Donald A. Cadogan, Ph.D.




By some estimates, if we add today’s divorce rate to the current amount of separations and desertions, and combine this figure with the number of marriages that stay intact, but are unhappy, we would easily have over seventy-five percent, and some believe ninety percent, of our marriages in trouble. Although there is no doubt that selecting the right partner is vital to marital success, mental health professionals also know that much connubial unhappiness can be prevented if only couples would learn to communicate more effectively.




Of all the social skills we learn in life, our ability to articulate our feelings is probably the most important.  And this is especially true in marriage.  The expression of feelings is its life-blood supplying needed information about the relationship to its members as well as furnishing vital emotional nutrients.  But clear message sending is also an art that, unfortunately, many individuals do not practice.  Some of the most frequent complaints encountered by marriage and family therapists are those involving poor communication.  Thus, one of the principal tasks for coupes in therapy is to learn effective interpersonal discussion skills.


Fighting in marriage is common and often necessary for the resolution of interpersonal problems.  But too frequently, inept verbal exchange patterns during heated moments are the cause of additional, and sometimes even worse, discord.  Little mistakes can result in big troubles.  But it is also true, however, that small improvement in disclosure proficiency can lead to large advances in marital satisfaction.




Basically, effective communication contains two major and obvious components: statement sending and statement receiving, or speaking and listening.  The first necessitates your willingness to send clear, honest messages about your thoughts and feelings.  In other words, no hidden statements, double meanings, or innuendos.  Say what you mean and mean what you say.  Also, when dealing with troublesome issues, your messages must be constructive, i.e., aimed at solving your problems rather than just expressing feelings designed primarily to hurt the other person.  Insults, put-downs, or comments intended only to belittle your marital partner are destructive to you relationship and tend only to create more difficulties.  Feeling expression, in other words, does not mean blurting out anything you feel just because you feel it.  Be fair and considerate with your comments.  For example, imagine someone saying, “I have to be honest with you.  You’re ugly.”  Such a statement is not honest; it’s cruel.


Also, the way you start your arguments plays a vital role in the way they finish. Psychologist John Gottman, director of the Love Lab at Washington University, states he can predict the demise of a marriage just by how rancorous fights begin.  Arguments that explode into being with a great deal of contempt, cynicism, or global criticism tend to diminish the likelihood they will be listened to and foster a climate of hostility and disagreement. I other words, don’t store things up, don’t seek to destroy, and stick to the point.




The second component in effective verbal interchange is your ability to listen to your partner’s assertions in a manner that will encourage further communication. One excellent way to accomplish this is to avoid interrupting with defensive remarks. That is, allow your spouse to air his/her grievances without interference from you.  This means you must listen even when you are being attacked.  Meaningful interchange will be encouraged this way.  If you must comment, confine them to clarifying questions or message reflections such as, “It sounds like you feel neglected when I watch television, or “You feel you are not cared about when I don’t greet you at the door.  These illuminating restatements are even more potent when combined with genuinely empathic assertions such as, “You feel that you are being taken for granted.  I know that can really hurt,” or, “It must hurt to feel unimportant to me.”  This kind of attending has been termed Active Listening.  It is a vital part of communication for it helps the message sender feel heard, satisfied and in turn, willing to listen to you.  It is important to note once again, however, empathic assertions or restatements must be genuine.


Of the two elements, speaking and listening, the later is probably the most difficult.  This is because when we are angry we have a greater desire to be heard then we have to hear.  We want others to know how awful we feel and usually don’t care how bad they feel.  In fact we often have a desire to verbally, and sometimes physically, hurt the one who hurt us.  Also, listening when we are being berated or attacked is particularly frustrating, especially when the accusations being hurled at us are unfair or untrue.


Moreover, regardless of the difficulties, the listening part of the discussion is usually the most important.  There is no point in speaking to our spouses unless they are willing to hear what we have to say.  And the better they listen, the more satisfied we feel.  The reverse, of course, is also true.  This is a fact we would do well to remember.  The more we pay attention to what we are being told, the better our spouses are likely to feel, resulting in an increase in their willingness to listen to us and a decrease in fruitless or destructive arguments. This, in turn, contributes to happy marital relations overall.  It is even possible for marital fights to lead to fond memories of the incident if they are done with fairness, understanding and good humor




The primary rule for effective family communication, therefore, is – LISTEN.  To put it another way, when his/her mouth is open, keep yours closed.  This will best ensure that you hear what is being said.  If your spouse is hurt or angry with you it is for some reason, even if just imagined.  Pay attention to that reason.  Accept it.  And try to understand it from your partner’s point of view.  When your spouse knows that you are genuinely trying to understand, he/she will be more willing to listen to you.  Your efforts here will contribute to a warmer, more conciliatory marital atmosphere.


Consider this example:  Mary confronted John at the door and complained, “You are almost an hour late from work.  I have been worried sick thinking that you might have been in an accident.”  (This is frequently used as a guilt inducing statement when someone feels his/her partner has been inconsiderate.)  “You could have called me from work when you knew you were going to be late.  Now dinner is cold and ruined.”  John was somewhat surprised by this greeting, but for the past few days sensed that his wife was troubled about something.  “You’re right,” he stated.  “I could have called.  It must seem I am unconcerned about your feelings.”  “You are unconcerned about my feelings, “ Mary replied.  “I feel like you don’t care about me at all any more.”  John responded, “I guess I haven’t been too attentive to you lately.  Mostly, I’ve been coming home at night these days and just plopping down in front of the television.  I can see how it would seem like I don’t care about you.  And then I arrive late without calling you.  No wonder you are angry.”  “Well, what’s going on John?” Mary asked.  “You haven’t been paying much attention to me for a while.  I’m just afraid that maybe you don’t love me anymore.  Is something wrong?”  Mary felt that John was listening to her at this point and began to calm down.  She was now more open to understanding his position.  “I’ve been so busy at work,” said John.  “I guess I have been preoccupied with it.  I must have been kind of distant lately.  It’s nothing about you honey. I love you very much.”


I must point out that our willingness to listen to and understand our spouses will not necessarily lead to an immediate, positive reaction on their part. They do not know us by how we are at this exact second, but rather how we have been, or by our history with them.  We need to stay the course and allow for time to overcome what we might call relationship inertia.


Also, it’s important to note that John didn’t get caught up in Mary’s anger and fire back defensive, angry comments like, “Boy oh boy!  Nobody cares about how hard I work.  All you think about is yourself,“ etc.  Timing here is also important.  John waited until Mary was sincerely interested in his explanation before he began.  The discussion ended with Mary acknowledging that John is usually more caring and attentive to her.  She was happy to know that she was still important to her husband and that every thing was all right.  Of course, John also agreed to let Mary know when he would be late – when possible.


As with any skill, your ability to communicate effectively will improve with practice.  But communicate you must if you are to make your intimate relationships the best they can be.




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