Marriage Communication – The Ultimate Complete Guide to Creating a Strong, Long-Lasting Relationship
As a couples therapist, the most common challenge I hear from my clients is that they are having communication issues. If you’re facing similar issues, read on, and I’ll explain all of it:
- What communication is
- Why communication is important in relationship
- What you can do to make your communication better
- Common mistakes couples do when communicating
- How great couples communicate
- Everything else that can make help you become a great communicator so you can have a great long term relationship
Note: I will be using gender terms freely. This is not about women vs men. It’s not about heterosexual couples. All relationships may they be heterosexual or homosexual, monogamous or non-monogamous, in a marriage or in a committed or less-then-committed relationship face similar communication issues.
Episode 1 – Marriage Communication Fundamentals
What is Marriage Communication and the Dreaded Filters that Keep Screwing It Up?
figure 1 – taken from A Couples Guide to Communication by John Gottman
The figure above is a simple illustration of communication, as defined by Dr. John Gottman and colleagues in their book “A Couples Guide to Communication”. I love this illustration because it’s simple and easy to understand.
On one side, there’s the Speaker and her Intent for the message.
On the other side, there’s the Listener and the Impact the message has on him.
Between them there are layers of filters.
The speaker is filtering how she’s communicating the message.
The listener is filtering how he’s hearing the message.
We’ll get to the filters later on.
Communication in intimate relationships is made between a speaker and a listener, through a message. The speaker is delivering a message to the listener. The speaker has an intent he wants to deliver through his message. The listener will get impacted by the message.
Good communication is when Intention Equals Impact.
How does good marriage communication work?
Good communication means that the message that’s being delivered has the impact the speaker intended to have. Both the speaker and the listener have responsibility for that.
The speaker tries to clarify his intent, and states what he is thinking, feeling or asking for. It’s best if he does not assume the listener knows what goes on in his inner world. The listener is not a mind reader.
The listener tries to make sure she understands the message without having to guess what the speaker actually means. If needed she may ask for clarifications. Both partners collaborate in trying to make sure that the intent of the message is the same as its impact.
As we all know, many times it’s not that simple, and Intent does not equal Impact. That happens because the message goes through the speaker’s filter and the listener’s filter.
Filters are affected by the speaker and listener’s state of mind. For example, when I’m hungry I might sound harsh even if that’s not my intent. The filter through which I’m sending my message changes it. When I’m hungry my physiology is under stress, so the tone of my voice sounds stressed. I may ask my wife if she’s seen my bag, and because my physiology is under stress, this simple question may sound like I’m blaming her.
Another reason why Intent doesn’t equal Impact is the listener’s filter, which is affected by her state. Sometimes the listener doesn’t hear the speaker’s intent correctly. For example, when I am angry with my wife and she asks me something, I may not understand her intent, and presume she has a negative intent.
Filters are also affected by a person’s life, especially by his relationship with his family of origin, that created a template for communication. This template includes many unchecked assumptions about himself and others. For example, if he grew up in a family that had a culture of airing discontent as it arises, he might be used to speaking out loud quickly without checking how it feels to the listener.
The listener’s filter is based on her past relationship with her family of origin. She has her own set of assumptions about herself, others, and ways of communication. If she grew up in a family culture that was more reserved, quiet and avoidant of communicating feelings, especially hard ones, she might get overwhelmed when the speaker delivers a message that is much harsher than what she has been used to.
Fillers can affect the wording of the message, the tone of it, and how we understand it.
Aligning Words with Body Language so that Your Partner will Understand Your True Intent
So the state of my body-mind conveys much more than the words I use.
I can say “Babe, have you seen my bag?” in a tone of voice that conveys impatience, because I’m late for work, and she might think I’m upset at her.
Probably, if I say the same words with a soft tone of voice, she will understand it as a simple inquiry and be more willing to help me.
Recently, I was working with a couple in which the wife was used to speaking in an impatient tone of voice. It was a habit of communication that was formed in her childhood, she couldn’t even explain why. Her husband was a good guy, who cared a lot about her. He perceived her tone of voice as criticizing, and scolding him. So even though he cared a lot about her, he kept feeling like he had to protect himself from her criticism and discontent. When he was protecting himself, he became over-defensive, hardly even listening to the content of her words anymore, because he was busy defending himself from the tone of her voice.
A lot of my work with her was to stop her when she sounded impatient and check in with her on how she was actually feeling. Many times it wasn’t impatience or discontent, and thanks to her checking in, she could speak her message again, in a more calm tone of voice. Her softer, more calm tone of voice, made her husband come towards her, and listen to what she was actually asking him to do.
