The Ultimate Guide to Communication in a Marriage

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What is the key to effective marital communication? What are some of the most common points of contention when it comes to communication in a marriage?

Almost all marriage problems stem from communication errors. There are many possible points of contention when it comes to communication in a marriage, from how often to have sex and how to handle finances to how to raise children. 

Here’s how to handle some of the most common marital communication problems.

Communicating Intimacy

In modern times, our concept of intimacy has become more precise⁠—we consider it to be achieved mainly through verbal communication. Modern relationships demand self-disclosure, sharing our feelings, and being good listeners (non-judgemental, validating, and so on). We want to feel known and expect our partners to share as much as we do. 

However, according to couples therapist Esther Perel, the author of Mating in Captivity, talking isn’t the only (or even best) way of intimate communication in a marriage. There are two methods of communicating intimacy, verbal and physical.

Women tend to be good at verbal communication because, throughout history, they haven’t had access to power. Instead, they became experts at building relationships. Even today, girls are taught to develop relational skills.

However, men haven’t been socialized the same way as women. Men are taught to compete and perform, and to be in control, fearless, and invulnerable. For men, expressing feelings is sometimes not only not in the curriculum, but actively discouraged. Trying to create intimacy only through talking can leave men trying to cram a language they don’t speak. 

Friction Between Communication Styles

According to Perel, these differences make communication in a marriage difficult when it comes to expressing intimacy. Specifically, people who value verbal communication have trouble understanding that there’s any other way to express intimacy. This leads to the talker trying to get the non-talker to switch languages. However, nonverbal communication in a marriage can be just as important as verbal. Not only that, but engaging only in talk intimacy can hinder a marriage in several ways: 

One: Women’s sexual repression. Men might have more trouble talking than women, but focusing on talk has negative consequences for women too⁠—repressed sexuality. If women talk only with their voices, not their bodies, they’re cutting out an entire language. Single-mode communication also gives weight to the idea that women have to love someone to be allowed to sexually desire them (historically, men could like sex but women who did were immoral). Women are still trying to figure out how to be everything they want to be today, and focusing only on speech, rather than all forms of expression, only makes this harder.

Two: Tension. There’s a spectrum of communication in a marriage: pure physical communication on one side, and pure verbal communication on the other. Some people hate communicating physically⁠—their body is confining. They feel self-conscious and awkward, and for them, words are much safer. Other people feel freest and least inhibited in expressing themselves through their bodies. When two people on opposite ends of the spectrum are together, there’s often tension, because for the speech-preferring person, sex creates anxiety, and for the nonverbal-preferring person, sex is a balm for their anxiety.

Three: Control. Talking, and having no secrets, doesn’t necessarily lead to intimacy. In fact, it can lead to things like coercion, intrusion, and control. The person who’s less inclined to communicate verbally might feel forced to share because their partner is sharing and they need to reciprocate. Additionally, pushing for details about where your partner goes and who they meet can turn into surveillance and erode personal boundaries. And ironically, knowing every detail of your partner’s life doesn’t necessarily even create intimacy. What time your partner left work probably doesn’t give you much insight into their personality.

Four: Loss of distance. The better you get to know your partner through talking, the less distance there is between you, and desire requires distance to flourish. 

How to Translate

According to Perel, there are a few possibilities to working through it:

  • Possibility #1: Acknowledge that there are multiple ways to communicate and none is better than any of the others.
  • Possibility #2: Practice different methods of communication in a non-sexual context.
  • Possibility #3: Reflect on how communication methods affect sex life.

For example, Mitch and Laura speak totally different languages, each conforming to gender stereotypes. Laura thinks Mitch is the usual sex-obsessed man, and Mitch thinks Laura is sexually inhibited and feels disgust or contempt about sex. What’s really going on is this:

For Laura, sex comes with a lot of baggage. As a child, the only things she can remember her father saying about her body were comments about her breasts, and her mother always told her that boys are only interested in sex. She grew up thinking she could be pretty or smart. Laura’s lack of connection with her body has nothing to do with Mitch.

Mitch is completely comfortable with sex. His childhood experiences with sex were very different from Laura’s. He fell in love with a girl named Hillary at eighteen. Hillary had a lot of experience with sex and Mitch’s first experiences were all positive. He’s not very good at verbal communication and prefers to communicate via his body. Sex makes him feel emotionally safe.

The first step for Laura and Mitch was to understand that each of them speaks a different language. Next, with Perel’s guidance in therapy, they communicated nonverbally, playing games like leading each other around the room, trust falls, and mirroring each other’s movement. It was physical communication, but it was non-sexual, and this helped them both see their areas of resistance. Laura learned that when she doubts her own appeal, it’s harder to believe that Mike desires her. Mike learned that he was dependent on another person to make sex feel safe for him.

TITLE: Mating in Captivity
AUTHOR: Esther Perel
TIME: 28
READS: 100.3
BOOK_SUMMARYURL: mating-in-captivity-summary-esther-perel

Difficult Conversations 

In addition to expressing intimacy, married couples often have trouble communicating effectively in situations that involve high stakes, strong emotions, or different opinions. In such situations,  both partners behave at their worst—yelling at each other and sniping sarcastically, or on the other side going silent and withdrawing. When this happens, little progress is made, and resentment builds. Moreover, couples often deliberately avoid having these conversations because they are afraid they’ll make matters worse. 

