Before I got married, I’d heard many times that communication is the key to a healthy relationship. I had sort of a vague idea that this mainly involved telling your significant other all your thoughts and feelings when you needed to and trying to get him to do the same. The main thing was to just keep talking.
But let me let you in on a secret: There is a LOT more to good communication than just talking. I learned this the hard way.
My first clue to this effect came over a late-night phone call. I had hurt feelings about something to do with wedding planning. Kyle said it was too late; could we talk about it tomorrow? I said I couldn’t sleep until we talked about it. I won. We talked about it, mainly because I just started talking. Not surprisingly, it was a bust—he ended up frustrated, and I felt worse. So, we both lost.
What I didn’t quite get is that the secret to good communication has everything to do with being attuned to the other person; it’s a whole project to be worked on in your romance. Opening up and sharing your interior lives is one of the joys of marriage, but you don’t just talk back and forth to get there.
A number of years and babies into this love affair, my husband and I have figured out that good communication is very intentional. It takes constant patience, compassion, respect, self-control, understanding of differences, and empathy. It takes a sense that rather than two opponents on either side of a net, you’re a team.
Here are three habits that lay the groundwork for the all-important communication in marriage.
01. Be Aware of Timing
Often, we’ve found that timing is key. I’m fairly capable of diving straight into any kind of conversation at a moment’s notice, and I process and articulate my thoughts and feelings as I talk—sometimes a little recklessly. Kyle, on the other hand, needs to be in the right frame of mind to even get started. If it’s a difficult topic, he needs extra time to process what I’ve said and carefully work out what he thinks and feels.
Dr. Scott Haltzman explains in The Secrets of Happily Married Women, “Females, with their strong and numerous connections between the right and left brain hemispheres, are easily able to access their emotions from the right brain and put them into words with the left brain.” Males do not have such a strong connection in the corpus callosum, which “makes it difficult for a man to access and verbalize his emotions spontaneously.”
The most productive argument Kyle and I ever had took place in stages. I greeted him at the door mad (rookie mistake!) and we got nowhere fast. He went for a run to think while I cooled down, and then we talked again. He asked if he could think again in the shower, and then finally came out saying, “I understand what you’re trying to say.” Over the next few days, I didn’t bring up the issue again, but he did. With the right timing, we came to a greater understanding and found even more respect for each other.
02. Build a Groundwork of Love and Trust
We’ve found that filling each other up with positives and speaking to one another with respect lays the groundwork for open communication. We are liberal in communicating compliments, admiration, and love, and, therefore, never doubt our mutual respect.
Respect matters. As researcher and relationship expert Shaunti Feldhahn points out in For Women Only, for men feeling loved and respected is one in the same. Respect should be the default tone in every interaction you have. This seems so easy in theory, but it's tested when you're frustrated or tired, when he forgets to call, when he leaves a hammer from an unfinished project on the floor and you have a Thor for a 2-year-old son.
When you're in the habit of communicating with love and respect in the daily interactions—a kiss in the kitchen, a neutral remark that you'll just put the hammer on top of the fridge until he's ready to put it away—you're building trust. Your partner knows you will give him the benefit of the doubt, that you respect his intellect and his character, that if he reveals a vulnerability to you, you will not use it to hurt him.
03. Create the Habit of Communicating with Empathy
In my experience, these healthy habits in communicating set us up for what we really want in marriage: consistent empathetic engagement. Marriage expert Dr. John Gottman describes empathetic communication as “mirroring a partner’s feelings in a way that lets them know that their feelings are understood and shared.” Empathetic communication leads to that longed-for sense that, yes, he really gets me—he understands that I’m happy or hurt and why—and I really get him.
Recently, Kyle and I brought home our third baby, and while it’s been beautiful to watch our family grow, it has also felt like nonstop work and activity. I’ve been very verbal in expressing my own experience, but Kyle, with his more stoic, cope-with-it nature, has not. And yet I know there’s a lot going on in there. I’ve had to consciously put myself in his shoes. What is it like to walk in the door to a stressed out wife and three crabby little kids just before dinner? What is it like to have a baby constantly between you and your wife when you need a little connection? And he has done the same for me. Miraculously, over these last months of family chaos, we have felt more connected than ever. We are in sync. We are communicating openly and in understanding. We are a team.
Photo Credit: Beth Solano Photography