After nearly five years of counseling couples and individuals as a bishop, two consistent complaints have emerged, one from wives and one from husbands, that represent the single most common problems I see in marriage. I think these two complaints touch every couple. I want to share them with you and make a few observations.
The chief complaint among wives is that their husbands won't communicate well with them and won't express their feelings to them. The biggest complaint I hear from husbands is that their wives communicate too sharply and that they are constantly negative and critical.
So the more pitched her delivery becomes, the more he clams up. And around, around they go.
Can you see a pattern? I think it goes like this: wives are frustrated because they can't get the time, attention and emotional connection they need from their husbands, and husbands are discouraged and don't want to communicate because they feel beaten down by their wives' constant fault finding and negativity.
What happens then is both husbands and wives don't get what they want and need. She wants love, attention and connection. He wants honor and respect.
We push away what we want most because we are so frustrated in not getting it.
Here's an example that illustrates what I think is going on. Your little girl is sitting in a grocery basket at the store. She sees a box of Mike and Ikes and she really wants them, so she starts to fuss and clamor and pout. She throws her head back and yells and cries. But the more she whines and pleads, the less inclined mom is to satisfy her whim and the angrier mom gets.
Or think about your lonely, depressed friend in high school who is dying for attention. He acts out. He is sullen and hurt and distant and dripping with self-pity, but the more he acts like this, the less inclined you feel to show him the attention he desperately wants. You want to run the other direction when you see him coming your way down the hall.
These naughty little behaviors follow us right into adulthood and into our marriages. They might show up in different ways, but the emotions are very similar, and yield us the same result: complete frustration.
So what can you do about it? How can you get what you want without all the aggravation and heartache?
One thing that really helps is something I'll call thoughtful anticipation. Here is how it works.
Back to our Mike and Ike analogy. Mom just found a parking spot at the grocery store and she anticipates what her daughter might do in the store, so before the crisis appears, even before getting out of the car, she says, "Sarah, I would love for you to get a special treat today. We can't do this every time we go to the store, but today we can. But you need to be a special helper to mommy today. Do you know what I want you to do?" And then Mom lays down the expectations of what needs to happen in order for Sarah to get the thing that she wants. Mom is loving but firm: if Sarah won't "be a helper," she'll miss out. Both mom and Sarah are much happier because they know what to expect out of each other, and they know how to get what they want.
So here is my suggestion for married couples. If you want good communication that isn't weighed down by contention and frustration, try thoughtful anticipation. Figure out what you want and need, then ask for it long before the volcano erupts. Anticipate and avoid your frustration by talking about the issue well before it brings your water to boil.
Here is an example of thoughtful anticipation from a wife: "Sweetheart, I want to talk about my birthday. It's over a month away. I know it sounds a little self-centered, but sometimes I don't feel very special on my birthday. I have three things you could do that would really help. Can I tell you what they are when its a good time to talk?"
If your husband is a reasonable person, of course he is going to offer a resounding "Yes!" He wants to be a success at helping you to be happy. And he'll want to hear you because you are teaching him how to be successful at meeting your needs, and it will be much easier to express your feelings without turning various stages of red. And he'll want to hear you more if he doesn't feel put down, criticized or cajoled.
But like I said in my last blog post, these efforts don't always work. They usually work if your spouse is emotionally stable and has his or her baggage balanced and under control. If that baggage is not under control, you and your spouse need intervention and support. It is the old, unaddressed baggage that almost always discourages communication and, unfortunately, has the potential to ruin relationships.
This is why regular date nights are so important, because they can often provide a calm, safe atmosphere for productive communication. Every couple needs that. In fact, I hardly know of anything a couple needs more. You don't have to spend a lot of money while you're out. It's just being together, alone, and being able to express yourself without putting your spouse on the defensive that lays the groundwork for solid, respectful communication. (If you go to a movie, be sure to include a stop after that will allow talk time.)
I have found that I can talk about almost anything with my wife if I do it with love, leaving blame and accusation at the door. And if I talk about it early enough, long before the storm arrives, I am a much happier guy and my wife is a much happier gal.
Communicate early, with courage and without blame, and you'll find you are much, much more satisfied in your relationships. God bless you with the strength to speak out about your needs without letting your baggage weigh you down and get in the way of clear communication.