Takeaway for Comm PostAn 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.

Collaborative CommunicationID-10045230

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

  1. 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.
  2. Set a time when you both can have a conversation about the topic.
  3. 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.
  4. 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:

  1. In your conversation, stick to your thoughts and feelings. Don’t get sidetracked by accusing, criticizing, or blaming your partner.
  2. 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”.
  3. What you want in your relationship may reflect old issues from your personal history. Be sure to continually “vet” your wants and wishes.
  4. 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.
  5. 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:

  1. Listening is about your spouse who really wants to be heard. It really isn’t about you.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?”
  4. 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.


ID-10095377 (1)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:


(Misunderstood Relationship 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 (

Bobbi Carothers and Harry Reis, “Men Are from Mars Earth, Women Are from Venus Earth” University of Rochester (

Communication Between Couples:  How to Communicate in a Relationship.  PSYCHALIVE (

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.




When you take something your spouse does personally, you are reacting not responding.  That personal reaction indicates that you are feeling “threatened”.  The feeling of threat is an ill-defined feeling of “not being good enough” in some way, not important enough, not smart enough, not respected enough, not good-looking enough etc., etc., etc.

In general, we first experience such feelings of personal, psychological threat during our childhood experiences with parents and others.   As youngsters, we develop strategic patterns that we use to avoid such threatening feelings of not being good enough.  Obviously, we are not aware that we are trying to protect ourselves.  These self-protective strategies are the way we try to manage interpersonal situations so as to avoid or minimize our sense of threat.

Self-protective strategies or defenses are designed to ward off threatening feelings.

Defenses detract from your ability to engage effectively with your spouse.   When you are seeking self-protection, you do not have the capacity to engage in a positive interaction.   To try to manage your own sense of vulnerability by the vain attempt to maneuver other people, particularly your spouse, is neither psychologically healthy nor effective.  Generally, such self-protective strategies are explained to oneself and to others as appropriate interpersonal actions, which are designed to justify the self-protective strategy.

The most effective way to deal with one’s own vulnerabilities is through self-reflection, self-awareness, and self-management or self-regulation.

Examples of Self-Protective Strategies

Some examples of self-protective strategies are control, ingratiation, perfectionism, withdrawal, evaluating others, being over responsible, being compliant, and being driven.  Check out the Box on Self-Protective Strategies for definitions and the rationales we use to justify them.

I prefer the term “self-protective strategies” to “defenses” because most people think of the common Freudian (Anna not Sigmund) defenses of denial, repression, regression, projection, intellectualization, rationalization, and sublimation.  These defenses are used to protect our self from our self (our ego from our id).  I am identifying strategies we use to protect our self from perceived attack, criticism, rejection, etc. from our spouse.

Managing Your Self Protective Strategies

Of course, the first step in managing your self-protective strategies is to recognize what they are.  You are likely to think that the particular strategy or strategies you use are due to your temperament or personality.  We attribute a lot to personality that is more often a self-protective strategy.  As you become more willing to be self-reflective, beginning with recognizing and managing taking things personally, you will begin to recognize the patterns of self-protection that you use to avoid feeling insecure.

When you first make the attempt to be more self-reflective, it will seem awkward and you will feel very self-absorbed.  Over time, new approaches to communicating with your spouse will become more second nature and require less attention.

Self-Protective Strategies 1

More Self-Protective Strategies




DISAGREEMENT IS NOT CONFLICTLots of people use the words disagreement and conflict interchangeably.  To do this ignores very important differences between these two types of interactions between people.

When you disagree with someone, it is about something.  It’s about who is going to do what task at work; it’s about where to get the car serviced; it’s about how to discipline a child; it’s about which movie to see this evening.  Disagreements are about content, the what in your interaction with another person. ID-10088140

The defining element of a disagreement is that you are talking to each other.  Because you are talking to each other, you can negotiate a resolution of the disagreement.  You can compromise, one of you can make an accommodation to the other, or you can agree to disagree.  And, most importantly, after the disagreement, you are both still talking to each other.

That is not usually the case when there is a conflict between you and another person.  When you are in conflict with someone, the assumptions you are making about each other are hidden and the feelings are strong.  In a conflict, you are not talking, you are yelling, avoiding, or talking over each other.  In a conflict:

  • Issues will not be resolved
  • Misunderstandings are not resolved
  • No benefits accrue to the relationship through negotiation of issues

While disagreements are resolved through negotiation, conflict is managed through self-reflection and personal accountability.


