Before you commit to a lifelong partnership with anyone, best to take a serious look at how the two of you communicate. This free couples communication quiz might be a good starting point. How the two of you communicate is the single best indicator of how likely it is that you enjoy your lifelong partnership and also how likely it is that you will remain as a loving married couple 'till death do us part.'
The word communication has different meanings in different settings. In advertising it's about selling your product. In politics it's about convincing people of your views. In relationships, by contrast, communication is about a two-way street.
Knowing how to communicate in a relationship or with your spouse means being able to convey thoughts, feelings and concerns in a way that the other can hear them without becoming defensive, and being able to hear the other in a way that digests and uses incoming data to both people's benefit.
Couples in distress do the opposite: they attempt to convey their concerns, but do so in a critical, intrusive, complaining or bossy way that invites defensiveness or other negative reaction. Couples in distress don't listen well either. Instead they argue away or ignore data coming their way.
Fortunately, argumentative and other counter-productive habits can be switched out for collaborative communication with a skills upgrade. No need for a therapy that explores the difficulties you experienced in childhood, though sometimes a quick backwards glance at where you learned the bad habits can help. The bottom line is that if you want better communication skills, you mainly just need a good marriage education program and determine to master them.
What is collaborative dialogue?
When two people talk, they can talk past each other, not really listening to each other. They can argue, debating who is right and who is wrong.
Or there's a third way. Couples can pool their understandings, talking cooperatively and listening apperciatively. In this case, when their views differ no one aims to win. Instead they both aim to learn from each other. This third option is collaborative dialogue.
Think of it this way: Two people can each sit at separate tables, each monologuing and ignoring what the other says in a dialogue that procedes like parallel train tracks. They can sit across from each other at one table as antagonists, sending darts back and forth at each other to establish who will win their battles. Or they can sit side by side, put the problem on the table, and work together as allies to solve the problem. The latter is the collaborative dialogue format that enables couples to enjoy a harmonious and loving partnership.
How do communication skills make a difference?
Every "communication" skill or skill deficit is the tip of an iceberg that is a relationship skill or skill deficit. For that reason, when you change a communication habit, you change the whole relationship.
For example, shouting is an example of a poor communication skill. It creates an hostile relationship. Eliminate the shouting and the relationship becomes more calm, kindly, and safe.
Similarly, intimate sharing and empathic listening are skills that also are acts of love. So are expressions of appreciation, of agreement, and of affection. When people say that their marital relationship is loving, it means that the spouses have skills for sharing positivity, that is, they share many positive words as well as physical acts of love with each other.
The absence of negative communication plus the presence of positive communication together add up to a verbal intercourse pattern that characterizes the relationship.
Why do some people have off-putting communication habits like yelling, insisting that they are right and the other person is wrong, or ignoring?
Folks who grew up in homes where their parents spoke argument are at risk for reverting to that language when they become marriage partners. They need to become bilingual. They need to delete the negatives and enhance the positives in their communication skill patterns.
What communication skills do couples need to be sure to have, preferably before committing to marriage, and if they missed then, asap?
In addition to collaborative talking and listening skills, couples need to learn how to make shared decisions in a loving way. The new understandings from the world of mediation, which in my books I refer to as "The Win-Win Waltz," enable couples to make decisions in a way that leaves them both feeling positive about themselves and about each other.
Without sufficient win-win decision-making skills, when couples face tough problems they are at risk for utilizing communication habits that lead to depression, anger, anxiety and tensions, or escape routes like addictions.
To utilize their best communication and conflict resolution skills when the going gets tough, couples need skills for quieting angry feelings. Few folks can hold onto their skills when anger launches them into feeling like they want to rage. Couples therefore need to learn skills for amicably exiting situations that one or both of them will not be able to handle calmly. They need skills for rapid self-soothing. They need then re-entry routines so that they can make a second attempt to talk about the tough subject, this time staying calm so that they can hold onto their bset communication skills.
Lastly, while some folks easily share loving, appreciative and affectionate feelings, others need help learning to express positivity. Fortunately, the best things in relationships, as in life, are free. Expressing positives to your partner is like sunshine. It's free, and it brightens everyone's days.
How can couples learn the communication skills for sustaining a loving marriage?
Couples therapy is one option. Unfortunately however, the reality that many therapists do not themselves know and therefore can't really coach their couples in the full set of skills for sustaining successful relationships. Graduate training does not teach the skills. That's what prompted me to focus, in the 1980's, on figuring out what is the full skill-set that couples need.
I wrote this curriculum of essential couple communication skills initially into a book, then, with my psychologist daughter, as a workbook. I've posted it on my clinical website as a free audio podcast for folks less likely to read, as a video for folks who prefer to see as well as hear, and, most recently, as a fun interactive website. In addition, I've written up and posted on the web the free quiz mentioned above for folks who want to assess their current communication skills level.
The bottom line is that I'm a campaigner for better marriages. Better marriages, which take higher level communication skills, make for happier kids, better lives for the whole family, a better country if politicians would learn cooperative problem-solving, and ultimately for peace in the world. Folks who know how to solve dilemmas collaboratively don't go to war with each other.
Most professionals in all fields get skill upgrades from time to time.
Continuing education is expected of most people who work at jobs that require skills. My hair dresser gets skill upgrades. So do my computer repairman and my doctors.
Committing to marriage may be the most important job you will ever take on, and it's a very high skilled enterprise. Continuing education for your marriage, one day, hopefully, will become something all couples do. ... Or at least so I hope.
Denver clinical psychologist Susan Heitler, Ph.D, a graduate of Harvard and NYU, is author of Power of Two, a book, a workbook, and a website that teach the communication skills that sustain positive relationships.
Click here for a free Power of Two relationship test.
Click the Power of Two logo to learn the skills for a strong, emotionally healthy and loving marriage.