One of the best things about marriage is that you can be comfortable “being yourself.” One of the worst things about marriage is that you can be comfortable “being yourself.” And if that irony elicits a knowing chuckle, you’re not alone. Perhaps, in all that “comfort,” you have forgotten how to talk with your spouse respectfully. And the resulting tit-for-tat leaves no one feeling heard.
Respect, like trust, is foundational to a happy, healthy marriage.
Interestingly, couples are more likely to survive a breach of trust like infidelity if they still feel a deep respect for one another.
That may sound nonsensical, given the inherent disrespect in infidelity. But the ability to communicate with your spouse compassionately and with loving intention can be powerfully healing.
Obviously, then, the loss of respect in communication not only makes the marriage vulnerable to other, more insidious hurts. It also makes marital repair, both minor and major, more difficult.
Once you trim out all the fat of physical attraction and early-dating fantasies, you’re left with the true longing of love.
We all hunger to be heard. Not “repeat after me” heard, but “feel my heart” heard.
Once you start getting lazy in your communication — driving over guardrails, not thinking before you speak, using disregarding body language — the slope gets slippery.
And, before you know it, your marriage starts showing signs of disrespect you may not even recognize until it’s too late.
You’re unable to communicate with your spouse without fighting. You feel stung by words and behaviors you can’t quite put your finger on. And somehow this person you vowed to love for life has become the enemy within.
Some couples know how to communicate respectfully — they started out that way but got distracted by life, disappointment, hurt.
Other couples have never known. They ride the early wave of bliss and confidence born out of infatuation. But, when it comes time to negotiate differences or deal with (surprise!) imperfections, they rely on the only skills they’ve ever known.
Do you recognize yourself or your marriage in either scenario? Have you forgotten how to talk with your spouse respectfully so you can both be heard?
Let’s uncover some insights and tips for respectful communication in marriage.
(This work is so critical for success in building, repairing, and protecting marriage that it is central to the therapeutic process at our marriage retreats.)
Be honest about your intention.
If your thoughts go straight from your knee to your lips, you’re likely to say things now that you’ll regret later. Knee-jerk reactions may seem in-the-moment and “harmless enough,” but the bite of those snide remarks and gestures leave emotional marks.
Get into the habit of pausing to think before speaking. “Is this really about me or about my spouse? Am I seeking to love and grow in this moment, or am I really dumping some of my anger? Am I seeking to elevate my spouse or knock him/her down a notch?”
Anything other than an intention toward love, growth, and greater understanding should remain unexpressed. Meditate on it, discuss it with your therapist, journal about it. But don’t give it carte blanche in your marriage.
Lead with an intention that serves the highest good of your marriage.
Words may be heard, but intention is always felt. If you can honestly say your intention comes from the right place, you’ll reap the benefits in your communication.
“I truly want to understand where my spouse is coming from. I want to learn how to be more supportive. I want our marriage to be all it can be.”
You may think that’s a given. But too often people expect their spouse to “just know,” thereby giving them license to be careless with their communication.
“What’s my intention? What am I and what are we trying to achieve? How can I most effectively demonstrate that intention?”
Think about how you want to feel when speaking.
What makes you feel heard, loved, validated?
It may or may not be the same as what makes your spouse feel heard, loved, and validated. But chances are the fundamentals will be the same.
No one likes to be interrupted.
No one likes to take second place to a cell phone or distractions.
Everyone feels validated by eye contact and affirming gestures and responses.
Listen with your heart, not just your ears.
Translate the way you want to feel to how you want to help your spouse feel. Keep in mind his/her unique style, insecurities, and needs. Listen with the intention to learn more about your spouse so you can better love him/her.
Look for cues that your spouse is uneasy or not feeling heard.
Learning how to talk with your spouse respectfully also requires looking for tiny cues with big messages.
When you stop to realize how much can be communicated through expressions and tone of voice, it’s easy to see how much couples miss.
Think of driving a car as a metaphor for talking with your spouse. What signs, sights, and potential hazards would you miss if you were distracted by your phone, kids, or lunch?
Listening is an act of love. It takes energy, time, patience. And it takes a surprising amount of self-awareness and self-accountability. Remember, your intention is to love your spouse and your marriage, to protect them and help them grow.
Validate your spouse’s feelings.
The expression of feelings is an expression of vulnerability and trust. And vulnerability and trust are at the heart of intimacy, both physical and emotional. Therefore, how feelings are expressed and received is critical.
If you are the one sharing your feelings, be sure you’re expressing a feeling that you own, not a thought you’re trying to sneak in.
If you’re the one listening, lead with empathy and respond with validation. “That must have been so confusing. I’m so sorry that happened to you. I don’t know that I would have been as strong as you.” You’re not only responding to what’s shared today, you’re laying the groundwork for what may be shared tomorrow.
Use “I” statements.
Simply put, own your stuff.
The difference between “when you do (whatever), I feel/make up (whatever)” and “you make me feel (whatever) is huge.
It’s amazing how starting a sentence with “I” will make you pause to consider what you’re signing up for. But start a sentence with “you,” and it’s easy to become a loose cannon. Following this rule is critical to avoiding the blame game.
Repeat back what you have heard to demonstrate that you have listened intently and want to understand.
Nodding silently may give the assurance that you’re listening with your ears and without interruption. But, if you want your spouse to know you’re listening with your heart, repeat back what you have heard.
“What I hear you saying is that, when I don’t pick up after myself, you feel unloved. You believe I am taking you for granted and not appreciating you. Is that correct?”
This is also your opportunity to affirm your love and commitment to doing better. “I am so sorry. That is never my intention, but now I see how you would feel that way, and I am deeply sorry. I will work to be more aware and to do a better job of showing you how much I love and value you.”
Choose your time, place, circumstances, and mood for important conversations.
Thinking about the setting for important or difficult conversations is itself an expression of love and respect.
Revving up a confrontation as your spouse walks through the door after battling rush hour doesn’t serve anyone. It’s also unthoughtful and disrespectful.
Schedule a time so you can both feel prepared. And create a space that is calming and distraction-free.
Be on guard for The Four Horsemen.
There’s a reason that John Gottman’s years of research and relationship work are so frequently referenced. His ability to predict a marriage’s survivability based on the presence of four destructive communication styles is a poignant warning.
Be on guard against letting criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and/or stonewalling infiltrate your marriage.
Reaffirm your love and commitment as often as necessary.
Go back to all that work you did on your intention. Isn’t this all about love? The love that recognized your future in the form of another person and led you to marriage? The love that wants to hear and be heard?
Speak that love and commitment. Reaffirm them. There is power in words. Choose yours wisely and use them to strengthen your marriage.
Respect in communication can’t be limited to the easy, non-confrontational, warm and fuzzy moments.
If you expect to be effective in your marriage, you need to learn how to communicate with your spouse even when you’re angry.
Learning how to talk with your spouse respectfully is the surest way to guaranteeing you will both be heard.
And hearing one another from the heart is the surest way to a happy marriage.
Mary Ellen Goggin offers relationship coaching for individuals and collaborates with her partner Dr. Jerry Duberstein to offer private couples retreats. To learn more about working with Mary Ellen, schedule a ½ hour complimentary consultation.