bills – even for the emergencies – it’s difficult for my husband to get insecure.

 

You Nag

We all make demands of our spouse. The question is how. Another road sign offered me a paradigm shift. After driving in wide open spaces, when we came to a township this sign: Traffic Calming alerted us to slow down.

Instead of being told to slow down, the request felt gentle and I was flushed with a tender respect for the people who might be crossing the street. “let’s all calm down” is very different than the demanding tone of Slow Down.

The best story of a paradigm shift I’ve ever heard is from Stephen Covey who was on a subway when a man and his children got on. The kids were out of control. The father did absolutely nothing about it, letting the kids run wild. Mr. Covey was annoyed and finally asked the gentleman to control his children. “I know,” said the father, “I think the kids don’t know what to do. We just came from the hospital where their mother died.” Suddenly, Mr. Covey was awash with compassion. No longer annoyed by the riled-up kids, he wanted to help.

I had a paradigm shift with my husband when he once said to me, “Sometimes people answer you without words.” A lightbulb went on for me. My husband is non-confrontational and I had spent years picking fights. Suddenly I saw how many times he answered without using words.

I asked for his help putting up Christmas decorations, but he didn’t enjoy that or value it, so he didn’t do much. He chose the job of taking out the trash, but I had a different standard of full and, full of resentment, I took it out before he got to it.

Once I realized how my husband was answering without words, I realized I decorate at Christmas because that matters to me. One year I was more tired and didn’t do much. That was the year he said to me, “I miss the Christmas décor. You always make the house so cozy.” And he has been totally engaged ever since. When the trash is bothering me I stop and ask myself, “Will I resent him if I take this out or will it feel better to me to have an empty trash?” (Side note: the more recently we’ve had sex the less I’m apt to be resentful.)

If you feel like a nag, ask yourself these questions:

  • Am I demanding “Slow down!” or inviting “Traffic Calming?”
    • None of us like to be told what to do. Find a way to request an invitation to the life you both have agreed you want. I demanded confrontation for years because that was my comfort zone (odd, right?)
  • Does this matter to my partner?
    • It’s not fair to ask everyone in the house to live according to your standards when theirs are different. But sometimes your spouse will want to do something because they care about you. “I know a clean sink isn’t a priority for you, so when you clean it, I can feel you did it simply to please me. Wow. Thanks.”
  • Do I leave the job undone?
    • It’s so common to do the work we’ve asked someone else to do because then we get to feel superior. Yeah, that’s a real good way to foster connection.

 

You Don’t Speak the Same Language

When we were in Spain, I truly didn’t speak the same language. I walked into this sweet little deli and, with my dreadful Spanish, asked for what I thought was some sweet bread. The store owner looked puzzled, but ever helpful, went into the back and brought out a bag of sugar. I laughed.

Do you ever feel like this when you’re trying to drop romantic hints? You think you’re asking for something delicate and delicious and your mate brings out the giant bag of plain, raw sugar. When it comes to sex I feel so vulnerable and I want my husband to scoop me up and make it all happen. My best friend knows her own body and her desires so completely and she has no hesitation asking for and initiating the encounters that rock her world. I’m not that way. Learning all the nuances of my desire is scary for me.

Frightened people scare others off. I knit flowers of welcome on the fence inviting my husband into my bed, but at the same moment I also post the danger sign screaming loudly to keep out.

In these moments when I can’t seem to communicate, laughter helps. The shop owner in Spain was so patient and the moment I laughed and took the blame (the one phrase I said well was mi español es muy malo) he was ready to help me. We danced around with me miming and thinking of other ways to ask for the bakery items and I totally scored in the end.

There are many, many times in your marriage that you will feel like you don’t speak the same language. This is because you are trying to communicate the most intimate desires of your heart to another human being. That other human being is also scared and, while they really want you to come share a moment, they are also terrified.

Laughter is a fear buster.

If you don’t feel like your spouse understands you, ask yourself these questions

  • Do I feel vulnerable?
    • What’s the source of vulnerability?
  • Am I sending mixed signals?
    • I want you to touch me but I’m stony silent when you do. Not a recipe for greater intimacy.
    • How can I act more confidently than I feel? Insecurity can frighten a person away. Confidence draws them in.
  • How can I own my vulnerability so my request becomes crystal clear?
    • This sounds counter intuitive, but it works: be more vulnerable by diving deeper: I’m so embarrassed. I’m uncomfortable because I want to be close and I don’t know how to do that (and not knowing makes me feel even more vulnerable).

Try to notice the signs you’re posting on the fence between you. Take down the keep out signs as much as possible and just concentrate on offering a welcome invitation with the flowers you knit.

Rebecca S. Mullen
PO Box 346
Mesa, CO 81643