If (like most people) you made some New Year’s resolutions this year, maybe one of them had to do with improving your relationship with your spouse. Wanting to love the most important person in our life well and “do better” in our marriage is a noble thing. But you’ve probably already discovered that moving from the goal (“I’m going to be sweet to my man 24/7”) to the reality (“Is this your towel on the bathroom floor? Again?”) isn’t easy.
Well, I’d like to help. And I’m going to keep it very simple. In fact, I’m suggesting just one rule that can transform your relationship for the better. As a child, each of us was told, “You’ve got to learn to think before you speak.” But I’ve seen we need to refine that edict if we want a great marriage: we’ve got to learn to think before we blurt!
And it turns out that those of us who happen to be of the female gender need to be particularly mindful of this concept. Let me explain why.
Women Tend To Process Their Thoughts Verbally.
We women already tend to be more verbal than our husbands, but we also tend to process our thoughts out loud. If we’re not careful, that can trigger an all-too-common problem. In our research with men, it was clear that one of a man’s most painful feelings comes when he tries to do something (fix the sink, dress the kids, find a new route around construction to the restaurant) and then gets the sense that he’s inadequate—that his wife has examined him and found him wanting. But in our research with women, it was clear that women think things through by talking them through; in other words, they start the process of examination by jumping in and analyzing it verbally.
See the problem? All too often, we women casually throw something out there (“Why’d you go down Main Street? All these stoplights will make us late.”) and we think we’re opening a conversation. After all, another woman would catch the conversational ball and say “Oh, I’m only going to be on Main Street two blocks. There’s a parallel road I’m going to try in a second, and that should be faster.” But because most men don’t generally process out loud, our man hears what we blurt out—our conversational starting point—and thinks it’s an ending point.
When A Man Interprets What He Hears As Criticism, He Feels Inadequate And Gets Angry.
So when we ask why he’s going down Main Street, he hears: “I’ve thought it through and decided you’re an idiot for going this way.” In his mind, he was trying his best to get around a challenging situation, and make you happy by getting the two of you to dinner with friends on time—and you’re saying that he utterly failed. He feels inadequate, stupid and humiliated. So he gets angry (a man’s signal of feeling inadequate) and stops talking.
You notice that he seems a bit upset, and then you get defensive. “For goodness sake,” you blurt out, in Round Two of trying to explore what is happening, “What did I say? There’s no need to get so oversensitive!” Great, he thinks, Not only am I stupid for trying to do something nice, but now I’m a jerk for not liking the fact that I’m being made to feel stupid. At that point he really shuts down. He gets that look on his face. That look that says we probably won’t be having a nice evening together at the restaurant.
Think Before You Blurt!
We can change this pattern by learning to think before we blurt. It is easy enough in theory, but in practice will require the same attentiveness you put into learning how to think before you spoke as a kid. It means learning those situations where you’ll have a tendency to throw something out there that could hurt your man’s feelings without you ever intending to.
For example, any time you see him do something that seems odd, or foolish, or like a bad choice, instead of just throwing out “why ______?” stop and realize that not only might he have a perfectly good reason, but he’s going to interpret your questioning as criticism. And let’s be honest: in a way, he’s right. After all, you wouldn’t be mentioning it at all if you thought he was on the right track, would you?
Communicate With Your Spouse In An Affirming, Loving Way.
So either wait and see what happens (which he will deeply appreciate), or, if you truly need to say something, pause and be sure you’re saying it in a way that will limit the chance of being perceived as criticizing him. One good option: start with affirmation, and explain that the reason you’re saying anything is that you’re troubled. “Honey, I know you usually avoid this street because of all the stop lights. I’m just a bit anxious about being there on time.”
As one man explained to me, “If you can help me understand the cost to you in this choice I’ve made, it makes me much more willing to be open to suggestions or questions. Because then it isn’t criticism. It’s explaining that you’re anxious—and then I can help solve that for you.”
If you want to build a different habit, the best method is to practice catching yourself before you say things that could be seen as negative, and say affirming things instead. Consider taking the 30-Day Kindness Challenge, which will help you do exactly that.
To pursue your goal of a healthier and happier marriage, learn to use the pause. In the small space between impulse and action, make the choice to communicate with your spouse in an affirming, loving way. Following that one simple rule can have a powerfully positive impact on your relationship this year—and always.
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Shaunti Feldhahn loves sharing eye-opening information that helps people thrive in life and relationships. She herself started out with a Harvard graduate degree and Wall Street credentials but no clue about life. After an unexpected shift into relationship research for average people like her, she now is a popular speaker and author of best-selling books about men, women and relationships. (Including For Women Only, For Men Only, and the groundbreaking The Good News About Marriage).
Her latest book, Find Peace: A 40-day Devotional Journey For Moms, focuses on discovering biblical direction to become a woman of serenity and delight in all seasons – and have impact for generations to come.
Visit www.shaunti.com for more.
This article was first published at Patheos.