If you’ve tried marital counseling or have read any of the marital improvement books, then you’ve heard this phrase: A happy marriage requires communication.
Makes sense, right?
Yet, if your marriage is anything like mine, it’s hard enough to find the time and energy needed to communicate the daily essentials like, “Honey we’re out of milk” and “Thursday is Wear White Day in Pre-K. Don’t forget to dress the kidlet in white.”
If I can’t even remember to tell my husband that his mother called and would appreciate a call back sometime this season, how am I supposed to find the time and energy to have a long sit-down about the fact that I’m none too enamored with his good-for-nothing midlife-crisis mobile? (More on this next week).
Are you with me?
I bet you are. What follows is a blend of advice that I picked up from the various marital improvement books I’ve read, along with some unique Alisa-isms, added in for good measure.
Alisa’s Guide to Communicating Your Way to a Better Marriage
Step 1: List your issues
Spend some time alone thinking about everything you don’t like about your marriage and your partner. List it all on a piece of paper. Then go through the list and check off the issues that really and truly matter. Perhaps, for instance, you can learn to accept his absence of table manners. On the other hand, you probably want to address the fact that he talks down to you.
Step 2: Pick your battles
Prioritize your list, picking just three items to address sooner than later. Of those three, pick just one to address right away.
Step 3: Create a “let’s talk” night
You won’t need to have an official Let’s Talk night forever, but it’s helpful in the beginning, because of that long list of issues you just created. It’s going to take a while to get through the list, so you might as well designate a night for it. More important, setting aside an official night to “talk” prevents you from threatening your partner with the phrase, “We need to talk.” Certain people—and my husband is one of them—completely shut down when they hear those four words. Instead of, “We need to talk” they hear, “You are so far into the dog house that I am declaring my vagina hands off for an entire year. And I’m not going to be civil to your mother for at least 6 months, too.” And once they hear that, they stop listening until you’ve stopped talking.
Step 4: On your given night, talk about one issue each
Flip a coin to see who goes first. Follow these rules:
* You can only bring up one issue. This is why I asked you to prioritize your list, to prevent you from asking your partner to change 50 aspects of his behavior and personality in just one night.
* While one person is talking, the other listens. If you find yourself formulating comebacks while your partner talks, YOU ARE NOT LISTENING. When listening, take notes if needed. Repeat back to your partner what he just said. Knowing that you must do this will force you to listen.
* As you talk about your issue, smile and keep an even tone of voice. It’s okay to avoid eye contact, though. In fact, it might help alleviate the tension. If your man is a strong and silent type, consider piggybacking your “let’s talk” session with a “let’s exercise together” session. You might find that he’s much less threatened and much more communicative if you talk as you walk.
* Get rid of the words “never” and “always,” as in, “You always do this to me” and “You never do what I ask.” Focus only on the one specific incident or problem.
* Get rid of the rhetoric. It’s much more effective to just state your case. The more colorful adjectives and zingers you toss into the mix, the more your partner will shut down or become angry.
* Try to use phrasing like, “When [INSERT DETAIL HERE], I feel [INSERT FEELING HERE.] Can you help me to solve this problem?” For instance, when I bring up the blasted midlife crisis mobile issue to my husband, I might phrase it like this, “When you tell me that you need to borrow my car because you can’t safely drive your car in the snow, I feel really frustrated because that means I’m stuck at home without a car. What can we do to make sure you have a car that you can drive in the snow?”
* Help each other solve problem. This is not about winning. It’s not about figuring out who is wrong or who is the poorer excuse for a spouse. It’s about finding a solution, so you can both be happier. Mutually define the problem together. Then come up with lots of different solutions, listing the pros and cons. Remember: tackle only one problem at a time. Don’t dredge up everything that has ever ticked you off since you met the man. (See Free Marriage Advice Part 2 for more on stockpiling).
* If you get heated up, take a time out. Some problems can’t be solved right away. Some problems take days or weeks (or months or years) to solve.
Step 5: Validate
Whenever your spouse follows through on your request, say two important words, “Thank you.” You can say those words in any way that makes sense to you, but say them. This will get him to do it again.
Step 6: Follow Up
Spouses learn in the same way kids learn—by taking two steps forward, one step back. He will slip up from time to time. Expect it. Whenever he takes a step back, gently point it out, “Honey, you just did it again” or “Sweetheart, you are doing it again.”
This article is part of a series. Start at the beginning: Free Marriage Advice Part 1.
What are your tips for better marriage communication? How well do you communicate with your partner? Do you have additional questions about this topic? Leave a comment.
FRIDAY: Part 5: How to fight fair
A professional journalist, Alisa Bowman is the author of Project: Happily Ever After, a memoir of how she saved her marriage, and coauthor of Pitch Perfect, a must-read if you've ever had a sense of dread tie up your insides before a speech, presentation, or conversation. If you enjoyed this post, you will no doubt love her updates on Facebook and Twitter.