Healthy Communication in Marriage
Below are several areas to consider with your fiancé/spouse within the topic of Communication in Marriage. The subject matter and Scriptures should serve as a starting point but it is not meant to be exhaustive.
SCRIPTURAL DIRECTION AND BIBLICAL PRINCIPLES
Communication has a vital impact on the marriage relationship.
Your communication can determine the course of your marriage by strengthening or weakening it. Therefore, you must closely watch your words and the way you communicate with each other. Love your spouse and consistently make sure your words support that love. (Proverbs 25:11, Colossians 4:6, Matthew 12:35-37)
Speak words of blessing and edification.
Your words should build up and strengthen your spouse and those around you. To communicate in a Christ-like manner, the welfare of others must be more important than getting your own way. (Ephesians 4:29, Romans 15:2, Romans 14:19)
Effective listening is one of the most important components of communication.
Through active listening, you communicate respect, honor, and love to your spouse. Communication often goes awry when one or both spouses are trying to speak before they have taken the time to understand the other. (Proverbs 18:13, Romans 12:10, Proverbs 29:20)
Your words have the power to build up and bless or tear down and hurt.
Avoid making critical, hurtful, or demeaning comments to your spouse or about your spouse to others.(James 3:5-10, Ephesians 4:29, 1 Peter 3:10)
Prioritize adequate time for good communication with your spouse.
You can easily get caught up with the responsibilities and demands of life and forget the importance of regular communication with your spouse. Communication will occur at different levels over time. However, be aware of the depth of communication you are having, and make sure there are opportunities to get beyond surface-level communication. (Mark 6:31)
Communication together with God is crucial in marriage.
This discipline both fosters spiritual intimacy and deepens your individual relationships with God. You need to find a quiet, peaceful place to talk, rest, and be alone together with God. Regular communication and prayer together can help you stay connected. (Hebrews 13:15-16)
We must speak the truth in love.
In healthy marriages, the spouses are open and honest with each other, but they do not use “honesty” as an excuse to “blast” their spouse or just “let them have it.” (Ephesians 4:25, Ephesians 4:15)
Parts of the communication cycle.
- The Speaker is the spouse that is sending the message by sharing his or her thoughts and feelings about a topic.
- Often when we communicate, we do not stop to determine who is speaking and who is listening. However, couples are able to communicate more clearly and avoid conflict when they intentionally note who is speaking and who is listening.
2. Message: Communication is more than just words.
- Verbal communication: The specific words and phrases we use to communicate.
- Timing is essential: Couples need to identify appropriate times to bring up certain issues. This requires awareness of your spouse’s needs, as well as your own. It is often helpful to ask your spouse a question like, “I would like to talk to you about ________ sometime. When is a good time to talk?” This communicates your desire to bring up the topic and honors your spouse by allowing him or her the courtesy of having input into when the timing would be good.
- Say what you mean and mean what you say: Do not say one thing and really mean another, and do not expect the Listener to be able to “read your mind.” As James 5:12 says, “…but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay….”
- Do not switch topics mid-conversation: Communication between spouses often gets “muddy” when they switch topics because they try to address too many issues at once.
- Helpful communication tools:
- Use X, Y, Z format: This format helps keep your communication clear: “In situation X, when Y occurred, I felt Z.”
“When you don’t call me to say that you’ll be late, I feel frustrated” is clearer than “You knew you were going to be late. Why didn’t you call?”
- Use “I” statements: These types of statements allow the Speaker to take responsibility for his or her own emotions and thoughts.
“I feel frustrated when you don’t call me to say that you’ll be late.”
- Avoid “You” statements: These types of statements automatically put the listener on the defensive. “You never help me around the house.”
- Use X, Y, Z format: This format helps keep your communication clear: “In situation X, when Y occurred, I felt Z.”
- Be aware of filters: Filters are anything that come between the Speaker and Listener that can potentially alter the meaning and/or reception of the message. There are two main types of filters:
- Environmental filters: Noise from the radio, children, telephone; being in different rooms, etc.
- Internal filters: Being tired, frustrated, having a headache, being sick, etc.
- What to do about filters: Filters are often present, so you need to let your spouse know that a filter is interfering in the communication and figure out the best way to proceed. Sometimes this means that you will simply need to go into the same room alone and talk. Other times, as in the case of one spouse feeling sick, you may need to schedule another time to talk.
