A note from the author: This is part of my column for Verily called Tools for an Intentional Marriage. It’s a collection of best practices for moving through your marriage on purpose. I’ll share the best tips, tricks, and ideas that I’ve discovered over my years as a marriage therapist and also as a husband. I hope you’ll collect, use, and even enjoy these tools as you seek to build your own Intentional Marriage.
It’s no secret that effective communication is an essential element of relationship health. Without question, you ought to be working on “I” statements, active listening, and empathetic engagement. These are effective tools for maintaining ongoing dialogue and managing conflict in a committed relationship. But they don’t necessarily mean that you’re communicating in an intentional way. Intentional communication requires creativity, risk, and practice.
My wife and I have had to get creative to communicate intentionally because our communication styles are very, very different. She’s an extrovert of the highest order. I’m an off-the-charts introvert. When we go to a party, she works the whole room and knows everyone’s whole story by the time we leave. I stand against the wall, maybe talking to one other person the whole night. When we’re in conversation with one another, she wants to talk through every specific detail of an issue; I’d generally rather handle things via email. She’s emotionally available. Me: not so much.
We’re different, so we’ve had to come up with specific strategies, such as these, to help us stay on the same page.
One of the best ways to have intentional communication is to ask questions. Authentic curiosity is a gift to any conversation. This doesn’t mean that all your questions have to be super-deep. They should just reflect a fundamental interest in your partner.
One of my favorite questions is, Who was your best friend in third grade? It’s a quirky little question that can lead to lots of storytelling. What kinds of things did you do together? What did you like about him? What’s your best story of that time in your life? Where is she now? Asking questions is a skill that you can build into your relationship. It can be the thing you do at dinner or in the car. You can even make a game out of questions. In our family, we play a (boringly titled) game called The Noun Game. Someone plucks a noun out of the air and asks, Who’s got a good story about [insert noun here]? Try it. Here are a few nouns that might lead to some good stories: roller coaster, umbrella, elephant, baseball glove, pond.
The key to intentional communication is to keep it going over a lifetime. It’s not just a set of skills to use in a specific conversation. It’s a posture of curiosity and exploration.
In addition to the benign, playful conversations that you have, you also need to prioritize purposeful inquiries into topics that may be more complicated. This is especially important early in a relationship during the period where you’re determining compatibility and, more importantly, your shared value set. A few things that should definitely be on the list: money, sex, faith, and who cleans the toilet. It’s important to know the meaning of these things. It can be as simple as asking, “What do you think ‘money’ means?” And then dedicate time to figuring it out together.
I recently got an email from a Verily reader saying:
I’m spending the holidays with my boyfriend, and I’d like to make the most of this opportunity to really learn each other’s stories and priorities and values. In order to be deliberate in this, do I have to state that this is my intention, or should I just prompt with questions and reflect on my own answers?
I love this question. It’s about intentionality . . . and I’m a big fan of intentionality. My answer: YES, state your intention to be intentional. Probe into the things that shape you and thus your relationship. You might be surprised by what you learn about the expectations and assumptions you already have about your relationship or relationships in general. “Who cleans the toilet?” is more than a task question. It’s a question about roles, family, and tolerance. Set aside time for these important topics. It might help to set aside a specific time and even to set a timer so that you don’t get too distracted or distressed. Trust me, the topic isn’t going away, so set limits for your probing.
Discussions and Decisions
As you begin exploring these topics, it’s really important to differentiate between discussing and deciding. Couples can get into a lot of trouble when they don’t know the difference. Here’s the best meeting you’ve ever been in at work: “Hi, everyone. Thanks for coming. We’ve got an important decision to make. We’re going to discuss the issue for twenty minutes, and then we’ll spend the last ten minutes deciding. There are nine people here, so five votes wins. We’ll end promptly at 9:30. Who wants to weigh in?” The reason that meeting is so wonderful is that the parameters are clear. Everyone knows what’s going to happen, and they’re all clear about how the decision is going to be made. No time is wasted on wondering . . . or miscommunication.
In my experience, couples are terrible at this. Far too often, one person is discussing, and another has already decided. Or one person’s discussion is perceived to be the decision. Minimally, you ought to know how decisions are going to get made in your home. Do you vote? Does he decide? Does she? Flip a coin, maybe? It almost doesn’t matter. What matters is that you are both clear about how a particular decision will be made. (Yes, it can change from one case to the next.) It’s also important to declare the difference between discussing and deciding. Don’t be afraid to actually label the conversation. “Tonight, we’re just thinking out loud. No option is off the table. We’ll decide tomorrow.” It’s amazing how safe an intentional discussion can feel. Don’t get bound up in not knowing what conversation you’re actually having.
My wife and I have had to work hard to communicate creatively. But that’s what intention is. Hard work. Consistency over time. You can do it—in fact, you probably already are. I’d love to hear about your creative communication strategies. I’d also love to know if you have any good stories about [insert noun here] or if you have a better name for our game. Contact me on Twitter (@kzbrittle) or Facebook, or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo Credit: Manchik Photography