Simple Communication Blunders That Can Hurt Your Marriage
By Jason Osmond
It can be argued that not only is communication the most vital aspect of a relationship, it is also the hardest part to get right.
And miscommunication can come in all shapes and sizes. From the words we say to the gestures we make, to the words we don’t say to the gestures we don’t make. Everything we do or don’t do could be interpreted by our spouse And that can be kind of scary if you haven’t put in the effort to become more aware.
I remember my first year of marriage, my wife would make hints about the dishes not being done. I was fine with a few dishes sitting in the sink for a couple days, but I had no idea it was driving her crazy. I also didn’t know it was my job to do the dishes. We’d never talked about it. I assumed she would eventually do it, and she always assumed I’d get it done.
After a few fights about a bunch of completely unrelated surface issues, I was finally able to get to the core of it: In her mind, I was throwing my weight around the house instead of pulling it. Once I finally figured that out, things got better. But it took some digging and a lot of opening up on both our parts to figure it out.
If you’re interested in having a better relationship and becoming more self-aware, that makes you a student of effective communication by default. To help you in your education, here are some ways we humans typically mess things up while trying to communicate.
You say a lot of words to your partner every day. Talking is one of our primary ways of communicating. But did you know that only about 7 percent of what you communicate is through words? By comparison, 38 percent is communicated through tone, and 55 percent is through facial expression. This is especially true when speaking to a group like your whole family. According to a study done by UCLA, most of what your spouse will remember after an argument or even in a pleasant conversation is how you said it.
That means that frown you made when she asked you how she looked because you were thinking about that problem at work instead of paying attention to her resonated much, much more with her than the, “Yeah, yeah, you look great, honey,” you dished out.
When you’re talking to the one you love, practice using eye contact, try focusing with a smile, and show them that you’re interested. You don’t have to be interested in the topic matter, but you do have to show that you’re paying attention and you’re focused on their feelings.
So, how do you get around it? Be more self-aware. As the old storytelling adage goes, show, don’t tell. That’s true as well in verbal and nonverbal communication with your loved one.
“You never do the dishes!”
Sound familiar? How about, “You always make everything so difficult!” General, blanket statements like this contribute nothing to a conversation and even less to solving a problem.
It’s phrases like these that completely undermine relationships: they’re almost always spoken with hyperbole but are meant to be taken literally. When you talk like that, you’re being manipulative without realizing it. It’s simple emotion-dumping in the heat of the moment. People often regret what comes out of their mouths when they generalize.
When we argue with our spouse, we often don’t do it because we’re trying to find a solution to a problem. Instead, we do it because we simply want to express our frustrations and find sympathy. But we’re too prideful to be vulnerable, so we generalize.
This can lead to saying regrettable things like, “You’ve never loved me!” or “I’ll never forgive you for not doing the laundry!”
The fix? Recognize every time you do it. Try to make a mental tally. I’m sure it will shock you how often you do it.
You can’t spell “assume” without a$$, and if you’re in the habit of making assumptions with your spouse, that’s exactly how you’re going to come across.
According to Ashley Thorn, a licensed marriage and family therapist, there are five really damaging assumptions we need to avoid if we want to keep our marriages happy:
- “If you love me, you’ll know what I’m thinking.”
- “We’d be happier if our sex life was better.”
- “If you’d just do A or B, everything would work out.”
- “You should put me first.”
- “We should be able to figure this out already.”
Now, this list could go on and on, but you get the point. When you jump to a conclusion, you’re essentially cutting your partner out of the conversation and taking it upon yourself to come to a solo conclusion about an issue.
The fix? Listen. It’s harder than you think, especially in the middle of a heated moment, but you’d be surprised just how much you can actually say with your ears.
Not being a good listener is part of almost every communication blunder, but it’s big enough to warrant its own subsection. And if you sprinkle a little “talking over someone” on top of it, you can make things even worse.
The core of the problem here is caring. Do you really care what your spouse is thinking, feeling, or saying? Or are you just trying to get through it—just trying to deal with him or her until you can leave or have your turn to talk?
There are two different kinds of half-listeners: the debater and the shoulder brusher. The debater may appear to be listening, maybe even intently listening, but he’s not trying to understand the core message his spouse is spilling. Instead, he’s hunting, waiting, listening for a single keyword or phrase that will allow him to strike back. He wants to prove you wrong or defend himself. He doesn’t care what you’re saying or feeling. When you approach an argument as a half-listener, you’re making it all about you. We see this all the time in political debates.
The other kind of half-listener is the shoulder brusher; the spouse that has no intention of remembering a single word you just said or making an effort to recall the agreement you made later. It’s the equivalent of talking to a rock, a wall, or the president of the United States.
The fix for both kinds of half-listening? Ask for clarification during the conversation. Listen for a pause, then say, “Okay, so let me repeat that back and let me know if I understand you correctly.”
It’s a great way to break up an argument and shows that you are at least attempting to try and understand your spouse. It also gives you a chance to think and process the info being handed to you. And there’s nothing more productive you can do in an argument than to think before you speak.
What’s the difference between a half-truth and a lie? Well, what’s the difference between getting chased by a bear or a lion? Not much: they’ll still catch you and eat your guts out in the end.
Sometimes half-truths come in the form of stories that just leave out a few small facts. It’s told in a way that gives the deliverer a cause to say, “Well, I didn’t lie,” which is the exact same thing as, “Well, I didn’t tell you the whole truth.”
So why do we lie? According to Dr. Jennice Vilhauer in an article on Psychology Today, there are a lot of reasons: “We don’t want to hurt the people we care about, we want to control the perception other people have of us, we want to maintain or raise our status, we lie to protect our own selfish interests, and we want to control others.” And those are just a handful of reasons.
According to the American Psychology Association, “40 to 50 percent of married couples in the U.S. divorce,” and this is largely due to the inability to effectively communicate as partners.
A sad statistic, I know. But true.
In the end, we should remember we’re not perfect and effective communication in a relationship is one of the most difficult things to get right. These five issues are just the tip of the iceberg, but if you can manage to better yourself in some of these aspects, your chances for happiness in your marriage will significantly increase.
Jason is a writer, marketing strategist, and professional dad. He lives with his wife and three kids in Vineyard, UT.