- Nonverbal communication: Nonverbal communication often has a larger impact on overall communication than the specific words used. This does not mean your choice of words does not matter; however, it does mean “how you say it” is often more important than “what you say.” This is because nonverbal communication can alter the meaning of the words you use and is often the strongest indicator of the true message. Remember that even when you are not aware of your nonverbal communication, it is evident to the person listening to you. The following types of nonverbal communication are things that can help or hinder your ability to communicate with your spouse.
- Tone of voice: The tone of your voice can completely change the meaning of the words you speak. Your tone of voice is a combination of volume, quality, pitch, and rate of speech. The emotional meaning of a message can be understood just by these components, without hearing the actual words. Read the words “I love you,” placing emphasis on the words in bold type as you read them and see how the message changes.
(1) I love you. (2) I LOVE you. (3) I love YOU. (4) I love YOU?
A tone of voice conveying warmth, care, and love will get you the furthest in your relationship. Even when disagreeing, trying to maintain a calm, even tone will help you communicate in a civil manner.3 The truth of Proverbs 15:1 often rings true.
- Body language, posture, and eye contact: Your body language and posture can give evidence of your openness or defensiveness, anger or calmness, and interest or disinterest in communicating. Some nonverbal behaviors that help reveal you are actively involved in communication include: leaning forward while sitting, maintaining an appropriate close distance when standing, keeping your arms uncrossed, and keeping your hands relaxed and open. When your spouse speaks to you, face your spouse and look him or her in the eyes. Also, be aware of how you use your hands when you speak.
- Facial expressions: Many times, we are not completely aware of our facial expressions when we are talking and listening. You may gain help by asking a close friend or family member about your typical facial expressions. Like tone of voice, facial expressions can reveal the emotion behind thoughts and words. Monitoring your emotional reactions during conversations can be one way to monitor your facial expressions. For example, if you have a tendency to be irritated when talking to a certain person or about a certain topic, controlling your irritation will moderate your facial expressions. Overall, a warm smile and relaxed appearance is more inviting than a frown or serious look.
- The Listener is the spouse receiving and actively listening to the message from the Speaker. Listening is a crucial component of good communication.
- Just as you need to learn to talk so your spouse will listen, learn to listen so that your spouse can talk. Listening is a gift you can give to your spouse. It is a practical way to show honor to your spouse.
- Listening involves more than just hearing the words your spouse is saying; it involves being in-tune with the various messages being sent through words, body language, tone of voice, etc.
- Active listening is a skill. It is developed and honed with practice over time.
- Listen with the goal of understanding your spouse.
- Listen by fully focusing on your spouse. This means when you listen to your spouse, you are not thinking about formulating your response. Rather, you are listening in a way that communicates respect and honor. You will get your chance to share your thoughts and feelings when you are the Speaker.
- To listen is to love. Active listening also involves hearing and taking in what is being said, even if you do not agree. You can acknowledge what your spouse is saying as an expression of what he or she is feeling and thinking. It is important to attempt to understand your spouse’s perspective before trying to respond or solve a conflict. (Proverbs 18:13)
- The purpose of the acknowledgement is to let the Speaker know he/she has been heard. Unfortunately, this part of the communication cycle is often omitted.
- Remember even the best attempts at listening may still result in misunderstandings. This can occur because we all tend to hear things in a way consistent with what we already believe about something. Unfortunately, this can hinder us from accurately hearing what our spouse is saying. When you reflect back to your spouse what you think you heard, he/she can correct any misunderstandings.
- “Reflecting back” what you heard the Speaker say is one of the best ways to acknowledge what the Speaker said. If you have effectively listened, you will be able to reflect what has been said back to your spouse. Repeat what you understood from the Speaker’s message; however, do not simply use “parrot-talk.” It is often helpful to say, “What I heard you say was . . . .” For example, “What I heard you say was that you are feeling angry because I have been getting home later than we agreed on.” Statements like these help the Speaker to know if the message got through correctly.
- When you are the Listener, you do not necessarily have to agree with what the Speaker said. Remember, your role as the Listener is to provide validation to your spouse by letting him/her know you heard what was said and that it registered with you. For example, “It makes sense that you feel angry when I arrive home later than we agreed on.”
- When the Speaker hears the Listener’s acknowledgement, he or she can then determine if the message got through correctly.
