There are some bad communication habits couples develop with each other. These modes of speaking contribute to estrangement, isolation, and a feeling of living with an adversary.
Since your spouse is the one person out of three billion candidates you chose to spend the rest of your life with, it makes sense to learn some basic communication skills. These don't require much effort but my experience is that changing these negative habits into positive practices can significantly improve the atmosphere in your home. I call this "marital hygiene."
1. Say what you want, not what you don't want.
Many of us have a hard time saying what we want directly, like we're not entitled to ask for what we want. But we do want things, and sometimes we cope with our discomfort in asking for it by asking for it in the form of a criticism. Here are some examples (with my suggestion for improvement in parentheses):
"I want you to stop micromanaging me" ("I want you to trust me to make decisions"); "I wish you would quit showing up late all the time" ("I like it when you come at the time we agreed upon"); "I don't like it when you don't tell me where you're going" ("I relax when I know where you'll be").
Your message will come across every bit as clearly and your partner will want to comply more when it's phrased in the positive.
2. Replace "but" with "and."
This deceptively simple practice will go a long way toward avoiding the tit-for-tat arguments that often pass for communication between couples. Listen to the difference between "I understand what you're saying but I feel..." vs. "I understand what you're saying and I feel..." It's subtle, but that subtle shift contributes to a greater feeling of win-win cooperation rather than win-lose, one-of-us-has-to-be-right-and-the-other-wrong competition.
3. Don't pollute a compliment with a negative qualifier.
Sometimes we ruin a perfectly nice compliment with a totally unnecessary and negative qualifier. Listen to these comments and see if you can detect the offending word. Better yet, imagine yourself on the receiving end of these compliments and you'll immediately detect the problem. Our brains are wired to pick up on danger, so we'll hear and remember the negative. The positive message gets lost as our brain screams "Warning! Danger!"
"I'm glad you finally got me something I like for my birthday."
"It's nice you actually cleaned up the kitchen when you were done cooking."
"It really felt good when you touched me for once."
Just in case you've missed the offending words, they are "finally," "actually" and "for once." John Gottman, who has researched couples for 30-plus years, writes that for every negative message we give our partner it takes five positive messages to erase the bad feeling the negative message causes. This is a clear instance where an ounce of preventive, clean communication is worth much more than a pound of critical comments.
Do you have a question about your marriage or relationship? Ask Josh in the comments below or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Josh Gressel, Ph.D., is a couples therapist based in Pleasant Hill, CA. Visit his website at joshgressel.com.