I was having lunch last month with a colleague, Nathan. At 65 he’s at the height of his research career, earns a good salary as a university professor and has been married to Sheila for 35 years. They have three adult children, all grown and living close by.
Sheila, 64, is a public relations consultant, and one of her clients is the local professional basketball team. She loves her work and doesn’t mind putting in up to 50 hours a week.
Our conversation started with work, politics and the cold snap we were having but quickly turned to Nathan’s marriage and the fact that lately he and his wife seemed to be fighting all the time. “When the kids were living with us, we were more of a united front: Us against them,” Nathan said with a half-grin. “Now we seem to snip and contradict each other a lot."
I sensed he was looking for advice from me as a relationship expert. Nathan had heard me discuss the findings from my long-term study on marriage many times and even enjoyed reading my book based on the findings. So I invited him to come to my office later that week and discuss strategies from that research he might use at home.
Getting Out of a Communication Rut
The first question I asked Nathan was what they disagreed about so I could gauge the seriousness of the situation. “We don’t have rip-roaring fights,” he said. “We seem to squabble over household stuff, like who’s going to deal with the roofer because we’re both so swamped at work, and how we’re going to pay for it. Or why she made plans on the night I thought we were having dinner together. Or what we should do with my late dad’s Lincoln that’s been parked in our garage. Just stuff like that.”
But then he added, clearly frustrated: “She misinterprets everything I say. I make an effort to hear what she has to say, but it isn’t working.” He also expressed the feeling that she was more critical of him than he was of her. He looked at me with fear in his eyes and asked, “Is our marriage in trouble?”
My study of long-married couples shows that the real block to happiness and marital success isn’t the amount of conflict; it’s the ratio of positive to negative experiences. I’ve found that the positive times need to outweigh the negatives by a factor of about 5:1.
I felt that Nathan and Sheila’s areas of disagreement weren’t too serious. What’s happening here, I told him, was that they had fallen into a pattern of poor communication. But, I told him, by paying more attention to how they were speaking to each other, they could get themselves out.
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Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood
In my study I found, not surprisingly, that partners who communicate poorly with each other become very dissatisfied and unhappy in their relationships. So in that sense, Nathan and Sheila were having a problem that could potentially damage their marriage.
I told Nathan that while arguing is normal, what’s important is the way the spouses handle those spats. It’s essential that you feel you can resolve your differences, even if you agree to disagree on certain topics.
We don’t always realize that the message we're sending our partners is not the one they're hearing. This tends to occur for one of two reasons. First, there may be a discrepancy between our words and our behaviors (e.g., kind words but a disapproving look). If a disconnect like this does occur, the truth usually lies in our behaviors.
The second reason for miscommunication is that we occasionally have trouble articulating exactly what we mean. Nathan offered a textbook example: “I said to Sheila, ‘Let’s go out for dinner tonight.’ Oh boy, if looks could kill. She glared at me, and the mood was ruined. She inferred that I was attacking her cooking, which has become pretty perfunctory lately with our schedules. But I was really trying to ask her out on a date.”
(MORE: 9 Things You Should Never Say to Your Partner)
6 Tips for Successful Communication
I offered Nathan six communication strategies that work. He felt that Sheila would be open to them as well. He took out his pen and pad to take notes, which I got a kick out of.
- Be clear and direct. To avoid potential misinterpretation, send unambiguous messages to your partner. Using Nathan’s dinner-date example: He should have made eye contact with Sheila (to expresses intimacy) and invited her to dinner. He could have added that he thought it would be romantic to have a night out together.
- “Reflect back” to your partner. A good technique to avoid conflicts is paraphrasing what you’ve just heard your spouse say then repeating it back to them. This gives your partner a chance to agree that this is what she actually meant — or to clarify it. When Sheila criticized Nathan for not picking up groceries on his way home from work, instead of getting mad, he could have said, “You’re not happy that I came home without shopping first,” then let the conversation unfold. This way, you will get to the heart of the matter very quickly. It might be that Sheila feels they need to share this responsibility more and that’s what she really wanted to talk about.
- Be specific when disagreeing. Couples often do something I call “kitchen sinking”: The discussion starts out being about the roofer, but soon it’s about how the husband spends their money, how he doesn’t pay attention to household chores, how he brings his work home, and so on. I advised Nathan to say something like this: “Let’s keep this discussion on the roofer. Let’s resolve this one issue, and then, if we want, we can go to the next one.”
- Really listen, then validate the other’s point of view. One of the main reasons disagreements escalate into fights is because of mounting frustration: One or both people feel unheard. When someone feels heard and respected, they are more likely to be calm, willing to listen to your point of view and open to resolving the issue. Then, like in point 2, let your partner know that you have listened and you understand where they’re coming from. You don’t have to agree with their point of view. So after letting Sheila speak her piece, Nathan might say, “I can respect the fact that you hate my dad’s car in our garage and realize that you think it’s a gas guzzler.” This is an invitation for your partner to do the same with you. When someone feels heard and respected, they are more likely to be calm, willing to listen to your point of view and open to resolving the issue.
- Use “XYZ” statements. Nathan said he sometimes feels like he can’t seem to do anything right in Sheila’s eyes and asked me for help. I taught him a simple communication technique that I call XYZ statements. These summations help to redirect the conversation into kinder, more constructive territory: When you do X in situation Y, I feel Z. I asked Nathan to try it out on me, and he said, “Sheila, when you stomp around and snap at me the second I get home, I feel hurt and unloved.” I assured Nathan that once Sheila understood how Nathan was feeling, she’d be more open to addressing the issue.
- Stay calm and polite. Above all, I advised Nathan, try to keep the tenor of any discussion with your spouse courteous and respectful. If you feel yourself getting hot under the collar, don’t say anything — just take a deep breath. If things get really tense, take a break but promise to return to the conversation later — and then make sure you do.
A New Way of Communicating
I met Nathan last week for coffee and asked if things were any better at home. He told me, “Sheila got the flu, which was kind of good in a way. It gave us both a chance to slow down and talk to each other.”
He told me he had reread his notes from our meeting a few times and had tried different communication strategies with Sheila. “She mentioned that I was definitely listening more,” he said. “We ended up talking about how we speak and listen to each other. That was more interesting to both of us than the irritating roofer and my dad’s car. It’s been really good to have these tools.”
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