Communication Strategies for Marriage
Communicating with Men
When it comes to communicating with men, one tiny exchange taught me more than I could have dreamed.
I knew an American man who had been married to a Korean woman for about ten years. He spoke just a few words of her language, and she didn't speak English, either.
"How on earth can you have a relationship with being able to talk?" I asked him.
He shrugged. "I think our communication was more honest in a lot of ways."
HUH? It took me a long time to understand how a relationship could be built, developed, and thrive for many years with no significant talking. What about those late night shared fantasies? How could problems get resolved if they couldn't be negotiated? Even a trip to the grocery store could prove to be a challenge, I thought.
I've studied communication extensively both during my undergrad courses and when I was enrolled in a Communications Master's degree program, though I moved out of state just before my last semester and didn't finish my degree.
It's a fascinating topic, yet for all my education on the subject, I discovered that I, like many women, still had problems finding that smooth, easy rapport with my significant others. Fortunately, I finally developed a good grasp on it that has led me to great relationships in both love and my career.
How often do you have trouble communicating with your partner?
Personality Types May Be Described by Communication Style
Relationship Communication Styles
As the video above reveals, it's possible to break down the ways people think and behave into clusters or "styles" of communication. I spent a full day learning about these four styles in the video, yet it proved nearly worthless to me when it came to my relationships. Other programs teach different ways of perceiving others, like the Meyers-Briggs personality inventory. It's very useful but quite limited in the ways it can be applied.
There are some terrific books that I've read about relationship communication, and they all have one thing in common: They all highlight that men and women have different communication styles.
In general, they claim that men are "fixers" who want to fix things for women, and that women are nurturers who want to talk things out. The impression I've gotten from many of them is that men are somehow defective and negligent if they don't stop what they're doing to give their woman plenty of understanding and attention.
I completely believe that there's a difference between communication styles, but the majority of books I have seen try to give specific techniques and exercises, which is a woman-based way of addressing the problem. Guess what?
They don't work when the problem is that she's communicating as a woman in the first place!
Trust me, I've tried 'em all. I spent years on both sides of the couch learning how to be an expert communicator, only to find that I was often left with more problems than I had when I'd begun.
- "I" statements didn't work very well.
- The "talking stick," or timer technique is designed to prevent interruptions while each person speaks. This method helped avoid interruptions but did not do a thing to ensure that we "got" each other.
- Weekly meetings helped a bit, but after a few weeks, always got edged out by other things that seemed more urgent.
It was clear to me as I tried these things that I needed something different. I kept learning.
What the Better Books Said About Communication
Then there are some standouts that I've found to have better information, albeit I don't always agree with them, either. Instead of trying to teach specific techniques, they focused on helping readers understand the reasons communication breaks down in relationships.
Men are From Mars, Women are from Venus
Dr. John Gray hit a home run with his groundbreaking book, but I found myself disagreeing with him in certain ways as I read it. He described men "going into their caves" when stressed, and talked about an uncertainty period where men pull back from a woman and them come back around. He encouraged women to be more tolerant of this. I agreed with these two points, but I had trouble with certain other ideas. It struck me that he was saying that men and women have different needs, which I simply do not believe. I've also come to see his rubber band theory as a sign that a man is not committed, not that he's on his way to becoming loyal and dedicated, as Dr. Gray seemed to imply.
Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man
I'm a Steve Harvey fan. I enjoyed his comedy before he launched his relationship guide, so I snapped it up when it hit the shelves. I found it entertaining, and I thought it would be very useful for some people. He uses his own marriage to highlight the tips he shares, and he makes very good points that are on point for some people:
- That a woman has as much influence on her relationships as she chooses to have, but if she doesn't demonstrate this in the very beginning, she may lose her man's respect.
- That withholding sex for 90 days as a "probationary period" similar to what a new employer might require before offering health insurance is a good way to test out a man's intentions. (Although I believe this well-intentioned advice is perfect for some men, I disagree with it in general for the reasons I discuss here.)
