It’s often said that marriage takes a lot of work. My husband and I have been married since 1988, and in many ways we find it easy to get along with each other. We have similar views about many things, such as relationships, society, responsibility, money, and raising children (although we’re mostly finished with the latter, now that our kids are away at college). Our household division of labor works well for us. We enjoy each other’s company and do a lot of things together; our kids’ friends have commented on how cute they think we are when we wear matching clothes. We still have the stuffed animals that we exchanged when we were dating, as well as many other sentimental items.

Even so, we’ve really had to work on understanding the differences in how we communicate. Most of my thinking is in text mode, and I usually take words at their face value. Nonverbal signals such as a cheerful voice register in my mind only as general indicators; they don’t trump the actual content of the words. If there appears to be a mismatch between the words and the nonverbals, I ask for clarification. My husband has a very different way of processing conversation; he relies much more on external cues and often responds to nonverbal impressions rather than to the actual words. As a result, we sometimes end up having muddled and frustrating conversations where we don’t realize that we are not talking about the same thing.

Another cause of confusion is sorting out what questions don’t call for literal answers. Let’s say that my husband asks me in a grumpy tone why I didn’t do something that he usually expects me to do, such as bringing in the mail. That doesn’t really mean he wants an explanation of why it wasn’t done. He just wants to be cheerfully reassured that I’ll take care of it. And to complicate things further, he’s not inflexible about who does the task; he is not in fact demanding that I should always be the one to do it. If I send a text message asking him to bring in the mail when he gets home from work because the weather has turned yucky, he is perfectly happy to stop his car at the mailbox so that I won’t have to walk along an icy driveway. What bugs him isn’t the chore itself; it’s the disruption of his routine when he gets home, sits down at the desk expecting to read the mail, and only then finds out that it’s not there.

There’s a saying that we both find instructive: “Failed expectations are the source of all conflict.” This is particularly true with regard to conversation and nonverbal signals. People often assume that their body language and use of words should be easily understandable by others. When that expectation proves false, we don’t immediately know how to go about broadening our concepts of interaction to include other styles of communication. Often what happens is not that we consciously judge the other person’s way of communicating to be wrong; rather, we don’t even comprehend the extent to which it may differ from our own.

Modern society is becoming more aware of differences in communication generally, as well as within marriages and other relationships. The bookstores are full of self-help titles that purport to explain how women can better understand men, or vice versa. Some authors focus on more specific circumstances: a marriage between an older woman and a younger man, for instance, or between people of different neurological types. These books have been criticized, often with good cause, as being full of simplistic and inaccurate stereotypes; yet they continue to sell because they help people to make sense of baffling situations, even though in superficial ways.

If I had relied on a self-help book for an explanation of what my husband thought about bringing in the mail, the book might have told me, “Men need routine!” And while that wouldn’t have been altogether wrong, it also wouldn’t have been the whole story. I might have reached the conclusion that I had to bring in the mail every day, rain or shine, to avoid any gripes about it. Then I would have felt resentful while slipping and sliding my way to the mailbox on a snowy winter afternoon, when in fact there was no need to do that. A much more useful approach was simply to talk with each other about how best to deal with the mail situation, while recognizing that we had different perspectives on it.

To understand why our expectations are not being met, it’s first necessary to examine our underlying assumptions and to acknowledge that they may be in need of revision. Self-help books can be useful in taking this first step of reframing things we find frustrating as communication issues that reflect our different perceptions, rather than as deliberately annoying or senseless behavior. But ultimately there are no shortcuts for the work that is needed to discover how a loved one communicates. While it would certainly be much easier if we could simply buy a book or attend a seminar and then comprehend everything perfectly, real life is way more complicated than that. As with learning to accommodate diversity in other social contexts, we must be willing to refrain from prejudging the other person’s experiences of the world and to seek understanding by way of respectful dialogue.

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