Any thought that is negative can be said in a positive way.
Have a problem you’d like to discuss with your spouse?
The first rule of effective couple communication is — don’t spring a conversation on your partner.
Don’t talk late at night when you’re tired. Don’t confront each other at the door the moment your spouse arrives home.
Most importantly — don’t talk when you’re angry. Call a time out, if you need to. Talking out of frustration almost always makes things worse.
Schedule a time to talk that works for both of you. Ask your partner, “when can we talk?” Commit to talk at a specific time.
There are many advantages to setting a time to talk.
In this post, I will focus on how giving yourself time to find the right words can make the difference between solving the problem — or making the problem worse.
The vital importance of finding the right words
Before I read the research on marriage, I thought I had two options if I was upset at my wife: I could criticize her or I could keep quiet.
I am conflict avoidant, so I almost always chose to stay quiet — not good!
Unfortunately for me, my wife is not conflict avoidant, and she almost always chose to criticize me — it turns out, also not good!
From the marriage research, we learned there is always a third option when it comes to communication — a better way to talk with each other. We don’t need to criticize. We don’t need to keep quiet. We can find a positive way to express what we want.
There is — always — a constructive way to make your point
We adopted the policy of “zero criticism” in our marriage. If we feel the need to say something, we should say something — we just need to wait until we have something constructive to say.
Criticism is usually accurate, but it’s almost never helpful. When you criticize, you are focusing on the problem.
When communication is constructive, the focus is on finding a solution.
Constructive communication allows couples to solve problems so they don’t need to keep talking about them. It allows couples to move past their issues.
Constructive communication works
Here’s an example of how constructive communication has worked for us:
We had a recurring problem early in our marriage. At night, when I came home from work, I would leave my dirty pants on our couch. This annoyed my wife to no end, and she complained just about every day about this bad habit of mine.
Her frustration was certainly justified, but the words she chose to express her dissatisfaction with me only made things worse.
My wife would tell me, “you have a college degree, you can’t find the hamper?!”
While her statement was entirely accurate — I did have a college degree, and I couldn’t find the hamper — it was demoralizing to hear her say this night after night. After a long day at work, she made me feel like I was a failure at home.
Why Marriages Succeed or Fail
Then my wife & I read Dr. John Gottman’s book, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, in which he shared numerous examples of constructive communication at work. The book too a “here is what the couple said, here is what they could have said” approach.
Having clear examples to draw inspiration from, my wife & I made a commitment to only talk about problems when we were ready to be constructive discussing them.
My wife went quiet about my dirty pants — for two weeks.
Then, one night, she excitedly came to me:
“Peter, my hard-working husband, I figured it out! You’re tired when you get home. Asking you to put things away perfectly is too much to ask for…
“I’ve been observing you, though, these past two weeks to see just how you annoy me. I used to think your mess was random, but I’ve made a discovery: you undress while walking. You leave a trail behind you!…
“How about this moving forward? Don’t do anything while walking. Stop here. Undress while standing still. Go to Home Depot and buy a hook, and put all your dirty clothes on the hook. I can take care of everything from there…
“We’ll have a place to sit!”
I had hated my wife’s criticism — even though it was deserved.
I loved hearing her constructive advice. I want to be a better person — I just needed to learn how to be a better person.
I went out to Home Depot the very next day to buy a hook — and I’ve never again left my dirty pants on the couch.
Thanks to my wife taking the time to find something constructive to say about my dirty clothes, she’s never had to nag me about them ever since.
One “constructive” pause — in this case for the two weeks it took my wife to find a solution — has saved us from thousands of bickering sessions.
So… here’s wisdom that will transform your marriage: think before you speak!
Be constructive — always!
In this video, Dr. Gottman shares how he learned from observing couples how to be more constructive in his own communication with his wife (listen to first 1 minute 26 seconds — link to full video is below).
Handout – Rules for Calling a Time Out
John Gottman (book) – Why Marriages Succeed or Fail
John Gottman (video) – Making Marriage Work
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