I want to share a little secret with you. My husband and I don’t agree on everything. Shocking right? Want to hear another secret? We don’t communicate the same. He has very different interests, a very different story telling style, a very different love language, and very different conflict resolution style than I.
I like archery and mom stuff. He likes horses and cows.
I like to tell stories using big hand gestures and dramatic pauses. He likes to laugh at the funny part of the story before he tells it.
I like acts of service and quality time. He likes physical touch and words of affirmation.
I like to argue and pick away at problems until I can figure out how to fix them. He likes to ignore them and stuff any issues deep down inside until, eventually, they explode out of him.
Now I’m sure that we aren’t the only couple who has differences. I mean, all of us come from two different backgrounds, two different upbringings. We all learned different things in our families and inherited different attributes from our ancestors. We all enter relationships different, at least in some ways, from our partner. That in and of itself is not a problem. Many successful relationships have been maintained by two people who are just as different as my husband and I. The question I wondered was, how?
When we first got married, we received several different books on marriage. We never read any of them all the way through but I think we started them all. Hopefully the good stuff was all in the beginning! One of the things we picked up from our browsing these books was a phrase – content communication. I honestly can’t even tell you if we still define it the way it was defined in the book but we took that phrase and made it our motto.
Basically, in our family, content communication can be defined as verbally communicating, in the clearest language you can, your likes, your dislikes, your requests, your compliments, your criticism…everything! This is much more difficult sometimes than it initially sounds. This means if I want my husband to help me clean up dishes but I don’t verbally ask him to, I am not allowed to hold it against him if he doesn’t. If he wants a back rub but never says so with his words (even if he sits next to me and leans forward and scooches and wiggles around) I am not expected to comply to his mental request.
How would you feel if you were expected to know and respond to every request someone around you thought? I
would be stressed out of my mind! But so many marriages work that way! So many people expect their spouse to know what they expect, to “read” what they want from their body language.
And that’s not fair.
It is not fair for me to expect Austin to know I want him to vacuum for me. It is not fair for me to expect him to know that I think he looks nice in that shirt. It is not fair for me to expect him to sit quietly while I vent my frustrations. How could he know all of this if it is only expressed inside my mind? He shouldn’t be expected to know anything I haven’t verbally expressed.
Therefore, content communication. I am required to ask for help cleaning up the house when I want it.
I am required to say, out loud, the compliments I think about him. I am required to ask him to just listen to me and not try to fix anything when I want to vent. I must speak the words inside my mind for them to become valid in our marriage.
And do you know what happens? Rather than making our marriage a stale environment of tasks and orders, it opens up a whole new level of intimacy. How many people in the world do you ask for these things – the things you think make you sound selfish? How many people get to know the real desires of your heart? How many people do you open up those parts of yourself to?
Not many I’m betting. It’s not socially normal. Society teaches us that we shouldn’t have to tell everyone what we want; they should be able to tell without us opening our mouths, especially those closest to us. Somewhere, media convinced us that The One will “just know”. You won’t have to say a thing, they will be able to respond to your every whim because, if it’s true love, they can “read you”. They will automatically do the right things. Buying into this belief has lead to a ridiculously high divorce rate. We find ourselves thinking things like:
“Why won’t he ever put his clothes in the clothes basket? What a slob!”
“She never has dinner ready when I come home. What does she do all day?”
“He never does anything big for my birthday. I always do a lot for his. Can’t he tell that birthdays are a big deal to me?”
“Why can’t she ever let me just fix it? All she wants to do is talk about it! Enough talk. I know the solution!”
“Oh, he didn’t know I wanted him to pass the salt. I mean, I was staring at it.”
See how ridiculous these can become? Think back on the little arguments or disagreements you have had in your marriage. Think of the things that really get under your skin about your partner. Now ask yourself these questions: Have I ever expressed what I would like for him or her to do to fix it? Have I ever expressed my annoyance at these things? Have I ever content communicated my expectations to my partner?
Saying something along the lines of, “Ugh! That’s so annoying!” Doesn’t count. Try instead, “Would you mind putting your clothes in this basket when you take them off? It makes laundry day a lot easier on me.” Bonus Tip: Try asking before you get so frustrated you yell your request.
I want to share a specific example in our marriage where my lack of content communication and my “buying into” the movie magic made for a very unhappy time for my husband and I. And you will probably laugh. I look back on it, so embarrassed now, but glad to see how silly things can become.
