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Talking to Your Spouse: Men and Women Speak a Different Language

A woman ponders the stack of dirty dishes and remarks, "boy, there are a lot of dishes." Her husband continues watching television. An hour later, she explodes. "I can't believe you," she scowls. "What's the matter?" he asks. "I asked you to help with the dishes and you're just sitting there." "You did? No you didn't."

Here are the two halves of the communication equation that causes so many problems between men and women:

  • A woman expects a man to notice, to be aware. If there were a connection between them, he'd know what she wants.
  • A man expects direct communication, an explicit request. If somebody wants something done, she should ask for it.

The gender gap that creates an imbalance in domestic burdens isn't always the result of traditional stereotypes, time constraints or unwillingness to work together. Often, says Georgetown University linguistics professor Deborah Tannen, author of You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, it's the chasm between the way men and women communicate.

"A major stumbling block for many women is they feel they shouldn't have to make the request directly. A woman thinks that if a man loves her he would perceive the need without her having to bring it up — and that if she has to ask it doesn't count as much," explains Tannen, author of books such as You Just Don't Understand Me, which focuses on the language divide.

"Many women learned as kids, growing up, that if someone really loves them they'd know what they want — but of course that isn't true."

She advises women to be more direct. Often, a dropped hint is a dropped ball. She also advises women to train the guy to get the hint. Explain how you communicate. "Either way works," says Tannen.

Even so, Ursinus College psychologist Catherine Chambliss urges women striving to negotiate fairer solutions to be assertive — but also sensitive to the fact that some men still view child care and home-oriented activities as unmanly. Thus, instead of blaming or expressing fury, she suggests that women adopt "a search for solutions" approach.

Propose options. Say, "I could do this and you could do that, and then we'd have more time together." When speaking of the proposed division of labor use words like "efficient" and "experimental approach."

Unfortunately, notes Chambliss, "women are sometimes afraid to make carefully worded requests, and instead let things fester. They wait until things explode and get angry."

And when language fails? Use another strategy to bridge the gender gap, suggests Tannen: Switch roles for a couple of days. He does everything she normally does, and the reverse. At the least, each person will gain better appreciation for the pressures faced by the partner. Then there's the best-case scenario: Trading places could lead to a fairer distribution of duties.