The importance of communication: Gender differences create obsticles that can be overcome
Inter-spousal Communication: Enrichment Through Understanding
In order for married couples to effectively communicate with one another, they need an understanding of each other's methods and manners of expression. Married couples need to develop a method of communication that includes a shared understanding of terms and expressions, and is unique within their relationship. In the film Grand Canyon, Mack and Claire's discussion about the baby that Claire found is a perfect representation of this phenomenon, because it illustrates the non-verbal gestures that are a large part of their shared understanding of one another. When witnessed by someone outside the relationship, these gestures may seem odd or misplaced, yet to the couple that shares an understanding of their meaning; they are just another way of communicating one's feelings or thoughts. The effectiveness of this "shared understanding" is important, because it can facilitate the transfer of information, emotions, and ideas.
Communication is the key to any relationship. Most couples find that it is of the utmost importance to communicate with one another. This communication begins when a man and a woman first share time together. Many of the things that attracted them to each other, such as appearance, personality, or charisma, are left unmentioned, and they begin to learn about one another's methods of expression. This "learning" is mostly sub-conscious, and not about an open topic of discussion, but instead, is about the manner in which they each conduct themselves in the conversation. They may trade stories about themselves and consciously try to intrigue or engage the other person, yet they are "teaching" each other more about themselves with their mannerisms than is actually expressed in words. Communication is more than just throwing words around, making a point, or attempting to amuse or seduce a potential partner; it is the exchange of ideas, thoughts, and emotions. To effectively exchange these things, couples need to develop a mutual understanding and acceptance of each other's expressional methods. This understanding has more to do with the reception of the intended message than the message itself.
Men and women, in general, communicate in different ways and for different purposes. Being able to "see" things from the perspective of the other person allows one to understand the role of the receiver in the communication process. According to Jeanette Ludwig, lecturing on the importance of Genderlect (the study of the different communication styles of men and women), "How something is received, constructed, understood is every bit as important as what the speaker intended" (McGinnis). Learning to consider the receiver in the communication process is a crucial step toward developing a shared understanding. It is not a simple task, because it goes against everything that one has learned through experience in same-gender communication.
As children in the United States, boys and girls are often segregated in their interpersonal relationships. Boys tend to play with other boys, and generally choose the same to be their primary companions. The same is also true of girls. As a result, the communication skills they develop, as children, are primarily geared toward communication with those of the same gender. Dr. Deborah Tannen, professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University, and author of 21 books on communications, believes that men communicate primarily for status, and women for human connection. In her book, You Just Don't Understand, Tannen writes; "We expect differences when we talk to people who come from different countries...but we don't expect...romantic partners...to understand words differently and have different views of the world. But they often do" (281). The way in which men and women perceive the message the other is sending is a result of these differences. When a man and a woman become involved in a romantic relationship, they begin to learn a lot more about each other through non-verbal communication.
Simple gestures, combined with facial expressions, can be interpreted in many different ways. Even silence (not speaking) can be a form of non-verbal communication. All of these things can easily be misunderstood, or improperly received. Only through a shared understanding of the meaning of these things, can the sender of the message increase the likelihood of an accurate reception of the message. This shared understanding comes from indirect (sub-conscious observation) as well as direct (purposeful explanation) expression of one's meaning when there is a misunderstanding. Developing this understanding is not about changing one's methods of communication, nor is it about asking or expecting the other to change. It is a learning process that involves getting to know each other's ways, and finding a unique style of communication that suits both people. Tannen writes, "...learn how to interpret each other's messages and explain your own in a way your partner can understand and accept" (297). Forming a lasting relationship is an ongoing process. Each partner must accept that changes in feelings can and will occur.
Learning to properly communicate such feelings as uncertainty, sorrow, or even anger, is paramount for couples to achieve a lasting bond with one another. Increasing the quality of communication allows couples to expand their understanding of one another to a point that opens even more communication, thus repeating the process. Barbara Montgomery writes, "Quality communication is the interpersonal, transactional, symbolic process by which marriage partners achieve and maintain understanding of each other" (21). This understanding is not something that is stagnant. It is fluid, and as such, must flow through the inevitable changes that arise in a relationship.
