What's the key to a happy relationship and marriage?
By Dr. Craig Moorman
Great communication is the key to a happy relationship and marriage.
Communication in a relationship can be tough. Couples start off with good intentions, but often get tripped up along the way because they bring different past experiences into the relationship. They don’t always learn great communication patterns from their family of origin. So goes the old saying, “There are always six in the bed.”
Couples often get stuck in negative patterns of interaction. Ignoring basic communication rules and being unaware of communication pitfalls can slowly erode goodwill and positive sentiment, leading to contempt and withdrawal.
So how can you transform your relationship with better communication? What communication patterns don’t work and what patterns lead to a happier relationship? Let’s take a look.
What Doesn’t Work: Indirect Communication
Indirect communicators find a way to avoid conflict or avoid answering tough questions. They have a tendency to change subjects and leave sentences unfinished. They put great emphasis on protecting their feelings and preventing others from feeling bad.
Often, indirect communicators are big on respect, courtesy, and politeness, but low on vulnerability and risk. They conceal their emotions, but “act out” their feelings. They turn their hurt and pain inward and become resentful and passive-aggressive, leaving others stonewalled and shut out.
These types of communicators have trouble asking for what they want. As a result, they either stay quiet and hold feelings inside or they present their needs and wants through criticism. Indirect communicators tend to use more sarcasm and tell stories to communicate a message. They do more inside thinking and assuming. They tend to hide meaning in implicit communication and logical discourse.
Here are indirect communication patterns that damage relationships and break intimacy:
Avoiding conflict, holding in hurts, repressing negative emotions, and stewing in resentment block connection and happiness. This form of indirect communication may protect you from feeling pain and discomfort, but it will ultimately kill intimacy and damage your relationship.
Assumptions may take the form of interpreting what your partner meant instead of asking, or forming your own story about your spouse without taking the time to discover the real story. Assumptions are often based on patterns from your family of origin or from past behaviors. You see in the present what occurred in the past. Assumptions may leave your partner feeling misunderstood, trapped, and judged.
Stonewalling and Criticism
Often, indirect communicators hold their feelings in, stewing in resentment. Sometimes, this resentment turns to “you”-messages that emphasize their spouse’s worst traits. The you-message is non-assertive since it focuses on what the person doesn’t like in their spouse rather than on what they would like their spouse to do differently.
Fueled by hurts, stonewallers attempt to punish with silence and/or use you-messages to criticize. Criticism leaves the relationship stuck in the past without offering hope.
Making your point
When the focus of your conversation is on making your point, it shuts down the emotional-listening side of your brain. When using this form of indirect communication, you make your point, but you aren’t vulnerable enough to hear the other person’s feelings and thoughts. As a result, your partner feels misunderstood. Making your point is a quick way of venting your negative emotions while blocking your spouse’s negative emotions.
What Works: Direct Communication
Direct communicators say what they feel and think. But they also actively listen to the other person’s thoughts and feelings and give appropriate feedback. Direct communication is real and vulnerable, without any alternative or hidden messages. The goal of direct communication is to openly let the other person into your world and enter into their world, as well.
Empathy is a key factor in direct communication, and the first step toward empathy is curiosity. When two people directly and openly communicate with curiosity—leaning in to understand and staying interested in the other person’s thoughts and feelings—they are beginning to get behind the other person’s eyeballs and experience the world as the other person is experiencing it. This requires being patient, staying present, and withholding judgment. When good, direct communication occurs, both people feel understood.
Here are three useful tools for communicating directly:
- Use “I” messages. Instead of pointing out what you think your partner did wrong, communicate your own feelings. For example: “I felt hurt when you ignored me at the party. Is there something we need to talk about?”
- Shift from criticisms to requests: “It would mean a lot to me if you would text me when you are at the grocery store because I may need you to pick something up.”
- Listen, paraphrase, take turns, and don’t overfill your partner’s listening glass: “Sounds like you are saying … Am I understanding you? … So you felt really hurt when I … ?”
Focus on listening. If you want to be heard, first listen with the full intention of understanding your partner. Turn your body and lean in toward your partner. Look at him or her intently. Focus on getting your spouse’s point of view.
Love is what happens when you work hard to get behind your partner’s eyeballs and see and feel the world from their point of view. Listen, take in, reflect, and empathize. Ask questions and be curious. All empathy starts with curiosity and imagination: “I can imagine that you…”
Create Positive Interactions
The first key to a happy relationship and marriage is communicating directly. The second big step is creating enough positive interaction that you override, repair, and get past negative interactions.
The famous marital researcher John Gottman has discovered that couples can build up so much negative interactional history that the negative overrides the positive. Gottman and other researchers have noted that when couples continue to stir up and ruminate on hurts, past mistakes, and failures, it creates a state called Positive Sentiment Override (PSO). In this state, couples often fail to see the humor in small things, the good qualities in their spouse, and the positive in their relationship. The negative overrides the positive and they seldom experience fun, positive, and enjoyable moments in their relationship.
The good news is that couples can reverse this trend. How? By creating more positive interactions in the relationship so it is harder to get snagged on small differences and disagreements. When positive experiences override potential conflicts (Negative Sentiment Override), couples experience much more relational happiness. Gottman contends that the most satisfied and happy couples have a 5 to 1 ratio of positive to negative interactions.
So how do you get the positive juices going? Try this:
- Give compliments privately and publicly. Show fondness and admiration for your partner.
- Give encouragement, noticing specific things about your spouse. “I like the way you…” “I noticed how you…”
- Find and dwell on the good attributes of your spouse. Hold your spouse’s positives in your mind. Love is what happens when you hold more positive attributes about your spouse at the end of each day than negatives.
- Laugh at annoyances lightly and with humor. Find the positive in the negative: “You know Bill. He never completely stops at the stop signs, but that is part of his drive and flexibility with life. He’s is definitely not lazy.”
- Laugh with each other. Have fun. Dance with each other. Be less serious. Be gracious.
- Be with your spouse in the tough times. Show your loyalty. Woody Allen said, “80 percent of life is showing up.” Show up for your spouse. In her classic book Hold Me Tight, Sue Johnson gives wonderful insight when she writes, “We are moved when those we love show their deepest feelings to us.” This is especially true in our toughest life journeys.
- Make eye contact, give lots of subtle glances, and get physically close.
The key to a happy relationship and marriage is great communication. Creating great communication in a relationship is possible when couples make communication intentional and proactively change negative patterns.
So where do you start?
Start by communicating directly and putting the positive back in your relationship. And remember that the best starting point is you. Ask yourself, “What changes do I need to start making today to create more positive communication with my spouse?” Start implementing these changes today and you will be much closer to experiencing the happy relationship you want.