How can my spouse and I learn to understand each other and make ourselves understood? Whenever I try to talk to him on a deeper, more meaningful level, nothing I say seems to connect. Sometimes my words even backfire on me. Am I doing something wrong?
This is one of the most common problems in marriage. Fortunately, it's also one of the easiest to resolve if both partners are willing to learn some basic communication skills and put them into practice. To put it another way, this is not a hopeless situation. On the contrary, it's an area in which you and your spouse can expect to see rapid and marked improvement if you'll simply take the time to work at it.
It's likely that a large part of the difficulty you're experiencing is due to male-female differences. Men tend to use language to transmit information, report facts, fix problems, clarify status, and establish control. Women are more inclined to view language as a means to greater intimacy, stronger or richer relationships, and fostering cooperation rather than competition. In other words, when it comes to communication between the sexes, it's often a matter of "debate vs. relate."
Of course, one size never fits all. Females can't all be squeezed neatly into one communication-style box and males into another. Some men can be quite nurturing and emotionally empathetic in their language; some women are aggressive and task-oriented in theirs. In spite of this, it's still true that, in a general sense, you and your spouse are probably tuning into very different "meanings" when you attempt to talk. This provides fertile ground for misunderstanding, hurt feelings, and conflict. What one of you thinks is the other's "hidden meaning" can be 180 degrees out of phase with what the speaker really intends to communicate. This can easily lead to inaccurate conclusions about the other person's motivations.
What can be done about it? The first step is to remember your vows and determine to keep the promise you made on your wedding day. Many couples, during their wedding ceremony, light a "unity candle" and blow out their individual candles, symbolizing that they are dying to self in order to become one. Among other things, this implies that both husband and wife are making a commitment to focus on loving rather than being loved. Loving means accepting the other person as they are. So don't try to change your spouse. Instead, adapt to their style of communication. Make it your goal to hear your partner's heart rather than keying in on the frustration you may feel about not being heard or understood.
You can help encourage this process by making a date with each other once a week to try a communication exercise. When you're together and in a relaxed frame of mind, one of you should get the ball rolling by talking for ten minutes about the feelings or issues that are on your heart. During this time, the other spouse does nothing but listen, responding only with questions or statements intended to promote clarification - for example, "I don't understand; could you restate that?" or "What I hear you saying is …" After that, you switch sides, following the same rules. At the end of the exercise, neither of you is allowed to try to "straighten the other one out," react angrily to something you didn't want to hear, or debate the issue.
To make this plan work you're going to have to be intentional and stick with your commitment. It's also important to be creative and varied in your choice of subjects. Try to enjoy one another and encourage uniqueness. You and your spouse aren't alike, and that's a good thing. Think how awful and boring it would be to be married to yourself! So resist the temptation to re-make your partner in your own image. Start small and build. Avoid unrealistic expectations. Be loving, patient, and respectful.
Other approaches to getting "unstuck" can include attending a weekend Christian marriage retreat, participating in a couples' support group through your church, or enlisting the help of a licensed Christian marriage counselor. If you need help putting these concepts into practice, don't hesitate to give our staff a call. Focus on the Family's Counseling department can provide you with referrals to qualified marriage and family therapists in your area who specialize in communication issues. Our staff counselors would also be more than happy to discuss your situation with you over the phone. And you can learn more about communication through our marriage channel.
Trouble Communicating in Marriage: Gary Smalley tells how to communicate in a powerful and meaningful way.
The "Love and Respect" Principle