A good marriage thrives on the open exchange of emotion, desires, and beliefs. In fact, communication is one of the most important aspects of a satisfying marriage. Most marriages go through rough times, which can change the way spouses communicate with each other. Many couples develop bad habits and create destructive patterns when things aren’t going well.
How Does Communication Work?
Many people in troubled marriages say, “We just don’t communicate anymore.” Most likely, they mean to say that they don’t communicate effectively anymore. The truth is that people are communicating all the time. Even two people giving each other the silent treatment are communicating with each other.
This article will focus on five common pathways of communication within marriage:
- the context of the situation
- nonverbal physical expression (behavior, facial expressions, gestures, etc)
- spoken or written communication
It’s easy just to focus on words, but that’s only a fraction of the information couples share back and forth. In the next section, you’ll read an example of a potentially difficult situation for a married couple. Look for all the different ways information is being communicated in the story below.
Marriage Communication: Is Yours Effective?
We are constantly giving out signals that other people can pick up. Your family can usually tell when you are stressed out, relaxed, happy, or sad. You may not have to say a word to convey a message accurately. Take a look at the following example to understand this better.
You suddenly don’t feel well in the middle of the afternoon. You notice you have a runny nose and you feel really tired. You lay down on the couch, thinking you might just need a quick nap to help you feel better. Your spouse is initially upset to find the house messy when he or she comes home from work. But once he or she sees you lying on the couch asleep with a box of tissues next to you, his or her entire demeanor and understanding of the situation instantly changes.
You had been giving out the same “I’m sick” messages all afternoon while no one else was home. Once your spouse came in the door, he or she was able to pick up your messages and process them. He or she was forming a long list of complaints while walking in the door, but tossed them aside after seeing you on the couch.
Let’s see what happens when the situation becomes more complex. What if you and your spouse were selling your house and you were expecting visitors shortly after your spouse got home from work? Would leaving you to sleep really be the best decision? The bigger context of the situation would probably cause your spouse to go against his or her initial feelings of compassion and wake you up anyway.
Without waking you up, they may not know how sick you really are. You’d have to give them more verbal information to clarify your situation. If it seemed you were too sick to clean up in time, you and your spouse might decide to postpone the house-showing appointment. If you felt a lot better and you worked together quickly, the appointment might be saved. In this case, waking you would be the most compassionate move because something bigger would be at stake.
Different Types of Communication Happening All At Once
So what kinds of communication happened in the above situation? The first messages your spouse would have received were nonverbal. Your normal behavior would be to have a clean house, and since this didn’t happen your spouse could conclude something was wrong. Instead of being awake as expected, you were asleep. You also had a box of tissues nearby. These are signals that told your spouse a lot before you were even conscious.
Once your spouse woke you, they would have seen a tired, miserable expression on your face. Don’t underestimate the power of facial expressions. Many people don’t realize how much information gets shared in this way alone. And finally, you would have provided detailed information about how you felt. Your description would have told how things went downhill during the afternoon, leading you to take an unexpectedly long nap on the couch.
Your spouse can come to his or her own conclusions by using all of these clues together. If your spouse trusts how your words and behaviors match, they can move forward with you. Your spouse may have some frustration about changing the appointment, but they will also have a clear sense of empathy for your sudden illness.
How Poor Marriage Communication Changes The Whole Picture
If you and your spouse had poor communication, this situation might have a very different outcome. Frustration, mistrust, tension, and defensiveness can intensify your conflict.
Your spouse might be very upset that you didn’t call, or might think you could be faking or exaggerating your illness.
You might believe your spouse is just looking for ways to put you down, even when you clearly don’t feel well and didn’t expect to sleep so long. Poor communication skills can perpetuate destructive patterns. You’ll find it difficult to work through emotions and solve problems.
Remember how many troubled couples say they aren’t communicating? It’s easy to see how this just isn’t true. You and your spouse are communicating all the time, even when things aren’t going well. The problem lies with the way people pick up on messages and respond to them. Each spouse has the responsibility to be as accurate as possible when communicating.
Marriage Communication Is Complex: Learning More
Communication is a lot more complex than most people believe. It can be challenging to juggle all the information coming at you. When you are calm, take a closer look at a typical fight between you and your spouse. Try to pick out the different types of information you are giving your spouse during the conflict. Take what you learn and do something different the next time this fight happens.
Better yet, sit down with your spouse when you are both calm and talk about your communication problems for that fight (not the topic itself). This can open up a whole new understanding of the problem for both of you. Keep learning about the way you communicate to get your marriage moving in the right direction.
Ahmadi, K., et al. (2010). Effect of family problem-solving on marital satisfaction (PDF). Journal of Applied Science, 1-6.