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Are You Hearing Yourself the Same Way Your Spouse Does?

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Most people hate the sound of their voice when they hear themselves on a voicemail or on the radio or on some other type of recording. They can’t believe they sound as high as they do, or as whiney, or so robotic, with very little reflection in their voice. Like hearing nails scraping across a chalkboard, they absolutely cringe at the sound of their voice. That can’t be me, they think to themselves. Is my voice really that annoying?

If only we could also listen to recordings of our conversations with our spouses. Because if so, I predict that most would cringe in a similar way, astounded with ourselves that at times we can sound so disrespectful and unloving toward the most important person in our life. And I believe this with such confidence because I am no exception.

Early in our marriage, Sarah and I were visiting my parents. As I prepared for bed our first night there, I realized I had forgotten my contact lens case. No problem. I got two juice glasses from the kitchen, filled them both halfway with water, and dropped a contact in each one. Then I placed both glasses on top of the toilet tank.

The next morning I went to put my contacts in and noticed that one of the glasses was empty and the contact was gone. I went directly to Sarah, whom I had already identified as the prime suspect.

“Sarah, did you do anything with my contacts in those two juice glasses on the back of the toilet?”

Initially, Sarah said no, but then a moment later . . . “Oh no! I got up in the middle of the night and used one of those glasses of water to take a pill.”

Sarah had drunk my contact! And I was not happy, and she could see that.

“You did WHAT? How COULD you? You DRANK my contact!”

(I probably don’t need to describe to you my unloving and frustrated tone in this moment.)

And then Sarah joined in. “Why would anyone in his right mind not tell everyone he did this and put a sign on the glasses that said ‘Do not use’?”

“And why would anyone drink out of a glass of water that looked used and was sitting on the back of a toilet?”

And on and on it went. And where did it get us? Certainly not back to my “missing” contact lens.

Thankfully there is no recording of this conversation to play back for us to hear. To my newlywed wife, I sounded anything but loving toward her for doing nothing more than drink a glass of water in all innocence! She was right. I didn’t need to lecture her.

And then in response she informed me that I was not too smart for failing to inform the family with a sign near the glasses, “Do Not Drink Out of These Juice Glasses.” She was right in saying I should have written such a sign but her belittling sounded anything but respectful to me, especially as she went from lover to mother as she lectured me.

Now, decades later, having shared this story countless times in writings and conferences, Sarah and I are both well aware of how unloving and disrespectful we sounded in the moment. But we both felt on the defensive so didn’t see that we might be just a hair offensive! 

In our minds, we’re simply responding in a reasonable way that anyone in our situation would do. “Why are you home an hour later than normal tonight? Could you not have at least called?” we ask in a less-concerned-but-more-accusational way that we don’t hear in the same way our spouse hears. Or, “Is that what you’re going to wear tonight?” we inquire in a very passive-aggressive way that definitely sounds more aggressive than passive to our spouse. Most times, if we were able to hear ourselves on playback, we’d recognize our unloving and disrespectful words and tone. But in the moment, we usually don’t, do we?

“Most times, if we were able to hear ourselves on playback, we’d recognize our unloving and disrespectful words and tone. But in the moment, we usually don’t, do we?”  

But it’s not because we are hard of hearing or can’t recognize unloving and disrespectful words or tones when we hear them. Because the honest truth is, we hear our spouse’s unloving and disrespectful words perfectly fine, don’t we? In fact, we hear them so well, we convince ourselves that they’re the sole problem and we have contributed no fault whatsoever to the conflict.

A wife wrote me recently:

I always thought I didn’t have a problem respecting my husband like most women do (pretty pompous sounding in retrospect). However, after hearing about love and respect, I knew that I was indeed falling short in showing respect when communicating with my husband. It was such an eye-opener to the reason why after 17 years of marriage we sometimes still felt like we were running into the same problems with our communication—I had no idea it had so much to do with me and how I come across to my husband! I understand him so much better now.

Don’t get caught up in the detail that this came from a wife. I have met more than my fair share of husbands (myself included!) over the years who, if they were honest and bold enough to admit so, could tell me the same. This is every man and every woman. We think that our spouse is mostly responsible for the communication problems in our marriage until we realize as a wife the extent to which we appear disrespectful or as a husband how we come across as unloving.

The wife who wrote me above didn’t get to hear a prior conversation she had with her husband on playback and hear the ways she showed him such disrespect. That is not usually the case with any of us. Instead, it was when she really studied Ephesians 5:33, how men interpret things through a respect grid, and my acronym C.H.A.I.R.S.—the six ways a husband desires to feel respected by his wife—that she was able to recognize how she was contributing to their communication problems just as much as she had always criticized her husband for doing.

Similarly, I have been told by numerous husbands that when they heard about the message of Ephesians 5:33, how women interpret things through a love grid, and my acronym C.O.U.P.L.E.—the six ways a wife needs to feel loved by her husband—that they were finally able to recognize all the many ways they were adding to their communication problems in their marriage just as much as they had always criticized their wives for doing.

But sadly, sometimes it takes seventeen years, or even longer, until we finally “hear” the way we’ve been talking to our spouse and understand how they’ve been interpreting us.

Can I challenge you to try and replay some of the dialogue you have with your spouse? Consider both the words and the tone in which you say them. What messages are you communicating to him or her? Your intentions may be good and pure, but what matters most is how your spouse is interpreting you. Even in conflict and disagreement, we can still communicate messages of love and respect, but not when we yell at them for accidentally drinking our contact lens or accuse them for being out of their mind.

When communicating with your spouse, what are you actually communicating to them? Don’t be afraid to ask them. Sometimes that is the only way for us to begin being able to “hear” ourselves.

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

Questions to Consider

  1. What were your initial thoughts when first asked in this article about being able to hear on playback the way and words you speak to your spouse? Were they positive or negative? Why?
  2. Do you usually recognize immediately when you speak to your spouse in an unloving or disrespectful way? If so, do you try and apologize in that moment, later on, or not at all? Why?
  3. How can asking, “Why are you home an hour later than normal tonight?” be interpreted differently depending on one’s tone and even mannerisms? If communicated unlovingly, why does it put the other on defense? 
  4. The wife who wrote above said, “I had no idea it had so much to do with me and how I come across to my husband!” What have you learned about ways you had been unknowingly contributing to the communication problems with your spouse? How have you attempted to make improvements?