When Jeff and I first began doing marriage conferences, one church decided to schedule their fall event for eight hours on a Saturday. We gently tried to suggest a shorter timeframe (Fall is FOOTBALL SEASON y’all), but the organizers truly wanted all day. So we taught on what men and women need to know about each other, built in breaks for snacks and lunch, and tried to keep the energy up—but it is really hard for any human to maintain their attention that long. Especially a male human (and some female humans!) who would otherwise be engrossed in college football games all day.
During our final session, a Q&A, one woman raised her hand and stood up. “I have been taking careful notes all day on everything you’ve told us, especially about what each of us can do,” she said. “I want to know why you have given the women all the hard things to do and the men all the easy things to do.”
Whoosh. You could hear the oxygen being sucked out of the room. Every man’s head drooped. Jeff and I looked at each other. We knew we needed to call an audible.
“I’m guessing most of the men don’t see what we’ve suggested as ‘easy’ at all,” I responded. “First, it’s been a long day for everyone. But spending all day in a relationship conference is particularly not a guy’s natural habitat. But these men have done it because they love their wives. Second, when you look at what we’ve asked them to do, the reason those things seem easy to you is because they are already inside your head and feel like second nature to you. But they probably don’t feel natural to most of the guys. In fact, the guys probably feel like what we’ve suggested to their wives is pretty simple, but what we’ve asked of them is going to take some work and effort.”
Touchdown! The men sat up a little straighter in their chairs, as if they felt seen.
The woman’s question came from an honest place, and it points out a really important action step for anyone who is married. If we want to create a great relationship, we have to recognize that what is second-nature to us isn’t always second-nature to our spouse! Just as important, what they need probably doesn’t come naturally to us, either.
Four steps will help us connect on what is most crucial to each of us.
Step #1: Catch the inaccurate thought when it comes up
This is an issue for both men and women.
In dozens of women’s events over the years, I can’t tell you how many women have asked (usually with exasperation), “But shouldn’t my husband just know what I need? It’s so obvious!” (Or the companion question, “Why should I have to tell him what I need?”)
I get it. You want your husband to be attuned enough to you that he knows, without being asked, how exhausted you are from working late and how much you’d love him to just take charge of the kids’ baths that night. Or maybe you want him to just listen to you without being told, “I don’t want you to fix it, just listen.” That sense of “he just knows me” makes you feel loved.
Likewise, men, you may be confused or frustrated about how to explain what you need, and wish your wife would just know, for example, your desire for sexual intimacy. Maybe you’re like the 97 percent of men in the For Women Only research who said the issue wasn’t really about getting “enough” sex; the real issue is that you want to be wanted. So you feel like it “doesn’t count” if you have to tell your wife you’re longing for that connection.
Both of those “they should just know” expectations are understandable—and usually highly unrealistic. When the other person simply isn’t likely to “just know,” that belief will cause more pain.
We must catch that inaccurate and potentially dangerous thought when it arises in our brain, and then immediately do Step 2.
Step #2: Tell your spouse what you need
To continue today’s football theme, sometimes we simply have to call the play. We have to lower our pride, be brave, set aside those inaccurate expectations, and tell our spouse what we need. We also have to tell ourselves something: “Just because my spouse didn’t ‘just know,’ or didn’t naturally do XYZ, doesn’t mean they don’t care about me.”
Yes, we should be learning each other over time. But even after many years of marriage, we will always need to help each other run the right plays.
Step #3: Say the things your spouse needs to hear (even if it doesn’t come naturally to you)
Because of some of the general (although not universal) differences between men and women, the unique way our brains our wired, and even how we were socialized growing up, the words our spouse most needs to hear may be the least natural for us to say. Which means we need to start being very intentional.
Most women have told me, for example, that they think appreciative thoughts, but have to be very purposeful about actually saying, “Thank you” or “good job” to their husbands. Those words don’t roll right off the tongue. And yet, as we found in For Women Only, they are what men most need to hear as they navigate inner uncertainties about whether they measure up.
Likewise, men have shared with Jeff and me that they think often about how much they love their wives or how beautiful they are, but have to be very purposeful about actually saying, “I’ve never loved you more” or “you’re beautiful.” And, as you’ve probably guessed, For Men Only found that these words address the heart cries of women who internally ask, “am I loveable?” and “am I beautiful”—even after years of being married!
The point? Learn what your spouse needs to hear and say it. As you do, you’re breathing safety, trust, and intimacy into your marriage.
Step #4: Believe your spouse does care – even if they don’t “just know”
When Jeff and I lead marriage retreat weekends, we do live, anonymous polling of the audience. We love sharing our research, but it’s even more exciting for everyone in the room to see it come alive on the big screen showing their responses. This live polling usually closely mirrors our research—and shows the men and women sitting in the audience just how much certain phrases may not trip naturally off our tongues—but they are what our spouse needs to hear.
Yet the polls also get across a point that is far more important: just because our spouse doesn’t “just know” doesn’t mean they don’t care! Although there are indeed some sad cases where a marriage has gotten abusive on one or both sides (and please seek help if you’re in that category!), the vast majority of spouses deeply care about one another. Even if we don’t always say what we “should” say or do what we “should” do—at least in the way our spouse is hoping for—we care.
So each of us can believe the best of our spouse’s intentions toward us. And we can try to say the things that matter. This strange vocabulary might not come naturally. But if you honor the fact that your spouse is wired differently than you, and then commit to learning the language that doesn’t come naturally for you, it could be the difference between you sitting on the sidelines of your own marriage—and getting in the game.
This article was also published at Patheos.
Order Shaunti’s NEW Book Secrets of Sex & Marriage.
Check out the online courses of Shaunti’s research and teachings at SurprisingHope.com.
Do you want Shaunti to share these life-changing truths at your church or event? Send us a speaking inquiry request today!
Please note: This post may contain affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate we earn a small amount from qualifying purchases through these affiliate links. This doesn’t cost you anything, and helps us continue bringing you great content!
More from Shaunti’s Blog: