This is the first in a series of posts on couples’ communication. Good communication is the heart’s blood of a marriage. It not only enables the harmony and unity that all couples strive for, it can be a source of real joy and satisfaction to be able to work out significant issues together and find yourselves brought closer together through the process.
It will come as no surprise to any married person that misunderstandings, tension, and disagreement can crop up in married life. One tough situation is when we set out to talk about something, and find the dialog itself becomes a source of strain. Sometimes, in that situation, one of the problems can be confusion about what kind of conversation we’re actually having. Perhaps one spouse wants to reach a solution to a practical problem, while the other is eager to have a relationship-oriented conversation, such as coming to greater understanding about one another’s feelings about the issue. We can imagine what a perplexing exchange might result:
“I think it makes sense to stop for the night after about six hours of driving.”
“I’m not even sure I can handle seven straight days with your sisters.”
“Or would you prefer to go most of the way the first day so the second is easier?”
“Easier? Since when are you considering what’s easier? It always has to be your way. Why don’t you consider my feelings for a change?”
And onward it goes.
At times like this, it might help to take a timeout and decide which discussion is the best one to have at that point. Should it be planning the details of travel or sorting through the concerns about a week with the in-laws. So take a minute to have that timeout – we’ll wait until you’re ready. And don’t worry; you’ll have a chance to circle back to talk about the other issues later.
Use the right tools for the job
If you’re addressing the practical issue first, then there are particular tools that can help. These may include:
- Assume good will on the part of your spouse.
- Share your perspective on the problem and listen to gain an understanding of what the important elements are to your spouse and why they’re important.
- Stick to the topic at hand.
- Speak clearly and on your own behalf, not assuming anything about the attitudes or feelings of people who aren’t you.
- Check to be sure the other person actually heard what you meant to communicate.
- Explore alternatives you may not have thought of before that could address concerns and still offer as many mutual “wins” as possible.
The way to go about having an effective relationship-building conversation is a little different:
- Again, assume good will on the part of your spouse.
- Seek to understand your spouse at a deeper level, listening appreciatively rather than discarding thoughts or feelings as unnecessary or invalid.
- Affirm love and commitment.
- Be willing to be authentic about yourself.
- Don’t try to fix the other person’s issues. Instead, try responses like, “I can see how you could see it that way,” or “What would be helpful or supportive from me?”
Don’t neglect the other part of the conversation
Don’t walk away after settling the issue you care most about. It’s an important part of respecting your spouse to take seriously the conversation they wanted to have. You don’t necessarily have to embark on it right away, but be committed to loving your partner by taking seriously what they take seriously. So be sure to make plans together to follow through with whichever topic you set aside at the beginning.
Check in at the end
A good way to end is to ask “Are we really done?” If there are still unclear or tense issues, either make quick work of them if that’s possible, or jointly acknowledge that they’re there and will need attention in the future.
Remember, marriage is a team project. You’re together in this. The rewards of working hard together are immense. And enjoyable.
– Roz Dieterich, LMSW