An important part of interaction between you and your spouse is interpersonal communication, i.e., the way in which you are able to effectively communicate thoughts, ideas, and feelings primarily through verbal communication.
Your ability to verbally communicate with your spouse can enhance significantly the kind of relationship that will exist between the two of you. The goal of this post is to assist you in being able to regularly express your thoughts, ideas, and feelings with respect and support for each other.
Above all, communication is not a debate between partners about whose preconceived notions about what is going on between the two of you. Communication in a personal relationship is about a husband and a wife collaborating with each other by sharing perceptions, feeling, ideas and thoughts so that they can come to an understanding of what is happening between them, what is their joint reality.
How to Communicate Collaboratively
The first thing you will have to do in conversation with your partner is to unilaterally disarm, i.e., do not start a conversation thinking you are right about something. This does not mean compromise or capitulation; you have a right to all your thoughts and feelings
- When you have something on your mind, give your partner a “heads up” about the topic, giving him/her time to think about his/her own thoughts.
- Set a time when you both can have a conversation about the topic.
- Start out with the idea that your partner may have something to say that is worth listening to and be willing to give serious consideration to.
- Remember, a conversation is not a battleground where you must prove you are right.
How to Talk to Your Spouse
You start a conversation knowing your own thoughts and feelings about a topic. Remember, you want an opportunity to discuss these thoughts and feelings; so does your partner. Here are some tips:
- In your conversation, stick to your thoughts and feelings. Don’t get sidetracked by accusing, criticizing, or blaming your partner.
- Be prepared to talk about what you want in a clear and direct fashion. Be cautious about lapsing into “I need” as a way of privileging what you want over your partners’ wants. For example, say “I want more affection” rather than “I need you to be more affectionate with me”.
- What you want in your relationship may reflect old issues from your personal history. Be sure to continually “vet” your wants and wishes.
- Be willing to “own” up to where these wants come from…be willing to talk about painful personal histories, unfulfilled childhood needs, the way you protect yourself from these old, painful childhood experiences.
- Be sure to treat your partner with the respect and decency with which you treat any other person.
How to Listen to Your Spouse
Listen to your spouse with an unconditional interest in understanding what he/she is trying to say. This is the way to get to know your spouse and what it is important to him/her. Here are a few thoughts about listening:
- Listening is about your spouse who really wants to be heard. It really isn’t about you.
- Be sure to focus on what your spouse is saying, not your reaction to it. If you find yourself reacting, take a time out, to refocus on your spouse.
- It will be helpful to indicate that you are listening to him/her. You can try reflecting back what you are hearing him/her say so your partner can correct you if you are not understanding what is being said. For example, you can say “I hear you say (what you heard), is that right?”
- By listening intently to your partner you may learn something new about her/him and about the ideas and feelings she/he has. You can gain a new perspective about your partner.
Defining Your Own Relationship Reality
Through this kind of conversation in which you both are able to say what you want and listen with interest to each other, you will discover a deeper understanding of what you both are experiencing with each other. This kind of understanding can help to eliminate misconceptions, misinterpretations, and miscommunications that can occur in a relationship. What you end up with is a clearer picture of yourselves and of the reality of your relationship.
Communication Involves Both Content Messages and Relationship Messages: Reading Between-the-Lines
Content messages refer to the obvious aspects of your communication. It refers to the specific issues around which the interaction is occurring, who is going to get the kids to school today, are we going to have sex tonight, who is going to do the dishes this week, am I getting the affection that I want. The relationship message refers to what is occurring interpersonally between you as you talk about the various content areas. A relationship message says something about the connection between you and your spouse. Conflicts can occur because one of you misunderstands the relationship message and fails to clarify the difference between this and the content message.
Here are some examples of statements in which a relationship message is misunderstood:
|MESSAGE||WHAT YOU HEARD
(Misunderstood Relationship Message)
|HOW TO CLARIFY THE MESSAGE|
|Husband from other room, “You’re calling me?”||“Don’t bother me.”||Go into other room and ask for what you want.|
|Husband says “You paid $100 for that?”||“I can’t believe you did that?||Ask, “Are you concerned about what I spent?”|
|Wife says to husband, “And that’s all you did?”||“You really should have done more.”||Ask “Would you like me to explain why I did what I did?”|
Misunderstanding relationship messages typically occurs because you and your spouse are responding personally to the way in which the content message is said, e.g. the tone of voice, the context of the message, or emphasis on particular words. You will be able to recognize when you are likely misunderstanding the relationship message because of your own personal reaction, i.e. getting irritated, angry, upset, etc. In the three instances in the table, the way to clarify the message is to respond to the content of the message not your experience of the relationship message. If you seek to clarify the content of the message, you will be able to talk about any ambiguity about the relationship message.
