Building your marriage by improving the way you say things
Have you programmed your spouse to expect a negative message from you?
How long does it take before your spouse has an emotional reaction to what you are saying? If you said no time at all, you are correct. Our spouses emotionally respond to us before we even open our mouths. In a loving relationship, that’s actually helpful because it will open his or her ears and get interest.
Observe Your Spouse’s Nonverbal Reactions when You Talk
In a problem relationship, your spouse will start to block out what you say and form a rebuttal before you utter a word. Although your spouse may have learned not to argue with you aloud, the argument will still be there inside his or her head. Usually there is some indication of that, like a scowling face, avoidance of eye contact, crossed arms, or clenched fists. If you see this, don’t call it to your spouse’s attention. That will cause covering up rather than true change. Instead, get to work by making some changes in the way you communicate.
Basic changes for improving communication
Good relationship communication is a combination of three skills: 1) expressing yourself positively, 2) expressing yourself clearly, and 3) listening with interest. These three skills are essential, which means that if you leave one of them out, or are poor at one of them, your communication will suffer and whatever else you do will not matter. It’s like starting a fire. You need heat, oxygen, and fuel. No matter how much you have of two of these, your aren’t going to have a fire unless you have the third one, too. Get the one, or two, or three that you need.
Focus on saying things the right way rather than on saying the right things
Looking up just what to say to your partner in a situation won’t actually work, because once your partner replies, you will be lost for what to say next. It doesn’t work to say “Hold on, let me look up on the internet how to respond to you, and then I will get back to you.” Learning how to say things rather than just the right things to say will allow you to communicate in a smooth, positive, and ongoing way, that builds your relationship.
Learning from the pros
We hear about the “spin” that politicians put on what they say to make facts support whatever point they are trying to make. No matter how much you may or may not like politicians and political speeches, we can learn something from their methods. People respond emotionally to a message faster than they respond logically to it. Putting things in a positive way is the first of the three components of good communication and prepares people to interpret our message in a positive way (or at least in a less negative way). Putting things positively prevents an automatic internal block to what you are saying–meaning that your spouse will listen to you more carefully.
Communication is a kind of gift
You can think of the information part of a message as a gift–what you are giving to the other person. And, the way you say that information is like the package for the gift. A present in a colorful little box with a nice ribbon always seems nicer than one in a paper bag or one wrapped in newspaper. The nicer the packaging you have for your communication, the more attractive you will be. Let’s take a few examples of gift wrapping for both positive and negative messages. A smile is nice gift wrap for a greeting, such as “hello,” or “good morning.” Take away the smile and the information is the same, but the meaning isn’t.
Example of packaging a negative message in a good way:
“This class sucks.” Straight, and to the point. Informational, but the message is packaged in newspaper that was used to wrap fish. “This relationship sucks,” would be the same kind of message with the same kind of wrapping. Better packaging can be achieved by saying the reasons for your conclusion rather than the conclusion itself. For example, instead of saying “This class sucks,” you could say, “I am bored in this class and the textbook is confusing.” Instead of saying, “This relationship sucks,” you could say, “I don’t feel able to be open with you and am growing more distant from you.” This is not great packaging, but it’s a change from dead fish newspaper to a plain cardboard box. A definite step in the right direction.
Saying bad things in an even better way
Instead of pointing out what we don’t like, we can point out what we want and also try to connect that to what we believe the other person wants. This is the “spin” that politicians use. It gets people votes. You want your partner to vote for you, too, right? So, using the above examples, we can mentally go from “this class sucks,” to “I’m bored and the textbook is confusing,” to our expressed communication, “I want to learn more interesting things and use a different textbook.” As a former professor, I can tell you this communication would have made me respect my student more, whereas the student saying, “This class sucks,” would have made me lose respect for the student. We can do the same thing with the above relational example. Mentally, we can go from, “This relationship sucks,” to “I can’t be open and am losing my love for this person,” and then express, “I want to share openly with you so that our love can grow deeper.” You have now gone from a cardboard box to gift wrap.
Think before you speak
As you can see in the above examples, we need to mentally process things before we can say them in a good way. That takes a few seconds. Get in the habit of pausing for a few seconds before responding in any serious communication you have (job interview, discussion with your partner, etc.). This will benefit your communication in two ways. First, it will make sure that you don’t cut off the other person before he or she has really finished talking. Secondly, it will allow you to monitor your thinking and put a positive spin on messages before they come out of your mouth. Remember that a “spin” is not a deception. It is putting things in a way that helps to preserve the relationship while also communicating important information.
Good communication is a marriage saver
If you are having difficulty in your marriage, it makes sense to work on the way you communicate with your spouse more than on any other thing. When I help people to rebuild their marriages, the first thing I help them with is talking in such a way as to make their spouse less defensive. From there, we progress to helping their spouse enjoy talking with them, to helping their spouse enjoy being with them. Each of these things builds on the other. I have put together a free resource to help you continue to build your relationship through better communication. When you see how much progress you can make just by making some changes in the way you say things, you will greatly encouraged about your future with your spouse.