I read an article recently about the five things you should never say to your spouse. It wasn’t very good, but it did get me thinking about what things you should say.
First, a word of caution. Men, this is not meant as a license to blurt out “yes!” when your wife asks if she looks fat in those pants. Ladies, if your husband is trying in vain to find his keys and mutters, “I’m such an idiot,” that is not the time for an enthusiastic “yes!”
But in most other scenarios, “yes” is a great response. Here are a very few examples:
- When he asks you to watch an action movie that doesn’t interest you.
- When she asks you to sit and talk with her . . . yes, just talk. About whatever.
- When he asks you to come to bed early.
- When she asks you to get up early with the kids.
- When he asks if you can make his favorite cookies.
- When she asks if you will take her dancing.
Here’s why. Your spouse, the person you pledged to love and cherish, forsaking all others, is giving you an opportunity to say, “I love you.” Very often, saying those three little letters is akin to saying those three little words. Don’t take my word for it, no greater authority than the Princess Bride demonstrated that when Wesley said “as you wish” (fantasy-movie language for “yes”), what he was really saying to Princess Buttercup is “I love you.” Now, if Wesley and Princess Buttercup can learn that lesson, so can you and I!
Saying yes to your spouse not only shows them that you value what matters to them, it sets the tone for your marriage—one in which each of you are looking out not just for your own interests, but also (and foremost) for your spouse’s needs and desires.
So say it. Often. Instinctively. Borderline obsessively. Unless you find yourself being regularly—and unfavorably—compared to Jim Carrey’s character in “Yes Man,” you aren’t saying it too often.
2. “What can I do to make you feel loved?”
When you ask this question, you are moving beyond simply being responsive to your spouse’s needs, and are instead affirmatively seeking out ways to communicate your love.
And when your spouse asks you this question—honor their efforts by answering it. Some of us struggle with the expectation that “my spouse should know what would make me feel loved right now.” Well, he doesn’t. She doesn’t. But instead of focusing on your spouse’s lack of paranormal abilities, choose to be grateful that your mate is standing before you and asking for a way to demonstrate love to you. That is amazing! Reward the effort by openly and kindly communicating your needs.
And if you are doing the asking, when your spouse is vulnerable with you and shares a need, please remember #1 and say “yes”!
There is a great blog that suggests that you ask this question every week.
3. “I appreciated when you . . . “
Expectations can be extremely damaging to a marriage. When you stop being grateful for who your spouse is, and for the many ways that they daily demonstrate love and commitment to you, you stop looking for—and appreciating—the things your spouse does right. Instead, you begin building a case against them based on your perception of what they are doing wrong.
This has two consequences. The first is that bitterness begins to overwhelm you and squeeze the joy out of your life. The second is that your spouse will conclude there is no use in trying, because you’ll find the proverbial needle buried under a haystack of good intentions.
If this is your reality right now, it doesn’t have to stay that way. But it starts with a concerted, and daily effort to catch your spouse doing things right. And when you catch your spouse, verbally appreciate those efforts! If your husband unloads the dishwasher, don’t chastise him for the water drops on the kitchen floor, acknowledge his attempt to serve you. If your wife tries to TiVo the game for you because you’re stuck at work, and then you arrive home to discover she accidentally TiVo’d American Idol instead (and she likes American Idol), don’t accuse her of doing it on purpose! Instead, thank her for her loving efforts, and then sit down with her and watch American Idol.
Responding with words of appreciation has two consequences. The first is that an attitude of gratitude begins to take root in your heart and squeeze the bitterness out of your life. The second is that your spouse starts searching for more ways to demonstrate love to you. (Incidentally, if the second part takes a while, don’t short-circuit the process by returning back to the world of expectations and scorekeeping. Show appreciation to your spouse because it is the right thing to do, and because—if nothing else—it will change your heart.)
4. “What I hear you saying is . . . “
Not only is it impossible for your spouse to read your mind (see #2), you can’t read your spouse’s mind. No, you really can’t. So when you are in the midst of a ”misunderstanding,” don’t exacerbate the problem by telling your wife what she meant by that thing she said. And don’t paraphrase your husband’s words in such a way as to create a message that he might not have meant.
