What's Wrong?

How many times has your spouse asked you, “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” you answer.

But that doesn’t fix anything. It may even make things even worse.

Your spouse is talking, and you’re not quite present. You seem a little distracted, or irritable. You’re a little less attentive than you usually are, and even forget something you were supposed to take care of. You get upset at something that normally wouldn’t bother you.

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 and begins snapping at Mary and the children. Of course she asks, “What’s wrong, George?” He can’t bring himself to tell Mary about what has happened, and things go downhill from there.

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.”

I’ve learned that answering “Nothing” usually adds to my husband’s anxiety if he senses that something is wrong. It’s easy for him to worry that he has done something to make me unhappy, or imagine that I’m stewing on a really big problem he’s not aware of.

Sometimes there’s nothing really wrong, but my mind is somewhere else. Sometimes something is bothering me that’s no big deal. And sometimes there is something worrying me that I’m not sure how to put into words yet.

But whatever it is, there are better ways to answer “What’s wrong?” than trying to convince the person who knows you best that it’s really “Nothing.”

When Your Spouse Asks What’s Wrong, offer this:

  1. A quick explanation. If your mind is simply somewhere else, 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 appreciates 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.” Even if that’s all you are able to say right now, it helps. Make sure you’re being truthful if you say this. But just letting the other one know it’s not them you’re upset about will 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 likely 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 worried 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.”

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

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