The usual ways you and your spouse communicate lead to predictable results; frustration, anger, withdrawing, or fighting. Is it even worth trying to communicate? If “We need to talk” seems to only make things worse, hold the communication! There’s homework you need to do first.
When asked in our recent survey what they would like to be better in their marriage, 70% of people wanted better communication. This was by far the most frequent issue mentioned among several possible choices. And I suspect your marriage could use either a tune-up or perhaps a complete overhaul in this area.
How does your communication normally unfold? Perhaps one of you has a burning issue gathering emotional heat as the minutes, hours, or perhaps even days go by. Finally the temperature becomes so hot that the steam erupts in an outburst of words accompanied by criticism, sarcasm, anger, frustration, or tears.
Even if your spouse suspects something is amiss they feel blindsided by your outburst and respond defensively. You feel unheard, unimportant, misunderstood. The wall between you becomes thicker and higher.
Or it may be the opposite. You don’t want a fight, so you drop a subtle (or not-so-subtle) hint about how you’re feeling or what you want your spouse to do. And the lack of any meaningful response from your spouse again leaves you feeling unheard, unimportant, misunderstood.
Why even try to communicate?
Do Your Homework
Stop! Back up. If your communication style isn’t working step back and do your homework. If you and your spouse are both people of good will, working through these questions yourself before trying to discuss an important issue together will make a huge difference.
Here’s what your homework looks like.
1. Know yourself.
Get off your spouse for a moment and look at your own heart. What is it about this issue that’s important to you? What is your own role in the problem? How is it affecting you? How is your spouse’s response affecting you? What would you like to be different? What specifically do you want from your spouse? Understanding? Help? Something else?
Getting as clear as possible will allow you to frame your communication in a way that will get you closer to the result you want. If you don’t know what you’re aiming at you will most certainly not get there.
2. Get unemotional.
If you’re angry, frustrated, hurt, or even excited this may seem difficult. You know from past experience how your emotions affect your communication, and how your spouse responds (or doesn’t respond) as a result. Be honest about how you feel. Name your emotions. Cry or scream alone if you must, or with a girlfriend or buddy. Remember, no one else can make you feel any certain way. Embrace your emotions as your own.
And then set your emotions aside. Put your feelings into words but let the temperature cool down. When you communicate with your spouse you will need to express your feelings in words but without the boiling-over heated-up out-of-control emotions.
3. Know your spouse.
Consider what you already know about your spouse in this area. What about their personality or needs or brokenness is coming into play? How much do they already understand about how this is affecting you? (Remember that simply saying something to your spouse in the past does not mean they understand.)
Picture your proposed communication with your spouse. In what setting are they most likely to truly hear you? How is your message likely to be received? Can you craft your message in a way that will make it easier for them to understand? Listen to yourself with your spouse’s ears, and if necessary adjust your proposed message.
4. Prepare your heart.
Be honest with yourself; is your heart open? If it’s not, do not pass go until you deal with your own heart first. Don’t place on your spouse the responsibility for fixing you; only God can do that. Going into a challenging conversation with a closed heart will always result in further conflict.
If your heart is closed get alone in prayer. Ask God to deal with you, to bring you healing, clarity, grace, peace, hope, or whatever you need. Ask for His perspective on your own heart, on your spouse, on the whole situation. If you need to talk this through with a trusted Christian friend before speaking with your spouse, do so. Get to an open heart; only then is it time to move forward.
5. Make a plan.
Your goal in communication is always first to understand, then to be understood. You can’t do that until you have an open heart. Then using your understanding of the previous steps, think through the most helpful way to express this issue to your spouse. Choose the time, place, and setting. Plan out your initial sentences if necessary. Make sure you express your desire to make the relationship better.
The bigger the issue the more thoughtful your plan will need to be. If your previous communication has ended in a fight, or you’re not used to communicating at all, this may feel over-planned. Think of this as a skill you are learning, and it can become much easier over time.
What Communicating to Understand Can Do
When Al and I were first married the bedroom environment presented a challenge. I wanted it quiet and dark at night; he wanted the TV to remain on. We never fought over this, but it remained a source of tension between us for some time.
One morning in the kitchen we got to the bottom of things. With his health gradually declining Al became increasingly afraid of dying in his sleep; periodically rousing himself just enough to be aware of the TV reassured him that he was still alive, and he could go on sleeping. I realized the sound was much more troublesome for me than the light; with the TV on mute I could position myself where I couldn’t see the TV screen and sleep just fine.
Communicating to the point of understanding allowed us to gratefully meet each other’s needs. We both shed a few tears over that one, and all tension over the issue evaporated. For the remainder of our marriage we slept with the TV on – and on mute. And we both could sleep.
Doing your homework can allow you to communicate to the point of understanding.
Then real communication has a chance of happening.
Your Turn: What issue do you need to communicate about with your spouse? Which of these 5 steps are you working on now? Leave a comment below.
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Need a more detailed plan?
Dr Carol’s Guide to Healthy Communication in Marriage expands on these ideas and gives you practical exercises that will help you use these ideas in your own marriage. The accompanying practical worksheets will help you talk about some of the toughest areas couples struggle to communicate about such as sex, money, and blended family issues, and provide you a way to RESET things between you even if communication has completely broken down.
Find out more about Dr Carol’s Guide to Healthy Communication in Marriage now. I know it will be a tool that can help transform this vital aspect of your marriage.