This series is designed for newlyweds, those about to be married—and pretty much anyone who wants to know the most important factors for creating a great marriage. These simple insights are drawn from 18 years of research and 12 nationally-representative studies with more than 40,000 men and women. This is the second article in the series. Share it with those who are newly married—or just about to be!
When my husband, Jeff, and I conducted our research study to find out what the happiest couples do differently, we were surprised and a bit amused to discover that although most of these couples talked about the importance of “communication,” they couldn’t explain what that actually meant. They had spent years building great communication habits—but couldn’t articulate what they were doing differently. So Jeff and I investigated what “communicating well” actually meant in practice for these couples.
Below are four crucial communication habits we’ve identified for any couple who wants to create a highly happy marriage. Several of these arose from our nationally-representative surveys and were included in our book, The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages. Others have been identified in new research. These are by no means an exhaustive list, but all are simple and game-changing for any marriage.
Communication Habit #1: Always speak about your spouse in an honoring way
When I speak on relationships, I often explain the 30-Day Kindness Challenge—a simple, evidence-based process for improving any relationship (with a spouse, child, colleague, etc.). And in the process, I often see just how needed this particular habit actually is.
I first explain to the audience that part of the Challenge is to not say anything negative about the person with whom they want a better relationship. People usually nod in agreement. But when I clarify: “You don’t say anything negative either to that person or about that person to someone else,” a groan usually sweeps the room. Because the listeners realize just how often they share frustrations about this person with others.
By far the most dangerous example of this is when we “vent” about our spouse. Why? Well, there are several reasons, including the rather obvious one of giving those around you a negative view of the person you’re going to be married to for the rest of your life! But one of my readers captured a much more important reason in a recent post: “My marital advice is to never speak badly about your spouse to others. It’s not good for your heart. And your words, even if in venting or frustration, can become your thoughts and feelings.”
Read that last sentence again. Whatever you focus on and talk about with regard to your spouse will steer your feelings about your spouse. Either toward the positive—or the negative.Whatever you focus on and talk about with regard to your spouse will steer your feelings about your spouse. Either toward the positive—or the negative. Click To Tweet
We have bought into a myth that “venting” a little steam is harmless—even helpful. But researchers, including Dr. Brad Bushman at Ohio State University, have discovered that far from making us feel better, a little bit of complaining actually activates an interconnected anger system in the brain. It increases angst. Instead of venting steam we are turning up the heat under the pot.
Now, this doesn’t mean we should pull back from seeking support and advice. In fact, being in fellowship with others we can talk to is crucial. But it does mean we have to be very honest with ourselves about the motivation behind those conversations: Is it to get encouraging advice that will support our marriage and ideally help us fall more in love with our spouse? Or is it for the guilty pleasure of rolling our eyes and saying, “you won’t believe what happened the other day”? The former is vital—while the latter will only hurt us and our marriage.
As one man wrote in, “My bit of wisdom is this: Honor your spouse in public. Esteem him or her. Years ago, my pastor told us: ‘My wife is not perfect. But you will never hear about that from me. Love covers a multitude of sins.’ We committed to each other that we would always honor each other with our words. And we have.”
Communication Habit #2: Be honest with your spouse—but always in a kind way.
In our research, when we asked couples for marriage advice, we frequently heard “it is so important to be able to be brutally honest with each other.”
Here’s the thing: we never heard that phrase from the happiest couples. Not once. The happiest couples are indeed honest and share what needs to be said—but they are never brutal. Instead, they make a purposeful effort to speak kindly to their spouse. Especially when something might be hard to hear.Make a purposeful effort to speak kindly to your spouse. Click To Tweet
As time goes by in a new marriage, as kids come along and job stresses increase, it can be easy to take our spouse for granted and begin to speak to them in a way we would neverspeak to even a close friend. Yet in our research for The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages, we found that among the happiest couples, the vast majority (75%) tried to be at least as considerate with their spouse as they would be with a friend—where among the so-so or struggling couples only 46% did so.
