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Dropping hints more harmful than helpful

“Maybe I should just leave him.”

Just this last week I was helping a wife evaluate the issues she was having. She was asking how to deal with her “terrible” husband and explained how he never does what she wants. She was at her wits end. So I asked what it is that he “never” does.

She had been talking for a week about all the times she’s seen this particular broadway show. She told him how much she loved the show and knew all the lines. And then she opened the newspaper to an article about it coming to the town they live in and left it open on the table for when her husband came to breakfast.

She was talking to me the day after the performance. Which her husband did NOT buy her tickets for. She was so mad at him. She had dropped her BEST hints.

That’s when she said, “he’ll never change, maybe I should just leave him.”

This cycle of hinting at her expectations, only for them to be forgotten or misunderstood by her husband, had been going on for 14 years.

Do you use hinting to communicate your expectations? The behavior is common.

Lies we believe about hinting

Dropping hints is in all the movies. You can picture it right? The thrill of the first time their eyes meet and the woman carrying the parasol drops her handkerchief for the man to reciprocate her assumed flirting by retrieving it for her.

The next thing you know they’re married, and she didn’t have to say ANYTHING! He just knew.

It’s so romantic

Somewhere in our age of entertainment, we’ve let fictitious books and movies educate us on what romance is. We’ve been told that your spouse truly loves you when they know exactly what you want without you having to ask.

Without words, you’ve somehow communicated your need and find the surprise of your spouse “just knowing” makes you feel accepted and understood.

The hinter genuinely believes that dropping a hint will create a romantic experience that will bring the two of them closer together. They might believe that romance is having a spouse that “just knows” what makes them happy.

I deserve for them to do things for me

I work hard all day for my family, I take care of the kids all day, I…fill in the blank. Because I do these things, my spouse should automatically know to do things to support me.

The hinter believes that part of being one means that their spouse should be able to see or anticipate their needs. Hinting at their needs is meant to “help” their spouse get it right.

It’s to hide or protect myself

You might be struggling with self-esteem issues. You might not believe that you deserve to get what you want, so hinting takes on the form of protection.

If you hint and you don’t get what you wanted, that validates your belief that you didn’t deserve it in the first place.

This is dangerous because it ends up fueling the negative beliefs you have about yourself!

All three of these lies give us a false representation of what real intimacy is and they create a cycle of dysfunction.

The hinting, hurt and resentment cycle

Regardless of which of the three lies you’ve subscribed to, I think we’ve all experienced this at least once. Maybe some more than others. For the sake of the example, I’ll use you as the “hinter.”

You have a need and drop the hint. You expect your spouse will hear the hint loud and clear and deliver on your need. But they rarely do.

You don’t get what you want from your spouse and it causes you pain. Maybe the first few times you don’t get too upset, but it happens again and again. There is a disconnect or a perceived breakdown of communication.

After several experiences, you start to withdraw from them and internally speculate the reason why they can’t understand you or didn’t give you what you needed. You assume they don’t care, are stupid or that they’re withholding from you on purpose.

Your spouse doesn’t understand why you’ve withdrawn from them and tries to engage with you but you push them away because you’re upset. Then your spouse withdraws from you.

Now, repeat this cycle over and over and resentment builds. The internal dialogue you’ve had with yourself about WHY your spouse isn’t fulfilling your needs becomes your belief, whether or not it’s actually true.

After 14 years, it’s no wonder the woman I spoke to was sick of this cycle.

Hinting can lead to destructive behaviors

While this cycle may not happen to you in exactly this way, there are some destructive behaviors in this type of interaction.

Destructive behavior #1

When you drop a hint, you force your spouse to do ALL of the work.

They must be fully aware that you gave a hint. They must be able to interpret an entire scenario from only a few words, a look or assume what you want in any given situation. And then they must respond or deliver in a way that was only ever expressed in your mind.

That’s a lot of things that need to be in perfect alignment in order to go in your favor.

Destructive behavior #2

When you react to their lack of response in disappointment, you are actually misplacing the ownership of the problem. You’re assigning both the problem and the solution to your spouse alone instead of taking responsibility for your own communication (or lack of).

Destructive behavior #3

When your spouse doesn’t “take the hint” and disappoints you, it’s common for your internal monologue to start telling you lies.

You might start assuming “They must not love me,” “They don’t know me,” “They’re not trying”

It’s easy to see how these behaviors repeated over time can lead to loss of trust and low satisfaction in your marriage. But there is something better for you!

A couple sitting on a bed facing away from each other after a misunderstanding

Stop dropping hints and use direct communication instead

Your needs are good. The need for your spouse to understand you on a deep level is good. The need for romance is good. The need for your spouse to see a need and help you is good.

So how are they going to “get the hint” and start responding positively?

You’re going to give up hinting and use direct communication.

Direct communication is clear and concise verbal communication. There aren’t hidden meanings attached to it. It is clear what you’re asking for and why.

This type of communication might be hard for people who learned as a child not to ask for what they wanted or maybe their parents modeled this type of cycle. But just like everything you have to learn, you might be terrible at it to begin with. And that’s ok!

But this is the secret sauce of having a fulfilling and purposeful marriage…and for building romance!

Direct communication strategy

As with everything in marriage, it takes two willing people focused on the goal of improvement to make changes. Showing mutual respect is key.

When you’re directly communicating your needs:

  • Be clear and be open
  • Be honest, gently, about how you’ve felt in the past. Don’t hide if you’re disappointed, but it is possible to be disappointed in a situation apart from a person.
  • Always be transparent about the reason for your desires. It’s not weird to feel like you and your spouse speak a different language. This is precisely why communication and lots of it is so important to stay in sync with each other. Sometimes you just have to explain it in detail.

When you’re receiving the direction communication:

  • Listen! For this to work you need to understand where your spouse is coming from. You can only get there by listening and not planning your rebuttal or what you’re going to say next.
  • Respond with respect and try not to get defensive. They may have said something that you did or forgot to do that disappointed them. Remember, you are trying to get to the bottom of their needs so that they feel secure in your love for them.
  • Make a plan of action. If you’re forgetting something or this is a new habit you need to form, setting a reminder, putting it on your calendar, or even asking your spouse to remind you for a few weeks until you get the hang of it is totally valid.

An example might look like this:

“Hey honey, you used to get me flowers when we were dating. They really made my day and would make me think of you every time I saw them. You haven’t gotten me flowers in a long time and it would still mean a lot to me if you did that occasionally. Would you consider surprising me once a month with flowers?”

“I’m sorry that I stopped doing something you really enjoyed. I didn’t even realize you liked them that much, but I can get you flowers once a month. I’ll put it on my calendar to remind myself, but I won’t tell you when so it’s a surprise.”

It might take a lot of practice to get in the habit of directly communicating every time you need something. It might take a lot of listening and acting before you get better at anticipating their needs. But we promise it will come.


I haven’t found anything more romantic than being fully known on a level that no one else has access to. Jake gets that privilege with me. He is able to anticipate some of my needs, sometimes he is able to notice when I need help and when I want something? I have no doubt he would love to give it to me if he can.

But all that has only come with repeated, purposeful communication. Notice I never said he anticipates all of my needs or always sees when I need something. Marriage takes a lot of communication and it never ends. You will continue to learn more about each other as you grow.

So next time you need something, instead of dropping hints or making a sarcastic comment your spouse needs to decipher, ask for it.

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