It is also the case that sometimes you will use a relationship message to convey some covert feeling that you are harboring about the relationship. In the examples above, “And that’s all you did?” can be said with a tone that implies a critique of what was done. It is up to you both to be aware of any hidden relationship messages you are trying to (mis)communicate. If you respond to a perceived negative relationship message in a non-reactive way, you open the way to be able to talk about what you perceive as a negative relationship message.
Communication is Inevitable
That communication is inevitable refers to the idea that in interaction with other people you are always communicating in one way or another even when you think you are not. When you don’t respond to a question your wife/husband asks, you are communicating something. What occurs in this situation, is your spouse will likely interpret your silence as a relationship message, which may create a disconnect between the two of you. It is best to understand that you cannot not communicate.
Communication and Gender
We return again to ideas about gender that can get in the way of creating and maintaining an equal relationship. In order to get beyond gender stereotypes in communication, we need to say what they are. Here are a few stereotypic ideas about how men and women communicate:
- Communication matters more to women than me
- Women talk more than men
- Women have better verbal skills than men
- Men talk in order to get things done; women talk to make connection with other
- Men talk about things, women talk about people, relationships, and feelings
- Men use language in order to provide information, preserve their independence and compete to maintain status; women use language to enhance cooperation, reflecting their preference for equality and harmony
- Women tend to soften their statements by using tag phrases (e.g. “don’t you think”, “if you don’t mind”); men are more direct
These old ideas about how men and women communicative became dogma, i.e., unquestioned articles of faith, with the publication of John Gray’s “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” and Deborah Tannen’s “You Just Don’t Understand”. Tannen is a well-respected linguist who publicly defends these communication differences between men and women despite the fact they are widely disputed by 30 some years of research on language, communication and the sexes.
However, most of us do not read scientific journals; we read popular books like Gray’s and Tannen’s. Even when a retraction is made about a gender stereotype published in the popular press (e.g. the statement that women say 20,000 words a day while men say about 7,000 in The Female Brain by Louann Brizendine, MD) the false belief continues because they become part of the stereotyped narrative about women and men, usually with a negative view of women.
A close study of Tannen’s work done by Alice Freed, Professor Emmerita of Linguistics at Montclair State University shows that she (Tannen) is actually an apologist for men. She excuses their insensitivities in her examples as part of their “need for independence”. She emphasizes the importance of women adjusting to men’s need for status and independence.
In Tannen’s book “You Just Don’t Understand” we can read about Josh, who invites an old high-school friend who is visiting from another town to spend a weekend with him and his wife, Linda. The visit is to begin immediately upon Linda’s return from a week’s business trip but Josh doesn’t first discuss the invitation with her. Tannen describes Linda as being upset by his failure to do so, her feelings being hurt. According to Tannen, Linda’s hurt feelings would disappear if only she understood that for Josh to ask permission would imply that he is not independent, not free to act on his own. He would feel controlled by Linda’s wish to be consulted
This is a glaring example of a person of authority, a linguist, buying into the old gender stereotype that women must defer to men in order not to threaten their egos.
Crosschecking with your partner is not “seeking permission”. It is being willing to negotiate with your spouse what works for both of you. If Josh feels “controlled”, he needs to take an inventory of that experience. By the way, Tannen also relies on the old notion that “hurt feelings” are what is important to Linda. What is important to Linda, is that Josh was unwilling to negotiate with her about what he wanted. Tannen is using her status as an academic to promote stereotypic ideas based on anecdotal material, i.e. stories like the one described above. She uses these anecdotal stories as a basis for sweeping generalizations about men and women.
To have an equal and sustainable marriage depends on your willingness and ability to confront such old gender ideas and to establish yourselves as individuals not as a category.
Here are the takeaways from this post:
- You can become competent in communicating collaboratively
- Approach conversations with your spouse by unilaterally disarming
- Be prepared to talk about your thoughts, feelings, and ideas; stay away from getting focused on your partner
- Be prepared to listen to your spouse’s thoughts, feelings, and ideas with interest
- If you react to or misinterpret relationship messages, there will be trouble
- Clarify content message to clarify relationship message misunderstandings
- Be on guard against old gender stereotypes about communication between men and women.
- You are both individual people, not a category
Deborah Cameron, “What language barrier? The Guardian (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2007/oct/01/gender.books)
Bobbi Carothers and Harry Reis, “Men Are from
Mars Earth, Women Are from Venus Earth” University of Rochester (http://www.rochester.edu/news/show.php?id=5382)
Communication Between Couples: How to Communicate in a Relationship. PSYCHALIVE (http://www.psychalive.org/communication-between-couples/)
Freed, Alice F. (1992). “We Understand Perfectly: A Critique of Tannen’s View of Cross-sex Communication”. In Hall, Kira, Mary Bucholtz and Birch Moonwomon (Eds.) Locating power: Proceedings of the second Berkeley women and language conference (vol.1). Berkeley: Berkeley Women and Language Group. 144-152.