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.



Escape and Avoidance StrategiesRats are one of the animals used in testing the Theory of Learning in Psychology known as Operant Conditioning or Skinnerian Conditioning.  A major finding of this approach to how we learn things is what is called “Escape and Avoidance Learning”.  Escape conditioning refers to the situation in which a rat learns to “escape” a noxious stimulus, i.e. a rat learns to jump off an electrified platform into water when a shock is turned on.  This is the “get me out of here” or “shut this thing off” response.

The rat can learn very quickly that it can “avoid” being shocked if it jumps off the electrified platform before the shock is turned on, when it gets a cue that the shock is coming.

Avoidance behaviors are incredibly persistent; they continue to happen long after there is no longer anything to avoid.  The rat will jump off the platform at the sound of the cue long after the shock generator is turned off, even if the experimenter never turns it on again.  What keeps the avoidance behavior going is the relief the rat experiences as it jumps off the platform.

We human demonstrate the same “escape-avoidance” kind of learning in the face of a noxious stimulus.  Our human noxious stimulus is feeling “threatened” in an interpersonal situation.  Feeling threatened, often signaled by feeling angry, irritated, miffed, hurt, anxious, and/or fearful, is the dreaded sense of being exposed as inadequate in some way.ID-100390114

There is ample evidence that childhood experiences, such as not being attended to by a parent, are recorded in some form in our memory and can be evoked in our adult interactions.   Such experiences are frequently evoked in our adult intimate relationships because we expect extra consideration from our spouse.   Married couples, thus, are particularly vulnerable to experiencing the dreaded feeling of “not being good enough”,” not being important enough”, “not being worthy”, not recognized enough”, “not valued enough”; experiences elicited first in childhood when a child perceives his/her parent is not caring, loving, and keeping her/him safe.

The most common indicator of feeling threatened occurs when we “take things personally”.   The threat comes from our own sense of inadequacy or insecurity. We all suffer from such feelings; this is not a sign of some psychological malady or impairment.  It is a consequence of the cognitive and emotional limitations of childhood that we all experience at some time in some way.

In those situations in which you find yourself feeling threatened, you will recognize your “escape” responses.  You will either do something to “get me out of here” (the flight reaction, e.g. shut down verbally, leave the room) or something to “shut this thing off” (the fight reaction, e.g. yelling, threatening retaliation).

ID-100213963No wonder we develop defenses, which are our “avoidance” actions, in order not to have to continually “escape” obnoxious experiences that cause us to feel really badly (insecure and inadequate) and cause us to behave so badly toward others.

I prefer the term “self-protective strategies” to “defenses” for these “avoidance” strategies 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 and others.

An example of a self-protective strategy is “perfectionism” in which we try to avoid being corrected or criticized by doing things “correctly”,” logically”,” in the right way”.  Being corrected or criticized elicits strong feelings of insecurity and inadequacy.

You can find other examples of the self-protective strategies we develop from the time we are very young to try to “avoid” the noxious feeling of being threatened in my previous post “Protecting Yourself from Threat”.

Managing Your “Escape” and “Avoidance” TacticsID-100374272

Personal insecurities that elicit “escape” tactics are not set in stone.  Don’t waste your time trying to overcome or get rid of them.  Personal insecurities are manageable and modifiable with effort on your part.  Here are some suggestions:

Regularly taking a personal inventory using the Inventory shown at the bottom of the post. Keep a journal of the kinds of insecurities that tend to show up in your inventories.  They will emerge under the inventory heading of “What is the threat?”  Once you can recognize such themes of insecurity, you will more easily manage them effectively.

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 because these are old patterns we learned when we were younger.  Just like our lab rat, these strategies bring us immediate relief when we use them even though they are ineffective and unhealthy long-term strategies.  Here are some suggestions on how to manage these ineffective interpersonal strategies:

Look at the Rationale column of the list of self-protective strategies in my previous post “PROTECTING YOURSELF FROM THREAT”.  This column describes the way you think about yourself, e.g., “I am a quiet person” or “I am a nice person”.  Look at the Interpersonal Goal column, which describes what your strategy is and what you are trying to protect yourself from.  Your spouse or someone close to you may be able to help you identify these strategies because they directly affect him/her.

Become more willing to be self-reflective by both recognizing when you are taking things personally and recognizing the patterns of self-protection that you use to avoid feeling insecure and/or inadequate.  The payoffs to you personally and to your relationship will be dramatic.  When you first make the attempt to be more self-reflective, it will seem awkward and you will feel very self-absorbed.  Over time, you can learn new approaches to communicating interpersonally with your spouse and others, which will become more second nature and your old patterns will require less attention.