Is Communication Important in Marriage, and the Amazing Outcome of Putting in the Work
In one of our podcasts episodes we interviewed Jed Diamond, an international leader on men’s health. Jed is a great guy, very sincere and open, and he vulnerably shares his own challenges with relationships. As a young guy, Jed went through two divorces. Two marriages who ended with heartache and despair. He realized he needed to understand what he was doing wrong and went on a journey to learn about relationships. He married his current wife, Carlin, more than 40 years ago(!) and they are proud parents of five grown children and twelve grandchildren.
Jed is a great example that you can learn how to be in a relationship and get better at it, until you become a master of relationships.
Episode 2 – How to Improve Marriage Communication
Effective Marriage Communication that Enables Falling in Love Again Every Single Day
Effective marriage communication helps both partners feel heard and understood.
The speaker’s responsibility is to use the tone of voice, body language and words that align with the intent he is trying to convey with the message.
The listener’s responsibility is to make sure they understood what the speaker tried to say. If the listener is not sure they understood the message, they should ask for clarification.
A good basic assumption in a marriage is that both partners want the best for each other. So if the listener believes what he heard was negative, she should probably give the speaker feedback and ask for the message to be repeated, in a different way which she can understand.
10 Tips on Getting Through Hard Conversations Safely – Like the Masters of Relationships Do
In intimate relationships we have to get through hard conversations sometimes. These conversations may seem hard, because the topic is important to both partners, and it seems like what they want is opposing, is in a conflict. The goal of such a conversation is to make both partners feel heard and understood, and to find a collaborative, creative, win-win solution, that makes both partners feel nourished and satisfied.
Here are some tips on how to get through such a conversation:
1. Start Softly
When you know you want to talk about a topic that might get your partner upset, it’s good to start the conversation with a soft tone of voice. You want to help your partner feel safe, not criticised or under attack. Starting the conversation with your partner’s nickname (“honey”, “babe”, “Johnny” instead of “John”…) and with a soft tone of voice will probably help with making your partner feel safe, and not having to put their guard up.
2. Go Meta
If you’re worried about starting the conversation, because you’re afraid your partner will get triggered, start by going up one level, and expressing your worry.
Add a request at the end: “Honey, there’s something I’d like to talk to you about, but I’m worried you’ll get triggered or offended. Is it ok if I bring it up slowly? Could you try listening to me without getting triggered?”
3. Ask for Permission
Timing is very important. It’s good to ask your partner if they are available right now for such a conversation: “Honey, there’s something I’d like to talk to you about. Are you available right now to listen to me?”
If your partner is not available right now, ask them when would be a good time to talk.
4. Avoid Flooding Your Partner
The risk in a hard conversation is that your partner might get flooded with feelings. In order to have an effective conversation, try to help your partner not get flooded by going slow, talking about one topic at a time, and reminding your partner you are both on the same team and the goal is to find a win-win solution.
5. Slow Down
When we get flooded because we’re afraid our needs won’t be met, we might get into a fighting stance, a power struggle, that hurts the ability to have an effective, intimate conversation. In order to help your partner (and yourself) stay regulated and not get flooded, talk slowly about the topic. Talking slowly helps you be mindful of what you’re saying and how it may sound to your partner, and helps your partner stay receptive.
6. One Topic at a Time
One of the ways conversations get side tracked, is when we bring up one topic, and then add to it other topics. Try to stick to one topic at a time. If your partner answers with another topic, tell them you want to discuss the other topic as well, but you prefer to finish processing the one you brought up first, and then moving to the topic they brought up.
Conversations escalate into a fight when you or your partner get flooded. Take care of yourself to make sure you don’t lose your temper. When you’re noticing you’re getting angry, defensive, or shutdown, it means you’re getting flooded. Breath out a few times. Remind yourself you’re talking to your partner, and she wants the best for you. Remind yourself you want the best for her as well.
If your attempts for self-regulation aren’t enough, and you’re still struggling to stay present and open, ask for a timeout.
8. Use Timeouts
When you notice you can’t control your temper and stay in your mature-self, call for a timeout. You can say “timeout” or use the hands gesture of the letter T. What that means is that YOU don’t like how YOU are feeling. This is not about your partner. This is about you knowing that you are too triggered, too flooded, to be able to talk in a constructive way, and YOU need to take a break to down-regulate, and come back to your senses.
The challenge with a timeout is to do it responsibly. This is not a punishment to your partner. A responsible timeout lets your partner know why you need a timeout and that you will be back.