- That his wife's loyalty to her goals and priorities is not a turn-off, but instead, a distinct trait that motivates him to be a better man.
Why Do Men Love B*tches? From Doormat to Dream Girl
Sorry, but I have to change the title of Sherry Argov's book slightly to avoid getting a big slap on the wrist for using a controversial word. This book has been a bit controversial, but I think it's quite valuable for helping women understand how to communicate well with men. The idea of the B word isn't that women should be cruel and insensitive, but that when a woman values herself deeply enough to take a stand and to back up her beliefs with actions, it appeals to men. I agreed with nearly every principle in Argov's book because I've seen how well these concepts have worked for me and for some women I admire deeply.
John Gottman's Books
Gottman has several incredible books that have helped shape my views. In fact, I'd have to say he's my hero when it comes to learning how to be in a relationship without provoking communication problems.
He is undoubtedly the world's foremost expert on relationships, having studied couples for a couple of decades to figure out what accounts for the differences between relationships that succeed and those that fail. Here are some important points that he uncovered:
- A direct approach by women causes men physical symptoms that interfere with communication. Gottman calls these "harsh startups."
- Criticism and blame are among the earliest signals of a relationship's deterioration.
- For every complaint (which is not the same as a criticism!) there must be at least five positive interactions in order for both people to feel fully satisfied with their relationships.
Those were a few of the better books, but I'd also learned other information that taught me new ways to think about communication breakdowns.
Did you know, for instance, that infant boys pay a lot more attention to movement than girl babies, and baby girls make more eye contact than males when held by their mothers? Or that boys learn a great deal of communication from the sports they're exposed to far more often than girls?
Boys learn early on that admitting that they're in pain can keep them off the football field. They don't want to get benched, especially by a woman they love, when they know there are plenty of other men out there who can compete!
Each time their woman says, "We need to talk," or expresses displeasure about something, it's a painful, humiliating experience for many men. He instinctively wants to hide the pain, not dwell on it!
If she's not dishing out that magical ratio of at least five admirations and praises for every time she isn't happy with something, he's going to perceive her as critical and demanding. He's likely to respond by doing something differently, but he's not likely to discuss it with her, admit that he changed something for her, or that she was right and he was wrong. In fact, apologies are often something that men don't put into words at all even when they believe they're wrong. Confused? Don't be. Check out how to recognize an apology.
Women often respond to a guy's unwillingness to verbally hash things out by trying harder. She keeps at it until she seems clingy and desperate, or shrewish and demanding. Who wants to be around a nag? Not him!
He wants to be with a fun woman who makes him laugh and challenges him to be his best without beating him over the head with the word stick.
This can pose a dilemma for the average woman!
How can a couple make progress if they don't talk about things, for heaven's sake?
Instead of clinging to the idea of discussing things, look for other ways to get your message across. Would you be surprised to discover the answer is a very simple one?
You already know that when you give him "that" look, he responds. That angry look makes him beat a fast retreat. That seductive one that prompts him to cook dinner. The perplexed or sad expression that brings out his inner superhero, ready to do battle and fix all your problems with a single bound.
Sure, relationship problems are more complex than you can convey with a gesture or a facial expression, so you have to be ready to go that extra distance and use your behaviors, too.
Remember those books I mentioned up above? The reason they're so successful is that they highlight important aspects of how females and males interact and why. They help women in particular give themselves permission to honor themselves. They encourage women to avoid the three most common mistakes that women make in their relationships. These are mistakes that sabotage women as they try so hard to be the perfect partner!
So how does a woman use her behaviors to improve communication with her husband or boyfriend?
The first thing a woman has to do is to eliminate the disabling beliefs she carries with her.
- "If I'm not nice, I'm a bad person."
- "To be nice, I have to be cooperative."
- "To be cooperative, I have to do what the other person wants."
- "I should trust that my partner cares enough to see things my way."
- "Disagreement is a sign of failure."
