In my job as a therapist, people often ask me “Can you help us?”
This question often comes up when the goal is couples therapy, when I have two individuals sitting in front of me hoping to save their relationship. The simplest way to describe how one does couples therapy is to point out that much of it is helping the two people in the office hear and understand each other.
I say a lot of, “What I hear her/him saying is X,” and “When you do/say that, it pushes a button in her/him and then he/she can’t be in the moment anymore or hear what you are really trying to say.”
A real-life example
I once had a couple come in because they wanted to work on some communication issues before getting married. It wasn’t until a few sessions in that I realized that his complaint that she presented as demanding, insistent, even at times bullying, was in part because English was not her first language. Her accent and approach to requests often sounded staccato, blunt, and matter of fact. She felt she was asking a simple question, “Can you take out the trash?” but it was coming across as “CAN YOU TAKE. OUT. THE. TRASH!” Pointing out the cadence of her speech, in stark contrast to her partner’s softer tones and easy-going attitude, helped him to see that perhaps she wasn’t trying to boss him around, but was merely how she spoke no matter what she was saying. He learned to hear her message better and she learned to tone it down. I was raised in Brooklyn, we’re loud and direct—I could sympathize with someone’s whose tone of voice could lead others to attribute anger or bossiness where there was none.
When communicating in a marriage, there are many places where it can fall apart
We don’t always listen to each other as well as we should, because we are always thinking of what we want to say next, regardless of what our partners are saying. We believe we know our partner’s underlying motivations. We all have the potential to contribute to the breakdown in communication: even us experts who so calmly help other people work out their problems, then come home and bicker with our spouses over what are often trivial matters.
Here are some tips to improve communication between spouses, which may help prevent the all-too-common pattern of fighting over the same things time and time again:
This seems so simple, but it’s worth noting. We often don’t listen to what our partners are saying. We hear what we think they are saying, we attribute intention to what they are saying, we don’t take what they are saying at face value, and we bring our own preconceived notions, the tapestries that make us who we are, to the table. When we fail to listen in the moment, we can react to what we think someone means rather than what he does mean.
This happens when a wife asks a husband to communicate his weekend plans and he interprets it as being mothered because it harks back to childhood nagging about his whereabouts, or when a husband expresses concern that his wife is working too much, and she sees it as neediness on his part, wanting her around more, not concern that she is exhausted. We have to really hear the message, and we can’t do that unless we listen.
Don’t let the tension in the conversation get out of hand
By this I mean, are you getting more worked up than you should be that your husband forgot to buy milk? Is the conversation really about the milk? If it is, then chill out. If there’s a pattern that is making you angry, then address that, but don’t raise your voice over the milk, because it’s very hard to have a serious discussion about relationship issues when someone is overreacting. If there’s a bigger problem, then address the bigger problem, but yelling about forgotten milk only puts the other person on the defensive because the response is out of proportion to the “crime.”
Be sure to have ongoing conversations about your relationship
Have them in neutral places. And have them at random times, not when you’re in the heat of an argument. Talking while out on a walk or while doing things together around the house can often be good opportunities to say, “You know that argument we had the other day, well what was really bothering me, I realized, was X, but I don’t think I was able to communicate that at the time.” If you can discuss the issue when no one is in the heat of anger, you may realize that your views on the issue are quite similar, but you were not getting your points across.
Don’t worry about going to bed angry
It has never made sense to me, this idea that to have a good marriage you shouldn’t go to bed angry. If you’ve had an argument and it’s not resolved and you’re tired, go to bed. Chances are that a lot of the anger and tension will have dissipated during the night, and sometimes a fresh look in the morning will help you to see how to better express what you were mad about in the first place. Often arguments won’t get resolved right away, and it’s OK to walk away, go to bed, table the issue, or whatever else is needed to stop the cycle of blaming each other and arguing over something that won’t be resolved right then.
Avoid “Always” and “Never” statements
It’s so easy, when something happens, to generalize our anger, as in, “You ALWAYS forget the milk,” (with the subtext being, “because you don’t care about my needs and wants”). Or “You NEVER pick your clothes up off the floor” (probably not true). Once we get into always and never statements, our partners get defensive. Wouldn’t you? If someone said you ALWAYS forget the milk, the times you have picked up all the groceries on the list are erased. Then you’re in an argument over how many times you forgot the milk versus how many times you didn’t, and it becomes silly.
Maybe most importantly, being aware of our own triggers and our own mood is essential in a marriage. Am I really mad that my husband didn’t do something, or am I feeling stretched too thin at work, and an innocent oversight is just making me feel like there’s more on my plate to do? Am I really feeling smothered by my wife’s question about my weekend plans, or is that a knee-jerk reaction from my childhood? Is it worth arguing with my spouse over this, or am I just more edgy because I had a long day and this headache is making me moody?
Most couples will argue sometimes
In fact, studies have shown it’s the couples who don’t argue who are more likely to divorce, because they let problems fester and don’t express their dissatisfaction when necessary. Sometimes, of course, the arguments will be silly; if you live with someone, whether that be spouse, parent, sibling, or roommate, you will sometimes end up arguing over trivial things. But if you can minimize the trivial arguments, even using humor to ease the situation before it becomes an argument, and spend your time hashing out the more important issues, you’re on the road to better communication.