In her memoir, You’re Better Than Me, comedian Bonnie McFarlane writes that when her husband made her super angry, she gave him the “silent treatment” for the entire week. Finally, on day seven, Bonnie’s husband turned to her and said, “Hey, we’re getting along pretty great lately!”
McFarlane might disagree, but I’d argue that the key to a great marriage is more communication, not less. And I’m not the only one who thinks so. A poll by The Today Show and SurveyMonkey found that 70 percent of Americans think good communication is the most important factor in a happy marriage. The poll also found that a lack of communication was the second most common cause for divorce, trailing only infidelity.
“Communication is the mortar that holds a relationship together,” says relationship expert Dr. Amy Bellows. “If it breaks down, the relationship will crumble. When spouses no longer communicate, a marriage nurtures no one. It is no longer a marriage.”
But communication can be tricky to define, much less do well. “Communication” involves four different types of interactions we use, and each type is critical to a high-functioning relationship. Here’s a breakdown:
My wife, Erin, called me at work to tell me about the first meeting of a new Bible study group she joined. She didn’t know most of the people in the study and had never been to the neighborhood where it meets, but she found the address just fine — or so she thought, given all the cars parked outside the house. A sign saying, “Come on in” was taped on the door. Erin walked in and, being the natural extrovert she is, began chatting with her newfound friends.
And then the host announced that it was time to play the game. Game? Erin thought. And then she realized her mistake: This wasn’t her new Bible study group, but a bunco party! She’d gone to the wrong house! We laughed about it and then hung up.
That conversation was an example of perhaps the easiest, most natural form of communication. When you ask, “How was your day, honey?” the typical comments that follow would land under this heading.
Small talk? Sure, but these conversations are still important to your marriage. They establish a simple connection between you and your spouse that doesn’t require exhausting emotional vulnerability. We can’t be in a state of deep, emotional intimacy every moment of our relationship. We’d wear ourselves out!
If our first type of communication is simple chitchat, the second is more like a business meeting. These conversations are loaded with action items — changes to the daily routine, to-do lists, appointments, social obligations, financial decisions, etc. Sometimes it seems like we need to have these meetings a half-dozen times a day. A phone conversation in this category might start something like this: “The nurse called and Annie is sick. I can’t get her because I’m in the middle of getting my hair colored, can you pick her up?”
You can see why this mode of communication is important: It ensures that your marriage, your family and your lives operate smoothly. We simply need to have these conversations — or Annie’s going to be stuck at school.
But some couples can feel like their whole relationship revolves around these sorts of communicative “meetings.” And that’s not always healthy.
You and your spouse don’t need to hash out every major and minor decision — it’s unrealistic. If you feel overwhelmed by this type of communication, here’s an idea: Determine what types of decisions need to be discussed. For example, Erin and I never make social plans without calling each other first and we don’t spend more than $100 without checking in. But less than $100? We generally don’t need a meeting about that.
Be flexible. Be adaptive. And most of all, be considerate of your spouse.
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Every relationship has its ups and downs. The apostle Paul told us, “But those who marry will face many troubles in this life” (1 Corinthians 7:28, NIV). We must talk about those troubles. If we don’t, they only grow until they feel insurmountable.
Sometimes these conversations are about relatively small troubles with rather easy solutions: “The garbage disposal isn’t working. Who should we call?” Discussing challenging topics doesn’t always involve deep introspection or tears.
Other conversations can be more serious — when our spouse has hurt or disappointed us, for instance, or we disagree on something critical. They can be talks that happen in the midst of deep grief, anger or confusion — when we’ve lost a job, for instance, or we’re dealing with sickness.
Conversations connected to challenges can help us to grow, both as individuals and as a couple. They can expose our blind spots or lead us to make important and necessary changes in our lives.
Although these are critical conversations to have in a marriage relationship, they’re delicate, too, so we need to engage with a sense of grace. We need to use our best active-listening skills (“So, I hear you saying …”), validate whatever emotions are in play and be willing to offer forgiveness if it’s needed.
Now, the three types of communication I outlined above are, for the most part, natural conversations for a husband and wife to have. We engage in chitchat because it’s fun and we want to share. We administrate our marriage because, well, someone’s got to pick up Annie, right? We deal with issues because we know we have to.
But if all our conversations revolved around small talk, administration and conflict resolution, we’d get disinterested in talking to each other. Some couples seem to just run out of things to talk about. And it makes me wonder if they ignored a fourth critical type of communication.
The three modes of communication above are reactive conversations — spurred on by some need or event. This fourth mode of communication is often overlooked because it’s proactive. Life-giving conversations are about getting to know your partner better and strengthening the bonds between you. They’re playful and affirming. They express gratitude and demonstrate curiosity. Ask your spouse questions you’ve never asked before. Unpack hopes and dreams.
The first three types of conversations will monopolize your time unless you intentionally make space for this one. But how?
Erin and I use what’s called the “10-minute rule,” an idea coined by Dr. Terri Orbuch. Studying nearly 400 couples over the span of 30 years, Orbuch discovered that happy couples tended to spend 10 minutes each day talking about meaningful things.
It’s easy to see why these meaningful conversations can make a relationship meaningful. They imply a commitment to understanding your spouse’s inner life — his or her hopes and fears, needs and dreams. They show your spouse that he or she is the most important person in your life and that you want to know everything there is to know. These are more than conversations: They’re statements of intimate commitment.
So agree with your spouse to spend at least 10 minutes every day talking about anything other than work, the household, kids, problems or even your relationship. Focus on the things that matter down deep — the things that expand your understanding of your mate.
Back in 1983, the band Journey released the song “Faithfully.” In that song, there’s a lyric I just love: “I get the joy of rediscovering you.”
Take joy in rediscovering your spouse over and over. An entire lifetime together isn’t enough to truly know your husband or wife, because they’re always changing. That’s the beauty of marriage!
Dr. Greg Smalley is vice president of Marriage and Family Formation at Focus on the Family and the author or co-author of several books, including Crazy Little Thing Called Marriage.