According to Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler, the authors of Crucial Conversations, failed “crucial conversations” is one of the main reasons relationships fail. When people break up they often blame it on differences of opinion on important issues. But while everyone argues about important issues, clearly not every relationship ends in turmoil—it’s how you argue that matters.

From the authors’ research observing couples, they found that people handle difficult conversations in one of three ways:

  • They resort to threats and name-calling.
  • They retreat into angry silence.
  • They speak honestly and effectively.

The researchers found that helping couples hold crucial conversations more effectively reduced their chances for unhappiness or breakup by more than half. The first step to handling crucial conversations effectively is to get all relevant information on the table.

When people express their opinions honestly, share their feelings, and articulate ideas—even if their ideas are controversial or unpopular—the result is dialogue, the free exchange of meaning or information. 

However, in most high-stakes conversations,

  • People often say nothing.
  • They’re too blunt.
  • They say only part of what’s on their mind—they understate their views for fear of hurting others, or they sugarcoat their message.

For example, a wife finds a hotel receipt and mistakenly thinks her husband is having an affair. The worst way to handle a touchy situation like this would be to plunge in with an accusation followed by a threat—that’s what most people would do. 

But there’s a constructive way the woman can share and resolve her concerns. To that end, the authors recommend the STATE approach, which involves five steps: 

#1: Share the Facts

Facts set the stage for all sensitive conversations. Start with the facts alone (which are observable), not your emotion-driven story (your conclusions). For example, a hotel receipt in your husband’s name is a fact—you can see it. Your belief about why he visited the hotel (absent his explanation) is a conclusion. 

When you blurt out your conclusions, it’s ineffective. You expect bad results and get bad results. Or you hold the story inside because you feel it’s too risky to share—tension builds up and you blow up, getting the bad results you feared. Starting with facts avoids these problems. 

#2: Tell Your Story

If you simply mention the facts, the other person may not understand the implications. For example, if you tell an employee, “I noticed you had company software in your briefcase,” they may not understand that you’re talking about a potential policy violation. You have to follow-up that observation with your conclusions.

It’s the combination of facts plus the conclusion there’s a problem that requires face-to-face discussion.  

#3: Ask For Others’ Paths

The key to sharing controversial ideas is to blend confidence and humility. Express confidence by sharing our facts and stories clearly. Then, express humility by asking others how they see it. Encourage them to express their facts, stories, and feelings. Listen closely and be willing to rethink your story as more information is presented. 

#4: Talk Tentatively

You’ll get people to listen if you describe both your facts and stories in a tentative, non-dogmatic way. Speaking tentatively means telling your story as a story, not presenting it as an incontrovertible fact. For example, start with phrases indicating you’re sharing an opinion, not asserting a fact: “In my opinion…”, or “I’m beginning to wonder whether…” (rather than, “The fact is…” or “It’s obvious to me that…”).

Speaking tentatively also means sharing in a way that shows confidence in your conclusions, but that also suggests you’re open to challenges.

#5: Encourage Testing

Sometimes others are reluctant to share their paths (facts, stories, and feelings), and you need to be more encouraging. You need to make clear that no matter how controversial their ideas, you want to hear them. This is especially important if you’re talking with someone with a tendency to move to silence (to make the fool’s choice of not saying anything to avoid risk). When others are reluctant to speak up, try these steps:

  • Explicitly invite opposing views. You need additional information to complete your story. Ask proactively: “What am I missing?”
  • Be sincere: Sometimes an invitation for opposing views sounds more like a threat than a sincere request: “Well that’s the way I see it; any disagreement?” Be inviting with both words and tone.
  • Play devil’s advocate: Sometimes you can tell people disagree, but aren’t speaking up. To encourage sharing, play devil’s advocate. Counter your own view: “Maybe I’m wrong here; what if…?” 

Example: The Suspicious Affair 

Revisiting the example of a wife confronting her husband about hotel receipts shows how to apply the dialogue steps for discussing a sensitive subject. Instead of immediately accusing him of infidelity, the wife applies STATE steps: 

  • Share your facts: She simply states that she has discovered a receipt for a hotel near their home.
  • Tell your story: She shares that the receipt worries her because that’s how her sister learned that her husband was having an affair.
  • Ask for others’ paths: She invites him to help put her mind at rest.
  • Talk tentatively: She explains that while her husband hasn’t given her reason to doubt him, she’s still worried.
  • Encourage testing: She asks him to call the hotel immediately, which he does. They learn there was a billing error.

TITLE: Crucial Conversations
AUTHOR: Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, et al.
TIME: 41
READS: 40.9
BOOK_SUMMARYURL: crucial-conversations-summary-kerry-patterson-joseph-grenny-mcmillan-switzler

Final Words

Marital success isn’t determined by how often a couple sleeps together, or opinions on how to raise children, or how each person handles finances. It’s determined by the quality of communication in a marriage, which determines success in all other areas of the relationship. 

If you enjoyed our article about communication in a marriage, check out the following suggestions for further reading: 

Sex at Dawn

Why do so many marriages end in divorce? In Sex at Dawn, Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá (a husband-and-wife team) offer a surprising answer: For most of our evolutionary history, humans lived in societies that encouraged casual sex with multiple partners. According to the authors, humans evolved to be naturally promiscuous and only reluctantly embraced monogamy about 10,000 years ago when we stopped foraging for food and started farming.

The Ultimate Guide to Communication in a Marriage

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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