Communicating effectively in close quarters with those we love most is not easy for any of us. This is often true because we see the same situations differently.
Understand what the other person thinks we said
Most of us are painfully aware that our viewpoints sometimes differ from those of our spouse’s. That’s natural. We are not the same people raised in exactly the same way. But what we say when we disagree, as long as it is offered in a spirit of respect and civility, is really less important than what the other person thinks we said.
We may be surprised that there is a difference. Nevertheless, it is true that no two people will look at a given exchange in exactly the same way. Have you ever found yourself saying to your spouse, “But that’s not what I said, or that’s not what I meant or that’s not what I intended. You took it the wrong way.”
Recognize the importance of being heard and understood
When we don’t feel heard or understood, we tend to either return the other’s anger, or we simply disconnect and shut down. Effective communication in marriage does not occur through silence, withdrawal or returning hurt for hurt. It doesn’t happen when we’re mean or controlling, and especially when we’re afraid of getting hurt ourselves. Good communication with our spouse is about trusting our imperfections and our deepest feelings with another. We need to both recognize and appreciate our own imperfections and the imperfections of our spouse.
Understand the other’s perspective
As Craig W. Zwick, religious leader said, “Spouses, who have shared some of life’s richest and most tender experiences, lose vision and patience with each other and raise their voices. All of us… have regretted jumping headlong from the high seat of self-righteous judgment… before we understood a situation from another’s perspective.”
The problems come when we don’t take the time to appreciate the other person’s perspective before responding. Each of us may think that the other person is to blame for the current problem. How do you react when you are blamed for the problem? What does it feel like to be misjudged or misunderstood or simply not heard? Unless you have so completely disconnected from the other person that you simply don’t care anymore, it feels terrible. Accept mutual responsibility for the problem and solve it together.
Consider the impact of past sensitivities on current communication
We all bring a set of past personal biases and sensitivities with us to any important communication with our spouse. When communications become particularly charged for us, we may be reacting more out of a place of our past fears or insecurities than to what the other person is actually saying to us in current circumstances.
Linda (name changed) was raised in a home where her older brother contracted cancer at an early age. Her parents were so understandably caught up in his diagnosis, treatment, and eventually his untimely death, that they failed to even recognize, let alone address, 13-year-old Linda’s needs. She was literally ignored for years at a time when she needed the attention of her parents the most. As a consequence, even as an adult, Linda is particularly sensitive to feeling ignored or dismissed and often reacts as if she is not getting her fair share of love and attention from those closest to her.
Some things that family and friends say to Linda, which might not bother someone else, make Linda feel slighted. When she feels ignored or dismissed, she responds as she did when she was a child, with a silent hurt and withdrawal that tends to confuse her family. Understanding Linda’s reaction offers the opportunity for those around her to avoid personalizing her behavior and then to offer her reassurance that she is loved.
Sometimes our expectations of how we think our relationship should look set us up for disappointment. We may think that if he loves us, he’ll call us every day. We may think that if she loves us, she’ll make our lunches and leave special love notes. Rather than setting yourself up for disappointment, remember to appreciate him for who he is rather than trying to change him.
When misunderstandings arise, it’s important to take a step back and check assumptions, rather than maintaining a defensive posture or assuming that we understand the other person’s motivations. When we show empathy for the experiences and feelings of our spouses, the communication in our marriage improves.