Men: How to get your marriage out of beta testing mode

Communicating your desires, emotions, and expectations can be the key to a healthy marriage. Photo credit: Tord Sollie on Unsplash.

Communicating your desires, emotions, and expectations can be the key to a healthy marriage. Photo credit: Tord Sollie on Unsplash.

As someone who has a hard time learning new languages, I was thrilled when Google Translate was first introduced. At last, a magic tool for communicating with nearly anyone in the world. My first time using this technology was in Egypt and I was so ready to make some new friends.

I’ll never forget those first looks of confusion after I asked a simple question like, “What’s your favorite food?” For an entire week, the reactions varied from confusion to laughter. It became clear that my magic translation tool wasn’t working. I found out later that Google Translate was only really available in select languages, and the “English-to-Arabic” function was still in “beta testing” mode. I knew what I was trying to say, but I had no idea what my new friends were actually hearing.

As a married man, I can assure you that the first few years (or more) of marriage are like using Google Translate in beta testing mode. What you think you are saying is often not what your spouse is hearing and likewise, what you hear is often not what your spouse is actually saying. These misunderstandings may sometimes result in laughter, but more often than not, they will lead to confusion or frustration. I don’t believe your marriage was meant to stay in beta testing mode, so how can you improve your communication?

While my hope is that this would benefit anyone, I’d like to address the men specifically because it can be especially uncomfortable for us to communicate our desires, emotions, and expectations. We often end up stuffing them into a box, but rarely take them out. Good communication in marriage requires both knowing and being known, which is why I’m convinced if we begin letting things out of that box occasionally, it will result in more confident and secure marriages. As you know, I’m no expert in learning languages, but here’s to hoping that together we can become fluent in these.  

(Men, there is one rule. If your spouse sent you this article, don’t get grumpy! Pretend like you were gifted a brand new, shiny tool that’s going to help you dig out of beta testing mode. Like any tool, when we’re done, you can store it in the shed until you need it again.)

Desires 

Early in our marriage, my wife asked me, “What do you need?” I gave it some thought and confidently answered, “food, sleep, and a home.” I couldn’t even fake it because I couldn’t think of any possible answers to that question. What do people need? She began listing ideas, “affirmation, time, physical affection...” Um, is dessert an option? Because in those early days of marriage, cake was my deepest need.

The question what do you need? felt like a booby trap. What if she was asking to make sure my desires lined up with her priorities? Or maybe she wanted confidence that she has what it takes to meet those needs? Or perhaps she just wanted me to ask about her needs. What if she didn’t like what I needed?

See, it felt like expressing my needs would be a threat to my wife’s identity, so rather than dealing with the consequences of being honest, I decided it was easier to box up my needs and pretend I didn’t have any.

It turns out that she truly just wanted to know my needs so that she could meet my needs. So when I asked her to pray that I’d build good friendships, she prayed…and it happened. When I told her that I needed more time with my friends, she called them...and made it happen. And when I jokingly said that cake might be my deepest need…she asked, “what kind?”

If you don’t share your needs, your spouse won’t be able to meet them and you’ll rarely feel known or loved. That is not sustainable. You have to express your desires. If they seem contrary to hers, give her the chance to prove you wrong.

Emotions

I have one emotion that exists somewhere between happy and sad. I remember being a pretty emotional kid, but somehow along the way, I lost my ability to feel and express my emotions. When pain comes my way, I reach for every possible distraction to keep from having to feel.

When I talked to my counselor about this, he pulled out this silly wheel listing dozens of emotions and asked me to point to one that I felt. He warned me that if I am preventing myself from experiencing the depths of sadness that I would never be able to experience the heights of joy. As my wife and I navigate the painful reality of infertility, I find myself wanting to stuff away all the feelings that come with that. It’s hard for me to process the depths of that sadness, but I know it is the only way I’ll be able to experience the heights of joy if we are one day blessed with children. 

If I’m honest, emotions still don’t really make sense to me, but I now know that they are a part of life. You can’t manage your emotions if they are locked in your box. You have to discover what you feel, why you feel, and what you need to do with those feelings. Before ever inviting my wife into how I’m feeling, I ask myself if I’ve truly been able to sit in and process my emotions. Some of you may be external emotional processors; so opening up is no problem for you. But for those who process internally, perhaps your next move is to sit and ask yourself how you really feel.

The more familiar you are with how something has impacted you emotionally, the more confident you’ll be in communicating it to your spouse.

Expectations 

My wife loves to identify ways that she can improve and recently asked if there was anything that she does that bothers me. A few years ago, I would have said “nothing at all!” I began sweating. Take your time. You’ve got this. 

Every morning, she peels an orange and kindly leaves the peel in the sink should our kitchen need to be freshened up later with that lovely orange scent. However, my expectation is that she will push it down and turn on the disposal because well, that’s just what you should do. This conversation lasted all of two minutes and we laughed at our differing perspectives. She learned about a simple, but meaningful expectation that I have and now I get a fresh hit of orange every morning when I walk into the kitchen.

 While I appreciate that my wife wants to fulfill my expectations, it doesn’t make it any easier to share when they go unmet. I’m so afraid of hurting her feelings, but taking that risk is a part of the process of good communication. She actually prefers to know when I’m disappointed because it means I care enough about our relationship that I’m willing to overcome that fear and let her in.

We all have expectations. If you don’t learn the language for communicating those, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.

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If you have a hard time talking about desires, emotions, and unmet expectations, it’s likely that you also struggle to express compliments and affirmation. The more you are willing to share the hard stuff, the more your eyes will be opened to the amazing ways your spouse is crushing it. Good communication allows for both of those realities to exist at the same time. That’s when you know you’re moving out of beta testing mode.

These conversations aren’t easy, but having good communication is worth the risk. So pick one out and take a step towards knowing and being known by your spouse.

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I consider it a privilege to help men (and women) overcome fears and challenges in their relationships and help them get out of beta testing mode. If you feel stuck or insecure in your ability to communicate your desires, emotions, or unmet expectations, let’s set up a discovery call and determine whether personal coaching might be a good fit for you! I’d love nothing more than to fill up your shed with relational tools!

TJ Wallace