The use of quality communication is as important as an understanding of what quality communication represents. Between marriage partners, quality communication is that which involves both parties' understanding of each other as individuals. The situation that comes from the aforementioned "shared understanding" of meanings allows for quality communication. Montgomery continues, "...quality communication occurs only when partners attribute meaning to verbal and nonverbal behavior based primarily upon knowledge of their spouses as unique individuals" (21). The uniqueness of the individuals involved is what makes the relationship special. It is not important for those outside the relationship to understand, or even to notice, the idiosyncrasies that exist for couples. The things that make a relationship unique are also what make it so valuable.
The continuing development of the relationship relies on the mirror-like development of the style of communication. The style of communication, and shared understanding thereof, that a couple develops changes with time, shared experiences, and individual views. As these changes occur, the individuals use their prior experience together, and knowledge of one another as individuals, to understand that change is happening, and to work through it. Communication is the avenue they use to reach an even newer understanding, and to express their commitment to each other. The expression of commitment can be difficult at times, and the solution can be as easy as recognizing each other's needs and desires. In the film Grand Canyon, Claire (Mary McDonnell) finds an apparently abandoned baby while jogging. When she presents this situation to her husband Mack (Kevin Kline), they have a conversation about the events leading from the moment Claire found the baby, to the present moment. Several times during the conversation, they exchange subtle gestures in combination with sarcasm, which together (for the viewer) are entertaining (13). This exchange also highlights the style of communication that they have developed through years of marriage. This phenomenon is present, and available to the casual observer, in most long-term relationships.
At a recent neighborhood gathering an elderly couple, who have lived in the same house for fifty-three years, sat together at the picnic table. With many different conversations going around the table, they occasionally added their own thoughts. When a question arose about their life together, they answered, at the same time, with slightly different responses. They then turned to each other and had a kind of private laugh together. Upon explaining themselves individually, it became clear to everyone there that they both expressed the same answer, each in their own individual way. The humor that they found in this situation can be attributed to the shared understand that they have developed through more than five decades of marriage. While everyone else at the table was rather confused, they took the time to share the moment, and enjoy each other's individuality. This kind of closeness is something many couples desire, and may spend years working to achieve.
When problems do arise in a relationship, there are ways to combat them, and even turn them into opportunities for improved understanding. Past disagreements or misunderstandings, when completely resolved and understood, can become a basis for greater understanding, and lead to fewer misinterpretations in the future. Misunderstandings can be exponential; they can spiral out of control unpredictably, and create havoc in a relationship. Dr. Aaron Beck, University Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania expresses this issue as one that happens more than people even notice. As an example, a woman has good news to share with her husband. Before she can share it, she thinks that he is "not interested" because of his response, and she becomes upset at this. What she doesn't realize is that he has received some bad news that has distracted him from understanding her. The husband has also allowed his unfortunate circumstance to ruin his wife's pleasant mood. Through this scene, the two become further removed from one another (16-17). What was missing from the previous description of a common misunderstanding? Quality communication! Both the husband and wife were unable to see through their own individual "veil" to reach an understanding of the other's point of view. Taking the time to understand the reasons behind someone's actions (verbal or non-verbal), especially when negative feelings may cloud one's judgment, can make the difference between a misunderstanding, and an increased understanding.
There are those who disagree, that the differences between men and women are great enough to warrant a shared understanding. Kathryn Dindia, author and researcher, feels that they are "differences of degree, not of kind" (11). Dindia argues that the differences in communication styles of men and women are not as important as the "lack of effect" that they have on interpersonal relationships (11). The effect, however, can be catastrophic to the relationship, when considering that a rapid escalation from slight misunderstanding to full-blown argument could untie the tightest of bonds. Even if the differences between a particular man and woman are negligible, a shared understanding of communication styles between the two of them is important in maintaining an open and honest exchange, and will undoubtedly enhance their relationship.
