I love being married. Jen and I have been married for nearly 14 years. We dated for a full 5 years before that, which means we have been together for 19 years now. It is fun. We obviously have our frustrations, fights, issues, and difficult moments as no relationship is perfect, but I can honestly say that our marriage is better now than it has ever been: deep joy, friendship, and partnership. There is fun, excitement, and that profound feeling of knowing and being known at the deepest places possible. She is my babe, my confidant, my partner, my lover, my best friend, and my co-conspirator in all things.
That doesn’t happen overnight. It took awhile for us to get there. And it has changed over the course of years together. We have changed both individually and together as a team. Life is constant change. We have had to work really hard to know and be known and to keep up with changes over time.
Early on in our marriage it felt like we were constantly missing each other. There were different expectations, defining narratives, family histories, and “mutual understandings”. But we didn’t realize that. We assumed we were on the same page in many ways while actually being on different pages. Thus, frustration would creep in and we couldn’t figure out where it was originating from. We were fighting over friendship bracelets and dirty dishes when there were deeper issues at play.
The problem is your needs are not your spouse’s needs. Your hopes are not necessarily your spouse’s hopes. Your expectations and desires are unique to you. While two become one, you are still an individual with unique needs and desires. And if you don’t sit down and figure out a way to regularly discuss this stuff it can mushroom into deep frustration and disconnection.
It felt like we were playing the board game, Battleship. It’s the one with a dividing wall between you and your opponent so that you cannot see the other side of the game board. Each opponent attaches a fleet of plastic ships to the pegboard in an unknown pattern. Then, you take turns guessing where the ships are by trying to blindly shoot missiles across the wall and connect with one by calling out random positions on the grid.
A-7? Splash. G-4? Splash. D-9? Hit!! But, what did I hit? Which ship was it? Which direction was it facing? To make matters more complicated, right when we do figure out the layout of the unseen Battleship pegboard, our spouse moves them all around again as we progress through each new season of life. It can be frustrating!
If you are unaware of your spouse’s needs and expectations, how can you meet them or provide the necessary space for your spouse to meet them themselves? Add the complexities of two careers, friends, social life, children, faith, money, and the fact that it all changes with each progressive season of life and suddenly it is as if we are expected to be mind readers with an ever-perceptive and ever-evolving ability to always know the mind and heart of our partner. This is unrealistic and unnecessary.
We got to a point many years ago when we decided that this game wasn’t working for us and that we didn’t have to play it anymore. We decided to flatten the game board and simply show each other where all of our ships were and to keep it flat so that as the ships moved in our seasons of life we would both be aware of it so that we could pivot accordingly.
We decided to sit down and write out a detailed list of “Things We Need.” We talked about it and each set out to create a detailed list of where we were and what we truly needed. It took awhile to discern our own hearts and even figure out what we needed! Which is fascinating to think that we expected each other to know when we didn’t even fully know without some discernment of our own needs!
When we had it, we went out on a date to read each other our lists. It was profound and life-altering to say the least. I was given a map to the soul of my best friend. It was the most empowering moment.
We put everything we could think of on our lists from intellectual connection, to house cleaning and parenting, to spiritual needs and expectations in our partnership of pastoring a church plant, to the kind of time and space we each needed individually and as a couple, and so on.
“I need you to surprise me with flowers at least twice a month.”
“I need a guys night out several times a month.”
“I need to feel like an equal in ___________.”
“I need fun. Even scary fun to feel like I’m alive!”
“I need to feel respected.”
“I need __________.” You can fill in the blank.
This changed everything. I keep the list in my phone and refer to it regularly. I’ve seen my list in Jen’s car and purse at different times. At first it was weird to know what to “surprise” her with, but eventually it was amazing.
As life progresses in complexity it is difficult enough to connect regularly when you know where all the ships are. I can’t imagine trying to connect deeply and regularly if I didn’t know. As seasons have changed, we have updated our lists and decided to stay current in our needs and in making our needs known.
Mutual self-giving love requires mutual self-knowing.
What are your’s and your spouse’s needs? How are you making them known?
AN AFTER THOUGHT
As I have shared this story with several friends, usually at some point people ask a couple of questions:
1- Doesn’t sharing all of that take the mystery out of it? Saying you want to be surprised by flowers is no longer a surprise right? Yes and No. It takes the mind-reading mystery out of it and the hope that someone will magically know how to give you what you want. But as my friend, Andrew Richards, always says: Healthy people ask for what they want. Now there is an excited anticipation of being known and connected at the deepest level possible.
2- If someone loves you- shouldn’t they just know? I have actually felt this way before. I want you to know me enough to know how I feel, where I am at, and what I need. I want you to be a super-hero with true mind-reading capabilities so that you can super-naturally read my mind and heart and soul. Well- it turns out we are just humans after all and more times than not- they won’t know…unless you tell them.