If sharing your thinking with your spouse just gets a defensive reaction or distance, try this approach.
Why saying, “I disagree” is not a good way to disagree.
“I disagree,” is not a good way to respond to anyone. The message may be accurate, but the packaging is poor. It closes down communication when really you need to keep it going so that you both can facilitate cooperation. You’ve got to be able to keep the communication going so that you can resolve your differences instead of just being stuck with them.
Saying “I disagree” triggers automatic defensiveness
Unless you have a very mature spouse, saying “I disagree,” is likely to get a defensive reaction. That means that your spouse will either get angry, or withdraw. If you push your point further, you will get more anger or withdrawal in return–even when you are 100% right! It can get so frustrating that you either stop trying to talk with your spouse or you both stop talking to each other about anything meaningful. Disagreeing better means being able to do it in a way that your spouse won’t become defensive.
How would you disagree in this situation?
Let’s suppose that your wife (or husband) suggests that you both take a trip to Paris for your anniversary, but you are already having financial problems. You respond, “Go to Paris for our anniversary! We can’t even afford our car payments; how can we possibly go to Paris?” Your point about expenses may be valid, but you have just rejected your spouse as well as her message. You will have told her that she is wrong and she will feel like it was wrong to have even mentioned it to you. You may be dead on right, but you will have lost her vote. Her love container will be a little bit more empty. Arguing about money causes more problems in relationships than actual money problems. Let’s look at a better way to disagree in this situation.
A better way to disagree.
“Going to Paris sounds like fun. We could see the sights and have some real French food. But, I don’t think we can afford it.” This takes no more time, nor uses any more words than the direct disagreement above, but it keeps communication open. Getting in the habit of saying what you agree with before disagreeing can boost your communication and help your spouse to listen to you better. Agreeing with your spouse’s motivations or intentions helps him or her to not feel like a fool. “It sure would be nice to buy a new house, move to Hawaii, make love every night, sell my mother, etc.” Unless your spouse just outright attacks you or wants to fight, it won’t be too hard to find something to agree with.
What if you can’t find anything to agree with?
Don’t respond until you do. Just tell your husband or wife that you need to think about it a bit. Don’t give yourself permission to disagree until you think of something to agree with. Such a personal boundary will help your marriage, even if it doesn’t feel natural. It will also force you to listen and think about your spouse’s motivations instead of just reacting to what he or she says.
You may already be using this skill elsewhere
Sometimes we instinctively talk to our young children this way, “I sure wish we could, honey, but mommy has to work,” and to our spouse this way, “Forget it—you know I have to work.” You may also naturally do this with your coworkers, “Wow, your a vegetarian–you sure have more discipline than I do; just looking at a cow makes me salivate.” but to your spouse this way, “Give up meat? That’s stupid. I’m not going to live on vegetables and rice.” Making the little extra effort it takes to talk to your spouse as nicely as you do to others will pay off with a closer marriage.
Part of your communication comes from the other person’s head.
One thing that many people learn the hard way is that their intentions are really not what matters most to their spouses. You may intend to show how much you love and care; you may intend to work things out so that things will be better for both of you; and you may intend to improve your marriage by making suggestions to your spouse. But, your spouse doesn’t hear your intentions–your spouse hears your words. If your words are not nice, they are going to assume you had a bad intention and get defensive or angry. Then, when you try to explain yourself, it will be hard just to break even. Focus on communicating your intentions and make sure they match your words. Instead of saying, “No, you’re doing it wrong, let me show you how to do it,” say, “I want to help you do it an easier way. Can I show you?” Can you hear the difference? The first way elevates you and lowers your spouse. The second way keeps you both communicating as partners, which you are. You are not boss and employee.
Getting started with more positive communication in your marriage
If your marriage has gotten to the point where you are fearful of talking with your spouse, it won’t help to simply screw up your courage and jump in again. Your spouse has negative expectations and will shut you down pretty quickly. That will just frustrate you and maintain the distance in your marriage. I have put together 5 communication lessons for women and a communication ebook for men, to help you end the communication avoidance in your marriage. These resources are free and you can get started today.
If no matter what you do, it’s just not working.
Don’t let poor communication be the reason that your marriage gets worse. Usually, when communication is really bad, it’s because there is a major issue which one spouse does not want to talk about, or it’s because one spouse has already made up his or her mind that there is no way to improve the marriage. If this is your situation, you may need to get marriage coaching for yourself to help you learn how to reconnect with your spouse. You can choose a coaching package which best fits your marital situation and start to have a better marriage within 30 days.