Learning to Communicate
A Non Sequitur cartoon by Wiley Miller pictures a couple in bed. The wife has put down the book she’s been reading and said something to her husband. Here’s what he heard: “Time for the annual review of how you make my life a living nightmare.”
All she actually said, though, is, “Sweetie, let’s talk about us.”
Why do some spouses—especially some husbands—seem to view communication as a form of torture?
Betsy is wondering about that. She’s hurt that her husband, Carl, seems to have lost interest in her. She interprets his lack of communication as evidence that he doesn’t love her. This puts her in a panic; she becomes needy and controlling, trying to force Carl to “talk about the problem.” This creates more pressure for Carl, who retreats further.
Carl is overwhelmed by Betsy’s need for conversation. It feels like a void that could never be filled. This is decreasing his desire to be intimate with her; he’s finding excuses to avoid even spending time together. He’d rather hang out with friends who are less demanding.
When the person you married seems to change into someone else—as Betsy thinks Carl has—it’s normal to feel disappointed and even hurt. She knows that part of this change is to be expected after settling into the day-to-day of married life, but she longs for that other guy—the before marriage one who couldn’t seem to stop talking nor get enough of her. She was so excited back then, and believed it would go on forever. Now she feels duped.
Maybe you do, too. Maybe you fear your uncommunicative spouse isn’t interested in you, isn’t excited about you, or doesn’t love you anymore. You might doubt that you married the right person—or feel inadequate, insecure, and desperate for attention.
When that happened to Betsy, she changed, too. Now Carl finds himself wondering what happened to the self-assured, strong woman he first fell in love with. He misses her.
Carl doesn’t realize it, but Betsy has always had an unusual need for attention and communication. That’s because she had a very stoic father whom she was never able to please. It’s good to examine whether your need to talk is reasonable or the result of a troubled upbringing.
Most couples need help to discuss their needs in a productive way. Having different attitudes toward talking doesn’t mean there is something wrong with either spouse, that anyone was deceived, or that the marriage is hopeless.
When Your Spouse Won’t Talk
Relating to each other is not a technique we’re born with. It’s like a muscle that needs to be developed over time.
Relating to each other is not a technique we’re born with. It’s like a muscle that needs to be developed over time—and massaged when it hurts.
If you have a spouse who doesn’t want to talk as much as you do, the following suggestions may help:
- Read about the differences between men and women, especially as they relate to communication. These differences are a mystery to almost everyone except God, but they may help to explain why your spouse tends to be the silent type.
- Learn to not take things too personally.
- Don’t overanalyze your partner. You may think you know what’s behind your spouse’s unwillingness to talk, but you can’t read his or her mind.
- Talk about your feelings in a non-accusatory, non-blaming way. To do otherwise will only drive a reluctant talker further away, especially when it comes to discussing emotions.
- Ask your spouse what would make him feel less overwhelmed when it comes to communication. Would it help if you set aside a regular time for talking? If you waited until he decompressed after work?
- Ask your spouse for a specific, short commitment of time. Most reluctant talkers can handle a conversation if they know it won’t last forever. Let your mate set the limit. You may find that it increases as he or she grows more comfortable.
- Learn each other’s personality type, and how it shapes communication style. Make the process fun—a discovery of your uniqueness, not an opportunity to stereotype each other.
One of the hardest things for couples to learn is to lay down their lives for each other (see John 15:13) in the mundane world of daily living (see Romans 12:1). Learning to understand the needs of a spouse who talks less or more than you do requires sacrifice. It means not demanding your rights, and loving another as you love yourself. But these are things we can do because God promises to help us by His Holy Spirit if we ask.
It’s easy to get discouraged when all you hear from your spouse is silence. It may seem that things are hopeless, but you can gain new perspective through prayer, reading the Bible, or seeking counsel from a pastor or therapist.
When Your Spouse Won’t Leave You Alone
Here are some suggestions if you’re feeling cornered by a spouse who always wants to talk.
If you’re feeling nagged to talk, you’re probably feeling overwhelmed, too.
Avoidance may seem like the only solution for relief. This relief is only temporary, though, because it leaves your spouse without resolution—and often determined to try harder.
You may begin to feel like a trapped victim, at the mercy of your spouse’s “need to talk.” Worse yet, you may anticipate another session of having your shortcomings pointed out.
