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If You Don’t Know What You Mean, How Will Your Spouse?

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If you say to your spouse, "I know what I mean, I just cannot say it," you will leave them in the dark.  What is a husband supposed to do with a statement like: "I need you to love me, and I know what that means, but I just cannot explain it to you"? As a wife, if you know what it means but cannot say it, you don't know what you mean. Thus, it is unfair to expect your husband to know what it means and looks like.

The same holds true for a husband who declares, "I know what I mean when I say you should respect me but I don't know how to explain it to you." Well, if you don't know how to say it, you don't know what you mean, and your wife will be baffled.

The truth is, when we say "I know what I mean, I just cannot say it," we don't really know what we mean.

We think with words. If we do not have the words in our brain then we do not know what we mean in our brain.

To argue that "I know what I mean but I cannot say it" is comparable to one hand clapping. It sounds feasible but when considered more deeply, it is irrational. One hand clapping is impossible. Likewise, it is also impossible to say "I have the meaning in my brain but I cannot tell you in words."

Some argue that we can be mystical. That is, we can know something that transcends human understanding, such as how God can give us free will yet predestine us at the same time. This is a paradox that we cannot explain. But I am not referring to the mysteries of life but to our daily interactions with people. If we are upset about something that happened between us and another and we say, "I know what I mean, I just cannot tell you why I am upset with you," then we either do not know what we mean or we are too cowardly to tell them.

Put it this way: when we seek to inform, we either know the information or we do not. When we seek to persuade another, we either know the goal of our persuasion or we do not. When we seek to affect the heart of another with words of love, we either know what we wish to convey about our affection or we do not.

Admittedly, trying to figure out exactly what we feel or think takes reflection. We need to think about what we are thinking and feeling! For example, why am I depressed? Am I depressed mostly because my sick child has the flu or am I depressed mostly over the fight I had with my spouse? Sometimes we lose sight of what is really bothering us most deeply. That differs from saying, "I know very clearly what is most deeply bothering me but I find it impossible to tell you with any words whatsoever." Baloney. Though you need not write an in-depth treatise on what bothers you most deeply, you should be able to speak in simple sentences about what troubles you the most. You should be able to communicate, "Though I am very discouraged over my son's flu, my heart is throbbing over the argument I had with my spouse at breakfast. I cannot shake the fight as I help my son shake the flu."

When attempting to communicate to your spouse what exactly it is you mean to say, you need to paint a picture with words. It need not be a Rembrandt. Stick people will do just fine. But an idea apart from words is mystical and a mist. Husbands will be left in the dark. (Let me insert, this differs from knowing what love looks like and not telling your husband since you want him to initiate love on his own. I am not referring to that.)

Husbands, you must spend the time thinking about what respect looks like to you and use words to paint a picture of that image for your wife. If you do not do this, it would be quite convenient to get angry at her for not showing you respect when the fact is she has no idea what it looks like to you. It is unfair of you to claim that you have a clear idea in your brain about what respect is but you have no words to explain your idea to your wife. That sets her up for frustration and failure.

"But Emerson, I can say what I mean but it still comes out poorly." As long as you say what you mean, you are halfway there. Now you just need to develop the skill of communicating what you mean. You need to organize your thoughts and communicate them in an orderly fashion.

For instance, over the years, there have been many times I start with one thought that reminds me of another thought. So, I start in on the second thought without finishing the first thought! I can even jump to a third thought and leave the second thought hanging. I call this spiderwebbing. This is the lack of skill in organizing my thoughts, not a lack of understanding those thoughts. I am saying what I mean but doing so in a way that demands the reader or listener to decipher my communication. I am not logical nor finishing my thoughts. I get distracted and want to say everything at once. I am not mystical, just all over the page.

In our daily lives, we need to hear the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 14:9, "unless you utter by the tongue speech that is clear, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air." This was so important to Paul that he requested prayer. To the Colossians he wrote, "praying at the same time for us as well . . .  that I may make it clear in the way I ought to speak" (Colossians 4:3–4).

He worked at this as we see him frequently saying in his letters "I mean this" or "I did not at all mean" or "What do I mean then?" (1 Corinthians 1:12; 5:10; 10:19).

The question is simple: When you say, "I know what I mean I just cannot say it," do you really know what you mean? Probably not, and neither will those around you.

-Dr. E

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

Questions to Consider

  1. Have you ever said something along the lines of "I know what I mean, I just cannot say it" to someone? Were you able to draw any conclusions to the situation before figuring out how to “say it”?
  2. Emerson wrote, “when we say ‘I know what I mean, I just cannot say it,’ we don't really know what we mean.” Do you agree or disagree? Explain.
  3. Have you ever tried explaining to your spouse what love or respect looks like to you? If so, how did that go? If not, why not? Could you try doing so?
  4. Have you been guilty of “spiderwebbing” in your marriage? Did you grow angry when your spouse couldn’t follow along as quickly as you were jumping? How can you address this in your own life?