14 Strategies for Effective Communication in Marriage
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One of the biggest obstacles to a happy marriage is communication. Many couples who seek therapy or split up claim they just can't communicate. "Effective communication in marriage isn't about being right—it's about making sure your partner feels heard and understood," says dating and relationship expert Matthew Furman of Connection Copilot in New York City. Which, as anyone who's been in a relationship for more than a week can attest, is often easier said than done. Here are 14 strategies recommended by experts for communicating effectively and keeping yourself, your spouse, and your marriage in good stead.
"Often, I see couples stuck in a game of communication tug of war, where they won't put down their own perspective, which leads to their partner holding on even tighter to theirs," says Lea Trageser, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist in New York. "To combat defensiveness, lead with curiosity and compassion. This switch creates a collaborative space for you to learn about each of your perspectives."
"The most important communication strategy is to adopt a position of humility," says marriage coach and relationship expert Lesli Doares, LMFT. "You and your partner will have differing opinions and experiences. One is not better than the other. Approaching these differences with a sense of humility about your opinions and experiences keeps these normal differences from turning into conflict."
Understanding your partner doesn't mean you necessarily agree with them. "It means that you could repeat your partner's position accurately to a third person," says Doares. "When you listen to respond, you frequently will miss a big chunk of what's being said. You hear only enough to prepare your response. This takes you out of the present moment and turns the focus from your partner to yourself." Concurs Trageser: "With boundaries and recognizing you are two individuals with your own life experiences, you can respect the other person's experience while not agreeing with it and not taking it on as your own."
And never use them in the same sentence, says Doares. "These words tend to put the other person on the defensive. This is frequently how discussions escalate into arguments." Instead, use "I" or "we" statements. For example, say, "What I heard was," not, "What you said was." Likewise, asking "What happened?" instead of "Why did you do that?" can open up a conversation and lead to greater understanding.
This is another way to approach using "I" statements instead of "you" accusations. "If you're angry that your partner isn't helping with the housework, instead of yelling, 'You never help me,' try, 'I feel lonely in the housework each day,' says Tera Wages, CEO of Connection Codes. "When you communicate from a defensive place, you will put your partner immediately on the defensive. But if you share from a place of vulnerability about what you feel, you create a neutral setting to begin the conversation."
"It's very common that once you start to see the bad in your partner, you only see the bad," says Trageser. "By practicing gratitude, you can zoom back out onto your partner as a whole, a flawed human just like the rest of us. I recommend the sentence, 'I appreciate that you are (insert trait here), and I saw it recently when you (insert experience here).' This format allows you to highlight your partner's strengths and show appreciation toward them. This helps grow fondness in a relationship and combats criticism."
"I give all of my friends and family this piece of advice first when thinking about relational communication," says Tyler J. Jensen, MS, LCMHC, LMHC, NCC, a psychotherapist in Iowa City, Iowa. "The more you assume of people, the more your bias wants to confirm that assumption. If you assume your partner is trying to upset you, you're much more likely to look exactly for that." To be an effective communicator, ask questions. "If you think something is going on, notice it, then ask to confirm if it's right or wrong," says Jensen. For example, you might ask your partner: "I'm noticing I feel like you aren't taking this seriously. Do you feel that way?"
"'Yes, and…' has been a crucial skill for communicators for a while now, and it makes relational communication a breeze," says Jensen. "Is your spouse upset because their coworker hurt their feelings? Don't rush to fix that for them; validate them instead." You might say, "That sounds like it really hurts. I would feel that way also," or "Yes, that makes complete sense to me, and I'd love to hear more about that so I can understand."
"Your goal as a communicator should always be to lift your spouse up, meet them where they're at, and move forward as a team," says Jensen. "This is a great place to start."
"It is imperative to genuinely understand your partner without immediate judgment," says Julia Rueschemeyer, a family lawyer and divorce mediator with Amherst Divorce in Massachusetts.
"For instance, I recall a couple who were on the brink of divorce because of financial disagreements. After I coached them to attentively listen to each other's concerns, they discovered underlying fears and insecurities that led to breakthrough resolutions."
"My advice to clients in my practice is to clarify with your partner what you heard them say by repeating it back to them so that you get it right, versus creating your own meaning to the situation," says licensed marriage and family therapist Laura E. Dennis.
It can be helpful to check in with how external factors are influencing how you feel when you approach a discussion or conflict, says Dennis. Ask yourself, "Am I tired, distracted or hungry, which can cause me to react versus actively listen?"
"Consistent check-ins are vital," says Rueschemeyer. "A small gesture, such as asking about each other's day, can fortify a connection, transforming it into a resilient bond capable of weathering life's challenges."
"Take breaks if the conversation seems to be running into a ditch," advises Doares. "When emotions run high, cognitive ability diminishes. Neither of you can think clearly when upset. It's best to take a break, schedule a time to return to the conversation, and then calm down. Identify what sent the emotions skyrocketing so you can develop a different way of managing them."
"Whenever a conversation gets tough, remind yourself why you chose this person to be in your life. This can help move the conversation from blame to understanding and empathy," says Bayu Prihandito, a life coach and the founder of Life Architekture.