Communication in MarriageMay 15, 2023
Fred and Gloria came into therapy with communication issues. This is a second marriage for both; Fred’s wife was diagnosed with cancer when their son was 6 months old and she died when he was 5. Gloria’s first marriage ended when her daughter was 6 months old, she found out that her husband was cheating on her. Fred and Gloria have been married for 12 years.
Fred runs a very successful business and Gloria works as a professional in an office. It became clear after a couple of sessions that Fred communicated to Gloria as he would to one of his employees and Gloria responded by ignoring or attacking. Both of them defended their behavior and believed that the other one was the problem. What follows is a compilation of the things they learned over the course of therapy.
Communication is something we all do every day, whether verbal or non-verbal, you cannot not communicate. Communication in marriage can create connection or disconnection. In Daring Greatly, Brene Brown writes that the two most powerful connections are love and belonging.
There are a number of tools that you can use to create connecting conversation with your spouse.
Bids for Connection, John Gottman, author of The Relationship Cure, explains are the ways in which we try to connect with our spouse. There are non-verbal bids such as smiling, sticking out your tongue, a back or shoulder rub, tickling, a gentle bump, or groaning in a way that invites interaction or interest. Bids can also be verbal “I would like to spend time with you”. “I miss you”. “How was your day”.
The way we react to the bids from our spouse impacts that connection in our relationship. John Gottman identifies three types of response:
- “Turning against: Insults, being combative, arguing (with or without hostility), being controlling, being critical/blaming, being a victim.”
- “Turning away: No response, responding with something irrelevant, interrupting.”
- “Turning towards: Validation, nodding, saying ok, asking questions or sharing thoughts, showing enthusiasm, showing empathy.”
If your bid is something that was negative in your spouse’s childhood or previous relationship (I hate being tickled, my brother would tickle to the point where it was painful) they may turn against or away from you. Or perhaps, you may not see someone asking you questions as a way of turning towards. I have a client who has asked his wife not to ask clarifying questions as he finds them to be controlling even though she has told him she likes details and just wants more.
Part of miscommunication can come from the past where you/your spouse learned a way of interacting that doesn’t fit well in this relationship. Many of the ways in which we communicate are based on our past interactions and observations. Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller explains that your past determines your present actions. Know the deficits from your past so that you can make choices that aren’t based on these deficits in the present.
If you want to build deeper emotional connection and solid long-term relationships you will need to turn towards the other person when they bid for connection, at least 85% of the time.
What are some of the ways in which you turn towards your spouse? What are some of the ways in which your spouse turns toward you? This would be a good time to have a discussion about the ways in which you bid for connection with your spouse and the ways in which you turn towards your spouse.
In order to turn towards your spouse, marriage needs to be, what David Schnarch, author of Intimacy and Desire, calls “a Collaborative Alliance.” This is “an unwritten treaty of union, coalition and friendship that brings out the best in you. A collaborative alliance involves:
- Being honest even when it’s personally disadvantageous or difficult. When your spouse states that you have an attitude, do a heart check and ask yourself if you are engaging in this conversation from a place of being annoyed, angry etc. with your spouse, but trying not to let it out. It is very difficult, if there is a basic connection, to fool your spouse into believing everything is “fine” when it is not.
- Not tampering with or withholding information to manipulate your partner. In a court you swear to “tell the truth (no lies), the whole truth (don’t leave any facts out), and nothing but the truth (don’t put in extra information that isn’t true). If we communicated this way with ourselves and our spouse, there would be no manipulation in the relationship. I have a client who has a shopping problem and she purchases things and leaves them in the trunk of her car for a few months and then when she wears it and her husband asks if it’s new she replies “I’ve had it for a while”. This is the truth, it’s just not the whole truth.
- Confronting yourself and allowing your partner to read you accurately. This is going into the conversation telling yourself the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about where you are emotionally in general, how you feel about yourself as a person (insecure, powerless etc.), and how you feel about your spouse. Coming into the conversation as truthfully as possible. If you do this you will be much less likely to be defensive. Defensiveness kills connection.”
When you establish a connection with your spouse, turning towards them and collaborating, your communication can become much more effective. Effective communication is “being interested in others and listening”, writes John Gottman, author of What Makes Love Last. He provides 4 practical steps for effective communication:
- “Put your feelings into words”: For some people this is difficult to do and for some feelings were discouraged in their childhood or previous relationships. If you struggle with having a vocabulary for feelings other than sad, happy or mad, I would encourage you to read Atlas of the Heart by Brene Brown. Brene gives definitions for 87 different emotions and will give you language to strengthen your feeling vocabulary.
- “Ask open ended questions”: An open ended question is a question that cannot be answered with a “yes” or “no”. Questions beginning with “how”, “what”, “when”, or where” are open-ended. This is a skill that takes practice to achieve. It will encourage further discussion and understanding of the person you are trying to connect with.
- “Follow up with statements that deepen connection: Summarize what you heard the person saying, comment on the emotion that they are expressing, and share a similar experience as long as you aren’t redirecting the conversation to yourself.”
- “Express compassion and empathy”: Put yourself in their shoes. Sometimes remembering a time when you felt the same way will allow you to express compassion and empathy for that person. This is a place where knowing their love language will help you to express compassion and empathy in a way that they will be able to receive it.
These tools will help you and your spouse connect, collaborate, and effectively communicate in your marriage.
However, if you already have established an ineffective style of communication and a disconnect in the relationship, there are some quick ways to turn things around enough for you to start working on the previously mentioned techniques.
The first and, in my opinion/experience, the most effective is what John Gottman calls the 5-to-1 rule. In his research he found that it takes five positive statements/thoughts for every negative statement or thought to get to net neutral. For example, if I think “he’s such a jerk”, I need to combat that thought with 5 positive thoughts “he made the kids laugh at dinner tonight”, “we enjoyed playing Scrabble together over the weekend”, “I love his smile”, “he works hard and contributes financially”, “he took the dog out on a walk”. Part of what is so helpful about this technique is that you are intentional in thinking the positive things (turning towards).
Another technique is to look at the things you don’t want to communicate about and ask why not? This will give you a clue as to what resentment you hold against your spouse and what fears you have from previous interactions with your spouse or other significant relationships. You can then begin to work on these things. David Schnarch asks the question in the beginning of his book Passionate Marriage “how do you know which couples in a restaurant are married?”….the ones who are not talking. His hypothesis is that married couples have a list of things they believe they can’t talk about because they already “know” what the other person is going to say.
The final technique is to spend 10 minutes a day talking with your spouse about something other than the kids, pets or schedule. In our increasingly online world, do this face-to-face and in person. Do you know where they would vacation if they had unlimited funds, would they ever get on a rocket and visit the moon, when is the last time they tried a new food, is there a sport they would love to play if they had the talent? Show that you are interested in them by thinking of questions to ask and show interest in their answers.
How did Fred and Gloria fare with all of their new found knowledge? They have their ups and downs, but there are a lot more ups than downs and we have had a little bit of fun with them coming up with 5 positives when they say something negative about the other person during a therapy session. Gloria sees herself as much less of the victim of Fred’s “insensitive” approach and Fred has learned that presenting things in a less abrasive way helps his message get across much more accurately and quickly.
By: Rachel K Shannon, Ph.D.
Dr. Shannon has been a practicing therapist since 1986. She earned her Ph.D. in Marriage and Family Therapy in 1992. She spent 14 years as a Psychology faculty member at Judson University and currently resides in Colorado Springs where she maintains a private practice.