Quality communication comes from an open and honest exchange of thoughts, ideas, and feelings. Even when there is a difference of opinion between them, men and women must remain open and honest in their respective disclosures of these facts. Sharing of views with one's spouse is an intricate part of developing a shared understanding, which leads to easier exchanges, and so the cycle of exchange and development perpetuate each other. In another scene from Grand Canyon, Claire and Mack are in their bedroom, discussing Mack's obsession with helping Simon (Danny Glover). Mack becomes quite animated in his expressions, while Claire sits quietly on the bed. Finally, when Mack reaches a point of confusion, Claire puts away her books, removes her glasses, and calms Mack, by equating her saving the baby to Mack's being saved by Simon (24). By putting these two separate events in conjunction with each other to explain her view of Mack's dilemma, Claire allows Mack to "see" her perspective. This "alternate view", for Mack, is an important step toward furthering the development of their shared understanding; the scene also illustrates how the development process continues even after years of marriage.
Putting together a style of communication understanding, and being able to improve the reception of one's message, can be a daunting task. It requires a level of commitment to one's spouse that is unchallenged in its importance. In a book titled Exploring Gender Speak, by Dianna Ivy and Phil Backlund, the idea of commitment is described as "...the decision to stay in a relationship, but it also implies a coordinated view of the future of the relationship" (305). The "coordinated view" they speak of refers directly to an understanding of each person's intentions toward one another. This idea of commitment needs to be communicated between spouses to be fully understood. Ivy and Backlund relate the complexity of this concept by writing, "...being in a relationship is largely a coordination problem-a meshing of the language, gestures, and habits of daily life, primarily through attentiveness, courtesy, and a mutual desire to make the relationship work" (305). Each of these aspects is important to realize, because missing one of them can have repercussions on the others. Tying them all together allows couples to achieve a more complete understanding of one another.
Of all the issues that confront a married couple, money seems to be the largest cause of tension. When asked about the most frequent cause of disagreement in their marriage, seventy-five percent of married couples polled chose financial issues. Of that seventy-five percent, when asked their opinion of the best way to overcome these issues, one hundred percent responded that open discussion is crucial. The need for communication between spouses increases with the volatility of the subject matter. It may not be urgent to have a deep discussion about the dog's eating habits, but discussing matters of finances should be on top of the list.
Many couples avoid such discussions, because of the potential for disastrous results. According to Joseph McHugh (financial advisor for Morgan Stanley), on the subject of couples understanding one another's goals, "They spend more time talking about the cost of their wedding and honeymoon, than about how they will cover their children's college expenses or their retirement" (Nash). While reminiscing can be enjoyable, and fond memories are important to re-live, discussing the future, including each partner's wants, needs, and dreams, is very important to achieving a shared understanding of one another. Knowing what one's spouse thinks is an important concern for the future, will head off potential misunderstandings, and can help relieve the tension associated with discussing financial issues.
A lasting marriage requires effort on the part of both partners. During difficult times, whether they are caused by financial problems, troubles at work that come home, or even sexual inadequacies, misunderstandings can be avoided through quality communication. Shirley Collings is a 78-year-old woman, married for 58 years, and mother of four. When asked about her life, and to reflect on her marriage, she said, "We used to argue...over money mostly. Those were the rough times, and they are far behind us now". Shirley explained that talking was better than yelling, in her opinion, yet she felt in retrospect, that "...all the yelling was worth it" (Collings). Some people feel that arguing is a sign of a bad marriage, and that yelling and screaming at each other can only lead to bad times. This can be true; however, for some people, yelling is their way of communicating. The important thing to remember is that each partner needs to understand the other. With understanding comes a way to share one's ideas, feelings, and opinions, without blame or ridicule.
