Let’s talk about miscommunication…
So many of the problems marriages face can be boiled down problems with how we talk to each other. We’re all guilty of it from time to time, whether that’s not speaking our mind and letting problems fester, letting emotions get the best of us and saying something hurtful, not staying on topic, beating around the bush and not saying what we mean, and so on.
A great number of arguments could be avoided if couples took the time to improve their communication skills. There are ways to have even contentious conversations without attacking each other, and without descending into fights that leave you both feeling upset, worse than before you “communicated,” and further disconnected from the relationship.
So, let’s dig into it: what elements make for effective communication? How can you prepare for difficult conversations? How can you speak so your spouse really hears you? How can you improve your own skill and patience as a listener?
First, it’s important to understand that how you say things is just as important (if not more) than what you actually say. Tone of voice is everything! Think about a time that you’ve been put on edge just by the way someone spoke to you – it wasn’t the words they chose, but the tone. There’s a big difference between an exasperated, impatient “I’m sorry!” and someone looking you in the eye, and saying calmly and sincerely, “I’m sorry.”
Similarly, a laugh and lighthearted, “Yeesh, leave me alone” is going to be received very differently than those exact words in a snappy or harsh tone. The inflection and tone we choose (sometimes unconsciously, if we aren’t being aware of our actions), conveys a great deal of emotion – and that point is exactly where you can start to improve.
When speaking to anyone, especially your spouse, ask yourself, “What emotion do I want to convey?”
Put yourself in your spouse’s shoes and think about how you react to short, aggressive speech, to condescending or rude remarks. Isn’t it natural to bristle and get defensive? Shouldn’t you expect that from your spouse if you speak to them in such a way?
It can turn into a vicious cycle, where you’re both offended at the tone each other is using, speaking defensively (in a harsh tone), and making matters worse and worse. Exercise some self control and speak with an intentional tone – one that presents the emotions you want your spouse to feel.
Similarly, be as patient as you can if they are being harsh or unpleasant in tone. They might not be conscious of doing it, and if you get defensive and speak harshly back, it only makes matters worse.
Make A Plan
If you need to have a tough conversation (and every couple will, from time to time), do a little bit of preparing beforehand. Think about what it is you need to say, the reasons you feel the way you do, what solutions you’d like to see, and again, what emotion you want to convey.
We’re not necessarily suggesting that you rehearse everything you plan to say in advance, but give it some careful consideration. The point, after all, is to effectively communicate – and if a little planning is what it takes, so be it!
One good method is to think in “I statements” – this helps to keep your comments focused on the way you feel. It also helps you recognize your own feelings and take responsibility for them.
– “I feel rejected when _____”
– “I feel hurt when _____”
You will also have to address what your spouse has done to make you feel that way, but try to be as factual as you possibly can! Don’t over-dramatize or embellish to make your point. Begin with an “I statement” and offer up the precise scenario that made you feel that way. This doesn’t mean bringing up every time you’ve ever felt wronged or hurt. If you want to get through to your spouse and make actual progress, you can’t overload them with. Cover one thing at a time.
Next, explain (to the best of your knowledge) why you felt the way you did. This is going to take some reflection on your part. Does it dredge up a painful part of your past to be ignored or talked down to in public? Is a harsh comment about your shortcomings making you feel like a failure in other areas? Are you worried about loss of respect from peers or coworkers? Does your spouse’s “transgression” make you feel neglected or unimportant?
Asking yourself these questions is integral. To communicate clearly, tell your spouse how you felt, what happened, and why you felt the way you did. This should also be internally focused, not “I felt bad because YOU made me feel that way,” but rather, “I felt slighted because I couldn’t stop thinking that your friends are more important to you than me” – or whatever specifics describe the scenario at hand.
Lastly, offer a solution. This where you tell your spouse how you see the issue being resolved or avoided in the future. This is not an order or a demand, but a suggestion. You can understand this concept deeper by thinking in “I’d appreciate” statements. Again, instead of attacking and blaming your spouse, you are letting them know – with an intentional tone – what could be done on their part to avoid the problem next time (or avoid a “next time” altogether).
Here it is step-by step:
1. “I feel ____” – the hurt you felt
2. “When you ____” – exactly what happened in this specific case
3. “Because ____” – what larger concerns or past hurt was triggered, or the emotional context of why you felt the way you did
4. “I’d appreciate ____” – how things could be avoided in the future, would could have been done differently, etc.
You don’t have to follow this script exactly, but this format of approaching tough conversations, coupled with an intentionally kind and gentle tone, can make arguments turn into productive discussions that you can both learn and grow from.
Be intentional in your conversations and gentle with your tone – it will make an incredible difference in the way your communication is received, even when the topic itself is unpleasant. The better you and your spouse can communicate (and avoid arguments), the closer you’ll be able to grow, and the stronger your marriage can be!