Dear Captain Awkward:
My husband is very expressive of his emotions; the problem is, he’s also very subtle about it. I’ve had half-joking chats with his BFF (we’ll call him Adam) about the subtle distinctions between the sigh that means “I’m pretending to be offended because you’re playfully teasing me” and the sigh that means “I’m actually really hurt but I don’t want to make a scene”; it’s as clear as day to me and Adam, but sounds identical to onlookers. My BFF, Evan, is one of those who can’t read my husband at all; recently, he approached me and mentioned that it makes him uncomfortable when I call my husband out on emotions Evan didn’t even notice he was feeling because it feels like I’m telling him what he’s feeling when I’m actually just echoing back what I’m seeing on his face.
The way my husband and I work, it helps tremendously if I stop and question him when I’m getting signals that he’s not okay, so we can resolve the issue immediately and not let it fester. I’m very grateful Evan said something, however, because I suspect other friends are also uncomfortable. How can I address my husband’s emotions when I’m the only one who can tell them apart without making people think I’m making things up, seeing what’s not there, or generally neurotic and anal?
For example: The three of us (Me, my husband, and Evan) were out to lunch and Evan and my husband were playfully teasing each other. Evan said something that actually bothered my husband, and he went into his (subtle) withdraw-and-sulk routine. I knew he’d feel bad all lunch and barely participate in the conversation, so I tried to comfort him, but he rebuffed me, so then I felt kind of bad myself. Evan was highly uncomfortable, but he characterized the event as my making a big deal out of nothing and making both of us upset. I pointed out that my husband was upset by the teasing first, and Evan was shocked to realize that he’d hit a nerve at all, and immediately apologized. That ended well, but I feel like I handled it badly. It’s like the three of us were in two totally different conversations: my husband and my perspective, and Evan’s perspective. I really don’t want to come across how I do in Evan’s perspective, but I’m not sure how to clue him in without sounding like a control freak.
I’ve been around a lot of babies lately, since my friends have been creating cute new life left and right, and there is a thing that new parents do where they closely read and translate the various expressions that babies make. Is she sleepy? Is she gonna barf? Is she pooping? The parents must become fluent in Baby because the baby is on a years-long-time-delay for becoming fluent in Adult, and it’s a matter of the baby’s comfort or even survival to get it right. And since Auntie Jen can’t reliably tell the difference between a “I’m bored” cry and an “I’m staaaaaaaaaaarving” cry (among other things), having the actual parent step in and say “You better hand her to me, that’s a barf-y sort of face” is pretty invaluable when we’re all hanging out together.
Reading your description of your lunch together in the example you gave, it seems kind of like you are translating your husband to other people the way parents translate their babies to non-baby people, and I see why your friend “Evan” is a little weirded out by it. If Evan accidentally hurt your husband’s feelings, you may have been the first to sense trouble, but I’m not at all sure it was on you to translate, and I’m not at all sure that a “withdraw-and-sulk routine“ from an adult man at a lunch with friends deserves your translation or mediation.
You may be trying too hard to control the situation (and I think there is something in here where you like that he’s so inscrutable to everyone but you) but in a world where a man just has to sigh, or pout, or sulk-and-withdraw (in a barely perceptible way) to have all of the corners of the world smoothed to his liking by his spouse, maybe the “control freak” here isn’t you. I have so many questions:
- Was Evan supposed to pick up on your husband’s discomfort? How? When? Does Evan have trouble picking up cues in general (your cues, for instance)?
- Do you think it would be a good thing if Evan, and others, could read your husband as well as you can? If the multiple variations on a sigh sound identical to onlookers, can they not be forgiven for not being able to distinguish them?
- What would the likely consequences have been if you did not intervene or translate? What if you just ignored your husband’s behavior until such time as he wanted to jump back into the conversation?
- Does your husband expect you to smooth over troubled waters often in social spaces? Do you often assume the mediator or translator role? Has he asked you to? Are you sure that he wants you to? Are you comfortable with it? Have you ever talked about this?
- Do you ever read your husband wrong? It seems like he was not that into your attempts to smooth things over (for instance, when he “rebuffed” your attempts to comfort him).
- What does your husband do when you’re not there to translate – at work, for instance?
It’s really great that you speak Eyebrow As A Second Language, and I’m sure it makes you and your husband formidable partners at Charades and Time’s Up and well able to re-create the Kuleshov Experiment. But my suggested script applies to your husband. “Evan, you couldn’t have known, but that hurt my feelings. New topic, maybe?”
Since you are the one who wrote to me, I would encourage you to do some thinking about this pattern of hyper-attenuation and translation you and your husband have going on. I read my boyfriend’s face very well, and he reads mine very well, and I’d guess that many or even most spouse-level partners can read their partner’s face very well – what’s so unusual about that? What’s unusual here is the habit of translation that you have. Honestly I am having a hard time imagining a situation where I’d want my partner to translate me for others or tell them what I “really” feel or want or need, when I am sitting right there and can do it myself. It sounds like you and your husband have a different sort of deal with that, but what’s the harm here if he had to do his own translating and make his reactions and wishes clearer when you socialize with others who don’t have that same kind of agreement with him? In Evan’s shoes, I’d be like “Hey, I’m sorry I hurt your feelings, but can’t you just tell me that? I feel weird having your face narrated to me by the Husband Whisperer when you’re sitting right there” which I think is sort of what he said, only he said it to you instead of your husband, which is again the problem. Basically, I have an anti-script for you: What if Evan can make a mistake in his teasing, and your husband can feel some kind of way about it, without you doing or saying anything at all? Misunderstandings can be cleared up between friends, right?