A good marriage requires being able to share what we are actually thinking and feeling—especially if there is a concern that needs to be raised. And kindness is what allows those open lines of communication to grow. I recently asked some of my readers for their top marriage advice, and one respondent who had been married for 45 years said this was his most crucial counsel: “Be a generous and kind communicator. Don’t hold back on what you want to say for a ‘better time’. If you are kind with your communication, you can speak your mind. If you can develop a space of safety in all you say, then you can be transparent and honest.”
Communication Habit #3: Listen in the way your spouse needs—not necessarily in the way you would need
To become a great communicator, you have to become a competent listener. And being a competent listener means listening in the way your spouse needs. Statistically, it is worth pointing out two different listening skills that will be appreciated most men and most women. (Although since everyone is an individual, the key is always to learn what matters to your spouse.)
Men: Realize that for most women, “listening” means “listen to my feelings about a problem before trying to deal with the actual problem.” In our national survey of women for For Men Only most said that they would only want their man to help them with the technical problem as Step Two. Instead, as Step One, if a woman was upset about something—for example, her boss publicly criticized her in front of her subordinates—she usually first wanted her man to listen to and empathize with her upset feelings and draw her out with caring questions. (“What do you think the others on the team are thinking?” “How do you feel about walking in tomorrow?”) This type of listening and communication will, in most cases, make a woman feel very loved. (For more specific tips, read this article, and this one.)
Women: Realize that for most men, “listening” means “trust that I have thought something through by the time I bring it up, before shooting off tons of questions.” In our national survey of men for For Women Only most (82%) said that by the time they raised something with their wife—for example, he thinks it is appropriate to dip into savings to build the new deck—they had already thought about the issue in detail. In fact, by the time a man raises something he has often thought through his wife’s potential objections or concerns as well. But because this is the first his wife is hearing about it, she often wants to process it by discussing it with him and ask questions—which he might receive as criticism. It will avoid that implication and instead show appreciation if she listens to his initial discussion and then asks her questions with the acknowledgement that he has probably already put a great deal of thought into it. (“So I know you’ve probably investigated ways to cut costs—what did you find?”) Even if, in the end, she ends up disagreeing. (If you are curious, this piece or The Thinker chapter in For Women Only unpacks this a bit more.)
A bonus reminder about another listening skill that is crucial for everyone, was captured well by a reader who shared that their top advice was, “Be a good listening partner. Do not interrupt. Listen like you are trying to understand, not just wanting to reply.”A reader shared this great piece of couples advice: “Be a good listening partner. Do not interrupt. Listen like you are trying to understand, not just wanting to reply.” Click To Tweet
Communication Habit #4: Remember: Your spouse doesn’t know what you are thinking or what you need unless you tell them
This is a very simple thing to remember—and will save a whole lot of heartache if we apply it. We all know that we should not expect our spouse to read our mind . . . yet sometimes we still do!
For all the new couples out there, start your marriage out right by resolving to do two things:
First, if you have a specific need, desire, or concern share it instead of expecting your spouse to somehow prove how much they love and appreciate you by magically figuring it out. Say explicitly, “Do we already have plans for my birthday? If you want an idea, I’d love to get some friends and go to that laser tag place.” Or be clear that, “I’ve had a taxing day, and I’m not sure I’m up for romance tonight. Can we make a date for tomorrow night instead?” If you don’t particularly care about what to do for your birthday, then this doesn’t matter. But if you do care, it is unfair not to give your spouse the opportunity to meet a need they wouldn’t have known about otherwise.
Second, be clear with your words and play no games. One of our friends says the best advice they got in their premarital counseling was to tell each other, “I’m going to believe your words.” So if one person says, “What’s wrong?” and the other answers, “Nothing,” they are going to believe those words. Or if one spouse asks, “Are you upset that I put a down payment on the deck without asking you?” and the other says, “No” then the question is resolved. So resolve to believe one another’s words. That pact incentivizes being honest about what you need—and honors the fact that your spouse wants to know how to love you well but cannot read your mind.
Communication runs through every day of a marriage. And there are many more pieces of communication advice that matter. But start with these simple ones. They matter to everyone.
What communication advice would you most want to share with a newlywed couple? Answer in the comments below!
This article was also published at Patheos.
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