my spouse doesn't understand me

Why doesn’t my spouse understand me? Well, I hope I can answer that question for you. I’m Jim Pourteau, and I’m part of the Marriage Helper Team. I don’t even know how often I’ve wondered why my spouse doesn’t understand me in the 34 years I’ve been married. And I’m sure Shannon’s wondered that as well. If you’ve been married for long, or even dating, you know that it can be difficult.

One of the things I hear people say is that they don’t know how to communicate. But you do know how to communicate. You’re just doing it poorly. And so, when we look at the fact that my spouse doesn’t understand me, I want to encourage you to adopt a philosophy or characteristic that we are taught as professional speakers to use.

The responsibility of understanding falls on the speaker.

Often, when we’re sharing in pain, or difficulty, or things like that, we expect the other person to go to the nth degree to understand us. And I get that, but here’s one problem: they don’t know what we’re thinking. Do you follow me? They don’t read minds. They can guess, but they don’t read minds. And so, there’s no way they can understand what you’re thinking. I can’t know what you’re thinking. So I’m going to judge your emotions. I’m going to judge what I see outside of you. When you say something to me, I’m going to go by my experience.

As a speaker, I know I need to speak in a way so you can understand me. And the responsibility is for me to find the words or examples for you to see. When I’m talking to my wife, or you’re talking to your spouse, it’s vital that we have the same mindset. It’s not an easy thing to do. One of the reasons that doesn’t work is that we speak in either unclear or emotional words or use one-word phrases. We’ll say things like, “I want more respect.” But the problem or the challenge there is that the word doesn’t describe the behavior.

See, what we’re doing is judging behavior to feel disrespected or feel like you don’t love and like me. And so when I say that to someone, they’re going to use their interpretation of what respect means. If I’m going to get my spouse to understand me in the best possible way, I need to present my emotions, not necessarily in emotional terms, but in the way of, “this is what I feel.” Not just feelings, but, “these are the facts behind it. I feel this way because I hear this or I see this. So when you do X behavior, I feel this way.”

And you want to be careful that it doesn’t turn into blaming them for making you feel this way, because no one can make us feel any particular way unless we allow them to. So we have to approach this whole situation thinking, “I need to speak clearly so they can understand me.”

What are some challenges to that?

Well, we don’t always know how we feel. I mean, we don’t always know how to describe how we feel. I can’t tell you the hundreds of sessions I’ve had with people, and I will say, “well, what does that mean to you? When or how do they demonstrate disrespect?” And they’ll say, “well, I don’t know.” Sometimes, people don’t even know how to describe how they feel.

The other thing is what we call blindness in that we can’t see clearly, or the other person can’t see clearly. So if we’re speaking in just emotional or single word things, they may not be able to understand it or follow. We’re going to say how we feel, but behind that, we’ll say, “as a result of when I see these behaviors or I see this, this is how I feel.” And again, we’re not placing blame. We’re explaining that’s how we interpret it. Well, what would that do for them? It lets them see an example of a behavior that influences, instigates, or triggers that emotion.

So, if they have a desire to stop triggering the emotion, what happens? We can then change that behavior. So it’s a big deal to make this description descriptive, right? If I’m looking to figure out why my spouse doesn’t understand me, I need to speak in ways that they can. I need to show them, give them examples. Not too many, but provide the examples they need to understand.

You need to use the right level of emotion.

The second thing, or second reason that people don’t understand folks, and especially when it comes to our spouse, is that we’re either overly emotional or we’re not emotional at all. We tend to judge things based on who we are. If your spouse is not an emotional person, they’re more reserved, and when you bring something to them, you talk to them, you’re all over the place, sometimes that emotion could shut that other person down because they’re reserved for thinking and contemplating. So, what you want to be able to do is to communicate it, as we said earlier, in a way they can understand it. Not just in words but also actions.

I mean, you’ve been around people before where their actions, even before you saw their words, excluded them being in your influence. They were doing a certain thing, acting a certain way. No matter what they said, you were probably going to reject it. The place could be on fire, and because I’m sitting there on fire, you’re like, I’m going to check with someone else. Why? I don’t trust this person based on their behavior.

Well, if my spouse is super non-emotional, being too emotional could cause a person to shut down. On the other hand, if my spouse is emotional and I’m very stoic in what I present to them, what I’m trying to communicate, how I feel about something, and I do it matter-of-factly using beautiful words, but I don’t talk about the emotion it evokes, that emotional spouse will miss the point. So I need to be in the middle. I need to be at a place where they will understand it.

So it still goes with number one, but it’s important because if you’re too emotional or not emotional enough, the communication can suffer. And here’s what we know for sure. Emotions always trump intellect. The best thing we can do when it comes to communication is get ourselves as close to homeostasis, as close to normality as we can so that we can understand, and we can get things accomplished.

We’re not listening to them.

The third thing that happens, I think, that keeps our spouse from understanding us is this: we’re not listening to them. That’s right. See, a lot of times, our spouse doesn’t understand us because they’ve brought something to us, or they’ve given a compelling argument, or they’ve shared something back, and we didn’t listen to understand. We listened to respond. As a result, we don’t hear or understand the core of what they’re saying.

We start fighting over the event instead of addressing the core, instead of looking at what needs adjusting to have a better relationship. If you want your spouse to understand, you better listen to them to know what they’re saying. Because communication only happens if both people are listening and speaking, not when both persons are speaking and not listening. So be careful about that.

I get my spouse to understand me better by being clear.

And what I mean by clear is that I need to make sure I’m not speaking too much, but also make sure that I’m speaking enough. What happens is sometimes, for people like my wife and me, I’m going to over-explain when we get in a conflict. And there gets to a point where the person gets your point, they get what you’re trying to say, but we keep going and push past.

In the sales industry, they say you pushed past the close. You pushed past the sale. In other words, you could have made some good stuff here, but you kept talking, you wouldn’t shut up. Or you brought the kitchen sink in the argument, or you started talking about too many things instead of staying focused on one. Or you just started talking in ambiguity. So see, we need to be in a place where we can speak to them where we speak enough, but not too much.

Now, listen, it doesn’t mean you have to become a professional speaker to do this. But, if you put these things in your mind, you will set yourself up for a more positive interaction—a place where your spouse can understand.

The final thing you want to do is ask, “do you understand what I’m explaining? Can you explain this back to me?” And watch, if they get it wrong, get a hold of yourself. One of the worst things people do when the spouse gets it wrong is saying, “you don’t understand me.” How is that going to help in the communication? Now we’ve elevated it. We’ve made people victims and assaulters, which didn’t help at all.

I can take responsibility for who I am, and I can make sure that I’m speaking correctly. I’m going to speak to an area where I’m not just giving emotional terms, but I’m clear. I won’t be too emotional in my attitude or actions, nor am I going to be too stoic. I’m going to be in a place where I’m easily understood.

I’m going to make sure that I’m listening to what they’re saying and what they’re asking of me so I can give a good answer. Not to respond, but to understand, so I can give the correct response. And I’m going to make sure that I speak either enough or not too much. The point is to be understood, not to lecture the person into a coma. I know you can do this. And I’m confident that if you practice these things, it will help you have less anxiety in your marriage, translating to more happiness.

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