I got angry with my wife for emptying the dishwasher.
Normally, that doesn’t happen.
In a few seconds, a misguided comment between a husband and wife can explode into a conflict. One or both are in a hurry to end the discussion, they’re tired — or their message gets lost in their inability to use the right words.
My wife arrived home after a long day of running errands. As she passed through our kitchen she remarked, “I see no one emptied the dishwasher.”
My daughter and I had been home most of the afternoon. I had planned to empty the dishwasher after I finished tying up some things that were left over from work, and a few other things on my to-do list.
“Don’t empty it,” I said.
I knew my wife was hungry and needed to prepare her dinner. I told her I’d ask our daughter to put away the dishes. My daughter was stepping out of the house into the backyard. She said she’d put away the dishes when she came back in.
I stepped out to the garage to do the next task on my to-do list. When I stepped back into the house a few minutes later, my wife was unloading the dishwasher.
“What are you doing?” I said. Thinking she had brushed off my plan to lighten her load, my disappointment turned in to anger. “You weren’t supposed to do that!” I snapped.
“Well, someone needed to do it,” she snapped back. “It should have been done earlier.”
Fortunately, positive interactions outnumber negative interactions in our marriage. A few minutes later, we apologized to each other and restored the peace. When there are too many negative interactions in a marriage, the risk for lasting dissatisfaction and divorce is high. Research psychologist John Gottman says the magic ratio for enduring marital satisfaction is one negative interaction to five positive interactions.
As demonstrated by the brief breakdown between my wife and me, negative interactions can occur easily.
To minimize these, heed the advice below so that your communication is not hampered.
Don’t let negative emotions flood the message. This happens easily when we’re tired or when we’re in a hurry. When fatigued, the energy we need to manage our emotions isn’t easily accessed. It takes extra effort to the pull back the reins on negative emotions.
In our case, my wife was tired and I was in a hurry. To keep negative emotions from interfering, avoid trying to tackle disagreements or misunderstandings until you’ve reloaded your energy reserves and have time to speak clearly and listen.
Once my wife started unloading the dishwasher, she wasn’t going to stop. I could have waited until after her dinner to bring up the issue again. When she was refueled and there was more time, I could have said again that I hadn’t wanted her to put away the dishes, and that I was sorry it became her chore.
Make sure to manage your tone and body language. When communicating a message in person, words only make up 7 percent of the content. Most communication is nonverbal, sent through vocal expression and body language. This is the conclusion of research by psychologist Albert Mehrabian.
Practice matching your nonverbal actions to your words. A raised voice, turning away when spoken to, rolling your eyes, or resting your hands on your hips are gestures that can send a negative message. Practice speaking in a calm voice, turning toward your spouse when he or she speaks, and making positive eye contact.
When you receive an important message from your spouse, confirm that you heard it correctly.
Be careful about using “communication stoppers.” Inserting critical comments, defensiveness, going silent, and expressions of contempt usually put an end to productive communication. Used during a discussion, these often stir up a flood of negative emotions in the person who is on the receiving end of these behaviors.
Watch the tendency to make assumptions. When they are good at what they do, the people taking your order at a restaurant make no assumptions. On receiving your order, they repeat it back to you. Then they ask for more details, such as, “What kind of dressing would you like?” or “Do you want that with cheese?”
When you receive an important message from your spouse, confirm that you heard it correctly. Repeat the message back in your own words. Then be curious and ask questions to clarify details to make sure you understand.
Don’t lose your sense of humor! Be careful to not take things personally when they aren’t personal.
When my wife unloaded the dishwasher despite my attempt to relieve her of that task, it wasn’t personal. I didn’t have anything humorous to say at that moment — but it might have helped. In conversations that get emotionally charged, saying something funny can quickly diffuse a tense situation.
Just remember to make fun of yourself, not your spouse.
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.”