Learning How to Talk to Your Spouse
By: Dr. Meir Wikler
Four communication skills essential for success in marriage.
A number of years ago, a nationally syndicated cartoon ran the following comic strip. Two men are sitting at a bar drinking beer. While his friend pays rapt attention, one of the men shares a recent personal revelation. “If I had known what marriage was going to be like, I would have joined the debating team in high school.”
Hopefully for most people, marriage is not one long debate. But there are times in every marriage when spouses feel that they are not communicating effectively with each other.
The most obvious example is when couples are quarreling or fighting much too often. A less obvious, but not less common, example of ineffective communication is when one or both spouses feels misunderstood, unappreciated, disregarded or disrespected.
When couples are not communicating effectively, when they are not getting most of their basic needs met in the marriage, I try to teach them one or more of the following four communication skills, which I believe are essential to success in marriage.
Being deficient in even one of these skills can significantly limit what you and your spouse can achieve in your relationship. Being deficient in more than one of these skills can put any marriage at risk.
- EXPRESSING NEGATIVE FEELINGS CONSTRUCTIVELY
“Negative feelings” refers to those feelings which we generally do not enjoy hearing from others. They include: bitterness, resentment, disappointment and disapproval.
Just as there can be no hot without cold and no up without down, so too there can be no positive without negative. In order to have a successful marriage, therefore, it is necessary for you to know how to effectively express the inevitable negative feelings that you have towards your spouse. If, however, you express your negative feelings in an uncontrolled outburst of violent rage, the consequences for the rest of your family can be devastating. But even if your negative feelings are vented in a more controlled fashion, i.e. if you use sarcasm, ridicule or verbal assaults, the communication will be anything but effective.
Negative feelings have to be expressed in order for couples to be able to adapt and adjust to each other’s needs. Holding in all negative feelings will do more harm than good, as tension builds up like an old fashioned pressure cooker.
Aaron is a good example of someone who never learned how to express negative feelings without attacking. Whenever he was upset about something his wife Sarah did or said, he would lash out at her with such venom in his voice and rage on his face that she was terrified. The next day, he would sulk in shame and embarrassment, promising himself and his wife that such outbursts would never be repeated.
One day, Aaron kept swallowing in every comment which Sarah made to him which he felt was disrespectful, derogatory or demeaning. Then, as he was standing in the kitchen, Sarah “stepped over his line” one more time by criticizing him in a manner which he felt was unfair.
Aaron could not control himself any longer. He “calmly” walked over to the sink, took the bottle of dishwashing liquid and squeezed some of it into the pot of spaghetti Sarah was cooking on the stove. Then he stormed out of the house.
Aaron mistakenly thought he could maintain peace at home simply by restraining all of his negative feelings. Many months after the soap-in-the-spaghetti episode, Aaron was still trying to pick up the pieces of the shattered trust between him and Sarah.
So what did Aaron do wrong? What mistakes did he make? And how should he have communicated to Sarah what was bothering him?
Rule #1: Don’t exaggerate. Aaron was used to using words such as “always” and “never,” which were clearly exaggerations.
Exaggerating helped Aaron let of steam, for sure. Nevertheless, by exaggerating his complaints, Aaron only succeeded in causing Sarah to tune him out. “I don’t always do that,” Sarah would think and sometimes say out loud, thereby convincing Aaron that he was, indeed, not being heard.
Rule #2: Don’t mindread. Nothing is more infuriating than to be told that someone else knows better than you what you were really thinking. In spite of what you say to the contrary, someone is convinced that you had malicious motives or harmful intentions.
Rule #3: Use more “I” statements and less “You” statements. A criticism which begins with, “You…” generally introduces a comment which is perceived as an attack. For example, “You don’t show me enough appreciation for all the housework that I do.”
Sarah did not feel that she received enough appreciation from Aaron. And she was right. But by beginning her complaint with, “You…” she was eliciting more defensiveness in Aaron than empathy.
It would have been more effective if Sarah expressed her hurt feelings of being unappreciated with “I” statements, such as, “I wish you would acknowledge more often how much work I do at home to take care of you and the children.”
Rule #4: Don’t generalize. Be specific and try to give examples.
Vague, broad generalizations may make you feel that you have been all inclusive. It may even reassure you that you haven’t left anything out. But while it may be very satisfying for the one venting his or her anger, it makes it difficult for your spouse to hear you.
- LISTENING TO NEGATIVE FEELINGS NON-DEFENSILVELY
Hopefully, you realize that you are not the only one with negative feelings. Just as there are things your spouse does which bother you, there are things that you do which drive your spouse absolutely crazy. Whoops, I may have just broken Rule #1, above. On the other hand, in your particular case, it may not be an exaggeration at all!
In order to complete the communication loop so that messages are properly sent and received, it is necessary for all spouses to learn how to listen to negative feelings without becoming defensive. This is much harder than learning how to express negative feelings effectively. Nevertheless, for a marriage to succeed, both spouses must be able to hear each other’s complaints without defensiveness.
“I only meant to…,” “Do you know why I said that?” and “Well, you’ve done the same thing to me plenty of times,” are all common examples of defensiveness.
What’s wrong with being defensive? Isn’t it a good thing to explain your actions and “set the record straight”?
Being defensive signals to your spouse that you are only concerned with being vindicated and not concerned about your spouse’s feelings.
No, it’s not a good thing. When you start listing all of the reasons why you shouldn’t be blamed for some misdeed, you signal to your spouse that you are only concerned with being vindicated and you are not at all concerned about your spouse’s feelings.
