Communication in Marriage (Minus the Clichés)
written by Joe Beam
It seems that everywhere we turn we hear that all our marriage problems could be solved if we'd just "communicate." And that the "key" to every issue that could ever come up in marriage cowers at the very feet of communication.
One wonders how marriage counselors stay in business and how marriage help books continue to fill the shelves since the communication "secret" has apparently been let out of the bag.
The answer, based on our research and the research of others, is that "communication" is much too vague of a concept to be helpful unless properly understood and applied. And that when it's used without proper understanding it is often as productive as a shotgun in the hands of a toddler. A lot might be happening, but it’s dangerous and little is being helped. You might also notice that it’s awfully noisy.
I do happen to agree that communication is very important. But what you communicate, how you communicate and when you communicate is where the focus should be placed. Sometimes it’s actually far better NOT to communicate. Silence, at certain times, can be golden in a relationship. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Examine with me some questions and answers that can help you successfully communicate in a way that will move your relationship forward and even make it stronger.
Who Is This Person?
If it’s your spouse, you owe this person a lot more than just a few thrown together sentences. This person has vowed to stand by you through sickness and in health, for better or worse until death do you part. He/she has likely already weathered stomach flu, dirty diapers, taxes, bills, wrinkles and morning breath with you. Don’t you think they deserve your best effort at communication without sloppy, unprepared rants?
Many of us are usually polite to strangers. In fact, we often let salespeople come into our homes or talk to us on the phone because we don’t want to be rude or hurt their feelings. The person walking with us through life deserves that kind of courtesy and a lot more. So before we attempt any kind of communication we should remind ourselves of this person’s place and value in our life.
What You Communicate
So you want to communicate? Well what is communication in the first place? Would you agree that communication could be defined as simply sending a message to someone? If so, then we must first know what message we’re trying to send. Thinking out loud, though understandable at times, should be prefaced and used only with extreme caution. You don’t want to realize that what you’re saying is selfish, insensitive, harsh, unreasonable or even incorrect after you’ve said them out loud to your spouse. Words are hard to take back and often leave hurt and doubt in the heart of your spouse even if you do.
So with sensitive topics, it would be wise of you to say your words out loud to yourself first instead of "trying them out" on your spouse. You might have some editing to do on some of the words that come out wrong.
By asking you to do some editing, it might sound like I'm asking you to do work or even like I'm suggesting you be careful with your words. You’re right! You might even be thinking that when two people are emotionally intimate that such care need not be taken with words and that you should each be free to simply speak your mind. That idea might sound romantic and even poetic, but be in a relationship long enough and you’ll likely find that much hurt and damage could be avoided if we actually did some preparation before we attempted to communicate.
Be kind and do your best to put yourself in the position of the listener. Give some thought to your words before you say them so that you aren't unintentionally harsh or unclear. This secret alone can be a relationship saver.
When You Communicate
When you’re angry might be the time that you go to another room and listen to your words out loud before you say them to your spouse. And then it’s likely best to wait until you calm down.
When we're angry, judgment and logic can be more difficult to exercise than when we’re calm. If you’re honest with yourself, you’d agree that you’re much more reasonable and rational when you haven’t lost control of your temper.
Many times I’ve suggested that couples call a "time out" during a discussion when one or both are losing their temper. Little if anything can be accomplished when the conversation deteriorates to a yelling match. In fact, those experiences can cause long term damage to relationships and, like a growing snowball, can cause larger problems in the future. It’s best to call a time out and choose to spend some time doing other things individually or, if you feel you’re able, together. The key is to put yourself in the best position to reach a conclusion that is positive and helpful to each of you and to your relationship as a whole.
It’s up to you to decide if the discussion has digressed to an argument. If that’s the case, try to stop so you can collect yourself and resume a productive discussion. If you aren’t in a correct emotional state of mind, it’s not time to attempt communication.
It’s also wise to avoid an intense discussion right after one or both of you arrive home from work, while driving or when it’s date night. Plan the discussion so that you have privacy, focus and comfort. No one else deserves to listen in unless you’re working with a qualified professional and have already planned for them to be present.
Where You Communicate
Do you want to have a conversation with your spouse about a difficult topic or changes you want in your relationship? It’s best not to attempt it in crowded restaurants, in front of the children, in stores, at your parents’ house, your children’s house or most public places. As you plan WHEN to communicate, you must consider the place (WHERE) that will allow you the most privacy, focus and comfort possible.
Why You Communicate
Are you having a bad day and looking for someone to hear you vent? That’s perfectly acceptable, but admit that to yourself and your spouse first so that each of you know that your frustrations don’t revolve around them. Maybe you had a bad day. Fine, but don’t blame your spouse for your bad day or cause them to feel that's what you're doing. In fact, you might ask their permission first. Maybe you ask something like, "Could I vent to you?" or "I had a bad day, mind if I tell you about it?" Or maybe you just want to enjoy the silence. The bottom line is that they need to know that your frustration isn’t about them at the moment.
Are you being selfish, picky, touchy or overly critical? Ask yourself why you want to communicate before you say anything else or even before you open your mouth in the first place. Know your motivation first and then you’ll have a much better chance of effectively communicating.
How You Communicate
You likely know that communication is not just verbal. It can be with a touch of the hand, a hug, an expression or even through your posture.
So when you communicate, especially if the topic is difficult or there’s risk it could come across in "the wrong way," be sure your nonverbal communication shows love, respect and simple manners.
Look at the other person so they know you’re attentive to him/her and that he/she matters to you. If you’re asking for change in the behavior of the other person, and sometimes that’s necessary, you might touch his/her arm as you speak, so that you communicate your care and commitment in spite of what could sound like a complaint.
When you are responding to an idea offered by your spouse, don’t be dismissive. If you’re both trying to find a solution to a problem, neither of you deserve criticism or dismissal. Instead, be as supportive as you can and treat them like the teammate they are in your relationship. If you disagree with an idea from your spouse, you need to determine if the conversation and timing is right for disagreement. If it’s not, you simply need to acknowledge their idea as a possibility or a contribution to the discussion and attempt to move on.
Be clear. Your spouse is not a mind reader. Don't make him/her guess and don't chastise if he/she doesn't immediately understand what you're saying or how you feel. Be patient and precise.
Whatever you do in word or with your body, remember the old and wise saying, "You get more flies with honey than with vinegar."
We haven’t even scratched the surface of effective communication within marriage. There are many other factors such as personality traits, temperaments, stages of life, current struggles, current successes and other topics that contribute to how we communicate with each other and what we should do to maximize that communication.
But take to heart what has been mentioned in this article and you’ll be in good shape. Next time you hear someone tell you that you need to communicate better to solve a problem within your marriage, start by asking yourself who, what, when, where, why and how.
If you're marriage is in trouble, click here to learn more about our crisis marriage workshop.
Joe Beam is a best-selling Christian author and internationally respected marriage expert.
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