Remember that when your wife shares a hurt or a disappointment with you, you have an opportunity to understand her heart. When your husband shares something that upsets him, you have an opportunity to learn about him. Your spouse’s needs are not your failures, so don’t take it personally, but do take the opportunity to understand. If you try to respond before you understand, bad things happen.
So be an active listener. Take the time to make sure you understand your spouse’s position before you respond. When your spouse says, “you didn’t even ask about my day, you’re too busy playing on your stupid phone to acknowledge me,” resist the urge to defend or to attack. Listen first. And then, make sure you understand what your spouse is truly trying to communicate. Say, “what I hear you saying is that it makes you feel bad when I come home and don’t take the time to talk with you about your day, and instead I just start checking my phone. Is that right?” (And repeat this process until you do understand, and until your spouse knows you understand.) You will be amazed at the difference this makes. When your wife knows that you care enough to make the effort to understand, she will begin to share her needs with gentleness. Your husband will begin to open up about what is really bothering him. It might not be about your phone at all. Your wife might have had an awful day and just needs to know you love and appreciate her. I get it, you might have had an awful day too, but right now you have the chance to put your spouse’s needs first. I’m sure your spouse will have that chance soon enough!
It’s really not that hard. It just takes discipline. But remember, better to exercise self-control for 15 minutes, and resolve the conflict through mutual understanding, then to ruin the day (or the week) by holding on to words that weren’t said, and messages that weren’t intended.
5. “I’m sorry.”
This should be the easy one, right? When you say or do something that hurts your spouse, shouldn’t the words “I’m sorry” be the first ones to escape your lips? Unfortunately, it’s much more likely that those two words will take a backseat to defensiveness, excuses, or even anger. This is particularly true if you believe your spouse is more at fault in the argument, or is only hurt because he or she misunderstood what you said (or what you intended — see #4).
“He started it so I’m certainly not going to apologize until he does.”
“What she said is way worse than what I said.”
“Why should I be sorry when it’s his fault for misunderstanding me?”
“If she wouldn’t jump to conclusions, we wouldn’t be having this argument!”
The fact is, none of these reasons provide a good justification for withholding the words “I’m sorry.” Remember, when it comes to resolving a conflict or healing a hurt, the mature person decides to take the first step. (Emerson Eggerichs makes this excellent point in Love & Respect.)
You can always find a good reason for what you said or did, even if it wasn’t the real reason at the time. But ultimately, it really doesn’t matter. In the moment, what really matters is that your spouse is hurting. There will always be a future opportunity to sort out the disagreement, or to explain what you meant to communicate by your words or actions. But there is only one opportunity to meet your spouse with love and humility in the moment of his or her pain.
There’s another, more practical, reason for addressing the pain of the heart before sorting out the disagreement or misunderstanding: it is simply easier to address the facts when the heart is at peace. Responding to feelings with facts can be a recipe for disaster.
Men: Your wife needs to know that you love her and that you are grieved when you cause her pain, before she can fully enter in to a conversation about what you meant to communicate, or about an issue that is causing contention between you. Why should she care about your intent when she doesn’t yet know that you care about the effect? Why should she care about your thoughts when she doesn’t know that you care about her feelings?
Ladies: If your husband feels you don’t respect him as a man or care about his emotional well-being, it will be very difficult for him to accept your rationale for why you did what you did. He needs to know that you value his opinion before he can open himself up to hearing a different perspective. He needs to know there is a present and enduring friendship and affection before he can discuss how he was wounded.
It’s a start
These aren’t the only things your spouse needs to hear from you, but if you consistently say these words to your spouse, you will almost certainly begin to notice a difference in your relationship. Even if it doesn’t change your spouse, I guarantee it will change you.
I’m an attorney at a big law firm . . . but my wife’s job is harder! Read why at http://t.co/wGyduO4T3Z
— James (@BowlingWithEd) January 16, 2014
Read about the best way to ensure your child’s success – http://t.co/ath2pMAqRv
— James (@BowlingWithEd) January 17, 2014