The most ridiculous miscommunication (read: fight) we ever had was over a failed recipe. Well, it started over a failed recipe, anyway. One of those creative meals I thought was going to be awesome but totally tanked. To sum it up in 10 seconds or less: I prepared it with pride, all three of my people turned up their noses at it and made sandwiches instead, I pouted, the kids went to bed, we started pointing plates at each other in the kitchen, and the last thing I remember was screaming at the top of my lungs, “IT’S NOT ABOUT THE SQUAAAAAAAASH!”
And this fight really wasn’t about the squash. What it WAS about was how taken for granted and unappreciated I felt, this dinner being the final straw on my pile, and then how invalidated I felt when the hurt I voiced seemed laughable in his eyes.
How many down-and-dirty arguments begin over something so simple and end with either or both parties feeling defeated because of something deeper we can’t seem to articulate, much less resolve?
We learned the hard way that unresolved “tough stuff” crafts itself into a 3-headed monster that stands in the way of real communication. And the monster can most definitely destroy your marriage unless you figure out how to slay it.
What I said, what they heard, and what I actually meant. These are our total wires-crossed moments. Men and women aren’t wired to speak the same language. So if we stand any chance of still liking each other in 20 years or even in the next 20 minutes we have to help each other really understand what we really mean. Especially when we’re hurt and not thinking or speaking clearly.
The good news is that every miscommunication is an opportunity to practice empathy and learn better strategies. Strategies that work with your spouse, your coworkers, your parents, and your friends. Some of our miscommunication monsters were particularly painful. It’s because they were painful that they became especially good teachers.
He said: You KNOW I don’t like squash. Why you would expect me to like it or eat it?
I heard: The time you spent planning and preparing a meal doesn’t matter to me. I don’t feel the responsibility to help our children express gratitude for their mother’s efforts. I’d rather eat peanut butter and jelly than respect my wife.
He really meant: I don’t like squash. (Seriously, men are just this simple. Lots of therapy money went into understanding this concept and so this is my little free gift to you. May you be blessed and freed by it!)
How we could have done it better: I could have made a different dish. But even if I didn’t, Jack could have gulped a few bites down to encourage our small children to try it. He also could have said thank you for making a meal for our family. I could have told him calmly how unappreciated he made me feel. I could have also asked him to please consider my feelings and my perspective before he let his own take over. Bottom line – we could have talked about the real issue instead of screaming about squash. Literally nothing got resolved and neither one of us felt better after it was over. This fight added some more fangs to our monster and he just got bigger until the next argument flared up.
We can laugh about it now and I swear on my Grandmother’s oatmeal raisin cookies I will never again bring a squash into our kitchen. Jack prays over our family meals daily and helps our children thank me for the meal I prepared. It’s such a little gesture that means the world to me.
I said: I’m going to hear our friends share their story at our church. I’d love for you to come with me.
He heard: I have to go to ooooooone mooooooore thiiiiiing for her.
I really meant: I love our friends and I’m praying hearing their story gives us an opportunity to connect in a meaningful way on a topic that matters to me.
How we could have done it better: I could have said what I actually meant. My non-communication admittedly causes much of our miscommunication. This was one that really did matter to me. While I know it was one more commitment on the calendar, I should have insisted we go. Instead, I went by myself and pouted about it, never explaining afterwards why I was upset. He also could have just come with me. He might have understood why it was important to me once we got there.
If it matters, make your desire known. If you’re the one saying no to the other person’s request, ask yourself why you are really saying no. Can you get past it and honor the other person’s need in the moment?
He said: The vacation budget’s gotta go this year.
I heard: I don’t value time with you or see the need to treat us to fun together.
He really meant: I feel stressed about the balance of money coming in vs. the money going out. Can we please tighten the belt just for a bit?
How we could have done it better: I could have explained that quality time together makes me feel loved, even if it’s just a night to ourselves child-free in our own home or a cup of coffee together in the morning before the house gets crazy. He could have explained to me that he felt financial pressure and asked for my help coming up with a plan we both felt good about.
When we didn’t address the actual issues of his financial stress and my feeling looked-over, his stress and my hurt both multiplied. That flavored every conversation afterwards with hurt and frustration. You can imagine how that careened out of control, ending eventually with disastrous results.
Money for us is a hot button that can draw out stress, guilt, tension, and just about everything you don’t want clouding over a marriage. If money does that for you too, find a safe way to talk about it. We set a day and time on the calendar when the kids are at school. I pick up fruit empanadas from Dosey Doe and he brews the good coffee and we talk it out at our dining room table. Like an actual team, with a spreadsheet and a legal pad. Everyone gets their requests heard. If we can’t honor them all, we at least consider them and note them for next time. Nobody gets to shut down (me) or get mean-mad (him).
I said: I want to paint the interior of the house.
He heard: I hate the paint you carefully chose when we moved in here. I’m not grateful for the hard work you do to provide a beautiful home for our family because the “stuff” we already have is not enough. I’m not interested in your financial priorities, only my own.
I really meant: I want to make our house to feel like a home so we can fill it with love and it can be a place where our people feel warmly welcomed.
How we could have done it better: We could have added this to a dining-room-empanadas day and considered it like people who care about each other. I realize now that the comments I shot off here and there about paint and improvements for our home came across as barbs. They added unnecessary pressure to what was already a stressful time in his work.
We did eventually paint the interior of our home, and it turned out beautifully! We tackled the project together and had a lot of fun. And we called the professionals to fix everything we dropped on the baseboards.
To reduce miscommunication in our marriage, we both have to care enough to change the way we approach tough topics. If you’re the only one caring right now, you can still do your part and your spouse might follow suit. (I bet though that they probably care just as much as you do. They just don’t know how to articulate it or humble themselves enough to admit it yet. Keep the faith. Lead by example and be patient. Every human being is capable of change.)
My part: I have to force myself to breathe through the moment where I want to shut down. When I shut down, I storm off – or slink away – without being honest about how I actually feel. “Being the bigger person” doesn’t mean being a martyr or a doormat. There’s no glory in that. So instead of clamming up, I pause to pray for and seek out the right words to say that will help accomplish our goal together rather than tear him to shreds. It’s an awkward silence for sure. But it’s way better than walking away or using cruel words to make a tense moment worse.
His part: He has to hold back from “negotiating me.” When he goes into debate mode, he’s right and I’m wrong. Then nobody wins. The way we do win is by treating each other like human beings and honoring the other’s feelings. Even when we don’t particularly understand or agree. If you sacrifice the relationship for the sake of winning the argument, then you’ve defeated your purpose altogether. As many a brilliant mind has shared: would you rather be right, or happy?
We’ve learned more in the last 17 months than in our entire 17-year relationship combined. It’s still not easy to tackle our tough stuff head-on. But I gain a little more confidence (and we build a little more trust) every time we navigate something together. I can only say what I really mean when I tell my ego to take a hike and humble myself enough to be real. And when we can both choose to do that, we have a chance at truly understanding each other and taking on some conversations worth having.
Jessica is a writer, musician, entrepreneur, wife, and mom. Jessica's mission is to write "real" - shining light into the dark places of the tough stuff we all experience. She and her husband Jack live in Houston, Texas and have weathered the storms of grief, infant loss, adoption, and a marriage that almost fell apart. Jessica and Jack have 4 children, LJ in heaven, Grace, Jackson, and brand new baby Elisha.