Imagine you're cooking a one-dish dinner for the family. You pick up the frying pan. Your wrist gives, and dinner slides out onto the floor.
What do you want to hear from your spouse?
- "Let me help you with that, and then we can order a pizza, ok?"
- "I'm hungry! How long is it going to take to fix something else?"
- "Your klutziness will be the death of us yet!"
- "What the f*** is wrong with you that you can't even make a meal?!"
I'll bet you chose that first one. It's reassuring. It's clear you're both still on the same team. Your spouse recognizes an accident as an accident and doesn't imagine this was a deliberate attempt to delay dinner or waste food. On top of that, it's helpful in a stressful moment.
The second one says, "I have a need, and it's your job to meet it. How long will I need to wait?" What's happening to you at the moment and why it happened are irrelevant. Ouch!
The third one says, "There's something wrong with you." This problem stems from a flaw in who you are. Your response will likely be either to accept the criticism and feel smaller -- and less of an equal partner in your marriage -- or to come out swinging, defending your abilities and your motives.
That last one is really a relationship killer. The anger communicates your spouse's belief that your error was an intentional affront, a denial of your spouse's legitimate right to a home-cooked meal at this very moment. Wow! That's enough to make divorce look pretty enticing.
That was a whole lot of communication in just one short moment in a marriage. But it's probably not the sort of communication you're looking for if you feel communication is missing in your marriage.
So, what are you going to say the next time you start to tell your spouse something good about your day and hear only "that's nice" as he or she heads out to talk a walk to shake off the remains of a tough work day?
- "It was great. I'll tell you the rest when you get back, ok?"
- "Stop right there and pay attention to the rest of the story. You can walk later."
- "You really don't have a clue about how to communicate, do you?"
- "What the f*** is wrong with you that you can't even listen to me for five minutes?!"
Hint: it's the same question, same answers, different moment in marriage, different spouse unintentionally dropping something, in this case the conversational ball.