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Communication Competence in Your Marriage: The Basics

How to enhance your relationship through verbal communication.

An important part of the interactions between you and your spouse is the way in which you communicate thoughts, ideas, and feelings primarily through verbal communication. Your ability to verbally communicate with your spouse can significantly enhance the kind of relationship that will exist between the two of you.

Above all, communication is not a debate between partners’ preconceived notions about what is going on between the two of you. Communication in a personal relationship is about a husband and a wife collaborating with each other by sharing perceptions, feeling, ideas, and thoughts so that they can come to an understanding of what is happening between them—what their joint reality is.

The Talking Part

You know your own thoughts and feelings about a topic. Remember, you want an opportunity to discuss these thoughts and feelings; your partner also wants the same opportunity. Here are several tips:

  1. Give your partner a “heads up”: When you have something on your mind, give your partner a “heads up” about the topic—this gives them time to think about their own thoughts.
  2. Make a date: Set a time when you both can have a conversation about said topic. Being specific about when you talk encourages you both to think about what’s important and how to talk about it.
  3. Stay in your lane: In your conversation, stick to your own thoughts and feelings. Don’t get sidetracked by informing, directing, correcting, accusing, criticizing, or blaming your partner.
  4. Be clear and direct: Talk about what you want in a clear and direct fashion. Be cautious about lapsing into “I need” as a way of privileging what you want over your partners’ wants (see "I need" in marriage). For example, say “I would like more affection from you” rather than “I need you to be more affectionate with me."
  5. Unilaterally disarm: Don’t start a conversation thinking you are right about something. This is not about compromise or capitulation—you have a right to your thoughts and feelings.
  6. Personal issues will seep in: What you want in your relationship may reflect old issues from your personal history. Be willing to “own” up to where these wants come from … be willing to talk about painful personal histories, unfulfilled childhood needs, and the way you protect yourself from these old, painful childhood experiences.

Be sure to treat your partner with the respect and the decency with which you treat any other person.

The Listening Part

Listen to your spouse with an unconditional interest in understanding what they are trying to say. This is the way to get to know your spouse and what is important to them. Here are four suggestions for listening to your spouse:

  1. He/she wants to be heard: Listening is about your spouse who really wants to be heard. It really isn’t about you.
  2. Focus: Be sure to focus on what your spouse is saying, not your reaction to it. If you find yourself reacting, take time out to refocus on your spouse.
  3. Show you’re listening. It will be helpful to indicate that you are listening to him/her. You can try reflecting back what you are hearing him/her say so your partner can correct you if you are not understanding what is being said. For example, you can say “I hear you say (what you heard), is that right?”
  4. You may learn something: By listening intently to your partner, you may learn something new about what is important to them and about the ideas and feelings they have. You can gain a new perspective on your partner.

Reading Between the Lines

Communication involves both content messages and relationship messages.

Content messages refer to the topic of your communication. It refers to the specific issues around which the interaction is occurring (for example, who is going to get the kids to school today, are we going to have sex tonight, who is going to do the dishes this week, am I getting the affection that I want).

The relationship message refers to what is occurring interpersonally between you as you talk about the various content areas. A relationship message says something about the connection between you and your spouse. Conflicts can occur because one of you misunderstands the relationship message and fails to clarify the difference between this and the content message. Here is a table that has examples of statements that are misinterpreted and how to clarify the message

Catherine E. Aponte, Psy.D.
Misunderstood Relationship Message
Source: Catherine E. Aponte, Psy.D.

Misunderstanding relationship messages can occur because you or your spouse respond personally to the way in which the content message is said, e.g., the tone of voice, the context of the message, or emphasis on particular words. You will be able to recognize when you are likely misunderstanding the relationship message because of your own personal reaction, i.e. getting irritated, angry, upset, etc.

In the three instances in the table, the way to clarify the message is to respond to the content of the message not your experience of the relationship message. If you seek to clarify the content of the message, you will be able to talk about any ambiguity about the relationship message.

It is also the case that sometimes you and your spouse will use a relationship message to convey some covert feeling that you are harboring about the relationship. In the examples above, “And that’s all you did? can be said with a tone that implies a critique of what was done. It is up to you both to be aware of any hidden relationship messages you are trying to (mis)communicate.

If you respond to a perceived negative relationship message in a non-reactive way, you can talk about what you perceive as a negative relationship message.

Communication Is Inevitable

Communication is inevitable because any interaction with people involves communication, whether you think about it in that way or not. When you don’t respond to a question your wife/husband asks, you are communicating something. What occurs is your spouse will likely interpret your silence as a relationship message, which may create a disconnect between the two of you.

Defining Your Own Relationship Reality

Through competent conversations in which you both can say what you want and listen to each other with interest, you will discover a deeper understanding of what you both are experiencing. This kind of understanding can help eliminate misconceptions, misinterpretations, and miscommunications that can occur in a relationship. What you end up with is a clearer picture of yourselves and of the reality of your relationship.


  • With effort, you can foster competent marital communication.
  • Approach marital conversations by unilaterally disarming.
  • Talk about your thoughts, feelings, and ideas.
  • Listen to your partner’s thoughts, feelings, and ideas with interest.
  • Be cautious about misinterpreting relationships messages.
  • Clarify content messages to avoid misinterpreting communications.
  • It’s not a battleground. Remember, a conversation is not a battleground where you must prove you are right.
  • Remember, you cannot not communicate—silence is communication.