Suppose you were put in charge of keeping an eye on some chicken in the broiler. And you goofed. It got burned. Your spouse comes into the kitchen sniffing the air and says, “I smell smoke. Is something burning?”
You reply, calmly, “No, there’s nothing burning. The chicken just got a little too well done.”
“Well done?” your spouse fumes, looking at the crispy, black chicken in the broiler pan. “You call this well done? It’s burnt.”
“Oh, come on, don’t be so fussy,” you say trying to downplay your error. “It’s just the spices on top that got a little black. There’s nothing wrong with the chicken. I love it like this.”
“But I specifically asked you to keep an eye on the chicken so it wouldn’t burn. How could you let this happen?”
Yes, you made a mistake. But, no, it wasn’t the end of the world. And, no, it wasn’t worth getting all worked up about. But if your spouse is disappointed that the chicken was cooked longer than expected, by your trying to defend yourself, you are downplaying your spouse’s feelings. Your spouse will get the impression that his or her feelings don’t count, aren’t important and, as far as you are concerned, are not worthy of consideration.
In short, defensiveness on your part only pours grease on the fires of your spouse’s temper. It makes your spouse feel unheard and disregarded.
Hold on there, you are thinking. If my spouse is upset because of something I did or did not do, then he or she needs to know the reasons for my actions immediately. Right?
Wrong. In order to assign blame or to pass judgment on you, your spouse needs to take all of the extenuating circumstances into consideration. But if your spouse needs to vent hurt feelings of frustration or disappointment, the extenuating circumstances are totally irrelevant.
- EXPRESSING POSITIVE FEELINGS WITHOUT INHIBITION
The term “positive feelings” refers to such emotions as: affection and warmth, appreciation and approval, admiration and respect. They are called positive because they usually generate positive reactions in people who experience these feelings, as well as in people to whom these feelings are directed. It is no wonder, then, that many of the words to describe positive feelings begin with the letter “A.”
Unfortunately, in western society, people are much more experienced with negative feelings than they are with positive feelings. In school, we were criticized much more often than we were praised. At home, we were punished or reprimanded more often than we were rewarded. And as we were growing up, we had many more opportunities to witness the adults around us venting their fury and frustration than we had to witness them expressing affection and admiration.
As a result of this imbalanced exposure to negative feelings, most people had many more opportunities to learn how to express negative emotions than they did positive ones. So by the time they reach adulthood, they have a greater fluency in the language of negative feelings than they have in the language of positive feelings.
In order to succeed in marriage, both spouses must be able to freely express a wide range of positive feelings to each other.
It is not surprising, therefore, that when these adults marry they find it easier to tell their spouses what they do not like about them than what they do like. Consequently, an important lubricant in human relations is missing.
As I often tell the couples with whom I work, a relationship can be compared to a bank account. If your deposits exceed your withdrawals, your account remains active. If your withdrawals exceed your deposits, your checks will bounce and your account will be closed.
Similarly, if your compliments exceed your complaints, your spouse will pay attention to your grievances. But if your complaints exceed your compliments, your criticism will fall on deaf ears.
In order to succeed in marriage, therefore, both spouses must be able to freely express a wide range of positive feelings to each other.
- LISTENING TO POSITIVE FEELINGS WITH AWKWARDNESS
Some people can never accept a compliment. If someone tries to commend them, they change the subject, look away, blush, cough nervously or all of the above. They find it easier to praise others and often do. But whey they are on the receiving end of positive feelings, they openly display their discomfort.
Danielle and Avi had reached the boiling point in their marriage. For the first time in their 19 years of marriage, Avi had used the “D” word. Avi had always considered himself happily married and was even surprised to hear himself utter it. Danielle was devastated.
Significant, long standing in-law and parenting conflicts practically melted away in the months that followed, as Avi and Danielle learned how to speak and listen to each other more effectively.
“This would be a good opportunity for you both to practice expressing your positive feelings to each other,” I suggested.
Avi was delighted. Danielle squirmed in her seat. I warned them both that it might require some practice and recommended they begin in my office.
Avi volunteered that he always felt frustrated by Danielle’s discomfort with praise. For that reason, he jumped at the opportunity to be the first speaker.
“I really admire how well you manage our home and take care of the kids,” Avi began enthusiastically. “Whenever they go out, they always look so neat and well dressed. Some kids you see on the street look poorly taken care of but I always feel proud of how our children look.”
Danielle’s face was visibly flushed. She started giggling nervously and then turned to me. “He is only saying that now because you told him to.”
“Dr. Wikler may have instructed me to praise you now,” Avi countered, “but those are my true feelings.”
Turning to Danielle, I observed, “It seems that you are not comfortable hearing someone compliment you.”
Danielle then revealed that she grew up in a “European” home where children were never praised directly. Her parents would occasionally praise Danielle and her siblings to neighbors or other relatives. It was considered “spoiling” children, however, to offer them any direct approval. “If we did not get punished or scolded,” Danielle explained, “it meant we were well behaved.”
It took another few weeks of communication exercises, both at home and in my office, for Danielle and Avi to achieve a relative comfort level in expressing their own and listening to each other’s positive feelings. And when we met for our termination, or wrap-up, session, Danielle acknowledged how she felt about this aspect of the therapy.
“When you first asked us to express positive feelings here in your office, I thought you were out of your mind. And I thought to myself, ‘I’m never going to be able to do this.’ But, then, I thought a lot about what you said – that my being unable to accept compliments hurts Avi – and I decided to trust your judgment.
“Now that we’ve been expressing positive feelings to each other for the past few weeks, I see how important this is. I see how you were so right. This positive feelings business adds a dimension to our relationship that I never thought possible… And, yes…, we are much closer, now.”