“How about a few side items with dinner sometime?” my husband said, poking his fork in the lone casserole gracing the table. Dennis’ words seemed harmless. Combine a couple of words and a cute face, and you have a simple request from your adoring husband of six months, right?

Wrong. What I did was blend that simple request about dinner with the time I spent grocery shopping and my “I don’t like cooking in the first place” feelings. In the end, what I heard was, “You’re not much of a cook. What idiot cooks a casserole and doesn’t have any side dishes?” My face grew hot while the space across the table chilled.

A few weeks later, I bought a new dress and couldn’t wait to show Dennis. I twirled around, modelling the cute stitching on the hem. “What do you think?”

“It’s nice.” Dennis sat on the couch, arms stretched comfortably across the back, legs crossed, obviously unaware of the danger he was in.

My face fell. “Nice? You think this dress is nice? I can’t believe you would say that to me!” I stomped to our bedroom, slammed the door and jerked that nice dress off my body.

Bravely, Dennis came to check on me. “What happened?”

My jaw dropped. “You just told me you think I’m fat, and you want to know what happened?”

“What are you talking about?” Dennis sputtered. “I just told you I thought your dress was nice. I never said anything about you being fat!”

Haggling Over Words

Over the next several months, more miscommunications ensued. One disagreement concerned the actual lapse of time (38 minutes) after I used the phrase just a minute when Dennis was ready to leave a party.

“We need to talk,” Dennis informed me when we got home.

“I hate that word – talk.”


“It means you’re mad at me.”

“That’s our problem. We both speak English, but we use different dictionaries.”

“What are you talking about?”

“What does the word dinner mean to you? Say whatever comes to mind.”

“Food. Cooking. Guilty.”

“Guilty? Why?”

“I don’t like to cook, but I want to be a good wife, so I feel guilty that I don’t like to cook. But you want side dishes, and I don’t want to cook them!”

Dennis grinned. “To me, dinner means full stomach, family time and, yes, side dishes. What do you think when I say ‘nice,’ as in ‘nice dress’?”

I frowned. “I think, Liar, liar, pants on fire!”

Dennis laughed. “How did you come up with that?”

“Because nice is what you say when you can’t give a legitimate compliment.”

“To me, nice means good, fine, OK.”

We spent the next hour pinpointing other troublesome definitions. I must have looked worried.

Dennis held my hand. “I’m not asking you to ditch your definitions and adopt mine. This is our chance to decide together which words and which definitions go into the Dennis-Heather dictionary.”

Compiling Our Dictionary

The following Saturday, we got a chance to practice our new plan. I felt restless as we sat and watched TV. At a commercial break, I said, “Dennis, I missed you today. We haven’t spent any time together.”

Dennis turned questioning eyes my way. “What do you mean? We’ve been together all day." I mentally flipped through the scenes of our day: grocery shopping, laundry, a little yard work and now a ball game on TV. I grabbed Dennis’ hand and grinned. “Honey, tell me what spending time together means to you.”

“Oh! I get it,” Dennis said, smiling. “To me spending time together means doing things together, even if we aren’t talking. I guess it doesn’t mean that to you, does it?”

I shook my head. “Don’t get me wrong. I like that, too. But when I say, ‘I want to spend time together,’ I mean I want us to share what’s on our minds without any distractions.”

The next morning, we got up early, made a pot of coffee and talked for a half-hour with no interruptions.

We’ve been married now for 22 years, and we’re still compiling our dictionary. We know exactly what spending time together, just a minute, dinner and nice mean. It took time, dogged determination and the willingness to set aside assumptions and ask questions. Our vocabulary and our marriage are much richer for it.

But I still don’t like to cook.

Heather Trent Beers

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