Over the past several decades, roughly 50 percent of all marriages and 60 percent of all re-marriages have ended in divorce. Many studies point toward money as the leading cause, while others blame the birth of a couple’s first child, extra-marital affairs or blended families for the shocking decline in marital success.
While these are all real issues that many couples face, one might wonder if there’s another underlying cause for this colossal matrimonial failure. A couple’s ability to not only talk through their problems together, but to feel heard and valued in the process, is the greatest predictor of their relationship’s long-term success. In other words, it all comes down to communication.
You don’t understand me. You don’t listen to me. You don’t care about what I have to say. Does any of this sound familiar? These things are often said after one partner’s repeated attempts to express thoughts, feelings or emotions to the other partner have not been heard, validated or even acknowledged. As a result, we feel like our opinions and needs don’t matter to the other person, and may begin to translate that as a lack of interest, or respect and caring, and at its worst, a lack of love.
Repeated over and over again, this process can become a cascading nightmare of negative storytelling and disconnection that leads to an emotional chasm in the relationship that can be difficult to fix. As a result, any serious issue that a couple is faced with can seem insurmountable, and predisposes the marriage for divorce.
It is critically important that couples develop a skill set that allows them to communicate more effectively about issues large and small, from extra-marital affairs and parenting strategies to whether the toilet seat should be left up or down! These will help you get started.
Prior to any sensitive or difficult conversation with your partner (or any other important person in your life for that matter), be sure to prepare yourself in advance so that you’re in the right frame of mind at the outset. Remind yourself that the person you love is 1) struggling with something upsetting or difficult and looking to you for support, 2) wants to be heard, and 3) is not out to get you!
Ego Check: This is not only about you. Don’t make it into a competition or a battle of wills. Show your love and respect for your partner by putting your thoughts and feelings aside for a moment. Walk in their shoes.
Our non-verbal communication is just as important, if not more so, than our verbal communication. Before you get started, turn the television off, close the magazine and make sure the phone, laptop, X-Box, Playstation or any other distracting device is put away in another room. There’s no clearer way to show your partner that you’re not interested in what they have to say than by being more interested in something else!Find a spot where the two of you can sit across from each other. It’s important to be face-to-face so that you can maintain eye contact throughout the conversation. Pay attention to your body posture and general presentation. Although one would not expect you to be giddy with excitement about having a tough conversation about sex or money, it is reasonable to expect that your body language reflect your effort and interest in resolving the issue.Avoid slouching, crossing your arms, propping your head up with your hands, checking the time or picking your fingernails (you get the drift!). Instead, sit up or stand in a relaxed, neutral position (hands side-by-side or laid one over the other), nod where appropriate to acknowledge understanding or agreement and maintain eye contact throughout the conversation.
Listening is one of the most powerful aspects of effective communication, and perhaps the one that couples most frequently overlook and consistently fail to achieve. Just listen. It’s easy to become impatient while waiting for the other person to get to their point, or to become defensive and interrupt with your own thoughts, feelings or opinions. Give your partner a voice. You can demonstrate that you’re interested and engaged in the conversation by simply saying nothing and being fully present in the moment.
Ego check: Still not about you! Undoubtedly, you’ll have some intense emotional reactions in response to what your partner is saying (depending on the situation). You may even feel attacked or accused of doing something that you strongly feel you didn’t do. This is not the time for reactivity, or an excuse to roll up your sleeves and engage in the futile battle of proving that your perception of events is right and theirs is… well… just crazy!
Here’s where verbal communication comes in. We can convey interest and caring by asking questions and clarifying information. Asking questions when you’re confused by something that’s been said – or to develop a better understanding of your partner’s perspective – speaks loud and clear that you’re making an effort to fully embrace the other person’s experience. Equally so, clarifying or repeating back particularly important parts of the conversation to your partner demonstrates in no uncertain terms that you have been listening.Try to begin a question with: “Can you help me understand why you feel …?” Or: “I’m having a tough time understanding why you feel … can you tell me more?” To clarify, begin with: “Just so I understand, what I heard you say was …” Or: “I think what I heard you say was … did I understand that correctly?” Your goal is to communicate interest to your partner, develop a better understanding of their experience and disarm any potential conflict.
Lastly, we need to be able to express empathy toward our partner’s feelings and validate their concerns (at least some of them). If you have followed the preceding steps, you should have created an opportunity to not only demonstrate your interest in your partner’s experience, but to feel some compassion toward your partner as well. After all, you’ve just listened and immersed yourself in the world of the person you love and care about. You’ve heard their sadness, frustration or anxiety. It would make sense that, even if you or your actions are the source of those feelings, you would feel some empathy toward your partner. If you feel like the situation has been misinterpreted or blown out of proportion, try to relate to your how your partner is experiencing it and empathize with that as opposed to assigning judgment.It is important to also validate your partner’s thoughts and feelings where you can. By validating, you are joining with them in their experience, and in turn, they will feel further understood and supported. Research shows that couples who share a common cause feel a greater sense of teamwork and togetherness than those that don’t (this is especially true with this issues that are not directly related to the relationship i.e. work, friends etc.).When expressing empathy, try starting with: “I’m sorry you feel that way …” Or: “I feel … for you. That really must make you …” When validating, try: “I can understand why you might feel that way …” Or: “If someone said/did that to me I would feel … too.”
Ego check: Ask yourself honestly if any of what your partner is saying makes sense. If the conversation concerns something that you did, stop making excuses for your actions or behaviors and take ownership of them. Empathize, validate and apologize where necessary and appropriate. Drop the need to compete or to be right, and just be real. Remind yourself that this is the person you chose to spend the rest of your life with, and that you have a responsibility to reach out and protect, not harm (whether you intended to or not).
You will notice that none of the steps listed above include any reference to offering advice, guidance or direction to your partner. Most of the time, all the other person needs is an opportunity to express their feelings and to know that you have heard them and genuinely care.
If your partner asks for your perspective on the situation, feel free to give it. Try to avoid judgment and offer your thoughts tactfully and sensitively (i.e. “Have you thought of trying …”, or, “Maybe you should consider …”) It is also appropriate to ask your partner if they are interested in hearing your thoughts on the situation. If not, leave it alone. Your partner may come back at a later time to have that conversation once the emotional intensity has died down.
It is important to note that the above steps should be reciprocal in nature and illustrate a back and forth process between you and your partner. Although it may seem forced and insincere to start with, don’t give up! The more you practice, the easier and more natural it becomes, and the greater your resilience to the stresses of marriage.