If you want to be bad at communication, simply don’t do it. Don’t talk: Don’t share any stories from your day. When something exciting or upsetting happens to you, don’t tell your spouse. Don’t listen: A good way to keep from hearing the stories your spouse has to tell you is to dominate the conversation and jabber constantly. Another good way to avoid listening is walk away or be distracted with your phone or the mail while your mate is talking.
If you want to be good at communication strike a balance between talking and listening. It’s not about equal time for each person, but rather an attitude of sharing. Are you equally curious to listen and eager to share? When your spouse is talking are you interested in what they’re saying? Does your body reveal that you are engaged with eye contact and the occasional head bob that says, “I’m here and want you to say more?” Do you volunteer information about your day, your thoughts or your opinions?
There are times that you and your spouse are both communicating well, but you can’t hear each other because you have different expectations for the conversation. Let’s remind ourselves of the three relationships inside a singular marriage:
A partner wants to help you achieve
- A partner listens to hear how they can help. A partner talks to gain clarity, or solicit assistance.
- A partner wants to hear about the details so they can better understand the goal you’re trying to achieve.
- A partner listens with the purpose of assisting you in fixing, building or achieving your goal.
- A partner discloses their ideas of support, offering suggestions or resources that will enable achievement.
- A partner digs deep into the discussion by brainstorming or problem solving. Their intention is to provide a list of solutions to support you.
A friend wants you to feel accepted
- A friend listens because they want to hear your whole story so they can better know you. When a friend talks, they are hoping to be understood.
- A friend wants to know the details so they can be included in your life.
- A friend listens without agenda, simply to hear the story and support their mate.
- Friends disclose a moment from their life to reveal a similar experience or feeling so their spouse will know they are not alone.
- A friend will tell a funny story or reveal something vulnerable to offer relief from the present moment. Their intention is to offer you rest so you’ll feel at ease.
A lover wants to bring energy into your relationship
- A lover brings passionate intensity to their listening.
- A lover listens for what excites you. They want to blow on the embers of that fire ignited inside you.
- A lover figures out what make them feel passionate and energized. Then they welcome you into that energy with a sense of excitement and invitation.
- A lover is receptive and encourages any activity in your life that bolsters your confidence.
- A lover searches for the unknown and for adventure to find completion in what is beyond them and then they share that with you.
If your spouse has an expectation of partnership and you are seeking a friend, both of you will find the conversation frustrating. You had a bad day and you just need to unload with someone you trust so you don’t feel so alone. You begin to describe how your co-worker’s competitive nature irritates you and your spouse starts asking what they think are encouraging questions: “How much do you involve her in your planning? How does your boss evaluate you?” You don’t feel supported. You feel attacked much the way you did at work. It feels like your spouse is blaming you for the way you’re feeling.
Your spouse is mystified because they wanted to help you get to the root of the problem so you could solve it and tomorrow would be a better day. This is a great moment to notice what you need. Occasionally we can notice what we need immediately, but most of the time we don’t see what we needed until we have been disappointed: days, weeks or even years later.
Once you’ve been able to notice what you need, you learn to ask clearly: “I just need a friend who will listen to me and help me feel OK about myself.” Hopefully your spouse can adjust and alter their communication style, but, like it took you some time to notice what you needed, it might take your spouse a while to make that adjustment.
Most of us have a preferred mode of communication. I like to solve problems. My husband wants to be included. We can both play the other role, but we tend to favor our go-to style.
What if your go-to style is lover? How would you handle the above conversation? A lover is eager to be excited or to excite their mate. They want to feel attraction, so they might remind their mate about what attracts them. “Your work is so superior. You have nothing to worry about.” This comment makes the spouse feel like they haven’t been heard: but I don’t feel superior. I feel uncomfortable.
Mismatches such as these are why we sometimes feel alienated from our spouse. Ironically, it’s because we are so close. The intimacy we share creates an expectation that our spouse will always offer the mode of communication we need because we feel like our minds, hearts and even bodies are one.
This is unrealistic.
Let’s consider why. If you’re puzzling over solving a budget and your spouse comes in wearing a new shirt and feeling sexy, even though you are generally attracted to them, it’s going to be a stretch for you to shake off the number mindset to “ooh-la-la.”
You might be a great communicator, listening deeply and revealing prescient details, but if you and your spouse have different expectations for the conversation you will struggle. This is normal.
I have two ideas to help you. The first idea is to know the mode you’re in and to offer a signal to match. If you walk into the room and give a little twirl with a come-hither expression on your face, you are letting your partner know you think you’re pretty hot and they should notice. (It took me only 25 years to learn this lesson.) If, however, you ask your mate to sit down next to you while you get out the list of things needed at the hardware store, don’t be surprised if they don’t notice how you’re rocking that new shirt.
The difference is the energy you’re bringing: partner or lover?
My second idea comes into play when you can see you’re failing to connect. Of course you are. When it comes to our mate, we are regularly at our worst because we let down that guard of our public face. We become a big ball of need. This is a great time to have the language of friend, lover and partner. Ask your partner, if you’re unsure, “Are you looking more for a partner or for a friend?” This clarity will help. Some of the time.
Learning to navigate expectations with our spouse takes time and practice. Be gentle with yourself and be gentle with your mate.