Better Communication in Marriage to Promote Understanding
Do you communicate to your spouse what you want in a direct, clear, and positive way? Learning to do so can help your spouse to enjoy talking with you more and help you get more of what you want from your spouse.
What do you usually do when your spouse is doing something you don’t like? If you are like many people, either you say nothing or you say something negative.
The problem with saying nothing is that nothing improves. Another problem with saying nothing is that you will become increasingly resentful.
If you say something negative, that is actually worse than saying nothing. Not only will it make your spouse defensive, but it will actually make your relationship worse.
Perhaps, if you were critical enough, you could get your spouse to give up some behavior you don’t like. But, instead of that, you would get more rejection and other behaviors you don’t like.
If you then said something negative about those behaviors, you would be making your relationship still worse. You would be criticizing your relationship to death. Sharing what we don’t like with our spouse is criticism. While it does give information, it does so at the expense of our relationship. This is why I do NOT encourage my clients to tell their spouses things they don’t like about them.
Another problem with saying what you don’t like
Besides causing distance in your relationship, criticism doesn’t clearly communicate what you do want. Your spouse will have to figure that out. Most spouses are so busy being defensive they don’t have the mental resources to think about what to do instead.
Consider this criticism–“You left the light on in the bathroom again.” It is easy to guess that what you want is the light to be turned off in the bathroom each time after it is used. But this criticism also conveys disapproval or condescension, which are damaging to your marriage. Instead of thinking about the light or the electricity, your spouse is more likely to think about how bad you are.
Which of these ways of thinking is more likely with your spouse?
Example 1: My spouse has a good point about the light. It does waste electricity and it would be better if I am careful to turn it off. Or
Example 2: Nothing I do is ever good enough. I can’t wait to get to work just so I don’t have to listen to more of that!
Notice that the second example does not create any thinking about what you don’t like (leaving the light on), but does create reciprocal negative thinking about you.
On the off chance that your spouse thanks you for your criticisms and corrections, you don’t need to learn any more. This is true for my clients about zero percent of the time.
Are you a fuzzy requester?
Fuzzy requesters are much less critical and that’s a good thing. They do less damage to their relationships, but don’t necessarily get more of what they want. Let’s suppose your husband is staying up using the computer each night instead of going to bed with you and that it bothers you. Here are two poor ways of expressing that:
Criticizing: “John, you always want to spend time with the computer instead of sleeping with me.”
Fuzzy Request: “John, I wish we could sleep together like we used to.”
The criticism way is downright negative and will make John defensive. John is not likely to say it was very inconsiderate of him and that he will change immediately. If you tend to criticize, predict for yourself how your spouse is likely to respond to your criticism. If you are sure it is going to be negative, then find another way.
Don’t use your words to attack your spouse. That won’t help get you what you want, but it will make your relationship worse.
The fuzzy request also doesn’t create change. It expresses your dissatisfaction, much the same way as criticism. It can also make your spouse defensive, may help to convince your spouse of a bad relationship, or may just make your spouse ignore you.
People who frequently express dissatisfaction get tuned out. Complaining, like criticism, is one of the eight relationship killing needy behaviors.
The example communication John, I wish we could sleep together like we used to is fuzzy because John would have to guess what you really mean. Does “wishing” it mean that you realize that you can’t, and that’s too bad? Does “like we used to” mean having sex every night like when you were first married? Does it mean you sleep on the left side of the bed and he sleeps on the right? When two people remember how things used to be, they may be remembering different things.
Dissatisfied people often focus so much on what they don’t want, they often don’t figure out exactly what they do want. So they can’t communicate it, they can’t make plans, and they can’t take actions.
Counseling is a place for talking about what you don’t want, so you can get support and feel better. Coaching is a place where you talk about what you do want, so you can make a plan, and take actions.
Before complaining to your spouse, figure out exactly what it is that you do want. Then, you will be much more likely to say that than what you don’t want.
Let’s look at how you could express the previous example in a clearer way:
Clear communication: “John, I want to go to bed with you every night.”
This communication is clear and it is neither a demand, nor a complaint. In addition, it expresses a positive desire. What really surprises many people is that simply learning to say things this way can get them more of what they want from their spouse.
Here are some more examples of negative, fuzzy and clear, positive communication.
Fuzzy and negative:
“I wish you would do something with your dirty clothes.”
“I want you to put your dirty clothes in the hamper at the time you take them off.”
Fuzzy and negative:
“I wish you would be more careful about how you use the credit cards.”
Clear and positive:
“I want us to make a budget so we can have more money to enjoy with each other.”
While it is not always possible to be both clear and positive, just being clear without being negative can get us more of what we want. This is especially true if we are making our spouse feel loved the rest of the time.
People will usually work hard to please a loving spouse. On the other hand, they may intentionally reject and displease a critical spouse.
Have realistic expectations to get real results
If you communicate clearly, your requests are reasonable, and you are being a loving spouse the rest of the time, you will get a lot of what you want, though not everything you want. You would not get everything you wanted no matter who you were married to.
And, if you are thinking, “I shouldn’t have to ask,” then you are out of touch with reality. If your spouse is not doing something you want, and it is reasonable, then you do have to ask. If you don’t like to ask, that is an issue for you to work on. The Bible says that we don’t have what we want because we don’t ask God or we ask with the wrong motives (James 4: 2-3). If God, who already knows everything needs to be asked, how much more so your spouse who is often clueless!
If your spouse ever complains about not being a mind-reader, then you can be pretty sure you are not clearly communicating what you want.
“But, what if my spouse doesn’t do what I request?”
Asking your spouse, no matter how clearly and positively, doesn’t obligate your spouse to do anything. It is the first thing to try though–provided you are creating a great relationship otherwise. If you are not, then that is where you need to start to get more of what you want from your spouse.
Sometimes when we don’t get what we want, we need to get it in some other way. Other times, we need to use a boundary and even put our relationship at risk to get it. And, at other times, we just need to let it go. Just never fight for what you want. That is the worst way to get it.
Let me give you an example.
Suppose your relationship with your spouse is good, but you want more time with your spouse than what you get. In that case, you will need to have more friends and activities of your own so that you don’t make it a job for your spouse to be with you.
On the other hand, if your relationship with your spouse is bad, then you can work on helping your spouse to enjoy you more and be more attracted to you in order to develop more of a desire in your spouse to spend time with you.
Fighting with your spouse about not spending time together will just make your spouse want to be with you less. If you often argue with your spouse, you might want to check out my book, Connecting through Yes! to create a closer relationship with your spouse.
I frequently work with people who have fought with their spouses about ending an affair or trying to reconcile rather than separate or divorce. Unfortunately fighting never creates more of a desire in the other person to be with us or to do what we want.
What are your next steps?
Is your next step to stop criticizing your spouse or to stop expecting your spouse to be a mind-reader? Do you need to figure out exactly what it is you do want and find positive ways to say that to your spouse? Or is your marriage so damaged that you first need to help your spouse enjoy you again before trying to get more of what you want from your spouse?
Always start from where you are and work toward where you want to be. If you need help with any of the steps, I would be happy to be part of your journey.