Mutual understanding is crucial to good communication.
Suppose a friend of yours introduced you to a person from another country and that visitor was just learning your language. Imagine that, after the introductions, the foreigner very politely said, “It’s a pleasure to meet you. F_ _ _ you.” You would probably be startled by the last two words, but would you be offended and angry? I wouldn’t, because I would know from his behavior that he didn’t intend to offend me. I might ask him where he learned those words, and if he told me someone had said that was a way of showing respect, I would gently tell him that they were playing a cruel joke on him and that those words were not appropriate.
I have been learning that men and women speak very different languages, which can lead to communication breakdown, misunderstandings, and hurt feelings.
Let’s start with a simple example. My husband often reminds me of things, and I appreciate that because I can be forgetful at times and I know he’s trying to be helpful. Even if I already remembered it, I thank him for the reminder. So, I assumed that Tom would also appreciate it when, as his helpmate, I reminded him of things. But that wasn’t the case. For example, we had our teeth whitened, and it required monthly follow-ups if the teeth were to remain white. One night I asked, “Do you want to do the teeth whitener tonight?” He said no, and since I’d been learning to clarify, I then asked, “Am I right in assuming that you would prefer that I not remind you again?” and he said yes. This puzzled me until I read that men don’t like to feel inadequate. Then it dawned on me that his interpretation of my reminder was that I felt he was inadequate, when my intentions were merely to be helpful. (When I asked, Tom confirmed my conclusion.) Doing for our spouse what we like having them do for us might backfire if they misunderstand our motivation. And we should always give our spouse the benefit of the doubt. Assume they meant well until they prove otherwise.
One night, a simple misunderstanding afforded me great laughter! I was at a table typing, and Tom was on the couch with our Bible study in his lap. He said, “Let me know when you’re at a good stopping point.” I said, “Ok, Ill finish this one paragraph and then quit.” I put the computer aside, went over to the couch, sat next to him, looked expectantly into his eyes and asked, “Did you want to talk?” (I was assuming he wanted to discuss the Bible study.) He said, “No. I want to eat.” I burst out laughing because that was such a typical example of the differences between a male and female response! (By the way, my wonderful husband, who did most of the cooking at that time, had dinner ready.)
Due to the chemical differences in male and female brains, men may need up to seven hours to process complex emotional data that women may process within minutes! (See chapter 8 in Sacred Influence by Gary Thomas.) So, we need to give them time to process. When I have a heavy topic to discuss, something that works well for us is that I write out all of my thoughts. (This allows me to carefully choose my wording). Then I give Tom the letter and ask him to read it when he feels he’s emotionally up to it and get back to me with his response when he’s ready. This allows him the necessary time to process his thoughts and emotions.
I also have to continually remind myself not to be pushy. I have a post-it note reminder to myself that says, Present, don’t persuade!
As Tom’s helpmate, my role is to humbly present my perspective to him. But it is not my role to try to persuade him to agree with me (that’s manipulation). His role is to carefully consider what I have to say and, whenever possible, work with me on finding a solution that we’re both at peace about. Ultimately, however, he is responsible for making the final decision.
In my presentations I must always evaluate my motivation (why do I want this? Am I being selfish?) and make sure that how I present the information is respectful and considerate.
I must also try to be very clear and direct in my requests. I need to state what I want and why. I don’t know if the following truly happened, but it illustrates my point. I heard that one wife said to her husband, “The light bulb has burned out.” He replied, “Yes.” To him, she was simply stating a fact. In her mind, she was making a request for him to fix it. It would have been better if she had said something like, “That light bulb needs replacing. Would you be willing to replace it when you can?” (If there’s a reason she isn’t able to do it, she could also explain that.)
Other aspects of communication involve praising our spouse for their strengths and thanking them for the ways they help us, asking about their interests and concerns, etc.
Too often, hurt feelings are simply a result of miscommunication. Couples will be much happier if they take the time to learn how to speak their spouse’s language.