Your spouse: “What’s wrong?”

You: “Nothing.”

How’s that been working? Probably not very well. And it may even be making things worse.

You seem a little distracted, or irritable. You’re not fully present when your spouse is talking. You’re a little less attentive than usual, or you forget something you were supposed to take care of. You get upset at something that normally wouldn’t bother you. Or perhaps things have been bothering you for a long time and if your spouse had asked that question a year ago perhaps we’d have something to talk about, but now? It doesn’t feel worth it.

And God forbid it gets as bad as it did for George Baily in It’s A Wonderful Life. George comes home after the bank deposit has been lost (stolen?!) and begins snapping at Mary and the children. Of course she asks, “What’s wrong, George?” He can’t bring himself to tell Mary what’s happened, and things go downhill fast.

If your spouse is sensitive at all, they will know when something isn’t quite right with you even when you think you’re covering it up quite well. That’s both good and bad: you may not really want to talk about it with him/her right then, because then you would have to worry about their reaction to the problem as well as the problem itself.

And so you answer, “Nothing.”

And “Nothing” gets you no where.

Been There, Done That

During my marriage (before my husband died) I learned that answering “Nothing” usually added to my husband’s anxiety if he sensed that something was wrong. He worried he had done something to make me unhappy, or imagined I was stewing over some really big problem he wasn’t aware of.

Sometimes there truly wasn’t anything wrong, but my mind was elsewhere. Sometimes something was bothering me that was truly no big deal. And sometimes there was something worrying me that I wasn’t yet sure how to put into words, or was so big that talking about it seemed too hard.

But whatever it was, I learned there are better ways to answer “What’s wrong?” than trying to convince the person who knew me best that it’s really “Nothing.”

And for some of you, you may wish your spouse would ask “What’s wrong?” Your subtle (or not so subtle) hints aren’t working, and that’s even more upsetting. Check out How to Start a Difficult Conversation.

What To Say

When Your Spouse Asks “What’s Wrong”, try offering something like this:

  1. A quick explanation. If your mind is simply elsewhere, just say so. Try something like, “I’m trying to figure out when I need to start getting ready to go,” or “My boss’s comment just keeps running through my mind. I’m not sure what it means.” If it’s true, just knowing that it’s not about him/her, and not something terribly serious, can ease their worry. Al (my husband) appreciated this so much.
  2. “I don’t know.” A caring spouse will appreciate knowing that you are not purposely keeping something important from them, even if you don’t yet have words to explain what’s bothering you. And often such an acknowledgment will start a conversation that helps you figure out what IS going on.
  3. “It’s not you. It’s about …” Even if that’s all you are able to say right now, it helps. Make sure you’re being truthful if you say this. If you can name the category you’re ruminating about (work, kids, money, or whatever) it can often ease one significant worry on their mind.
  4. “I’ll tell you when I can.” Just saying that lets your spouse feel validated, while you ask for space to work on the problem further yourself before sharing. It’s very important to not use this indefinitely. If it’s a “big” problem you may need to schedule a safe and uninterrupted time when you both can talk. Come back to the issue as soon as you can: it’s very possible your spouse will have imagined a bigger problem than it really is. Get it out on the table as soon as you can.
  5. “I don’t want you to fix it.” If you’re upset and just need to vent, say so. Some problems your spouse cannot do anything about. But acknowledging the problem together can help you both feel like you’re facing the issue together, from the same side.
  6. “I’m afraid to tell you.” If your spouse HAS done something that bothers you, verbalizing that may be difficult for some people. If you need to let them know you are unhappy with them in some way, begin with an “I” statement: “I feel even more anxious when you don’t share with me how our finances are going,” or “I felt embarrassed when you told that story in front of my parents.” Own your own feelings first.

If your spouse is frequently asking “What’s wrong?”, something in your behavior is giving them the message that something is amiss. Make a conscious effort to not view their question as an intrusion, but as an expression of caring. Instead of pushing them away, use your response as an opportunity to come closer together as a couple.

And whenever you can, find something to say besides “Nothing.”

Lastly, if you’re the one asking “What’s wrong?” and getting “Nothing” as a response, choose your time and place carefully and get more curious.

Your Turn: How do you handle the “What’s wrong” question? Any other possible healthy responses? Leave a comment below.

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