Some people say that it is best to let sleeping dogs lie, and avoid discussing potentially uncomfortable topics. This may work in some situations. Maybe it's not best to make a big deal out of a rebellious teenager's new nose ring. However, a lack of communication, especially over matters of personal understandings, is never a good plan. Honesty in a relationship equals harmony. Without an honest understanding, achieved through open, quality communication, even the littlest details of everyday life can become a thorn in the side of one's spouse. For example, a loving husband, who doesn't want to discuss the qualifications of his new secretary in a defensive manner, chooses not to mention to his wife that he has hired a new secretary. When his wife ultimately finds out, she is unnerved by the fact that he didn't tell her about it, and begins to develop negative thoughts as to why. Those negative thoughts can then erupt one day, and turn a small disagreement into accusations of infidelity, which can lead to an all-out war between the two of them. This situation could have been avoided in several ways. First, the husband could have made it known that he had a new secretary from the start, and discussed the situation openly. Secondly, the wife could have confronted the husband when she found out, instead of stewing over it until she let it slip out in the heat of an argument. Either way, placing blame is not the issue, and no one can change the past. Resolving the issue is now simply a matter of explaining each other's point of view, and gaining a deeper understanding of how the issue got out of hand.
When inevitable problems arise in a marriage, it is even more important to gain perspective. Joe Beam, author and national radio host, believes that perspective is important in understanding one another. Each person's view of a certain situation is guided by experiences, values, and one's personality. Right or wrong is not the issue, but gaining another's perspective on a situation can make understanding easier (7-3-07). Gaining this perspective will open a new avenue of understanding. Being able to "see" things from one's spouse's point of view deepens the mutual understanding that a couple shares. Opportunities for gaining the other's perspective may come at any time, and involve any topic. By being aware of this, and looking for these opportunities, one can try to actively improve understanding, and thus enhance communication.
Perspective and understanding are not gained just by planning time to talk, or by engaging in a lengthy conversation. Sometimes an impromptu situation can yield worthy results. In another scene from Grand Canyon, Mack is awakened by a phone call, a wrong number, and when he hangs up the phone, he realizes that Claire is lying beside him, sleepless. She tells him of her concerns about the baby and their marriage, and expresses her feelings of anxiety. Mack, now being able to "see" what's troubling her, explains that he is happy in their life together. Claire is now relieved by Mack's words, and calmed by his passion for her (29). This moment of interruption, by an errant phone call, has brought them closer together, through another shared experience that deepened their mutual understanding of one another. Changes that occur in a marriage can be blindsiding; but so too can be the moments of realization, when the proverbial light bulb goes on, and one knows that the moment is special. Taking advantage of these moments when they present themselves will help couples develop a better relationship.
A lasting relationship is dependant on many things. Commitment is important, and so is loyalty-the two go hand in hand. But communication is still the most important aspect. Divorce, more often than not, is the result of communication problems, especially in marriages with newborn children. According to Claire Martin, statistics show that"... sex...fell by more than forty percent during first year...and that nearly fifteen percent of those marriages end before their children are eighteen months old" (7-5-07). Martin, talks about the troubles that arrive "with" the new baby, and cites a study by Rhonda Kruse Nordin, author of After the Baby: Making Sense of Marriage After Childbirth, who states, "Divorce occurs because so many parents are unprepared for the sea of changes in their relationship, and then fail to cope with those changes until it's too late. The most common thread in those divorces: a failure to communicate" (7-5-07). Much like the woes that come from financial issues, and failure to disclose certain information, the arival of a new child brings its own set of problems that can ruin a marriage. All of these issues and more can be better understood, if not fully resolved, by one common element: quality communication.
The time that is spent in seemingly mundane, meaningless conversation with one's spouse can be turned into a learning experience by simple observation. The result will be a realization of how this conversation is important to gaining an understanding of common ideas, and an increased ability to ensure an accurate reception of the intended message. When conversation begins to develop into communication, the path to a lasting relationship has begun. By maintaining open, honest communication, couples can develop a greater understanding of one another. This shared understanding, achieved through direct and inderect expression, is a necessity for a long-lasting marriage. Part of the excitement of a developing realtionship is the learning process. When couples marry, the learning process is not complete; it must change and grow as the marriage changes. It may sound difficult, and too much like work, but the potential rewards are worth the effort. Each relationship is unique in many ways; individuals have separate past experiences, different personalities, and different world views. Quality communication, through a shared understanding of each other, will make those differences just another interesting aspect to ponder with each other as their relationship unfolds and evolves.
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