- Without reassessing, each individual is simply assuming his or her spouse heard and understands things in the way he/she thought it should be understood. However, assuming and “mind-reading” cause significant problems in marital communication.
The Speaker-Listener Technique
The Speaker-Listener Technique includes rules and guidelines that can be applied to nearly any situation.
- The Speaker-Listener Technique ensures couples will give adequate attention to each of the five parts of the communication cycle.
- This structured way of communicating is very helpful when dealing with issues that are important, difficult, or sensitive. Slowing down your communication and being clear on who is taking on the role of Speaker or Listener can prevent many misunderstandings.
- Conversations are more likely to spiral out of control when there are two Speakers and no Listeners. While you don’t need to use the Speaker-Listener Technique in every conversation, if you think communication isn’t going well, call a “time-out” and take steps to implement it.
Rules for both of you:
- The Speaker “has the floor.” That is, the Speaker’s job is to share his/her thoughts and feelings, while the Listener simply listens and paraphrases what is heard. Using some sort of object to designate which individual is the Speaker can be a helpful visual reminder to both spouses. This object can be as simple as a piece of paper. Whoever is holding the object is the Speaker.
- Share the floor. After one of you has had the opportunity to share his or her thoughts and feelings as the Speaker, hand the object representing “the floor” to the other spouse. When your spouse is the Speaker, focus on being the Listener. This process continues back and forth as each one takes turns having the floor.
- No problem solving. The goal of the Speaker-Listener Technique is to help couples achieve open communication and build better understanding. Therefore, the focus is on having good discussions rather than finding solutions. Many times, good communication between spouses, which fosters understanding, is all that is needed. Other times, additional steps of problem solving and conflict resolution are needed.
Rules for the Speaker:
- Speak for yourself. When you are in the role of the Speaker, use “I” statements and state your own point of view. For example, “I feel frustrated that we have not been able to create a budget for our finances.”
- Talk in small chunks. Remember you are the Speaker, so you do not need to worry about being interrupted by the Listener. Speak in short sentences. The Listener can only take in so much at a time. Speaking in smaller chunks allows the Listener to comprehend more rather than overloading him or her with all of your thoughts at once. Doing this helps the Listener to focus on what you are saying and will increase the amount your spouse is able to remember. This suggestion is especially important for spouses who tend to be expressive communicators.
- Stop and let the Listener paraphrase. After saying a sentence or two, stop and allow the Listener to repeat back to you what he/she thought you said. If the paraphrase is not accurate, restate your point in a way that allows the Listener to understand.
Rules for the Listener:
- Paraphrase what you hear. After the Speaker has given you a few sentences, repeat back what you heard him or her say in your own words. The goal is to demonstrate you were listening and you received the message accurately. You can start a paraphrase by saying, “What I’m hearing you say is . . .,” or, “It sounds like . . . .”
- Focus on the Speaker’s message. Remember when you are in the Listener role, it is not the time for you to refute the Speaker’s message or offer your own opinions or thoughts. You will have the opportunity to share how you think and feel when you are the Speaker. Your job is to let the Speaker know (1) you heard what he/she said and (2) what was said, registered in your brain. This rule is difficult, but is very important in learning how to be a good listener.
Communication and Emotional Intimacy
Levels of Communication: Communication occurs on different levels. As the levels progress, an increasing amount of trust, vulnerability, and intimacy is required. Different levels of communication correlate with different levels of intimacy. Communication is the way relationships begin and are maintained. The type and depth of communication that occurs between spouses helps define the kind of relationship they will have. For example, superficial communication supports a superficial relationship. While superficial communication may be appropriate with a store clerk, in marriage, a deeper level is required. Of course, sometimes communication in marriage is about surface-level facts and information. However, personal, intimate communication supports the marital relationship. This intimate communication is not only important, but fulfilling as well.
To be known by your spouse and to know your spouse intimately is one of the greatest blessings of marriage. Because this level of communication is difficult for some people, couples must have a firm foundation of trust and honesty for intimacy to grow.
Review the following levels of communication and discuss at what levels you tend to communicate with each other.
- “Just the facts”: This level of communication involves sharing facts or information and requires the least amount of vulnerability and intimacy. This kind of communication is done most frequently overall and is done with a wide variety of people. Examples include talking about the weather or your schedule for the day.
