Here are the things I thought happily married couples would do: dance in the kitchen, have fabulous sex, travel the world, and be able to have lengthy, meaningful conversations while hardly saying a word.
In fact, the telepathic love connection expectation ran pretty high. Think of Schmidt’s character in New Girl: just one look at Cece’s face and he concludes “she doesn’t want to get married; she told me with her eyes!” Think of Jerry Maguire’s impassioned take-me-back speech, which gets cut short with that classic line “you had me at hello.” True love, according to the Televised World of Romance, doesn’t require a lot of words.
My husband and I are coming up on ten years of marriage, and it is true that we have developed some fantastic short-hand communication. Just yesterday we had this conversation:
Me: She took a nap.
Him: Oh no. Did you..?
Me: Tomorrow at 10.
(We thought our 5 year old was over her illness. On the fourth day, we sent her back to school, but she came home and took a nap. Given that she hasn’t napped in 4 years, this was indicative of serious illness. Yes, I called the doctor. Appointment scheduled for 10am.) But we did all that in just 11 words. Marital mind-reading – booyah!
However, in our experience, saying little or nothing has often led to hurt and misunderstanding, because as it turns out we are not mind-readers. In the face of silence from our spouse, we often have a tendency to fill-in-the-blanks in ways that do damage to our marriage. I’ve heard it said that silence is golden, but in my experience silence can be deadly.
If you love your spouse, ASK for what you want.
One of the first lessons I learned in marriage was that, as much as my husband loved me, he was not able to guess what I wanted or needed. I would hint, sigh, mumble, or mutter something obtuse like “wow, it’s getting chilly quickly,” and then feel unloved and misunderstood when he failed to leap up and get me a sweater.
“Please would you get me a sweater?” was all I needed to say, and my husband (who was delighted to be able to show he loved me in a practical, tangible way), would gladly get one.
My silence on little things was leaving me feeling unloved, and depriving him of the chance to love me too. Don’t hint, ask.
If you love your spouse, give their silence the benefit of the doubt.
Years ago I read a hilarious piece by Dave Barry on a couple called Roger and Elaine. An innocent remark in the car on the way home from a date led to a period of silence, during which Elaine fell down a rabbit hole of anxious speculation as she worked every possible nuanced meaning out of the few words they had exchanged. Roger, on the other hand, was still stuck on his original thought: “gee: when last did I get the oil in the car changed?”
Now I’m not saying all women are anxiety-prone or that all men are tone-deaf to relational cues, but my point is this: they both filled in the silence. She interpreted his silence through the grid of her insecurity, and projected fear, rejection, disapproval and a lack of commitment onto him. To her, his silence said “Maybe I don’t want to be with you.” He, however, interpreted her silence as meaning there was nothing further to talk about. To him, her silence said “we’re done with that conversation. I’m fine, you’re fine. Now I can think about my car.”
If Roger and Elaine managed to negotiate both a DTR conversation and an oil change, and if that took them a few steps closer to marriage, they would need to practice asking their spouse about their silences, instead of assuming something about them.
I spent so many of my early years of marriage watching my husband silently read or work, and I interpreted it in a myriad hurtful ways: “his work is more important to him than me,” “he’s more interested in his computer than his wife,” “he doesn’t care that I’m upset, lonely and insecure,” and many more. However, I am learning that in the face of my husband’s silence, I need to give him the benefit of the doubt. His vows to me were ones of love, fidelity, honesty and cherishing. When he does talk to me, his words are kind and his actions servant-hearted. Giving him the benefit of the doubt meant learning that his silence meant, “I’m reading,” not “I’m rejecting you.”
I still love it when we happen to have one of those sweet conversations without words. But I’m learning that since he is not a mind-reader, it is my responsibility to speak my mind. And since I’m not a mind-reader, I should ask him his thoughts, rather than guess (and fail).
Speak up. Love well. Ask for what you want. And also, get your oil changed.