Over time, married couples develop their own unique style of communication. Sometimes a couple can communicate with each other with a mere look—you know the one!—and the message comes across loud and clear. But most married couples draw on five levels of communication when they talk with each other. Depending on the subject discussed, couples may use one, two or all five of these levels, mixing them up according to what the couple wish to express.
We can break down couples’ communication styles into five levels
- Saying commonly-used phrases: Phrases that don’t really mean much, but serve to grease the social wheels of discourse. An example of this would be typical exchanges such as “How are you?” or “Have a great day!” These are phrases we all use every day, social niceties that no one really thinks about deeply, but we as a society appreciate nonetheless.
- Communicating fact-based requests: This is a very common level of communication among couples as they begin their day: “Would you pick up some more milk on the way home tonight?” “The car needs a tune-up. Can you call the garage and set it up?” This level of communication is meant to be quick and simple. There is not much thought given to inserting any feeling or emotion into the request. It’s expedient and direct, and gets the job done.
- Stating opinions or ideas, either fact or feeling-based: An example of this would be saying “I think it would a mistake to take Katie out of private school. She’s doing much better in her schoolwork now than when she was in public school.” When you open up a conversation with your spouse with an opinion, you can back it up with either proof (in this case, report cards) or feelings (again, in this case, you could point towards your child’s apparent happiness in being in her new school). This level of communication is meant to open up more discussion.
- Sharing emotion-based feelings: Here we approach a deeper level of communication within the couple, as this level implies that they have reached a certain depth of emotional connection, one that permits them to be open and vulnerable with each other.
- Voicing and listening to each other’s needs: As with level four, couples that use this level of communication in their marriage have a true bond of trust between them, allowing them to actively listen to each other’s needs, and acknowledge that they have heard and understood them. This is an extremely satisfying level at which to communicate.
We can think of these five categories as a ladder towards accessing a level that happy, emotionally-healthy couples aspire to.
Many couples remain in the first three levels, rarely using levels four and five
A couple whose communication style remained at levels one and two, for example, would clearly be a couple who could benefit from some time spent learning a deeper way to connect. How unsatisfying it would be to limit the conversations with your spouse to pat phrases and directives. Yet there are couples who fall into the trap of using levels one and two during hectic periods, say a crazy week at work or a house full of company for the holidays. Spouses become like ships passing in the night, with only a few verbal exchanges between them. In those busy times, it is important to remember that even though you have little time to sit down and have a good conversation, checking in with your spouse, even for 5-10 minutes, to see how they are holding up can go a long way in showing your love and appreciation for your partner.
Communication level three is not necessarily a negative level
It is often used to spark a good discussion and can be an excellent way to open up a conversation that will move on to the deeper levels four and five, when feelings are shared and you and your partner are listening to each other with attention and care. You would want to be careful not to remain in level three, however, as it can become more like lecturing your spouse and not a good back-and-forth discussion. Remember, when voicing an opinion, it is always a good idea to insert a few “What do you think?”, and “Does that sound reasonable?” in order to hand the conversation over to your partner.
Level four is the gold standard of communication
It is something couples want to strive for. Reaching this level means that you have built a safe, secure and solid relationship, one that honors each other’s needs and expressions of honesty. While no couple can communicate exclusively at level five, you can recognize a couple that has reached this level by the thoughtful way they listen to each other, and how they mirror each other’s speech, showing that they have been listening attentively to what the other is sharing.
Level five is a gratifying way to communicate with one’s partner
It is a proof of intimacy and comfort in a marriage. It is a useful level to use when you sense that a conflict is brewing, and you’d like to de-escalate the tension that is on the horizon. “I can tell you are upset and I’d like to know how I can help. What’s going on?” This is a good way to bring the conversation back to a level five when things are heating up.
Whatever your private language is with your partner, make an effort to use communication levels four and five at least 30 minutes a day. This will help you both feel supported and understood; two key components for a happy marriage.