While some marriages die in an apparent explosion, others seem to quietly devolve for years before one spouse finally calls it quits. These slow, painful deaths can result from various factors, including an inability to communicate effectively. According to a 2013 poll by YourTango, poor communication was cited as a contributing factor in 65 percent of divorces.
For married couples or those getting married, this can be a frightening statistic. However, the good news is it’s possible to improve communication skills simply by paying attention to certain behaviors. As a Seattle divorce and family lawyer who’s also gone through my own divorce, then went on to remarry, I’ve come up with five simple tips for communicating with your partner or spouse.
My tried and true tips, which I use today with my husband and share with clients whether they’ve come to me for a prenuptial agreement, postnuptial agreement, or are contemplating a divorce, can strengthen a marriage, keep it strong, and, if it’s in jeopardy, potentially save it. For those searching for or embarking on a new relationship or marriage, I’m here to tell you that it’s never too late to learn.
1. Don’t assume your partner can read your mind.
In a perfect world, your partner would intuitively understand what could upset you, then not do it. Or, in that same perfect world, your partner would know what they could do to make you happy, then do it. But, unfortunately, this is not how the world or marriages and relationships work, and we can’t read each other’s minds.
That’s where communication comes in; speaking up is a necessity. If something’s bothering you, your partner may simply be unaware, leaving it up to you to tell them. Not communicating at all about the way you feel can only breed resentment, or engaging in passive-aggressive behaviors by expecting your partner to pick up on subtle hints you drop for them, can only make matters worse.
2. When airing grievances to your partner, choose your words carefully.
There’s a big difference between giving constructive criticism and complaining, most of which lies in how you present yourself. When communicating with your partner, what you say and how you say it matters, particularly when bringing to light negative feelings about your relationship or them.
If your language is accusatory, you may put your partner on the defensive and cause an argument. So instead, consider wording your sentences in the first person.
For instance, rather than say, “You hurt me when…,” think about saying, “I feel hurt when…” The first example points blame, while the latter places more emphasis on your perception, of which your partner may not be aware.
Your partner’s response at this point is critical. Whether they’re open to hearing what you have to say or gaslight you instead will determine the effectiveness of your interaction. If your partner discounts what you’re telling them, the communication will break down. But that’s on them, not you if you’ve communicated your thoughts honestly and respectfully.
3. Be clear with your partner about what is bothering you, why, and how they can help improve the situation.
When communicating with your partner, especially when it comes to criticism, be clear what you’re upset about, why, and how they can make the situation better. For example, if you would like your spouse to help out more around the house, don’t get personal by insulting them and telling them they never do “enough.” Enough of what?
Instead, explain why their involvement matters and how specifically they can help. Some people need a roadmap. Ask nicely if they would take out the trash or do the dishes. Refrain from harping on how they failed you before, calling them lazy, or bringing up unrelated issues, present or past.
If you turn a specific criticism into a general complaint, your partner may be less receptive to addressing it, whether because they perceive you as nagging them or attacking their character, or they just don’t know how to solve such a large or vague problem. As a result, you and your partner may argue, sweep the issue under the rug, or engage in passive-aggressive behavior to express yourselves and your frustration more subtly.
These types of behaviors can damage your relationship. They can also make you and your partner hesitant to express yourself in the future, further breaking down communication between you.
4. Listen to your partner.
Communication is a two-way street. You can be highly effective at voicing your feelings, but you can still hurt your relationship if you find yourself unable to listen.
In the same way that your feelings are valid and deserving of your partner’s attention, so are your partner’s. If you become defensive and start an argument every time your partner voices their feelings, they won’t feel heard. This behavior, too, can strain your relationship.
So, to return to the above example about sharing household chores, if your partner says they were unaware of how you were feeling, consider the possibility you may not have been expressing yourself in a way they understood. Then, move forward from there in a way that’s mutually agreeable.
5. Communicate about the positives in your relationship.
We often seek to improve communication skills when there’s already a problem. But it doesn’t have to be this way, nor should it. In marriage, it’s just as, if not more important, to reaffirm positive feelings regularly. If you always focus on what’s wrong in your relationship, you’re going to feel unhappy, which will harm your marriage because no one wants to be around someone who’s miserable all the time. So instead, think about focusing on the positive aspects of your relationship, calling those positives out.
Pay special attention to what’s going right in your relationship, complimenting your spouse when and how they make you feel good. Telling your spouse how you appreciate the little things they do for you will help them feel respected and appreciated, strengthening your bond.
It’s validating to feel like the hard work each of you puts into your relationship is working. That hard work begins with the effort you make to communicate with your partner.
If you’re getting married, contemplating divorce, or are at any stage in the divorce process and would like to talk, call our team of Seattle divorce and family lawyers today. For more great content and a little something extra delivered right to your inbox every other week, subscribe to our newsletter.