The list can go on and on. What beliefs are preventing you from achieving happiness?
Give yourself permission to experiment with different beliefs - ones that support getting what you want. For me, that "AHA!" moment came when I asked myself why it was okay for men to do what they wanted without consulting me first? I decided to try it and see what it was like to be a guy. And boy, am I glad I did!
I stopped letting my partner's values dictate mine. I stopped trying to make myself "less" to make him "more." It took a long time for me to get over feeling responsible for their bad feelings, but when I did, I discovered something important. Men are grown-ups, too, and can live their lives even if I don't fix everything for them.
I can't pack dozens of examples into a simple article, but here are the major changes that have brought me to a place where I'm able to communicate well with my husband instead of derailing our communication into power struggles that go nowhere:
- I learned to avoid blame and criticism. This simply is not allowed in my relationships any longer. I don't dish it. I don't accept it.
- I learned that when a person values a relationship more than self, they'll be more cooperative, and when they value self more than relationship, they'll fight more to get their own way. I make sure that my decisions reflect this, and I evaluate what my partner's decisions say about how they value the relationship.
- l learned to address my problems as if they were purely my problem to fix. Before I discuss anything at all, I make sure I know what I will do if my partner is unwilling to be part of the solution that will solve my problem. I have a Plan A (cooperative solution) and a Plan B (solving it solo) ready. I present my Plan B first by stating what I have a problem with, and how I'd fix it on my own. Then I present Plan A as an alternative and ask for his opinion, but I make it clear that my Plan B is what I'm planning to do if he'd prefer not to cooperate (which is a choice that he's fully free to make because he's not responsible for solving my problem.)
- By doing this, I've learned to avoid most harsh starts. My husband knows he's free to make his choices or offer alternative solutions, but he has a deep respect for my willingness and ability to determine my own solutions. He understands that he may not be happy with my choices at times, and that I'll consider his views, but that I will not settle for anything less than a full solution that gets rid of the problem.
- Finally, I've learned that some problems are not worthy of my attention. Every couple has 3-7 areas that will always disagree, and it's ok to let them go unfixed. (This applies only to those problems that don't affect our self-images.)
Complete Workshop from John Gottman's Relationship Institute
Problem: He wants to spend more time with friends. She feels neglected. When she tries to talk to him, it turns into an argument.
Solution: She takes matters into her own hands to ensure that she doesn't feel neglected. She makes plans with other people, and gives him a dose of his own medicine by being unavailable to him. When he feels neglected, he comes to her wondering if she's seeing someone else. She replies, "Nope. You've shown me that friends are more important than our relationship, so I'm taking it to heart and doing the same." Then she steps back and watches as he changes his behaviors.
Problem: He talks to her in a way that makes her feel bad. When she tries to explain how she feels when it happens, he turns it into a blamefest and starts keeping score as they volley back and forth.
Solution: She leaves the room immediately when an unacceptable remark slips from his lips. If he pursues her, she leaves the household entirely for as long as necessary for him to demonstrate that he won't do it again. She doesn't argue or plead. She shows him that this kind of talk is not allowed in her life.
Problem: He's too controlling. She feels unhappy.
Solution: She stops asking permission and stops seeking his suggestions. She no longer seeks forgiveness or apologizes when she's done nothing wrong. She learns to say, "This is my priority, and I'm capable of deciding how I'm going to do this."
The smart woman remembers that magic ratio all the while and lavishes admiration and praise on him for even the smallest kindnesses.
By combining abundant affection with clear behavioral communication, a relationship that has gone off track can be recovered. There will be obstacles, especially in the beginning. That's a sign that these techniques are working at overcoming the status quo that's been keeping you unhappy. It's a painful necessity, but when you've been on the losing end, the person who has been on top wants to get back to that comfort level. It's up to you to demonstrate the comfort level you want. Eventually, they'll come around or you'll find that they never will, in which case you'll realize that there's someone out there who will treat you the way you crave.
As my one-time friend once said, communication without words really is more honest.