Enhancing Marital Communication: The Power of ONE

Are you a woman who is married or in a relationship?  Do you sometimes feel that your partner doesn't offer the understanding, validation, or support that you're seeking, leaving you feeling frustrated? Are you interested in communicating more effectively with your significant other?   Do you long for a greater sense of intimacy and connection with your spouse? Have you ever thought about going to couples therapy but your partner simply refuses to participate?  If so, there is HOPE!

Communication can be a challenge in any kind of relationship.  Given enough interactions overtime conflict, disagreements, misunderstandings, and awkward moments are bound to come up with our friends, our neighbors, our relatives, our co-workers, our children, our spouses.  This has been most poignantly illustrated following the results of the past election, which created rifts in families and communities all over the country, even across the world.  Many people have ended relationships or stopped speaking to people in their lives because they don't know how to relate to that person in any meaningful or constructive way anymore. 

Hopefully you and your spouse landed on the same side of that political argument, but even if you did, marriage, by its very intimate and long-term nature, presents many communication challenges. Marriage is an intimate relationship where we are expected to give and to be vulnerable with another human being. Our partners get to see us at our best and also at our very worst.  They get to know and witness things about us that the rest of the world may not ever see. They are also oftentimes our main source of emotional support-- or at least so we hope.  

But there are many things that can tax and even erode our marital relationships.  Issues such as money, chores, sex, time together, relatives, and parenting are among some of the most common issues couples fight about.  However, expert tell us that HOW couples disagree about these issues is more important than what they fight about. That is, having appropriate skills to communicate and manage conflict well, and having the willingness to be open and to connect with one another meaningfully is what really makes for a successful and satisfying marriage in the long term.  Furthermore, researchers have found that when parents are able to communicate and problem solve in ways that are constructive and respectful this creates a more stable and healthier environments for their kids.  

So what gets in the way of communicating and problem-solving effectively?  There are many factors we could look at for this answer.    One perspective, based on cognitive behavioral therapy, tells us that when we have a disagreement or argument with our spouse our mind gets flooded with negative, often distorted thoughts, mostly about the other person.  In addition, these negative thoughts are associated with strong negative emotions such as anger, hurt, disappointment, disgust, and stress. This gets in the way of our listening, so that instead of listening to understand we listen to respond and retaliate, or to "win" the argument.  Motives like blame, resentment, pride and shame, our own version of justice and fairness,  competition, and self-pity can also play a role in how we interact with our partner.  We may decide that the problem in the relationship is primarily our partner's fault and that they should be responsible for most of the change, while we hold ourselves as mere victims of their cruelty or rudeness.  

Dr. David Burns of Stanford University, creator of the Interpersonal T.E.A.M. Therapy model tells us that the key to creating positive changes and nourishing connection and intimacy in our relationships is to change ourselves. In other words, Dr. Burns says that the price of intimacy is to give up blaming the other person and take responsibility for our own role in the problem.  This is a bitter pill to swallow.  After all, you may ask "why should I have to change when my husband is the one acting like a jerk?" And yet, that is exactly what is required.  This approach is predicated on the basic notion that we CANNOT change anyone else, we can only change OURSELVES.  At the same time,  knowing that we are only responsible for changing ourselves can be a liberating idea because we can decide if, when, and what we change about ourselves. 

If you're still struggling with this idea consider the following: 

  • We know from research that poor communication and poor conflict management in relationships leads to a deterioration of the relationship, which can lead to breakup or divorce.  Now, what is the emotional, psychological, financial, social cost of divorce, for yourself? Your spouse? Your kids?
  • What is the emotional, psychological, social, financial value of a successful and loving marriage? To you? To your spouse? To your kids? Multiple research studies have shown that people who are happily married are usually happier overall and are more physically and emotionally healthy. Conversely people who are in unhappy or high conflict marriages have poorer physical and emotional health. Just think about how miserable you feel after you’ve had a fight with your spouse, and the toll that it takes on you if those kinds of interactions occur regularly or frequently.  
  • How important is it for your kids to witness their parents having a loving, affectionate, understanding, trusting relationship?  How does it affect them? What does that teach them?  A review of multiple studies which was published in 2009 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services concluded that parents’ ability to resolve conflict effectively affects children’s (both boys and girls) level of anxiety and self-esteem and that these effects carry over into adulthood.  In addition the quality of the parents’ marital relationship spills over into their parenting behaviors. No surprise there.

  • How important is it that your kids learn to use good communication in their own relationships so they have better friendships and a healthy happy marriage when that time comes in their lives? Is that something you would want for them?  Is that something you could teach and model for them?  

If these questions got you thinking, you may now be wondering: "But how can I create change in my relationship if my partner won't cooperate?"  The answer lies in changing your approach to communication.  Dr. David Burns coined an acronym called EAR which he used to describe three essential elements that must be present to produce good communication. These elements are: 1) Empathy, 2) Assertiveness, and 3) Respect.  

  1. Empathy is about listening with an open mind and trying to relate to what our partner is saying, as well as how they might be feeling given what they're saying. For example, if my husband says, head down and sounding dejected: "I didn't get the job,"  an empathetic response might sound like: "Oh, Honey, that's a bummer! I can imagine you might be feeling sad and disappointed right now."  
  2. Assertiveness has to do with our expressing our own thoughts and feelings in a direct and open manner (no passive aggressive gestures).  For example, I might say: "I'm very angry with you right now because you told that joke I hate in front of my friends, even after I asked you not to do it."   
  3. Respect refers to conveying genuine care and consideration to our partner, even in the heat of battle.  We are essentially letting them know that their feelings are just as valuable as our own. For example: "What you have to say is really important to me, even if we don't always agree, because I love you and I want us to have a good relationship."  

The idea of EAR, then, is that each one of us has the ability to change the way we approach conversations, as well as the way that we LISTEN to what our partner has to say.  If we approach interactions, especially difficult or challenging ones, with empathy, assertiveness, and respect, chances are we will get a lot farther because our partner will feel heard, respected, validated, and understood, which in turn is likely to open them up to hear and understand what we have to say.  Rather than shutting down or escalating a conflict with attacks and counterattacks, we make the choice to stop blaming and start listening; we stop playing a passive-aggressive role and begin speaking up in a way that is caring and respectful to our partner. And the results can be incredibly transformational.

As a caveat to the above, I want to say that there are circumstances in which it is neither safe nor appropriate to seek closeness and intimacy with a spouse or intimate partner.  For example, in relationships where there is any type of abuse or when the other person flatly refuses to do anything to improve the relationship dynamic because of their own motives, it may best to consider ending the relationship. Sometimes breaking up is the healthiest outcome, especially when considering the detrimental long-term effects of staying in an unhealthy relationship, especially for our kids.  But in situations where both partners truly desire a better relationship learning and using this approach has the potential to create profound changes in a relatively short period of time if applied consistently.

Naturally, there is more to this approach than could be possibly covered in this article, and practice is needed in order to get better, much like it takes practice and feedback to improve your golf game.  It isn't always easy, but if greater connection and intimacy are what you want for your marriage, the writing's on the wall.  Change yourself first.   My wish for each of you is that you have the kind of healthy, loving, and satisfying relationship that you want, and I want you to know that it is possible.