“I need a timeout because I’m too triggered to talk. I understand this is an important topic for us. I want to keep discussing it, but not like this. I will come back when I’m in better shape so we can process it further”.
When you are on a timeout, take your mind off the fight. Do something soothing – take a walk around the block, do some gardening – whatever helps you come down.
9. Use “I” Statements
Part of effective communication is using wording that is easier for your partner to hear. Most people get defensive when their partner talks about them and their behaviour. People are more responsive when you are able to talk about yourself, using “I” statements.
“I” statement is a style of communication that focuses on the feelings or beliefs of the speaker rather than thoughts and characteristics that the speaker attributes to the listener.
For example, saying “you are so annoying when you come back home late” would surely get your partner defensive and annoyed.
Talking about yourself will have a better chance of getting what you want: “I get annoyed when you come back home late. I feel abandoned because I don’t know where you are. Can you let me know when you’re late so I don’t get so worried?”
10. Use Requests rather than Demands
What makes conversations hard many times, is that it seems like what you need and want is in conflict to what your partner needs and wants. So a big part of it is about negotiating needs. Remember, this is your intimate partner you’re negotiating with, not some hard headed business associate or an oppressive government official.
When talking about needs with your partner, you should ask for what you need. Make sure you don’t demand what you need. People don’t like being demanded, it makes them defensive. Requests, on the other hand, are easier to hear.
Every request is legit, but your partner doesn’t have to agree to your request. Actually most times in effective intimate negotiation, one partner would ask for something, and the other partner would agree and ask for support.
For example: “I need you not to go to the gym tonight, because I have an important meeting at work” might make your partner resentful.
Try: “Honey, I have an important meeting at work tonight. Can you help me find a solution for this time? Is there a chance you can give up going to the gym tonight?”. This kind of phrasing might invite your partner to be more cooperative.
And he can answer: “Sorry honey, it’s really important to me to go to the gym tonight. But I can ask the babysitter to come and put the kids to sleep. Can you remind me to call her when you’re on your lunch break?”.
This way, you find a collaborative, creative, win-win solution, so both of you don’t need to compromise, and both of you can feel supported and nourished.
Nonviolent Communication (NVC) – the Counter Intuitive Tool to Show Vulnerability and Overcome Fights (Big or Small)
A popular and effective way of communicating is NVC which was founded by Marshall Rosenberg in the late 1960s and is not used in over 65 countries around the globe.
The NVC model has 4 components to be expressed: Observation, Feeling, Need, Request.
- Observation should be free of our judgments, labels, diagnoses, or opinions. It starts with “When I see/hear/notice…”.
- Feeling should be free of thought – “…I feel”
- Need is a universal human need free of strategies and manipulations.
- Request should be free of demand. Your partner doesn’t have to fulfil your request. It would be great if they listened to it and acknowledged hearing it, even if they can’t fulfil it.
At this point your partner can express their observation, feeling, need and request so you can negotiate needs in intimacy, looking for a creative, collaborative win-win solution that will make both of you feel satisfied and closer to each other.
For example, “When I see you playing on your phone while I’m talking, I feel frustrated because I’m wanting to be heard. Would you be willing to put away your phone for 5 minutes and hear my idea?”
It’s highly recommended to go deeper into NVC and there are a lot of good free resources on the web. Here is one good video of Marshal Rosenberg himself facilitating, giving an introductory workshop on NVC
Examples of Using Nonviolent Communication to Resolve Marriage Conflict
Many couples have differences in the way they hold time and being late to social events. Sometimes for one partner it’s very important to be on time, and the other partner cares more about showing up stress free.
On a bad day one partner might tell the other: “Hurry up, we’re always late because of you.” Which would probably bring a defensive response in the form of: “Get off my back, you’re stressing me out. You’re such a drama queen”. That will not bring to closeness and cooperation. They will be stressed and hurt by the time they reach their destination and it won’t matter as much if they’re late or not, because their evening will probably be ruined.
Instead they could have used the NVC model.
“Honey, it’s 6:30pm and I’m worried we will be late. It’s important to me to be respectful of other people’s time. Would you make an effort and help us be there on time?”.
To which the partner might answer: “Yes dear, I can see you’re stressed. When you get stressed I get stressed and lose my focus. I need a moment of quiet to finish up. Could you wait in the living room five minutes, and then we’ll go?”.
From here they could find a solution that will help one partner feel like the other is on their team in getting there on time and stress free.
Many couples fight about the cleanliness of their house. Sometimes one partner wakes up in the morning, sees the mess the other partner left in the kitchen last night and gets angry.