- “I think”: This level of communication involves sharing your own thoughts and the ideas and opinions of other people. At this level, little of oneself is disclosed. Examples include discussing what a minister said during a sermon or what a family member shared.
- “Sharing”: Sharing your own ideas and opinions occurs at this level. A greater amount of openness is involved in this type of communication as you reveal your own thoughts about a situation or circumstance. An example of communication at this level occurs when one person shares with another about a current struggle or asks for advice.
- “Mutual sharing”: Intimacy is increased at this level when you both share personal preferences, beliefs, concerns, and experiences. Talking about your personal struggles, memories, goals, etc. occurs at this level. Here, a couple can work together to resolve the issues they face.
- “This is me”: A complete opening up of yourself occurs at this level. Here, you share inner feelings, fears, preferences, likes and dislikes. The conversation may include emotional expressions from the heart and the disclosure of inner thoughts, ideas, and experiences. Not only does conversing at this level help a couple become more intimate, it is also beneficial when discussing disagreements, making decisions, or sharing concerns. Issues can be worked through most effectively when spouses can share their thoughts and feelings in an open atmosphere that is bathed in love and respect.
The Importance of Self-Disclosure: Research has revealed that couples who disclose their thoughts and feelings to each other tend to be more satisfied with their relationship. In addition, spouses tend to match each other’s level of disclosure. Therefore, if one spouse is not disclosing much personal information, over time the other spouse may start withholding information as well. To provide an environment where you both can regularly open up to one another in positive, honest ways is extremely important.
Personality and Communication
Spouses often differ in the quality and quantity of communication they are used to giving and receiving. Understanding one another’s personality can help to shed light on the way each spouse communicates. One simple way of discerning communication style is by looking at the amount one talks. Two types of communicators are Expanders and Condensers.
- Expanders: Expanders are people who tend to talk more than others. They elaborate, give detailed, lengthy descriptions, and have a dislike of silence. Condensers who do not provide as much information when talking may frustrate expanders.
- Condensers: Condensers are people who do not talk as much and who do not always include a lot of detail in their conversations. They prefer an efficient use of words and tend to stick to the main points or the “bottom line” when communicating. A Condenser may become overwhelmed by the Expander’s seemingly excessive use of words.
Combinations of Expander-Condenser couples.
- Expander-Condenser couples: When one spouse is an Expander and the other spouse is a Condenser, problems can arise if you are not careful to respect one another’s communication style. Respect and compromise is necessary. The Condenser may need to make an effort to include more detail in his or her communication and may need to build a tolerance for listening to a talkative personality. Conversely, the Expander may need to learn when he/she needs to leave out extra details and give the “Reader’s Digest” version of the story. An Expander may also need to learn to be satisfied with less detail and to build tolerance for silence.
- Expander-Expander couples: When both spouses are Expanders, they are likely to enjoy frequent and lively discussions. However, this pattern is also likely to lead to situations in which there are two Speakers and no Listeners. Be intentional about learning to be a good listener and taking turns speaking and listening.
- Condenser-Condenser couples: When both spouses are Condensers, they are likely to have pleasant conversations that are more specific and to the point. However, there is also a tendency for these individuals to not bring up things that need to be discussed. At times, Condenser-Condenser couples need to push themselves to be more open.
In marriage, you cannot not communicate.
- Communication will occur even without the use of words. Silence, for example, is a powerful communicator. It can mean several different things: contentment, anger, dissatisfaction, etc.
- While knowing when to “hold your tongue” is important, silence, in general, is an ineffective problem solver.
- Be aware of what you are communicating with your body language as well as your silence. Unfortunately, silence leaves space for another person to add his or her own interpretation, which may or may not be correct.
- While desiring time to think and pray before talking through an issue is reasonable, giving your spouse “the silent treatment” is hurtful and can be emotionally abusive.
- If you are ever wondering what your spouse is trying to communicate through actions or silences, use appropriate assertiveness and ask for clarification. To ask for clarification from your spouse is better than to assume you can read his or her mind.
Choosing your words wisely.
Words have the power to build up and to destroy. You must communicate in ways that enhance and build up your marriage. (Proverbs 25:11)
Grace and truth must be joined together in communication. This means we need to speak the truth, but to do it lovingly. Too strong of an emphasis on truth without grace and love may lead to harsh, insensitive statements like, “My mother’s cooking is much better than yours.” Conversely, trying to be loving but avoiding the truth can be just as counterproductive. Saying, “I sure love this casserole,” when in fact you do not, can lead to a lifetime of force-feeding yourself.
