Free marriage advice: Part 4

There's a better way

There's a better way

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

6 comments… add one

  • Suzanne Franco January 9, 2009, 12:44 pm

    Great advice as usual! The list is long LOL so prioritizing is a great idea … and I agree with one issue at a time. Thanks again for the great info. Not married yet … but we sure want to go into it destined for success and this will help any relationship out there. *huGs* Suzanne

  • Sandra Foyt January 9, 2009, 11:19 pm

    This sounds great, but “let’s talk” time hasn’t worked so well for us. Every time I talk, my husband hears “blah, blah, blah” much like adult talk in Charlie Brown movies.

    We’re trying an ongoing email exchange, where we respond in varying colors. At least, we’re relatively calm and not talking in circles when we email.

    We seem to listen better when we’re not actually talking.

  • admin January 11, 2009, 12:56 pm

    Sandra: I think email or even handwriting works great. It doesn’t matter if the communication is verbal or written, as long as it happens.

  • abby October 8, 2009, 3:30 pm

    it doesn’t matter how many of these “talk sessions” my husband and I have it turns out the same… he’s attentive, reflective, seemingly interested, and wants to do better… but no matter how much he WANTS to make something different he doens’t DO anything to make it better and we end up having the whole thing repeat itself a month later.

  • Sonia at Marriage Counselling Toronto March 16, 2012, 7:59 am

    I agree, great suggestions, however some things can’t be planned out, it just happens.

  • Cindetta August 31, 2013, 12:05 pm

    I know I need to take the advice on this page and see what happens. I guess I need to retrain myself first before I can even begin to work on him. He doesn’t want counselling so I feel up against a wall but maybe these suggestions will work and if not then there’s other decisions that need to be made since my conclusion is that he doesn’t care to help make our relationship better.
    And, why is it women have to do so much of the communication work? I know life isn’t fair; can there be a good relationship and not share ideas and conversation? I mean he and I can talk forever about how and when to do whatever but there are so many other forms I would love to have with him for me to feel close to him and not just one of the boys. For over 20 years I have listened to my partner talk on and on to his friends about his favorite sports or the intricacies of work or whatever but when it comes to my or his inner world or our relationship it feels like two people trying to understand each other without speaking the same language. The daily misunderstandings we have seem to escalate, there goes my good humor and eventually I feel hurt, exasperated or angry to the point where I just give up and I’m in a sour mood for hours and he walks away immersed in his next project or phone call and completely unaffected. And I kick myself because I knew when I met him he didn’t talk much but I didn’t know how to read the signs and had never dated anyone quite like him. So, he is a kind and good person, I want to be be with him still but he just won’t listen (he seems to try at times) and I wind up thinking of him as a little kid emotionally (myself as well) which doesn’t feel like the relationship I was looking for in the first place.


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