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?

illustration of how communication works with filters

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.

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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. 

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. 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.

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Aligning Words with Body Language so that Your Partner will Understand Your True Intent

The problem with communicating in a relationship, it that words are not the whole story. The words that I use to send my message are just about 30 percent of the message. 70 percent of the message is body language – how I breathe, how I hold my body and the tone of my voice.

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.

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Is Communication Important in Marriage, and the Amazing Outcome of Putting in the Work

Couple riding swing

Marriage is about relationship and partnership. In order to have a relationship, communication needs to happen constantly. Good communication is strengthening the connection. Poor communication weakens it.

One partner makes a bid for connection, and the other answers the bid and connects. Over and over again. When the bid for connection is not answered, there’s a miscommunication, there’s a small rapture in the relationship that needs to be repaired. I’ll write more about repairing miscommunication later.

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.

7. Self-Regulation

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

Being Late

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.  

Cleanliness

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.