Communication among Couples
Learning and Practicing New Habits
Effective communication isn’t easy. Teaching and learning new communication skills take patience, patience, patience, as well as practice, practice, practice.
Taking the time to talk is important. Your relationship provides a safe place to share feelings, thoughts, fears, dreams, and hopes. Make a special effort to find time to talk to your partner more frequently.
In tough times, people feel overwhelmed with worries and responsibilities. Time together as a couple is often the last thing on our minds as we deal with the hassles of daily life. Although you may be busy, stressed, and worried, take the time to focus on your partners’ needs and spend quality time together without interruption. Even a few minutes a day talking about what has occurred can be a relief from stress. Be thoughtful by considering whether those difficult or problem-solving discussions could be reserved for other times when you and your partner are not tired or distracted.
You may need to be the one who starts conversations. It is worth it to be the one who initiates conversations. You can find many ways to open the door for communication if you are sensitive to changes in your partner’s feelings and needs. Taking the time to listen keeps the lines of communication open and improves your relationship.
Finding Time to Talk
- Spend time talking with limited interruptions.
- Make a date to talk to your partner.
- Plan at least one routine family time each week.
- Talk instead of watching TV.
- Talk when you take a walk together.
- Talk while you work together on household chores.
- Talk in the car while traveling to activities.
In good times and bad, couples need each other. Good communication does not mean that your family won’t have any problems, or that your partner will always like what you have to say. Good communication means the chances of solving problems are much higher if you and your partner can express yourselves openly and freely with each other.
Marriage and Relationships
For couples today, there is an abundance of information on how to sustain healthy, happy marital relationships. From how-to books to advice given on television and radio, couples are bombarded with strategies, tips, and techniques focused on “what to do” in their relationships. Most of this information assumes that if couples follow a few short rules, then they can have happy relationships. What most fail to realize is that these new, positive practices won’t work without recognizing and addressing what has been done and what is not working. Most information available to couples falls short on giving examples of “what not to do” in a relationship. Communication is the key, but it is difficult to apply effective strategies to harmful interactions.
Four negative patterns of interaction have been demonstrated as major destroyers of marital relationships:
Criticism is using hurtful or judgmental comments aimed at your partner’s character or personality. With criticism, the blame is placed on the person and not the problematic behavior. Criticism tends to be a repetitive cycle—a single critical moment can end up in a continued exchange. Most critical statements can be recognized by the phrases, “you always” or “you never.” The following are some examples of criticism:
- You never finish any project that you start. You’re so lazy.
- When we go out to eat, you always embarrass me with your table manners.
Contempt is a more complex negative interaction. It is an effort to psychologically abuse your partner through disrespectful statements and actions. Contempt has both verbal and non-verbal deliveries. Verbal examples of contempt include sarcasm, hostile humor, and mockery. For example, nonverbal displays of contempt include rolling of the eyes and sucking of the teeth during conflict. Contempt sends your partner a message of scorn—that they are inferior and worthless.
Defensiveness is often a natural response to receiving criticism and contempt. When faced with criticism and contempt, most people find a need to defend themselves. However, couples can be defensive even when criticism is constructive. Defensiveness may be a response to previous, current, and/or future attacks. If one or both persons are acting defensively, it is most likely the case they are not listening. Defensiveness may take many forms including:
- Making excuses for behavior
- Repeating a statement for effect
- Denying responsibility for actions
- Answering a complaint with another complaint
The final negative pattern of interaction is stonewalling. As the name implies, this occurs when partners “put a wall” around themselves, either physically or psychologically. Stonewalling is often used to decrease conflict, and when delivered in moderation, can be healthy. On the other hand, continual failure to respond and/or engage in conversation escalates rather than reduces conflict. Examples of stonewalling include:
- Leaving the room
- Putting a physical barrier between you and your partner (newspaper, book, child)
- Focusing intently on something other than your partner during a discussion
- Failure to actively listen
- Responding with a blank stare
What can be done
All of the above become patterns of interaction in which couples may find themselves trapped. One negative interaction leads to another, often in a repetitive cycle. Researchers have determined that couples caught in this vicious cycle may be headed for divorce (Gottman, 1994; Gottman & Levenson, 2000). If you or a couple you know are experiencing any of these problems in a relationship, don’t be discouraged. Although these may seem like a death sentence, there are ways that couples can break these patterns and start having more positive interactions. What is most important is to mimic the behaviors of pre-maritial couples and newlyweds. The following suggestions promote a healthy marriage, regardless of whether you’re newlyweds or nearing your golden anniversary.
- Eliminate criticism. Use complaints. It is okay to complain about troublesome behaviors. Discussing your feelings about the behavior is okay as long as there are no personal attacks. Use the word I instead of you and describe how the behavior makes you feel. Talk about the behavior and not the person.
- Example: “When we go out to eat, you always embarrass me,” becomes “I feel hurt and ashamed when you make fun of me in public.
