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What Did You Say?

Keith McCurdy
Keith McCurdy

One of the most common issues that arise in premarital and marriage counseling is communication.  Without fail, how we communicate sets the tone for so much in our relationships with our spouses and yet we spend little time actually thinking about and working on how we talk to each other.  Most of our communication patterns have been developed since childhood and are subconscious habits by the time we get to marriage.  Just because a habit served us well growing up does not mean that it is healthy in a marriage relationship.  Here are three skills that I address most often when beginning a discussion about communication with a couple.

Respond to what is said, not what it sounds like.  Too often we are reacting to how someone says something rather than what they actually say.   We focus on the tone or body language and make assumptions about what is meant rather than just dealing with the words.  Growing up we are taught that people communicate in hundreds of ways with body language, posture, tone, inflection, etc.  While this is true and can be useful knowledge when trying to sell a product or figure out if someone is lying to you, it is usually unhealthy to consider all of this information when dealing with a spouse in day to day communication.  There are many reasons why someone might sound negative, that have nothing to do with the message being sent.  When we focus only on the words we have a better opportunity for productive communication. When we focus on how something sounds we get off track rapidly in a negative direction. By responding to what is said, it also makes the other person more responsible for the words they use which leads us to the next skill.

Say what you mean.  This may sound simple, but it is amazing how often we communicate by giving hints or testing the water.  An example is the husband who says “Hey honey, do we have anything going on this weekend?” instead of saying “I really want to play golf this weekend, do we have any conflicts?”   Or when we are asked a question, instead of saying what we really mean, we say things like “Oh, it doesn’t matter” or “Anything is fine with me.”  When we are vague or fishing, we are not showing respect for our partner and can leave them feeling manipulated.  When we are not honest with a response, we are often unhappy with the outcome and may tend to blame the other.  When this is paired with responding to only what is said, it holds people accountable for what they say.  If a wife asks what movie her husband wants to watch and he responds with “I don’t care,” he has lost the right to complain about the choice.  After enduring two hours of “The Notebook,” he will likely be more forthcoming with information in the future.

Finally, give the benefit of the doubt.  You are married, this is your partner.  It is a safe bet that they care more about you than the topic at hand.  If it sounds bad, don’t assume it is a personal attack.  If it comes across negative, don’t assume they don’t care.  Your spouse is in this with you, they are intimate with you, they care more about you than what color you paint the living room.  Everyone has a bad day and it is very difficult to remove our emotional state from our communication.  If we over-interpret our communication on those days, we begin to make issues out of trivial matters and can even think there are serious problems when none exist.  Whether we understand this at the beginning of our marriage or late in the game, it can save a lot of heart ache.  Put it into practice!

By Keith McCurdy
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