“Make sure you communicate!” Don’t we already do that?
“You have to make sure you always communicate.” “Make sure you communicate.” This was the never ending broken record I heard from well-meaning people after I got engaged. To me, it seemed like pretty useless- at times even annoying- advice. We both speak English, and we talk to each other all the time, so obviously we communicate! The more I heard people say we need to communicate, the more I wondered if they even knew what they meant.
After I got married I realized how insightful those words actually were. It’s not just about talking, it’s about what we say, how we express it, and how we truly listen to hear what our partner is telling us. It’s not enough that we don’t raise our voices at each other; we need to explain how we are feeling and what our words mean to us. There are two primary areas that can help improve how we communicate: understanding needs versus wants, and clarifying expectations.
Needs Verses Wants:
“I need these shoes!” My instinct to this statement is “No you don’t, you want them.” From my wife’s perspective, however, the shoes might truly be a need. Whether or not I think it’s necessary, she genuinely feels it is, and it’s not really for me to judge. One person’s want can be another person’s need. The only way to understand each other is to openly discuss the importance of an item or event. When others know what we need or want, they are in a better position to sympathize with us and help us.
As an example, I had a friend who got into a serious fight with his spouse about getting a dog. She kept insisting that they needed to get a dog when they moved to their new neighborhood. He adamantly refused because he didn’t want the increased responsibilities and expenses, not to mention his allergy of dogs. They argued about it for weeks without making any progress. Finally, one morning, he asked her why she wanted a dog so badly. She explained that having a dog would give her a sense of security in this new neighborhood. Once he understood why she needed a dog, he immediately agreed to get one and buy some allergy medicine. Because they clarified the level of need versus want, the entire dynamic of the conversation changed.
The second area that can help us avoid a lot of grief is clarifying our expectations. Human beings have a tendency to think that other people are mind-readers and share similar thoughts and ideas. We presume that our expectations are shared by our friends and families members. It turns out that people are not, in fact, mind-readers, and the only sure way to be on the same page about something is by discussing it.
A simple illustration of this is family get-togethers. We each grow up in different environments and have different expectations for how families should act. I might expect a family lunch to last for one hour and be filled with interesting civil conversations. Someone else, on the other hand, might be accustomed to three-hour meals with lots of fighting. If we talk about what to expect, I may not like the fact that the event will be different from what I’m used to, but at least I’ll know what is coming and can prepare myself for it. I’m less likely to be resentful or upset about the situation.
When someone congratulates you on a recent marriage or engagement, they are likely to remind you how important it is to communicate. A good start to putting their ambiguous advice into concrete practice is to say thank you, and then begin talking to your partner about what each of you needs, wants, and expects. The sooner we realize that our partners aren’t mind-readers, the sooner we can be on the same page, and have happier, healthier relationships.