- Build on your friendship base.Validate your partner and his/her feelings, thoughts, needs, and desires, etc.
- Example: “I recognize that you need to talk more about our relationship. What is on your mind?”
- Take accountability and responsibility for your own actions. Do not make excuses. Apologize and correct the behavior (if possible).
- Example: “I’m sorry that I yelled at you earlier. I’ve been under a lot of pressure at work, but it is unfair to take it out on you.”
- Use reflective listening. Repeat what your partner has stated and then respond. Show them that you are listening and hearing them.
Partner 1: I would appreciate it if you would talk to me before you discipline the kids. That way we can be a united front.”
Partner 2: What I’m hearing is that you would like for us to talk about disciplining the kids before I make any decisions. I think that is a good idea.
- Continue dating. Make a point to rekindle the dating aspect of your relationship.
- Example: Go for walks, hold hands, act silly, etc. Find ways to show appreciation to your partner throughout the day (i.e., e-mails, notes, phone calls, etc.)
- Seek help if needed. If you can identify these negative interactions in your relationship or you think you may need help, see a licensed marriage and family therapist or other professional. Do not try and fix everything on your own.
- Example: Talk to a trusted family member, friend, or your local extension agent in order to find resources in your area.
Before a couple can learn and/or practice new routines in their relationship, they must rid themselves of the old ways that aren’t working. It is important to first identify negative patterns and destructive behaviors and target them for change. At that point, the couple can begin rebuilding their relationship.
Effective communication is critical to successful relationships. Researchers and therapists have found at least nine skills that can help couples learn to talk effectively about important issues (Gottman 1994; Markman, Stanley, and Blumberg 2010; Schramm and Harris 2011). How we interact about issues such as time spent together/apart, money, health, gender differences, children, family, friends, commitment, trust, and intimacy affects our ability to develop and maintain lasting marital friendships. If learned well, these nine skills can help put our relationships on a positive trajectory for success. (Note: The word “marriage” is interchangeable with “relationship,” if you are not married.)
Helpful Information about Communication
What do couples talk about?
- Time Together/Apart. Both the quantity and quality of time we spend together influence the well-being of our marital friendships. Spending time apart participating in other activities also influences the well-being of our relationships.
- Money. How we think and talk about money, our spending habits, and our ability to budget, invest, and plan for the future impact couple financial management processes and practices.
- Health. Couples must talk about many health-related issues, including nutrition, exercise, illness, disease, accidents, health care, mortality, and death.
- Men/Women. Because men tend to be more task-oriented in their communication styles and women tend to be more process-oriented, men tend to want to solve issues immediately, while women tend to want to talk about them more and come to a consensus about what should be done.
- Children. How children develop physically, socially, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually are often topics of discussion. Focusing on the best ways to consistently meet children’s needs is considered being child-centered.
- Family/In-Laws/Friends. Couples often talk about situations and circumstances surrounding the interactions they have with their closest relationships.
What do couples communicate when they are communicating?
- Commitment. How we “hang in there” and contribute to our marital friendship, even when things aren’t going particularly well, is a sign of how committed we are to our relationship. Loyalty and fidelity are aspects of commitment and trust.
- Trust. Trusting relationships are relationships in which both partners are dependable, available to support each other, and responsive to each other’s needs. An ability to negotiate conflict and a positive outlook about the future of the relationship are also components of trust.
- Intimacy. The social, intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and physical connections we make with each other determine the levels of intimacy we experience in our relationships.
What do couples argue about?
Because the items listed above are some of the major topics couples talk about, it follows that they are also the same topics that can spur disagreements. For instance, it is a familiar joke that people can have difficulties in their relationships with in-laws. Take for example, “What is the difference between in-laws and outlaws? Answer: One is ‘Wanted!’” Sayings such as these underscore the importance of knowing how your relationships with others can affect your marriage and could potentially become the topic of a marital conflict.
- Control and Power. Control and power are highly associated with the topics couples argue about. Indeed, control and power issues are the foundation of most conflicts. Typically, one person (or each person) is bent on having his or her own way. The saying “my way or the highway” is a common phrase used by someone with an inflexible perspective. If we see an issue one way and expect everyone else to see it the same way we do, then we are more likely to try to exert power and control over others and sway them to our perspective. Attempting to exert control and power over our partner typically results in win/lose or lose/lose outcomes for our marital friendships.
Communication among Couples: Can We Talk? Improving Couples’ Communication by Eboni J. Baugh and Deborah Humphries, FCS2178, Florida Marriage Preparation series, from the Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences, Florida Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida. Original publication date November 2001. Reviewed October 2006. Revised December 2009, http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/fy044
Marriage and Relationships: Un-Healthy Marital Interactions: What Not To Do and What Can Be Done! Eboni J. Baugh, FCS2247, Family Youth and Community Sciences Department, Florida Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida, August 2006, http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/fy847.
Effective Communication: Written by Victor William HarrisFCS2315, Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences, Florida Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida. Published January 2012. http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/fy1277.