On a bad day that partner might say: “You are such a slob, you never clean after yourself. You don’t care about anyone”.
Which will probably cause a defensive reply or some other sort of avoidance.
On a good day the angry partner could use NVC and say:
“Honey, when I wake up to a messy kitchen I get a headache and I get angry. It makes me feel hurt because I need to feel like you care about me and what’s important to me. Would you please make sure you clean up after yourself on your midnight snacks?”.
Which the other partner might reply with “of course dear, I’m sorry, I know it’s important to you, but I was too tired to take care of it. I thought I would wake up before you do and clean it then”.
Or if they disagreed they could say “Dear, I hear you. I understand you need the kitchen to be cleaner. But for me it’s the cleanest I could get it to be. Can you show me what’s important to you? I’ll do my best to do it”
From here they could negotiate further. Perhaps the level of cleanliness of one partner is too high for the other partner. But they could make each other feel heard and find another solution. One partner will make better efforts to learn what’s important to the other, and the other might agree to lower their standards on some things but not on others.
Episode 3 – How to Repair Communication That Has Been Broken
Relationships get stronger by ruptures and repairs. Much like muscle fibers that get damaged in a workout and then rebuild to become stronger, so do relationships – they get stronger by conflicts and reconnection, fighting and repairs.
When you and your partner fight, it causes a tear in your connection. When you reach back to each other, reconnect and recreate emotional intimacy, the rupture repairs.
Through this process of ruptures and repairs you learn about yourself, your needs, your sensitivities, and what’s important to you. You also learn about your partner’s triggers, needs and wishes. This knowledge deepens your connection and helps you and your partner feel closer to each other and to yourselves.
The cycle of rupture and repair also strengthens your trust in each other and reminds you that our partner will not leave because of a conflict.
How to Stop a Fight
It’s important to learn how to fight and how to stop a fight.
Before a fight, there’s usually an escalation – a disagreement becomes an argument, which turns to a heated argument, that escalates to a fight. Stop the fight before you’re too triggered to be respectful to your partner.
Tell your partner “I want to talk to you about this, but not in this manner. Let’s take a time out. I’m going to take a walk around the block, and we can talk about it in half an hour, when I’m more regulated.”
In this example you show your partner good will. You show your partner s/he is important to you and you want to talk to her/him about the subject. You explain you’re taking the time out to soothe yourself so you can dialogue better.
It’s also great to promise when you’ll talk about it again. It doesn’t have to be in half an hour, it can be any other time, only make sure you follow through on that promise.
What to Avoid
Avoid criticizing your partner’s character. It’s ok to complain about something they did, let’s say, the mess they left in the living room last night. It’s completely different to say that what they did (or didn’t do) means they are lazy, insensitive or any harsh character judgment.
For example, it’s ok to say “I’m in a bad mood this morning, because I woke up to the mess in the living room. I get a headache from the mess. Could you clean up after you before you go to sleep?”
It’s way too harsh to say “The mess you left in the living room makes me so angry. You are so lazy. You know I hate it, why don’t you ever think of me?”
Most important is to avoid contempt. Contempt is poisonous for the relationship. According to research it’s the number 1 predictor of divorce.
Contempt is when we show our partner we are better than them. We can say it with words that express their inferiority to us, and we can show it in our body language. By rolling our eyes, a one-sided mouth raise, or looking dismissively at our partner we shame them, and there should be an agreement to avoid those words and body language.
Become a Repair Artist
Most important in this process of ruptures and repairs, is to learn how to let go of your defenses, let your ego rest a side, give up being right, and dare to be vulnerable. Dare to reconnect, even if you’re hurt.
Repairing is an art.
It starts with reconnecting. Slowly. A short look in your partner’s eyes. A quick touch on your partner’s hand. Offering tea, or a sandwich. Any gesture towards your partner that shows your trying to reconnect.
It continues with saying “I’m sorry” for the harsh words that were said. With taking responsibility for your side in the fight. Explaining what got you so triggered.
Full Apology Includes:
- Acknowledging your partner’s pain
- Taking ownership on your side of the fight
- Saying you’re sorry
- Explaining why it happened
- And What you learned from it, so it won’t happen again.
Apologies don’t have to include the full list every time. But if you think you apologized and you notice there’s still resentment, you don’t feel close to each other yet, that probably means one of the components is missing.
You can feel when you fully repaired the rupture.
Your heart opens. Your chest widens. There’s an impulse to get closer to your partner. To touch, hug, kiss. You exchange loving words. Emotional intimacy is recreated.