Contrary to what you may see on the covers of magazines in the checkout line at your local grocery store, great sex isn’t the most fulfilling aspect of a happy marriage. Sex is number four. Most happy couples rank communication the most fulfilling thing about their relationship. That’s the finding from a The Normal Bar Survey, which gathered data on the secrets of happy couples from over 200,000 people around the world.
Many couples find that effective communication is the thing that takes the most work in their relationship. I recently took a survey at my local church near Portland, Oregon, where I’m the family ministries director. I asked married people what they most wanted to learn more about. “How to improve marital communication” was the overwhelming response.
Few couples receive any education on how to communicate when they get married. The communication must be good, or most wouldn’t marry to begin with. Over 90 percent of men and women give themselves kudos on their own communication skills. But when asked to rate their partner’s communication skills in The Normal Bar Survey, 30 percent of women gave their man a failing grade. One in four men rated their woman as a poor communicator.
Most of us can use an occasional communication tuneup from time to time. Here are three of the most important communication skills for couples to master.
1.) Don’t assume you understand each other. Living in close proximity to each other can lead spouses to the conclusion that they know each other well. But as well as they know each other, spouses are likely to make inaccurate assumptions about what their spouse thinks, feels or desires.
When dating, couples often express curiosity about each other. Questions about each other’s likes and dislikes, disappointments and dreams, often lead to engaging discussions as a couple learns about one another.
For many couples, curiosity subsides after a few years of marriage. But people change. Their experiences lead them to different points of view, new thoughts, and different feelings than they had in the past. Without keeping curiosity alive, spouses can find themselves not knowing each other as well as they once did. They become roommates instead of lovers.
Increase your understanding of your spouse. Make a habit of showing a sincere interest in his or her experience by asking open-ended questions that begin with words like who, what, when, where and how. Ask clarifying questions to make sure you’re understanding, and it can also help you remember what you hear. Keeping curiosity alive in a marriage fosters meaningful communication.
2.) Know when to talk and when to listen. The better spouses understand each other, the better they’ll be at knowing when to talk and when to listen.
In love, opposites attract. Often one spouse is more talkative and the other a better listener. Complimentary communication styles may keep couples from continually talking over each other — but they can also be a liability.
For example, consider the husband who is more inclined to listen and to keep his thoughts to himself. His wife freely shares her perspective but doesn’t pause long enough for her husband to respond. He may start to think she doesn’t care about his point of view. She may conclude he doesn’t have a point of view, or that he agrees with her.
Setting some structure around your conversations can be helpful. Many couples commit to a daily or weekly check-in, free from the distractions and demands of parenting and work. They wait until the kids go to bed, or schedule a weekly date night. This is their time to catch up with each other. They use this time to share with each other what’s happened in their day or week. They celebrate each other’s wins and sympathize with each other’s losses.
The better you get to know each other, the better you’ll become at knowing when it’s important to make eye contact, give your full attention, and ask for and listen to what the other has to say.
3.) Emphasize the positive. It’s natural for most people to pay attention to the negative. It’s a survival skill that helps us identify threats to our safety and security. But in a marriage, focusing on the negative leads to dissatisfaction and divorce.
Marriage researcher and psychologist John Gottman has identified what he calls the “Magic Ratio” of positive to negative interactions. Gottman used this ratio in a study of newlywed couples to predict which couples would divorce. He made his prediction with 94 percent accuracy.
The Magic Ratio is a ratio of five positive interactions to every single negative interaction. Gottman has observed that couples whose interactions adhere to this ratio enjoy the most stable marriages. Gottman has found that even the happiest couples experience some negativity because conflict is unavoidable if a couple is to grow together.
When communicating in your marriage, put an emphasis on positive interactions by expressing gratitude, fondness, and appreciation for your spouse and his or her best attributes and actions. If this doesn’t come naturally to you, practicing it will make it a habit.
Jon Beaty, counselor and father of two, lives near Portland, Oregon. He’s the author of the book “If You’re Not Growing, You’re Dying: 7 Habits for Thriving in Your Faith, Relationships and Work.”