Go Easy; It Takes Time
I once heard a couple who had been married for over forty years say, “We didn’t really get each other until we’d gotten the first twenty years out of the way.” Now that Brent and I have been married over twenty-three years, I understand what they were talking about. Entwining two lives into one takes time and patience. It takes being lifelong students of one another. And as soon as you think you have him all figured out, he’ll change. So will you. It’s the adventure, and it’s never dull!
This reminds me of good ol’ Shrek and his conversation with Donkey. Shrek refers to himself as an onion. He has layers—really rough on the outside and soft and pliable on the inside. I can look back now and see that our marriage has been like this. We dealt with rough, unattractive stuff early on in our marriage, then, year after year, we continue to enjoy the good stuff.
A Tactical Approach: Communication Killers and Keepers
Learning to speak each other’s language is a lifelong pursuit. It’s the big picture, a little something to keep in the back of your mind year to year. But what about day to day? That’s where the bulk of our communication lies.
There are behaviors and mindsets that will kill the ability to communicate, and there are attitudes and boundaries that will keep the communication flowing. Brent and I call them communication killers and keepers. In the following pages, I explain each killer and it’s opposing keeper.
Unspoken Expectations vs. No Givens
If you want to learn each other’s language, you have to speak. So much of miscommunication is unspoken. We develop assumptions based on our own personal views and values. We have assumptions about how relationships operate, how they should be, and then these assumptions turn into expectations. But when those expectations are not talked about, there’s trouble.
I was brought up in a home that taught if you weren’t fifteen minutes early, you were late. Brent was brought up in a home where perpetual lateness was the norm. This became a huge issue for us, especially because of the nature of his crisis-driven career. I was offended and frustrated time after time because we could never get anywhere when I wanted to be there. After many discussions and tearful arguments, we learned to talk about the expectations each other had about time management.
Newlyweds Mark and Rachel had guests over for the evening. The weekend before, Rachel spent extra time cleaning the house, and she planted flowers in the backyard. Then she took off work early and prepared an appetizer to go with the drinks, made up the meal ahead of time, and put together a beautiful dessert. While the guests were there, Mark offered up some drinks and talked with the guys while he grilled the meat. All had a great evening with lots of laughs. Once the guests had gone, Mark declared he was exhausted and that he had to get up early for the day shift. He promptly went to bed. Rachel, who also had work the next morning, stayed up late cleaning up after everyone, fuming. She didn’t talk to Mark for two days.
Before you get too angry with Mark, you must understand something. His mother was a stay-at-home mom who did everything for her family. She cooked dinner every night and cleaned up afterward without batting an eye. He had absolutely no clue how much work goes into entertaining, much less thoughts about helping to clean up. His unspoken expectation was that Rachel would handle it. Rachel, on the other hand, neglected to voice her expectation that he help with clean up because she assumed he would. His ignorance and her anger were both a result of unspoken expectations that neither of them were aware of.
Expectations do not kill communication; failing to express them does.
Mark and Rachel would have had a much different outcome had they taken a few minutes to discuss each other’s responsibilities beforehand. It wouldn’t have been much for him to clear the table and load the dishwasher while she rinsed. The whole evening was a success until Rachel was offended by her own assumptions.
Take the time to understand expectations for events, your job, even day-to-day things. Then negotiate solutions to those expectations. There are no givens!