The Art of Marital Conversation


Photo courtesy Herman Hernandez

Editor’s Note: This is a rewrite of a post from April 28, 2008.

The problem with communication … is the illusion that it has been accomplished.
~George Bernard Shaw

The day at work has been horrific. Emails never stopped. The voicemail light kept flashing. The boss needed the information yesterday. And to top it all off, you had a fight with your wife as you left this morning.

You feel the tension coming from the house when you get out of your car in the driveway. The kids are in their rooms doing homework and your wife approaches you and says the words most men dread: “We need to talk.”

It seems at this moment, most men have the fight or flight response. I can berate her about the timing of things, continue to insist that I’m right and she’s wrong. Or I can shrug it off and disappear with the TV, the Internet, alcohol, or the work I conveniently brought home.

What is it about talking that is so difficult? Granted, this does not apply to everyone, but most of us have some trouble with deep conversation. Especially when it comes to conversing with our spouse.

A brief history of communication

It comes as no surprise that men and women are different.

Men have been educated from birth to compete, judge, demand, and diagnose. We are very adept at seeing a problem that needs fixing and developing a way to fix the problem. Unfortunately, this fix is according to the man, possibly not taking into account those around him. This is due in part to our learning to think and communicate in terms of what is “right” or what is “wrong.”

To add to this, we often express our feelings in terms of what has been “done to us” rather than being independent of those around us. We mix up our needs and we ask for what we’d like using demands, guilt, or even the promise of rewards. This should come as no surprise since this is how many of us were raised by our parents.

At best, the basic ways men think and communicate hinder communication and create both misunderstanding and frustration. At worst, they can lead to anger, depression and even violence.

Women on the other hand have been exposed to conversations as a means for connection, sharing and/or support. From early on, women interact with others more often for the intimate connection rather than a hierarchical status. Women are more likely to see people as interdependent and working in concert with one another.

Women are likely to be the ones who speak up first to address problems in marriage, as they are more relationally oriented. But this speaking up may not be intended to fix the problems – it may be for closer connection. And when you keep in mind that many relational problems may not be resolved, a deeper connection through them can be a tremendous opportunity for both of you to grow.

Communicating with your spouse do’s and don’ts

  1. Talk face to face.
  2. Anytime you are in a discussion with your spouse that is beyond the scheduling or surface level, do it face to face. If this is not possible, the phone will work, although this can limit the connection and increase the possibility of misunderstandings. Never try to cover deeper issues via email or text messages. Word of caution: At times face to face conversation CAN be too intense, an alternative to this is side by side. This allows you to be present but lessens some of the body language and facial expression messages. It’s a great approach to tough conversations (more on this in an upcoming post).

  3. Turn off other distractions during the conversation.
  4. If you’re working on the computer, minimize the work or better yet, shut the whole thing off. If you’re watching TV, turn it off. If you are afraid of missing something in the game, get Tivo.

  5. Don’t answer the phone.
  6. If it rings in the middle of the conversation, you have voicemail for a reason. Let it do its job.

  7. Take the time to listen to their point of view.
  8. You are only one part of the relationship. Consider their side of things and ask for clarity if you don’t get what they’re saying. You don’t have to agree with everything said to still love your spouse.

  9. Forget about being right or wrong.
  10. As soon as the discussion turns to who’s right and who’s wrong, you’ve both lost. If you have an insatiable need to always be right when it comes to your spouse, riddle me this: what’s it like to be married to a loser? If you have to always be right, that makes your spouse always wrong. It’s not about right or wrong most of the time.

Communication leads to community, that is, to understanding, intimacy and mutual valuing.
~Rollo May

The art of non-violent communication

Do you think it is possible to connect with what is alive in ourselves and in others from moment-to-moment? Dr. Marshall Rosenberg says yes. His non-violent communication techniques focus on how we express ourselves, how we hear those around us and how to resolve conflict by focusing our consciousness on what we are observing, feeling, needing, and requesting.

In order to connect on a deeper level, we have to check ourselves throughout the conversation. Often, whenever our emotions spike during the discussion, we will change the subject or attack the other person in order to help us feel better about whatever is going on at the moment.

My grandfather once said that when a person involved in a conversation raises their voice, it’s no longer about what best for all involved and the current situation. It’s about their power and their pride.

The art of conversation at a deeper level:

  1. Focus on the intention.
  2. Most marital conversations can be simplified down into one of two categories. A chance to be closer together or a chance to be my own person. Humans vacillate between being too close together or too far apart. Conversations are often used to either bring us closer together or create some space between us. If what you are really wanting is companionship, understanding, compassion, then say so outright. If on the other hand you are wanting some space to chart your own course, speak up. Both connection and separateness are necessary parts of every relationship (for more information on this subject check out this post or this Ebook, The Simple Marriage Matrix).

  3. Seek compassionate connection.
  4. This is done primarily by the conversations not being tied to a particular outcome, like being right or something you’d like the other person to do. Focus on being clear with your side of the conversation and then clearly hearing their side. This may mean you don’t agree. So what. You are two separate individuals. You are not going to see eye to eye on everything.

The conflict or issue may not be resolved, that’s not the point. A mutually satisfying outcome is where both people are heard and understood. Think of your conversations in terms of sex. When both people are satisfied, the connection is much deeper and lasting.

Many attempts to communicate are nullified by saying too much.
~Robert Greenleaf

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