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Are You Decoding Your Spouse’s Design When It Comes to Their Communication Styles?

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In a survey from Focus on the Family, participants were asked, “What was (and possibly still is) the biggest problem affecting your marriage?” For both men and women the most popular answers by far all dealt with communication. These findings match up with what we have learned at Love and Respect Ministries. Having studied thousands of letters and emails from husbands of wives of both long marriages and newer ones, the common thread that runs through almost all of them is that, in one way or another, the major challenge for the common couple is communication.

No doubt, a huge part of a couple’s communication problems can be in the actual words and tone of what each is saying to the other. When a husband tells his wife, “You haven’t cooked a decent meal since the last century! I wish you would learn your way around the kitchen like Pam next door,” his extremely unloving intent and hurtful words could not be more clear. Or when a wife makes the snide remark to her husband, “Boy, it would’ve been nice if you had finished your college degree years ago. This hourly wage you make at your job is pathetic!” the disrespect she has for her husband and his ability to support their family is made loud and clear.

But oftentimes—perhaps even most of the time—the communication problems we suffer from in goodwilled marriages are less about what we are outright saying and more about what we are inferring from each other’s chosen communication tactics. Our ability or inability to decode correctly what our spouse is really communicating to us, more times than not, is at the core of our communication problems.

For example, when a man goes silent around his wife during conflict, what he is usually intending to communicate to her is far different than what she is inferring from his actions. With his silence, the husband is trying to tell his wife that he is not feeling very respected in that moment. As this is a need that only she can meet, he is hoping she can “hear” him longing for her respect.

Yet, too few wives decode his silence to mean, “I need to feel respected.” Instead, most interpret his silence to mean, “I don’t want to connect with you and reassure you that I love you, because right now I don’t feel much love for you.” She remembers what Jesus said about how “his mouth speaks that which fills his heart” (Luke 6:45), but the problem is she’s taking her husband’s silence and replacing it with what she believes his heart is saying in that moment. When the truth is, she could not be farther from the actual message he is attempting to send to her.

Or when a wife is complaining to her husband and sharing how she thinks things could be better, what she is usually trying to communicate to him is far different than what he is inferring from her words. With her complaints, the wife is trying to tell him that she isn’t feeling very loved right now and she needs him to reassure her of his love for her. As this is a need that only he can meet, she is hoping he can interpret her honesty as a longing to feel loved by him.

Yet, too few husbands decode her complaints to mean, "I need to feel loved right now and reassured." Instead, most husbands interpret her negativity to mean, "I don't like you or respect you. I am using this topic as another opportunity to tell you that you are inadequate and I have a measure of disgust for you." He is reminded of King Solomon’s words to his son in Proverbs 21:19: “Better to live in a desert than with a quarrelsome and nagging wife.” Yet, she is not intending to be neither quarrelsome nor nagging. She only longs to feel loved.

To the goodwilled but silent husband, I would remind him of passages like Proverbs 16:23, which says, “The heart of the wise instructs his mouth and adds persuasiveness to his lips,” as well as Ephesians 4:15, which reminds us to “speak the truth in love.” There’s an important implication in these verses—open your mouth and use words! Yes, we must watch carefully what we say and be aware of the dangers our tongue can bring that James details for us in chapter 3 of his epistle. But at the end of the day, especially when it concerns our wife, we need to communicate our needs with actual words.

To the goodwilled but complaining wife who would say to me right now things like, “I know I get nasty with him . . . ,” or “I realize I should be more positive . . . ,” or “I know my words can shut him down . . . but he should know that I really don’t mean these things. He should know that I am hurting. Why doesn’t he understand me? Why doesn’t he see my heart in this?” I would tell her that her husband won’t hear her heart when her “sharp words cut like a sword” (Proverbs 12:18). Just as the silent husband needs to break his silence and use actual words to express his heart, his wife needs to clearly express her own heart as well. If she’s not trying to hurt him, then why should she say hurtful things?

But no one will ever be perfect in this. Men will still go silent, and women will still go the opposite direction and say too much. This is simply part of the pink and blue differences in God’s unique designs for men and women. With that said, do men ever say too much and complain? Yes. Do women go silent? Yes. However, during these times when he goes silent or she complains, it is vital that we decode our spouse’s design and what they are really saying when saying nothing or saying too much. And we must always keep in mind our spouse’s goodwill and not fall for Satan’s lies that he is whispering in our ear: “He’s walking away and not talking to you right now because he doesn’t love you.” Or, “She won’t let this go because she has no respect whatsoever for your feelings in this.” We must stop giving voice to the enemy’s lies!

Over the years, I have learned to tune in to what Sarah is trying to communicate to me when she begins a sentence with “You always . . .” These words were once a hot-button issue for me, but I know now that when she says, “You always . . . ,” that she does not mean, “You do this 100 percent of the time.” She assumes that I know she is not making a statistical judgment of my behavior. Instead, Sarah is trying to get my attention concerning her feelings and help me understand how annoyed she is in this moment. So she says, “You always . . .” in order to capture the intensity of her annoyance. In effect, she is merely saying, “You really frustrate me right now!”

Now I know to not let this hot-button expression distract me from Sarah’s real point. I realize that she isn’t trying to disrespect me but instead is trying to increase the understanding and love between us. She is not trying to create hurt in my heart; she wants me to grasp the hurt in her heart.

In what ways do you need to better decode your spouse’s chosen communication tactics? How do you need to more clearly express your heart so that you are not misunderstood? If the greatest problem affecting marriages is indeed communication, just imagine how much time spent in conflict with your spouse can be nullified by both decoding him or her better and expressing yourself more clearly!

Emerson Eggerichs, Ph.D.
Author, Speaker, Pastor

Questions to Consider

  1. Would you agree with the majority who said the biggest problem affecting marriages is communication? What specific communication problems do you and your spouse deal with?
  2. Have you ever inferred incorrectly what your spouse was communicating to you? How did the misunderstanding affect the situation?
  3. Men, do you agree with Emerson’s assessment that your silence is often meant to express that you feel disrespected? Women, do you agree that oftentimes your “complaining” to your husband is your way of trying to communicate that you are not feeling very loved at that time? Why or why not?
  4. How can having an abundance of grace, as well as keeping in mind your spouse’s goodwill, help in the times when they fall back to their design of saying too little or saying too much?