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How to Open the Lines of Communication in a Marriage

by Dana Bagwell

In her landmark article on relationship science, Ellen Berscheid remarked in the journal “American Psychologist” that, “A relationship itself is invisible; its existence can be discerned only by observing its effects." The effects of a relationship are often the result of poor communication, and which can also, at times, be invisible. Seeing how you communicate is an important skill in opening lines of communication in your marriage.

Minimize Nonverbal Cues

When couples fail to communicate verbally, they get their information from other sources. Some nonverbal cues are obvious: an upset look and similar nonverbal actions communicate just as much information. Unfortunately, much of this communication occurs without our awareness. In his book, “The Secrets of Happy Families,” Bruce Feiler recommends sitting side by side on comfy furniture when engaged in difficult conversations as it breeds accommodation over intimidation.

Active Listening

Listening is an expression of validation. Actively listening communicates interest and the desire to understand your partner. Conversely, waiting for a break in the conversation to speak does not convey that a partner truly heard and understood the other. Professors Rosemary Ramsey and Ravipreet Sohi reported in a study published in the “Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science” that listening is composed of sensing, evaluating and responding. Notice that the first two components of this study reinforce the importance of listening to understand before ever speaking a word.

I Statements

The world-renowned relationship expert, psychologist John Gottman, recommends using "I statements" when beginning a conversation. When a conversation begins with the words “I feel…,” the communication that follows is far more likely to be productive than negative. For example, instead of “you never pick up your socks,” begin with, “I feel resentful when you leave your socks on the floor.” Notice how the content is the same -- socks on the floor -- but the tone of the conversation changed from accusation to concern. Perhaps most important, partners are more likely to understand the other’s viewpoint when both consistently use "I" statements.

Use Technology

For couples experiencing trouble with face-to-face conversations, technology can help break the ice. Psychologist Sarah Coyne and colleagues reported in a study published in the journal “Family Relations” that couples most often used text messaging to express affection, discuss emotionally difficult issues and to apologize or begin a difficult conversation. Providing a partner uses care and discretion, such technology is an especially important tool for those that have difficulty verbally expressing themselves. With a little creativity, couples can begin to open the lines of communication.

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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