The first clue is how you are feeling.  Too often, when you feel angry, for instance, you are set to “blame” the other person, e.g. “I am angry because you are not doing your fair share of the work.”   That is, something you have done has caused me to feel angry at you; and it’s normal for me to feel angry at you.   This scenario of thinking others “cause” us to be angry (hurt, fearful, pissed, anxious, etc.) and describing this as normal is really the basis for having a conflict.  It is more accurate to describe an angry (hurt, fearful, pissed, anxious) reaction as ‘automatic’ rather than ‘normal’.  Calling such emotional reactions ‘normal’ is typically used to justify acting out that emotion rather than reflecting on the situation.ID-10067169 (1)

If you act when you are feeling angry, hurt, fearful, pissed toward someone, you are setting up the situation to have a conflict.  Usually what happens is, you react (act badly) by yelling, shutting down, etc., which increases the likelihood the other person will feel angry, hurt, fearful, etc. and react in turn.   Now you two have a conflict.  Whatever the issue (not doing an assigned task, e.g.), the conflict is now about how you both are feeling toward each other and the negative assumptions you are making about each other.  The issue now is that he is a shirker and she is off on one of her emotional binges. This is now a conflict about who is right, who has injured the other, who is the worse employee.  It is not a disagreement about work loads.

The method to resolve conflict is for each person to be self-reflective and personally accountable for his/her part in the breakdown of the interaction.


Enhance your emotional intelligence

Certain emotions such as anger and fear along with the catchall emotion of hurt, tell you that you are reacting personally to the interpersonal situation.  Such emotions are associated with the release of the corticotropin-releasing hormone (CHR) along with other hormones and neurotransmitters including epinephrine (adrenaline), norepinephrine, and dopamine, all of which ready you for a fight or flight response.  Daniel Goleman who developed the idea of emotional intelligence, views such emotions as a quick response system that pushes you to react to a person or situation without appropriate reflection on what is going on interpersonally.  If you act on these emotions, you will not behave well.

Recognize your personal take on the situation

Your ‘quick response system’ will also make a quick ‘interpretation’ of the situation that will be based more on your own history than on the current situation.  That is, you will ‘characterize’ the other person’s action in terms of what it means to you personally.

In the example, “I am angry because you are not doing your fair share of the work.”, you are characterizing the others behavior as “unfair”.  This is your experience of the situation, taken without talking to your co-worker about how he/she sees the situation.  Others rarely, if ever, experience their own actions in the same way that you characterize it.  That sense of “unfairness” in the example above is your personal experience of the situation.  And, you should examine what about ‘fairness/unfairness’ is significant for you on a personal level.  One way to be self-reflective about how things feel personal to you is The Downward Arrow Technique (If You Lose Your Pen, You will Die).  A good quick use of this technique is at (, try it.

Learn to describe not characterize

Now that you get it…i.e., “I am angry because you are not doing your fair share of the work.” indicates your personal experience of a situation, what is the alternative?  Given that you recognize your personal take on the situation, and have given yourself time to reflect, you are in a position to assess the way in with the situation is problematic for you.  Once you identify the problem, you can describe it to the other person leading the way to a negotiation of a possible disagreement.

In the situation presented, you may see that your co-worker is not doing all the work assigned to him/her, is not completing work assigned, is doing other than assigned work.  The problem is that this affects the work of others, including you, in the office.  All of these assessments are descriptions of what may be occurring that are creating a problem for you at the work situation.  All of these descriptions pose ways to address the work problem.  Such descriptions of problems open that way for negotiation.

It may not always work out; negotiation may not be possible because the other person reacts or does not want to negotiate work tasks.  You may have to go some other route, e.g. speak to a manager, go to human resources, etc.  However, you have acted well, congratulations!


The same principles of disagreement and conflict apply to intimate relationships, even more so because you want this relationship to continue.  Take a look at this post Conflict in Marriage for how these ideas apply to your marriage.


It really takes a lot of effort to be emotionally intelligent and to recognize your own personal take on situations.  The more you can do this, the better interpersonal relationships you can have.  Even if others do not always respond well to your efforts, you know you have done well.  And, perhaps most importantly, it stops the development of a conflict between you and the other person.