Don’t talk, and you won’t have communication issues.
Maybe you laughed out loud at that, but sadly, this becomes a coping mechanism for some married couples. Essentially, it’s called “co-existing.” That point in a marriage where poor communication leads to disastrous results, so we choose to remain quiet and platonic in our sentences.
Or, on the other side of that equation, we engage. We insist that we will conquer poor communication by communicating with our spouse to exhaustion. And this communication is typically quite negative, ineffective, insulting, or downright impossible to make sense of. It results in a marriage filled with strife, tension, obstinacy, and stress.
So, is it possible to change the course of poor communication in your marriage? Absolutely! But it does take a mutual decision to make the effort to do so. Of course, traditional steps such as marriage counseling from a professional is highly recommended. But there are some things that you can attempt to do on your own as well.
Let’s break it down a bit further:
1. Agree there is a communication problem.
If one of the spouses insists that there is no issue, resolving poor communication becomes far more difficult. A spouse might deny a communication problem because they feel fingers will be pointed at them, and a big “See! I told you so!” will follow. A big step in admitting and agreeing that there is a problem is providing a safe environment for your spouse to communicate.
Along with this, both partners need to be able to admit that they are part of the communication breakdown. There are always two sides to every situation. While it may seem the bulk of the blame lies on one specific spouse, the truth is both of you have in some way contributed to the problem.
So, along with admitting there is a problem, each spouse needs to take responsibility for the fact they are part of the problem.
2. Determine to listen.
This is a basic communication skill that many—if not the majority—of us are really, really bad at. What does it mean to listen? It means to fully engage in what the other person is saying. This is done with some simple but challenging steps. If you’re particularly upset, these steps can be ridiculously hard.
First, you must engage in eye contact. Without it, you will not be peering into the proverbial “windows of the soul” and will miss cues that will help to wrap the words in proper context. Sometimes, words can be spoken without giving direct attention, and you hear tone but don’t see expression. Let’s be honest, some individual’s tone is not great. And they can’t help it! It’s all they know! But if you are giving them eye contact, you might see the apology there or the nervous energy expressed, which shows they’re not being antagonistic so much as afraid of conflict.
Secondly, don’t “reload”. Reloading is a common problem in communication. To reload means to hear part of what is being said, become sidelined by that, and begin internally building your response to it. By doing this, you’re actually cheating yourself out of the full context of what your spouse is really saying. When you reload, you stop listening, even though you’re not speaking or interrupting. You are mentally checking out of the conversation in order to create a new response. Often, critical information can be missed when you do this.
Instead, take the opportunity to listen to the full statement even if your blood is boiling or you’re intensely upset. Listen. Until the other person has finished their point.
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3. Accept silence.
Because you’re practicing active listening, you both need to be prepared for that awkward silence after the statement has been made. It’s either silence, or it will be the inevitable explosive and unthought-through reaction that will further gasoline the poor communication. Agree that silence after a statement is not an obstinate refusal to engage, but now is the time your partner—who listened—will process what they heard and create a response.
And when you’re creating your response, consider restating what you thought your spouse stated. In other words, say, “So what I heard you say is …” and then when/if your spouse starts shaking their head and correcting you, accept that. Allow them to restate or reiterate what they meant. This can solve many misunderstandings.
There was a time in an intense argument over where my husband and I were going to put our new toaster oven that I told my husband, “Fine! Then we’re just going to have to co-exist from here on out!” What he heard was exactly what I’d said. “Co-exist.” This means we are no longer working as a partnership but existing together while remaining distant and apart. Thankfully, he told me what he heard me saying was I no longer was interested in a marriage but simply a platonic relationship going forward. When he restated it, I realized in horror I’d used the wrong wording! I’d meant, essentially, “We’re going to have to agree to disagree on where to put the toaster oven.” That’s a HUGE difference in meaning and implication to a relationship. Had my husband not clarified, I would have left the conversation annoyed the toaster oven was not where I wanted it but begrudgingly accepting we weren’t going to see eye to eye. My husband would have left the conversation wondering how quickly I would be heading for divorce court. Over a toaster oven!
4. Assume innocence.
Lastly, one thing often assumed in poor communication is personal intent. This means when your spouse makes a statement or observation, we assume attack and assertion because we are geared to be uptight and stressed during our conversations. We take words personally where they are not intended to be.
Instead, we must retrain our minds to assume that our spouse is innocent of personal intent. That what they’re saying is not meant to be a deeply hurtful criticism, an abandonment of their love for us, a signal that they believe we are failures or an unspoken but fully intended finger-pointing accusation. Try a different angle and listen to their words—probably spoken emotionally due to poor communication in your history—and assume that they’re saying the words out of frustration or hurt, but not with the intent to skewer you emotionally.
Granted, sometimes, the hard truth is we say hurtful things with the intent of hurting the other person. So, assuming innocence isn’t foolproof. But it’s a better and safer way toward good communication to presume innocence until guilt is uncovered.
Remember, poor communication in marriage can range in degrees of intensity. This article is not at all intended to be a fix-all for marriages struggling deeply with abuse, or PTSD from past relationships or childhood, etc. Many serious and severe facets can influence poor communication. So, it will be important to identify if any of these are directly affecting your personal set of circumstances.
But if you have a relatively healthy marriage, healthy home, and stable upbringing, communication can still be poor simply because we’re not good at it! This is when much of what you’ve read here can be more effective.
In the end, you need to be honest with yourself and your spouse as to the degree of severity your communication is suffering. Then, take the proper and appropriate steps to work toward healing that.
Originally published Friday, 08 September 2023.