Dos and Don’ts of Marital Communication

Dos and Don'ts of Marital Communication

Marriage is often tough. It is also what gives our lives a meaning more often than not, but it can be very challenging, let’s be honest. According to marriage counselors and therapists, what often makes it difficult is the partner’s inability to communicate well. So, what is healthy communication? In general, any communication that is indirect and manipulative can be considered unhealthy and unproductive. This means that good communication between any two individuals, including spouses, needs to be direct, clear, tactful, and sincere.

How We Communicate and How We Should Communicate

Let’s say that a husband and a wife were talking to each other and she was rather aggressively pushing for her way to pack for a field trip that he doesn’t agree with, for instance. There are two ways of responding to such a proposal (and a number of variances) – direct and honest, and indirect and harmful (whether passive or aggressive). Let us see how we usually communicate and why this is detrimental for our relationships.

In this example, the husband could turn to their son and say, in a seemingly joking tone: “Yep, your momma always knows it all.” This is a typical pattern of indirect communication that is fairly common in marriages, and often causes further discontent for both partners. In addition to being indirect, it provokes a triangulation as well (when the third family member is involved in an exchange between the spouses).

If we analyze this exchange, we can see that the husband was being passive aggressive. He expressed his disagreement in an entirely indirect way by pretending that he is talking to his son rather than his wife, and he also posed this as a joke. So, if the wife reacts to this provocation directly, he would have the defense of just kidding and talking to their boy, while to it is rather obvious what he was doing.

Now, you might say that this is not that bad, he was at least trying to avoid conflict. But, let’s look at this exchange a bit deeper. The husband did not just communicate indirectly and wasn’t just passive aggressive, he didn’t communicate his opinion at all. He didn’t propose a better way of packing, in his opinion, and he didn’t express his feelings about his wife’s proposal (or the way she talks to him, if that’s what’s bothering him). She didn’t receive any message from him, which is a hallmark of bad communication.

Let’s see how he could have reacted in a better way. We can assume that he was actually annoyed by his wife’s tone because he interpreted it as her way of pointing out his incompetence. The appropriate way of responding would then be something like: “When you talk to me like that I feel emasculated and talked down to. I lose desire to participate in the preparations for the activity which I otherwise enjoy. I propose that we split the assignments instead – I will make the list of what needs to be taken with us, and you can pack it. You can change three items on that list, and I can rearrange three things in the trunk. In that way, we will both do our parts, and there will be nothing to fight about. Would you agree with that?”

What the husband did in this way of responding is that he was being assertive – he expressed his feelings and his interpretation of his wife’s tone, and he explained what consequences such behavior has for him. Notice that he didn’t use the accusatory “you” sentences, but kept to his experience. He then proposed a solution, and finally asked her to get on board with him on that and gave her the opportunity to express her opinion on this proposition. Such communication was sincere, direct, considerate and also productive, as it got them closer to solving a practical problem without making a mountain out of a molehill.

You might think that being assertive in marriage is difficult, and perhaps even find it unnatural. And it is hard to get there, and to speak to our loved ones (who often annoy us so much) in a calm, assertive manner and not sound robotic at the same time. Yet, only such way of speaking to your spouse can yield results other than quarrel, resentment, and possible distancing. By being assertive you respect their feelings and your relationship, while expressing your own at the same time. And this is far from being robotic – you honor the person you love, and also yourself and your experience, and open ways for direct and loving communication.