We’d been married for about a year and we had just gotten into the ranching lifestyle. My husband worked very long hard hours and we didn’t have a lot of time together. I was pregnant with our first son. I spent a lot of time getting ready for our baby to come. I realized that I had been focusing a lot of effort on that and was afraid my husband was feeling ignored, although he had never given any kind of indication that he was. Some baby book said that they could feel that way so I assumed he did. So I started trying extra hard to do little things for him to make him feel special. I had always gotten up with him to make him a lunch but now I started picking out the very best apple in the bunch for him instead of just grabbing one from the pile. I stopped eating the treats I bought so he could have more of them in his lunch. I began buying the lunchmeat he liked best. On laundry day, I always folded all of his clothes before folding any of mine so, if I didn’t get to the rest of it, at least his were folded nicely and put away. I ironed his work shirts…which, for a rancher, is absolutely insane. This isn’t like a nice business work shirt. This is a dirt and grease stained, ripped and grungy shirt that has no business seeing the underside of an iron. I spent so much time and effort on these little tiny things. And after a month or so, I was wearing out. He didn’t seem any happier. He didn’t return any of my gestures. He didn’t even seem to care. And I chose to get hurt. I was sad that he didn’t care how much I was doing for him. I was sad that all my effort didn’t seem like enough. And finally, after feeling dejected for some time, I started crying in front of him one night. I am not a very emotional girl (and I like to pretend that the pregnancy hormones kicked in a bit) so when I started crying, a look of utter shock and bewilderment and panic crossed my husband’s eyes. He asked me what was wrong and I started attacking.
“You don’t even care about me! Can’t you see how much I sacrifice to make you happy? I’ve been trying so hard and it’s like you don’t even care. You never do anything nice for me in return and I just can’t take all of this one-sided trying anymore.”
I can’t even describe the face this poor man made. He was so confused. He responded, “Are you kidding me? Do you not see how hard I work. You think I work all day long for me? No. I do it to support us. I do it for you. You think I want to start work at 6:00 am and not see you again until after dark? You think I like that? This is me sacrificing for you!”
“I know you do but I mean little things. You never do the little things for me,” I sobbed back at him.
“What do you mean? What kind of “little things”?”
I then told him all of the things I had been doing for him – the laundry folding and ironing, the sacrifice of treats and changing lunchmeat, the choosing the very best apple for him. And I was dead serious.
He laughed. He started laughing. A very dangerous thing to do to a pregnant, sobbing woman who is very upset with you. But he did.
“Are you serious?” he asked. I thought I had made it pretty clear how serious I was with tears.
“Calli, I don’t care about the shiniest apple. I didn’t even know you were doing that. I don’t care if my clothes are wrinkly. They’re work shirts! They just get gross every day anyway. I never even knew you were doing these things.”
I started to realize how dumb my sacrifices had been. We talked it out and decided I needed to go back to content communication because he was still doing it. He hadn’t been feeling left out. He wasn’t ignored. He was fine. So all my trying had gone unnoticed because he didn’t need it. I had never told him I needed anything in return, I had just expected it to happen. Now, whenever we are having a similar scenario, he will stop and ask me, “Are you trying to give the shiniest apple again?” and that is all the reminder I need.
I promise, you will see a world of difference in your relationship when you give this a go. I can tell how well we content communicate based on how happy we are.
Eventually, it will become easier and more natural. I have even started using content communication with others. I have noticed a huge increase in the behavior and response that I want from people. My children thrive under this. I even find it easier to say “no” without excuse or explanation. Turns out, that’s not a common skill. I feel freed and liberated. And I still have friends. And my friends still ask me to do things, even knowing I might say no.
When you say what you mean and mean what you say, people come to rely on your word. No one questions your intentions. People come to you for honest opinions. Spouses know that they won’t be in trouble for not doing something they were “supposed to”. You have more peace knowing that your life is in your control.
Give it a try in your relationships and watch the magic happen.
P.S. We even take this as far as gift giving. If I say, “I don’t want anything,” my husband doesn’t get me anything. If I do want something, I say, “I’d like a few new shirts for Christmas.” Magically, I get a few new shirts for Christmas and everyone’s very happy.
If you enjoyed this post, here is another based on the same Shiny Apple story.