Witty remarks between couples might be good for a few laughs on a TV sitcom — but in a real marriage they often chip away at the positive feelings between couples. In communication between married couples, one “zinger” erases 20 acts of kindness. This conclusion comes from relationship researchers Howard Markman and Clifford Notarius.
In marital satisfaction surveys, communication is often at the top of the list of issues over which unhappy couples are least satisfied. These couples consistently stumble over emotions and words when trying to express their wishes and dreams to each other.
Spouses often end up feeling hurt by each other as their words ignite one conflict after another. They don’t want to fight with their husband or wife, but they don’t know how to stop it.
In their frustration, couples often retreat to communication habits that aren’t helpful.
These are some of the worst communication habits couples fall back on — and how to begin to break them:
1.) Nasty outbursts. When husbands or wives feel afraid or hurt, many have the natural impulse to defend themselves by hurling hurtful words at their spouse. Examples of this include the husband who berates his wife as a “shopaholic” for spending too much on new outfits, or a wife who blasts her husband with curses for arriving home an hour later than he said he would.
Fear or hurt feelings are often the hidden emotions behind nasty outbursts. In the previous examples, the husband might feel hurt if he thinks his wife’s spending shows a lack of concern about their bank balance. The wife who cursed at her husband might have feared her husband was in an auto accident on the way home, or is engaged in an extramarital affair.
A spouse’s nasty outbursts are often fed by assumptions that the other spouse has acted carelessly or with the intent to hurt the partner. This is seldom true. The truth is that there’s often a lack of meaningful communication. The spouse targeted by the outburst hasn’t communicated his or her intent, and the spouse delivering the outburst hasn’t taken time to understand the partner’s intent.
Husbands and wives who communicate effectively practice listening to and understanding each other. Instead of assuming intent, they communicate curiosity about the other spouse’s motives by asking questions. With carefully chosen words, they express their wishes and worries without accusing, criticizing or blaming each other.
2.) Negative cycling. When a couple’s conversation amounts to lobbing criticism and complaints at each other, they’re caught in negative cycling. In conversations like these, spouses get caught up on casting blame at each other.
Both parties are hearing loud and clear what their spouse thinks about them in that moment, but neither party is hearing what the other person wants.
When couples find themselves in this situation, it’s best for couples to take a timeout until the tension between them has lowered, and to make an appointment to talk about the issue at a later time. They’ll be more effective in addressing the problem if they focus on finding a solution they can agree on rather than attacking each other.
When husbands or wives say to their spouse, “That’s not what you said last time,” it often ignites a clash over whose memory is accurate, or whether the spouse meant what he or she said “last time.”
It’s better to avoid conflicts over who said what in a previous conversation. It’s best for spouses to focus on understanding each other in the moment.
3.) Interrupting, contradicting, and correcting. Few things are more frustrating to a husband or wife who is talking than to have the spouse cut in and say something. While a spouse may find it tempting to add to, argue with, or fact-check the partner’s comments, it’s not helpful.
Spouses who rate each other as good communicators allow each other to finish speaking before commenting. They will also often reply by putting what they heard in their own words to get confirmation that they heard and understood what their husband or wife said.
Whether you’re a self-taught or trained psychologist, chances are your spouse won’t appreciate it when you analyze his motives or attribute his attitude to something that’s happening in his present or happened in his past.
Communication works better when each spouse is permitted to explain his or her own intentions — and to not be second-guessed.
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.”