Do you ever find yourself in the midst of heated conversation when, all of a sudden, your partner says something that just takes your breath away? S/he might as well stop talking at that point because you are no longer listening to a word being said. All you hear is that little voice inside your head bellowing, “I can’t believe he just said that,” “She is such a jerk.” You lick your wounds and prepare your retort.
But as you mull things over, you realize, “It’s not what he’s saying, it’s how he’s saying it,” or “If she would just word it differently, I might be able to respond less defensively.” So, in your effort to resurrect the conversation, you tell your spouse, “Why can’t you just say it this way,?” and you proceed to reword the statement in such a way that it feels less toxic. And just when you think you should receive the Nobel Peace prize for your obvious communication acumen, your spouse replies with an ungrateful, “Why do you always try to tell me what to say and how to say it,?” or “Since you know what I should be saying, why don’t you just have a conversation by yourself?”
What we have here is a failure to communicate.
If you’re someone who tries to educate your spouse as to the best way to approach you, you want to be sure to hit the “share this” button below so that you can get the word out to him or her that at least one expert agrees with you. If you, on the other hand, are someone who feels offended that your spouse always seems to be trying to put words into your mouth, please read on. This could be marriage-saving advice.
I have worked with several couples last week whose patterns of communication closely resemble the example offered above. In trying to get his wife to use what therapists refer to as “I-messages,” a strategy that assumes personal responsibility for feelings and leads to less defensiveness, one man said, “I wish you would stop saying that I’m controlling when I ask you to spend less time on the phone at night. Instead, why can’t you say, ‘When you tell me to get off the phone at night, I feel controlled by you.’ I could handle that. But when you tell me that I try to control you and everything you do, I get really angry. I don’t try to control you even if you think I do. My being controlling is not why I want you to spend less time on the phone.” “Well put,” I thought, but apparently his wife thought otherwise. In fact, she took his suggestion as further evidence that he was manipulating.
Chances are, even if you’re the sort who detests when your spouse “tells you what to say,” you might see the logic in the previous example. It just makes good sense that people should take responsibility for their feelings rather than ascribe malicious intent to their partner’s actions. But consider the next example and see if you can understand why things can get a bit more ambiguous.
A woman in my practice asked her husband not use a particular word that for her, was emotionally-laden. But her husband felt that his choice of words best described his feelings and was unwilling to use a less inflammatory alternative. Furthermore, he didn’t like being told what to do. Suffice it to say, their conversation didn’t go too well.
Language is an extremely powerful tool. The words we choose can mean the difference between loving, constructive conversations which result in real intimacy, or verbal competitions ending in misunderstanding, emotional distance, and even divorce. With that in mind, the next time you hear, “Why can’t you say it this way,” remind yourself that your spouse is not saying, “If you want to talk to me, remember, I am the playwright. Your only job is to memorize your lines. Don’t improvise,”-that’s not what this plea is about. Your spouse is really saying, “Please be gentle. Say what you need to say in a way that I can hear you and not become defensive.” Then, honor the request. Back up a step or two and try again- even if you think your spouse is over-reacting. Do it as an experiment. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the results.
2009 Michele Weiner-Davis Training Corp. Reprinted with permission of Michele Weiner-Davis. Subscribe to the FREE “Divorce Busting” newsletter at www.divorcebusting.com, the place where marriages become stronger and more committed.