If your words and attitude are accompanied by the following elements, there is a good chance communication is healthy.
• Love • Clarity
• Honor • Honesty
• Respect • Self-control
• Sensitivity • Understanding
If your words and attitude are accompanied or characterized by the following elements, you are likely in the realm of “corrupt communication” (Ephesians 4:29).
• Criticizing • Nagging
• Quarreling • Fault-finding
• Comparing your spouse to others • Being defensive
• Being emotionally withholding • Lying
Questions to ask yourself before you speak:
• “Am I under control?”
• “Am I speaking the truth in love?”
• “Will what I’m about to say help or hurt?”
• “Is this the right time and place to say what needs to be said?”
Becoming a student of your spouse’s communication style is necessary and beneficial yet it takes work.
Clear communication leads to understanding, while unclear communication leads to confusion. Individuals come into marriage with their own unique way of communicating. They each communicate using certain rules and styles they learned through interactions with friends and family. Learning each other’s style of communication in marriage takes time and effort; however, you must make the effort to understand how to communicate together clearly. Learn how to talk so your spouse can best listen and understand.
Focus on building communication skills rather than simply putting stock in your hopes and dreams. Research indicates that having positive expectations about marriage does not predict a couple will do well. Rather, higher relationship satisfaction is seen when a couple has positive expectations about marriage in combination with having good communication skills to help them interact. Couples that do not have the skills to communicate and interact well experience less marital satisfaction.
Some people find it easier to open up than others do. This is often due to differences in personalities, families of origin, and life experiences. For example, some people have experienced hurts in their lives that make it difficult to open up and discuss personal issues. Other times, individuals simply have not had healthy models that taught them how to communicate and open up.
- If you have a spouse who finds communication difficult, be patient with him or her and encourage them to open up in small bits. Trying to open up “too much, too fast” often causes people to “shut down.”
- If you are a person that finds communication difficult, take it slow, but continue to take steps forward. Do not allow yourself to stay emotionally “closed off” to your spouse.
As was mentioned earlier, nonverbal communication plays a large role in communication. Therefore, becoming aware of the nonverbal messages you send is very wise. Underneath nonverbal communication are personal qualities that play a large role in determining the effectiveness and success of your communication and thus your marriage. Put another way, nonverbal communication can reveal your character qualities. Developing the three following qualities is as important as learning communication skills.
- Warmth: Demonstrating to your spouse you accept him/her.
- Genuineness and authenticity: Revealing your true self and not putting up a “front.
- Empathy: Understanding things from your spouse’s perspective; seeking to understand both the thoughts and feelings he or she is experiencing.
Honoring in public and discretion with others.
- Complimenting your spouse in public and sharing genuine praise can be a way to encourage, honor, and bless your spouse.
- You must not criticize or tear down your spouse in public. Even if your intent may be to “poke fun,” public criticism can cause deep hurts.
- You should avoid sharing private personal information about your marriage or your spouse with others (e.g., talking about your sexual relationship, etc.). This can cause embarrassment and lead to difficulty with trust in your marriage.
For further information, including couple questions and exercises, please see the full document.
For Further Information:
Validation Podcast: A Key to Deescalating Tense Emotion in Personal Interactions
Sometimes interactions are charged with emotion. Often, we react to the escalation only to make it worse. In this episode of Breaking Bread, Kaleb Beyer helps us let the steam out of the charged moment so we can have rational dialogue. The key to doing this is called “validation.”
A Lasting Promise: The Christian Guide to Fighting for Your Marriage (2nd Edition)
Authors: Scott Stanley, Daniel Trathen, Savanna McCain, Milton Bryan
This 352-page book teaches practical communication, conflict resolution, and problem solving skills within a Christian framework. The 2nd edition is filled with teaching from scripture, couple exercises at the end of each chapter, as well as the latest research on marriage. This book can be helpful to young couples just starting their relationship and for married couples who are having marital conflict.
Communication: Key to your Marriage
Author: H. Norman Wright
This is a resource for couples to help understand each other at new and deeper levels. Ideal for married and pre-married couples, counselors, lay counselors, mentors, and pastors.