Why is it so hard to tell your spouse what you’re thinking? What you want? What you need?
For the month of August we’re going to talk about direct communication–how to be up front with your spouse so you actually know what each other is thinking, rather than having to second guess and beat around the bush.
Last week we were talking about that helpless feeling when you’re single and someone is stringing you along, and how so many in that situation have a hard time speaking up for various reasons.
But it’s not just in friendationships that this is a problem. It can happen in marriage, too. We don’t say directly what we think. Maybe it’s because of fear; maybe it’s because of shame; maybe it’s because of weird spiritual beliefs that connect both.
I’d like to encourage us this month to learn how to speak directly–how to make your needs known, how to ask for what you want, how to have healthy disagreements.
And I’d like to encourage us to ditch passive-aggressiveness, where we beat around the bush or manipulate to try to get what we want. Let’s learn to speak up!
That’s hard for a lot of people. It feels unnatural, like we’re being pushy. It feels scary. But it’s really the only way to have a healthy marriage.
Intimacy means that you both have to truly know each other, and you can’t know each other if you’re not speaking directly about what you think, feel, and need. If you’re holding back, then your spouse is only seeing a part of you. How can you be truly loved if they only see a part of you? Intimacy is each of you seeing all of the other person, and still saying, “I love you. I accept you. I’m sticking with you.”
It doesn’t mean you love every single part of each other; but it means you see the flaws and the scars in context, and you say, “I want to be here. I want to know you, every part of you.”
Isn’t that the heart cry that God put into each one of us–to be truly seen and truly accepted? That’s why direct communication is so important in a marriage. You can’t have real intimacy without it.
Unfortunately, many of us have big stumbling blocks when it comes to speaking directly. So let’s start this series with 4 big ways that we hesitate to say openly what’s on our minds:
Skill Issues in Speaking Directly: We can’t identify what we want and don’t know how to talk about it.
When we don’t know how to identify our own needs
Did you grow up hearing that any time you wanted something you were likely selfish and in sin? That your life was supposed to be spent making sure other people were happy?
Many of us did. And there is a kernel of truth there–we aren’t supposed to obsess over what we want, and we are supposed to care about others. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t matter!
When you were a child, though, if you felt that you were responsible for making sure everyone else remained happy, you may never have asked yourself what you actually wanted. Your needs and wants were so far down the list because you spent your emotional energy trying to figure out what everyone else was thinking and feeling so that you could react and adjust accordingly. It may have been an abusive environment where you taught yourself to “read the room” in order to do your best not to make anything worse (though you can never “provoke” abuse). It may have been that you had very self-absorbed parents who never cared about your own needs.
Whatever the situation, you were never encouraged to speak out loud what you were thinking and feeling or even to identify them. And today, you often have a vague sense of malaise, like things aren’t going right. But it’s hard for you to put words to what you’re feeling, or to what exactly is wrong.
When we don’t know how to speak up
Sometimes identifying your feelings isn’t the issue; it’s learning how to actually speak up. Maybe in your family whenever people expressed their needs they yelled and huge fights ensued. You never had it modelled how to have a healthy disagreement, and so you shy away from speaking up, even about innocuous things, because you genuinely don’t know how to do it.
Maybe you associate telling the truth about your internal life with causing strife. And so you back away because it seems too scary.
Relationship Issues: We’re scared that the relationship isn’t solid enough to handle our needs
Maybe you don’t speak directly because you’ve tried it in the past and it backfired. You didn’t get what you need; and instead it just seemed to prove to you that you never will.
You’ve given up trying to get your needs met, and you throw yourself into just keeping the relationship on an even keel. But that becomes increasingly difficult, because you spend your life hiding. Anger and resentment build, because your spouse seems to have no idea what you’re actually thinking and feeling, even though you feel as if you’ve given them lots of hints. You’re trying to meet their needs, and they seem to be doing very little in return.
Are you PeaceKEEPING or PeaceMAKING?
Vulnerability Issues with Speaking Directly: Revealing ourselves makes us feel unsafe.
It’s a lot more vulnerable to ask for what you want than to hint. Asking directly means that you can be rejected or mocked or disregarded. Some of us don’t feel safe revealing too much of ourselves, even separate from relationship issues.
Maybe we’ve got some big hidden secrets that we’ve never shared with our spouse, and so sharing ANYTHING that touches on something very personal seems scary because it means we may have to reveal even more than we want (this is often how porn use, for instance, gets reinforced. To become vulnerable about anything is too scary because the porn use may be revealed, or the shame that is contributing to the porn use in the first place could have light shed on it. Light can be scary.
But it isn’t always sin issues that we’re running from. When we’ve never been truly accepted in our families of origin, or we have insecure attachment patterns to people, then becoming vulnerable can almost paralyze us.
In these cases, a licensed counselor can be a godsend. Go by yourself first, and then go as a couple. You weren’t meant to go through life feeling as if you have to hide.
Practical Issues: You don’t have the bandwidth to bring something up
Perhaps it’s not that you can’t speak directly and ask for what you want; it’s that you honestly don’t have the energy or the time to even deal with the issues. Maybe you need to have a big talk about toxic in-laws, or about how in debt you are, but the whole thing is just overwhelming because you also are working separate shifts, or you have three kids under three, or you have some special needs children or parents who need caring for.
You’re at the end of your rope, and even though you could ask for things or talk about how you’re feeling, what would be the point? You’re exhausted, and it would just show you even more vividly that you can’t have the life you want or need right now.
We’ll be talking about this through the month of September, when we talk about how to stop doing life on hard mode (as much as possible).
Spiritual Issues: Women hesitate because we feel it’s not our role and it’s a sin to speak directly.
Finally, here’s a big one that affects many of us: you don’t speak up because you feel like it’s disrespectful or unsubmissive to do so. To talk about what you need or want is actually a sin, or at least verges on it. Your role, as a wife, is to submit to what your husband wants, not make the marriage about what you want.
The only problem is that you do actually have legitimate wants and needs, and so the only way to get them met is to speak passive aggressively, rather than directly. To be direct is a sin, and so women try to beat around the bush and try everything else they can to ask for what they want–without actually asking.
Whether it’s Emerson Eggerichs in Love & Respect telling women they must ignore their intuition and follow their husbands’ authority, or John Piper telling a woman that she can’t give a man directions to the highway; she should instead give “suggestions” so as not to demean his masculinity, many of us don’t have a clue how to speak directly without sinning.
We’ll look later this month at how this whole idea that women must respect men unconditionally actually fosters passive aggressive communication and manipulation, and doesn’t lead to healthy dynamics at all.
How to learn to use direct communication
This month we’re going to focus on #1, or learning the skills for speaking directly, and #5, or why women often feel inhibited from speaking directly. We’ll concentrate on #4, or bandwidth issues, in September. I’ll also make passing reference to some of the other ones, but for those, I’d focus on these two series:
We’ll look at the difference between being direct and being mean; how to ask for what you want, and more!
So as we launch in, I’d love to know: Which of these 5 issues do you think most affects you (assuming one of them does?) Let’s talk in the comments!
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum
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