Couple communication does not need to be frustrating.
Before I share with you the #1 secret to great couple communication, I would like to share with you the single most common mistake couples make when communicating — talking at the wrong time.
Early in our marriage, I would go out with friends, generously pay for their drinks, and come home two hours late. My wife would confront me at the door and angrily ask, “What was the bar bill?”
She quickly followed with a demand, “Let’s talk about the budget!”
Now, my wife was right to be frustrated with me — and we did need to discuss our budget — but having this conversation at midnight when she’s angry, I’m tipsy, and we’re both tired was definitely not the right time for us to talk.
“Let’s go to Boston for the weekend!”
My irresponsible spending was a difficult issue for us, but even happy topics can be brought up at the wrong time.
I remember bursting into our home one Friday evening and excitedly greeting my wife with “Let’s go to Boston for the weekend!”
Now, going to Boston for the weekend certainly would have been fun, but I had failed to give my wife a heads up — I just dropped my plan on her and expected her immediate assent.
It never occurred to me she might have a different plan.
As it turned out, she was dreaming of a quiet weekend at home where she would prepare the ultimate “five-course” meal for me.
Our dreams for the weekend collided as we each accused the other “You never want to go anywhere!” … “You don’t know how to relax!”
“I can’t do that!”
Even simple conversations can be brought up at the wrong time.
I once encouraged a husband to call his wife who was home alone on maternity leave. I thought it would be good for their marriage if he checked in on her, but he responded with visible agitation, “I can’t do that!”
Surprised, I asked him why. “The last time I called her she asked me what shade of blue we should paint the baby’s room.”
To avoid the hassle of his wife talking to him about such things when he was at work, his solution was to not talk with his wife at all.
Happily, the solution to the problem of talking at the wrong time is a simple one — it’s talking at the right time.
I urged to husband to call his wife — and implored the wife to hold off on bringing up household matters until it was a good time for both.
Essential advice for your marriage
Here is essential advice for your marriage: don’t spring conversations — and certainly don’t force conversations — on each other, schedule them.
Scheduling your conversations with each other is the #1 secret to great couple communication. Pick a time that is good for the both of you and give each other time to prepare.
Five types of scheduled conversations have been helpful in our marriage:
Formally scheduled conversations: big topics benefit from setting a specific time to talk. We agreed to discuss our budget at 4:00 pm Sunday afternoon, for example, instead of Thursday at midnight.
Informally scheduled conversations: smaller topics don’t need to be brought up with such precision, but still benefit from “informal” scheduling. I told my wife, for example, I would discuss the menu for a dinner party with her after I was done writing a difficult email — not while writing the email!
Time outs: “it is virtually impossible to have a productive, problem-solving discussion” if one or both spouses are angry, says marriage researcher Dr. John Gottman. Frustrated couples should resort to a pre-agreed code word to stop the conversation — “Spaghetti!” — and then set a specific time to talk.
Preemptive time outs: If you want to be good at marriage, make an effort to see issues coming and set a time to talk before things even get heated. Before our baby arrived, for example, we agreed to switch to paper plates for six months, anticipating recurring sleep-deprived arguments over the dishes if we didn’t.
A weekly time to talk: I once urged a couple struggling with constant bickering to set aside time every Saturday morning for “airing of grievances” — and at all other times of the week they had to enjoy each other’s company. Their mantra — “Save it for Saturday!” — turned around their marriage.
How to schedule conversations
Scheduling conversations is simple. Here’s how we do it:
If there is an issue my wife & I want to discuss, we ask the other — once — when can we talk? Our rule is to never make the other person ask twice. We set a time to talk, and we keep our promise.
It’s very helpful — frankly essential — for couples to have a shared calendar. It is hard to pick the right time to talk if you’re unaware of each other’s schedule.
I have learned not to overpromise. I never promise to talk after work, for example, as I am never sure when my work day will be done — and I’ll likely be quite tired by then. My wife & I prefer to talk in the morning or on a day when neither of us are working.
14 benefits of scheduling conversations
Here are fourteen ways scheduling conversations has enriched our marriage:
- Scheduling conversations allows you to pick the right time to talk. If you can avoid talking when you are stressed, tired, or agitated, just this alone will vastly improve the quality of your communication.
