Nothing changes if nothing changes! This is one of my favorite quotes and one that I highlight with all of my clients in my first session.
Deep down, we all hope that we can transfer our challenges to someone else and have them perform magic. But the truth is that we are really responsible for most things happening in our day to day and we can make a big difference by changing something we do, or how we think, or how we interpret things.
Of course, I highly recommend a skilled couples’ therapist to assist with the journey, but if you are not ready for that, this experiment is a good change of pace.
1. Assess your communication in marriage for one week
Before we make any other big plans for what we are going to change, just take one week to observe yourself in your interaction with your partner. We will attempt to have that out of body experience to understand how we come across to others.
A journal may be useful to keep track of your answers to the following questions:
- Are you able to listen to your spouse intently, with honesty, patience, and empathy?
- Next, pay attention to what you are saying to your spouse and how you are saying it.
- Ask yourself: is that going to make him or her feel better or worse?
- Is he or she going to like my comments or my tone?
- How would you like being on the receiving end of your own message? Try replaying your own comments and tone to yourself. You can also record yourself (that is a scary and powerful tool).
- Is this type of communication more like an occasional exception or is it more like a rule in your dynamics.
2. Analyze your choice of words. Words do matter
Words do matter! They matter to you (otherwise you wouldn’t be saying them) and they do matter to your spouse. Slow down and think a little before you speak. Do an honest self-check.
Are you saying these things to help your partner or just to make yourself feel better, to alleviate your own frustration or anxiety at what she or he is saying? Finally, would you be talking to a co-worker or your boss like that?
Use the THINK acronym to keep yourself focused.
- Is it True?
- Is it Helpful?
- Is it Important?
- Is it Necessary?
- Is it Kind?
We are often pressured by our frustrations, anxieties, subtle irritations, and resentments and we feel compelled to blurt something sarcastic, critical, or accusatory to make ourselves feel better in the heat of the moment, but in reality, it erodes our relationship.
Assertive marriage communication involves strategy and thoughtful planning!
3. Apologize (if needed) and rephrase
You will not be able to change your communication style right away, so don’t put a lot of pressure on yourself. But trust me, your increased awareness will slow you down and make you stop and think.
At first, you’ll start questioning yourself: “should I have said that?” or “was it too harsh or too mean?” It will generally happen after the fact, but that’s okay.
Slow down, reprocess that string of messages, apologize if needed, and rephrase. For example, you can say: “I am so sorry, I am a little tense, frustrated, tired. That didn’t come out right. Let me try again.”
You may or may not get the right message from your partner, but that’s ok, stick with it. You have to communicate the right way, indifferent of your partner’s answer. That’s how you get out of the nasty vicious cycle.
The first three steps were truly about just observing yourself and increasing that awareness. This next step is taking it to a deeper level, and engaging your partner in the process.
When everything is calm and there is no issue to be argued, ask your spouse to sit down with you, so you can share your notes about your own communication style.
Ask for his or her feedback and ask for some patience while you are trying to change it. Ask what would be the best way to give “constructive criticism”. Things cannot be positive all the time, so if you have something that’s not in agreement, how would he or she suggest you should go about it?
Keep this conversation to the point. When your spouse gives you feedback, don’t get defensive! You just asked him or her for feedback about what you can change.
This is going to be a little tricky and challenging at times. Deep down, when we ask for feedback, we only want to hear positive comments. Our egos don’t like anything less. But that ship has sailed.
If you are reading this book and care about making this relationship work, your ego has to toughen up!
Don’t expect him or her to say, “oh, honey you are perfect.” Most likely, you are not going to like what he or she has to say.
Listen and take notes anyway. If it’s too much, just say, “Thank you very much, it’s a lot to take in, let’s stop here. Let me process all this information in my mind first. I don’t want to get defensive and start attacking you.”
5. Practice, practice, practice communication in your marriage
This is truly a daily task.
Be mindful of every interaction, but especially of those that are causing your body to tense up.
Check your level of tension, prior to every conversation, and especially the ones that you know have been triggered in the past. The fear of messing up the conversation may push you into avoidance.
Don’t avoid those conversations, think of them as opportunities to practice your new craft of a caring and assertive communicator! And remember, you may not be able to change your style completely, but if you are able to change it by about 30% of the time, it will make a huge difference.
6. It’s your partner’s turn
People need to see a change in their partner first before they risk much of themselves. We all try to protect ourselves from getting hurt again; it’s totally normal.
Hopefully, by now, your changes and your willingness to improve have created some goodwill, to the point that your partner may see the benefit of letting his or her guard down, taking some risks, and making changes as well. In this post, we will take a look at some actual action steps to make a difference and set the stage for some foundational improvements in your relationship.
If you are both guilty of having unhealthy communication styles, you should both be going through this exercise.
Be patient with each other! Use time-out not as a method of avoidance, but as an opportunity to re-group, get control of your emotions, and rephrase your thoughts. Don’t just walk away from the conversation, tell your spouse that you are putting yourself in time-out in order to communicate correctly without hurting or offending him or her.
And most importantly, don’t expect the answer you want right away. Let your partner absorb the information and give him or her some space to get out of the usual defensive mode they are used to. I cannot tell you how many times, in the middle of a heated discussion, my husband would give me what I perceive as a wrong.
Let ’s take a look at some actual action steps to make a difference and set the stage for some foundational improvements in your relationship. answer. Rather than pursuing the right answer, I would decide to let go and put the conversation on hold.
He often would surprise me the next day with the right answer. But I had to give him space. And the same has happened to me.
7. Add positive sprinkles to your communication
I know it sounds cheesy, but trust me on this one. Think of an honest compliment for your partner at least once a day. It could be as easy as “I like this shirt on you”, “You are such a great father and I love it when you play with the kids”, “I value your opinion, even though I may not seem like I appreciate it in the moment.”
Also, going back to the basics that you teach your kids, such as saying “please, thank you, I love you” are fantastic small ways to change the quality of the dynamic.
If you are inclined to minimize the powerful effect of such small comments (avoidant-dismissive individuals usually do), just think about the last few moments when anyone said these things to you; when someone held the door; when someone said “Thank you. I appreciate you. You look great in that dress today. I like your idea.”
For some reason when outsiders say these things to us, we feel warm and fuzzy inside and our mood improves. But when our spouse does it, it’s often taken for granted. Furthermore, we minimize its effects and we don’t say it back to our spouse.
Get in the habit of saying those small things again, just as if you were dating and just be appreciative of each other. Of course, be genuine, don’t fake it! I am absolutely sure that if you pay attention, you’ll find those true moments when you are grateful to have your spouse in your life.
Want to have a happier, healthier marriage?
If you feel disconnected or frustrated about the state of your marriage but want to avoid separation and/or divorce, the marriage.com course meant for married couples is an excellent resource to help you overcome the most challenging aspects of being married.