Improving Communication in Your Marriage
Updated: Sep 8
I don't know if there is anyone out there that hasn't heard the adage that "communication in a marriage is key". Well, there is a reason for that; it's true! Let's break down communication so we can understand it better. There are two types of communication - verbal and non-verbal - which we'll get into, but I don't want to forget that the most important part of communication is LISTENING.
Verbal communication is using words or sounds to express yourself. So talking, yelling, grunting, sighing are all forms of verbal communication. Non-verbal communication refers to gestures, facial expressions, tone of voice, eye contact, body language, and posture that you use to express yourself. Verbal and non-verbal communication can happen independently of each other, but in most instances, they are happening together. It is easy to say that we heard what someone said, but did we really HEAR it? Did we listen? Did we interpret their body language or eye contact in conjunction with what they said to get a full understanding of what they meant?
Marriage therapy and counseling have, for a long time, focused on skill deficiency models assuming that if people were taught the skills to communicate that marital satisfaction would increase. Well, this is true to a point but not to the point we might expect. It's not just about talking to each other; other researchers have found that there were three factors to communication that contributed to the outcome. Those were motivation, skills, and behaviors.
Motivation refers to the intention of the communicator. What do they really mean by what they're saying? Let's imagine I say to my husband "did you take out the garbage?" There could be many motivations behind this statement. Am I trying to really say "I know that you're lazy and that you didn't take out the garbage"; or am I saying "I do everything around the house"; maybe I'm saying "I'm going to take out the garbage (meaning my piece of crap husband) if you don't shape up" or am I simply checking to see if he took out the garbage - nothing more. How about an example from the other side. What are you hearing when your spouse asks you "how was lunch today?"; are you hearing "I know you're stepping out on me, were you out to lunch with your new lover?"; or maybe "I know that when you go to lunch with the girls that you always spend too much money, and we're on a budget". What if you hear "I can't believe you went out for pizza today; you're so fat, you should have had a salad". But what if all they're really saying is "tell me about lunch today - I hope it was great".
The key here is understanding the motivation behind what is being said, and that can often be understood in things like tone, body language, or gestures. Motivation can be driven by things like anger, annoyance, jealousy, insecurity, or sincerity. As the listener, you have to become a bit of an interpreter, but don't just assume that you understand their motivation. You also need to know yourself and understand what you might be angry, annoyed, jealous, or insecure about. Your own hang-ups will affect how you hear your spouse. If you are feeling insecure about something, let's say your weight, and your spouse asks you how was lunch today? you're more apt to interpret that question as them poking at your weight. If you know that your spouse is insecure and they ask you "how was lunch today", you probably think that they're asking you because they think you were cheating on them. But we are not always good interpreters. If you're unsure of their motivation, ask them. Just do it in a non-accusatory way. That leads us to the next topic - skills.
Communication skills refer to the ability or capacity to realize communicative goals during the course of an interaction. This requires the ability to use various interpretive and symbolic resources to achieve certain outcomes.
One skill is called reflective listening. Anyone that has taken a course in leadership or sales has probably heard of this. It is so easy for us to have a conversation with someone, but while they are speaking we are not really listening - we're formulating a response. But if you're really listening you will be watching their body language and emotional expressions which will help you understand their motivation. You're actually listening and hearing what they're saying. We just talked about asking your spouse about their motivation if you're unsure. It is a skill to do this in the right way. Make sure you're asking lovingly and sincerely "so I make sure to hear what you have to say, you asked how my lunch was because you think I'm too fat to eat pizza? Is that what you meant?"
Let me tell you a great story about something that happened to me and Ron a while back. It was Christmas time and we went to the mall. As soon as we walked in, I could smell that wonderful smell that permeates all shopping malls at that time of year; cinnamon roasted almonds. YUM! I said to Ron "we should get some almonds", and he responded, "almonds are fattening". Well, I lost it! I got so pissed off at Ron for saying that; I'm pretty sure once we got back to the car I gave him an ear full before then giving him the silent treatment for several hours. Now, had I taken a step back and really listened and interpreted what he had said, I believe that argument would have been avoided. Know yourself - well at that time in my life I was incredibly self-conscious and unhappy about my appearance. I had put on 20 lbs or so and I was not feeling at my best. I took my insecurities and applied them to Ron's statement; and what I heard was "almonds are fattening, and you are fat, and you shouldn't eat them, you should only eat salad". However, I neglected to understand Ron's motivation. At that time, Ron was very conscious about what he ate, and pretty carefully watched his fat intake (at that time, it was all about low-fat). So he was simply stating that HE didn't want any almonds because HE was watching what he was eating. In no way was he telling me not to have any, or telling me I was a fat pig. This is kind of a silly example, but it clearly illustrates how we can so easily misunderstand someone's intention especially if we don't understand ourselves at that moment.
Another communication skill is to know your audience. Obviously you know your spouse, but do you know what kind of space they're in right now? What are they dealing with emotionally or physically? How do they tend to react to good news? To bad news? Do they tend to be emotionally charged, or get angry easily? Having an understanding of your spouse will help you know how best to communicate with them.
Plan your communication. If you need to have a difficult conversation with your spouse, try to plan this when you both have time for the conversation. It's probably not a good idea to have a difficult conversation when you have guests over, or if you are visiting friends or family. If you have kids, it's probably best that these kinds of conversations happen when the kids aren't around or have gone to bed. If it is a particularly touchy issue, take some time to gather your thoughts beforehand and, as I mentioned above, know your audience.
Be flexible and willing to come back to the conversation later. This is not to say that you completely drop the subject, but if your spouse is not in a place to have this conversation right now, let them know that you want to have it when they are ready. And don't wait for them to bring it up again, you need to do that. Bring up the conversation a few days later and see if they're ready to discuss it.
Know your goal. The initial goal is to have a civil conversation. Let your spouse know that you want to discuss the issue together, and do so civilly. The path to a civil conversation starts with coming in gentle, then find similarities between your viewpoints, and ask questions so you can better understand where they're coming from and what they are feeling. Like I said before, be flexible and be willing to come back to the conversation later. And be flexible in that you may not agree on the topic and you may not get the outcome that you were looking for. But make sure you continue the conversation and continue to work through the issue.
Talkie, talkie, talkie...so much talkie! But that's what we need to keep our relationship strong and moving forward. If we're not communicating with each other, we're never going to have a successful relationship.