In political elections, it’s often the economy that determines winners and losers. In marriages, it’s the communication that often determines whether marriages succeed or fail. But communication is a vague and nebulous word. What are the most important types of communication that sustain long-lasting marriages?
In Michele Weiner Davis’ much-respected book, The Sex-Starved Marriage (Simon & Schuster, 2004), she says, “Couples who rise above their differences have better communication skills. They learn how to deal with their diversities. They talk better.” She adds, “If you want to feel more connected, it’s essential that you learn better ways to communicate your thoughts and feelings to each other.” Here are seven communication tips from leading marital experts to keep marriages alive and well:
1. Focus on listening.
“The best type of communication involves mutual respect, validation of feelings, active listening and a willingness to compromise and negotiate,” explains Kathleen Eldridge, an assistant professor of psychology at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., who has studied marital communication. Studies have shown that couples that provide support for each other around personal concerns such as work and friendship last, she noted.
2. Communicate without pressure.
When both spouses are working and financial pressures have intensified, couples find it difficult to find time to talk issues out. Eldridge’s tip: arrange uninterrupted time devoted to expressing feelings and problem-solving any issues between you. Trying to resolve these issues when you’re under severe pressure or in the heat of an argument is rarely effective.
3. Show caring and concern.
What’s critical in sustaining positive communication is being understood and cared for, notes Elana Katz, a family therapist and divorce mediator at the Ackerman Institute for the Family, located in New York City. Hence, showing empathy is a way to reduce conflict.
For example, if the couple has agreed to go on a special weekend vacation together while the kids are staying with their grandparents, but a spouse has to cancel due to a work emergency, the spouse needs to say, “I know how important this weekend was to you. I have no choice but to work this weekend. We will reschedule, and I will make it up to you.”
Communicating with empathy and caring strengthens the relationship and enables it to withstand conflict such as a weekend together that had to be cancelled.
4. Avoid making your partner feel invisible.
From her perch as a family therapist at the Ackerman Institute for the Family, Elana Katz has seen many marriages dissolve. When one spouse feels “invisible,” it often leads to a communication breakdown and is one of the leading causes of divorce. Feeling denied, not listened to and overlooked are the major feelings that contribute to relationships disintegrating. Hence, you need to make your spouse a priority and communication between you critical, the opposite of making him or her feel invisible.
5. Concentrate on repairing.
Conflict is inevitable. Couples that survive hard times show an ability to repair the relationship, Katz says. Disagreements are going to happen, but the couples who can talk things out, listen to each other, make fixing the problem a priority and don’t abuse one another can last.
6. When in doubt, seek help.
If your car doesn’t start, you take it to a mechanic. If your gums are in pain, you call the dentist. But when a marriage turns sour, many people dig in, fall into the same trap, and are reluctant to seek help. Marital therapists can help unravel a couple’s problems and get them to reframe and readjust how they communicate.
7. Avoid the "dumping everything on your partner" syndrome.
Avoid what Elana Katz calls the “kitchen sink” approach. Throwing the “kitchen sink” at one’s partner involves bringing up every injustice, infraction and slight the partner has inflicted on the other partner last year, two years ago and on the first date, and it’s a no-no. Instead of raising every past indiscretion, focus on specific and recent behavior that can be problem-solved, not injustices that happened a decade ago and are long forgotten.
8. Learn to avoid pushing the buttons.
Most couples inevitably push each other’s buttons. When the wife criticizes her husband’s housekeeping, it reminds him of his mother’s criticism. When the husband raises his voice and begins to get agitated, the wife is reminded of her father’s irascibility and gets bent out of shape. Eldridge advises that couples must be conscious of what the buttons are and try to avoid them.
If the wife is upset by her husband’s getting angry, the husband should consciously speak in a slow, measured tone so she can listen. If the husband is reminded of his critical mom, the wife should withhold some of her criticism of her husband’s housekeeping and choose her battles selectively.
Eldridge says research has shown that the negative behaviors that most contribute to divorce include withdrawal, contempt and invalidation of the other person. If you are acting in a contemptuous, sarcastic, or belittling manner toward your mate, you are falling into the traps that lead to divorce. Instead, Eldridge advises communication that stresses understanding, appreciation and empathy.