- Scheduling conversations allows you to turn off distractions. My wife often complained I was on my phone when she was talking to me. It turns out I was already on my phone when she started talking. Giving me a heads up allows me to put my phone away and be fully present to her when we talk.
- Scheduling conversations gives each of you time to prepare. Even simple, happy topics — where would you like to go this summer? — benefit from time to research and think. But, certainly, big, controversial topics — like our budget — require ample preparation time if we are going to have a productive discussion.
- Scheduling conversations gives you time to understand yourself better. I was surprised to discover I really wanted to go to Boston, but had no idea why. After forty minutes of reflection, I realized I feel most alive when I am exploring cities. I am an “urban explorer.” I remember feeling hopeful — now that I understand myself maybe my wife will understand me.
- Scheduling conversations gives you time to understand your partner better. I thought my wife didn’t like to travel. Turns out she loves to cook — she is a “culinary explorer.” Dr. Gottman found the key to a great conversation is believing you both have a valid point. I have found I need a heads up so I can open my heart and prepare to be a better listener.
- This is a big one — scheduling conversations allows couples to enjoy deeper intimacy. I was amazed. An argument that was dividing us just three hours ago — “You never want to go anywhere! — was three hours later a source of deeper understanding: “I realize you love to cook.”
- Scheduling conversations allows couples to overcome stubbornness. I always thought I was right — it turns out I was always right. My mistake was in thinking my wife was wrong. Believing we each have a valid point has helped us find creative, win-win solutions. We travel now, for example, but stay in apartments with kitchens so my wife can relax and cook when we get there.
- Scheduling conversations enables couples to harness anger, instead of letting it to damage your relationship. Once our blood starts to boil, fight, flight, or freeze syndrome kicks in. Rationale discussion is not an option. Time outs create a structure allowing you to calm down and then use that anger to search for deeper understanding of your issues.
- Scheduling conversations allows couples to overcome conflict avoidance. I was guilty of shutting down whenever things got hot between my wife & myself. Now that we’ve learned to talk when we are both calm and thoughtful, I feel safer sharing with my wife. I particularly love the weekly time set aside on our calendar. Things I would have kept to myself I share with her then.
- Scheduling conversations allows couples to find the rights words. Dr. Gottman found just 4% of conversations end on a positive note if they begin on a negative note. Turns out no one likes to be criticized. But criticism is unnecessary. Any thought that is negative can be said in a positive way. It’s easy to be a critic. Take the time, and find a constructive way to make your point.
- Scheduling conversations allows couples to overcome defensiveness. I once met with a passionate man who complained his wife so defensive there was no use talking with her. I asked him is he wanted to know the cure for defensiveness. “Yes!” “Stop attacking her,” I told him. If you want your spouse to listen to you, take the time to calm down — and be constructive always.
- Scheduling conversations allows couples to pick the right place to talk. Couples communicate better when they get out of the house and go for a walk. It’s best to go for a walk in nature. My wife & I have used “scheduled themed walks” to talk through many a challenging topic.
- Scheduling conversations has allowed my wife & I to make a commitment to always be cheerful when we talk. I often snapped at my wife when she tried to talk with me — “do we have to talk now?” With scheduled conversations, I made a promise to my wife I have been able to keep: if you give me a heads up, I will always be cheerful when we talk.
- Last, but not least, many good couples tell me they live in fear of their next argument. Even the good times of marriage can feel fragile if couples lack confidence in their ability to talk issues through. My wife & I used to “walk on eggshells” early in our marriage. Now we know there is no reason to worry.
Thanks to the practice of scheduling our conversations, we know we will always be constructive and cheerful when we talk. We know we will each see the best in the other. We are confident in our ability to find win-win solutions to the biggest — and smallest — of our issues.
Scheduling conversations is truly the #1 secret to great couple communication.
A homework assignment for you
And, now, a homework assignment for you, the reader. Schedule a conversation with your partner for next weekend. Before then, each of you are to come up with five things you’d like to do this coming summer — could be something big like finally visiting France, or something small like making time for more walks together.
See how the experience of scheduling a conversation changes you. Do you feel closer as a couple? Do you feel more excited about the summer you are to about to share? I bet you will.
Set up — or ramp up, if you already have one — a shared calendar system
Schedule a conversation with your partner to discuss your plans for the summer
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