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How to Break Through the Ice When a Marriage Is in Crisis From Communication Failures

by Dana Bagwell, studioD

Patients with higher marital quality ratings were more likely to be alive four years following the onset of congestive heart failure. In this study, published in the American Journal of Cardiology in September 2001, more than half of the factors contributing to marital quality were related to the couple’s communication behaviors. Accordingly, breaking through the ice is not only important for your marriage, it may even save your life.

Reframe Language

Starting a conversation, especially after days of silence, is awkward and susceptible to misinterpretation by both partners. Psychologist John Gottman often recommends couples use “I statements” to avoid beginning a conversation with accusations. I statements relay concern about behaviors rather than criticizing the person performing the behavior. Professor Eboni Baugh at the University of Florida offers the following example of an I statement: “When we go out to eat, you always embarrass me,” becomes “I feel hurt and ashamed when you make fun of me in public.”


Gottman termed complete withdrawal from communication as “stonewalling.” In “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work,” Gottman said stonewalling was so detrimental to a relationship that he included it as one of the “Four Horseman of the Apocalypse” signaling the future demise of the relationship if left untreated. The verbal partner can try to break through the cold exterior through validating a positive behavior. Gottman offered the following example of a statement of validation: “I really like the way you are sensitive to my moods”

Conversation Starters

Far too often couples assume all communication must be about the relationship. Yet, that is hardly the case. Marriage experts Gary Chapman and Ramon Presson offer sample questions designed to begin a conversation in their book “101 Conversation Starters for Couples.” One of their questions involves a childhood memory: “Can you recall visiting your parents' workplace?” The key is to begin a conversation -- any conversation. Discussions about nonemotional memories are a great starting point.

Love Language

Chapman’s best-selling book “The 5 Love Languages” details the five primary methods most partners use to give and receive love. Knowing and regularly speaking your partner’s love language softens the communication barrier before ever attempting a conversation. For example, if your partner feels loved through “Acts of Service,” do something especially for your partner. Unexpected acts most often communicate the most intense love for your partner.



About the Author

Dana Bagwell has worked in the research-and-development field for more than a decade. His work has covered gerontology, cognitive assessments, health education interventions, social science theory and research methods. Bagwell has also contributed to several scholarly publications, including "Experimental Aging Research" and "Clinical Interventions in Aging." He has a bachelor's degree in psychology and is completing his doctorate in health policy.

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