Avoidance doesn’t work. But here are some suggestions if you’re feeling cornered by a spouse who always seems to be asking, “Can we talk?”
- Take the initiative to spend time doing things together other than talking.
- Go to a Christian bookstore and buy a book about communication in marriage. Read from it aloud to your spouse and ask her questions about her reactions.
- Share a chore, like doing the dishes. You may find yourself communicating during the dull moments.
- When she’s not expecting it, ask her what she really needs. Say, “How can I show you I love you?” or, “What would make your day easier?”
- Put the newspaper away, neglect a hobby, or shut the TV off in order to spend time with your spouse.
- Keep a sense of humor. Find cartoons about how different men and women are, and how they communicate. Make more fun of your own gender than the other person’s.
These are all good things to do, but it’s also important for you to ask for the peace and quiet you may need. Otherwise, you’ll probably feel like a helpless victim of your mate’s demands.
One way to do this is to set a specific time to talk. This should thrill your spouse, since it represents a commitment to communicate. The limits need to be spelled out, though, in order to avoid false expectations. Your spouse may be thinking of a marathon conversation, while you may dread anything longer than a TV sitcom.
Try 20 or 30 minutes to start. That’s probably the most you’d want for a serious discussion. Pray at the beginning and the end if you like. Get a kitchen timer and stick to the limit. Promise not to run, but allow for a time-out if things get too intense.
What should you do during that time? Here are some ideas:
- Explore and discuss your needs for communication.
- Explore and discuss your needs for quiet or alone time.
- Explore and discuss your needs for outside friendships and recreation.
- Use “I” statements to convey feelings of being pressured, overwhelmed, or discouraged. This will help keep your spouse from feeling attacked. For example: “I feel hopeless when I hear ‘We need to talk,’ because it reminds me of my mom. She always used that phrase when I was in trouble.” This is better than, “You’re just like my mom!” The goal is for the speaker to feel heard and understood.
- If you need to take a time-out, be sure to schedule a reunion within 24 hours for further discussion. This gives both of you a sense of reassurance and safety.
Making Time to Talk
Many couples don’t take enough time to talk, bond and firmly connect with each other.
Many couples don’t take enough time to talk, bond, and firmly connect with each other during the early days of their marriage. If you’re a newlywed, you can apply the 24-5 Principle by doing the following:
- Establish a special, exclusive covenant for one year.
- Refrain from all extra responsibilities during that year.
- Focus on and establish your marriage before you move out into career advancement, ministry, and further education.
- Invest in and bond with your spouse emotionally, spiritually, relationally, and sexually.
- Bring happiness to one another; limit your time with others during the first year.
You can expect some resistance from family members and friends on this decision. But ask them to pray for your marriage throughout this first year together.
What if you’re asked by your church to take on a major task during that time? One counselor advises his clients to say something like, “Thank you for thinking of us. We’re so pleased with the church and so encouraged by all of you. But we’ve been strongly advised by our counselor to invest in each other this first year of our marriage—to really bond and connect with each other and limit our activities. We promised him we’d do that. But please ask us again in a year or so, okay? We really want to be involved.”
What if you’re past the one-year mark? You can apply the 24-5 Principle at any time in your marriage. Here are five steps to doing just that:
- Keep your promise. Many couples, at their weddings, light a “unity candle” and blow out their individual candles. That symbolizes husband and wife dying to themselves in order to give birth to something new and much more intimate, beautiful, and mysterious—”two becoming one.” One of the best ways to become one is to spend time together, and that can happen when you and your spouse talk, celebrate special occasions, set goals, go shopping, pay bills, play tennis, or study a devotional book.
- Be intentional and selective. Everyone has the same amount of time—24 hours a day. Avoid being sloppy with yours. Manufacturing more time isn’t possible, but you can make excellent use of what you have by allocating time to talk and do things together. When that time comes, make sure you’re rested and not rushed or preoccupied. If talking really is a priority for you, you’ll say no to time-stealers like sitcoms, reality shows, and the Internet.
- Be creative and perseverant. Talk about a variety of subjects—solving problems, overcoming challenges, establishing goals and priorities, your spiritual life, preferences, and just having fun. Start small and build. Some couples tend to have unrealistic expectations. This may result in discouragement, criticism, and blaming. Remember that bonding and connecting don’t happen overnight.
- Enjoy and encourage uniqueness. You and your spouse aren’t alike. Think of how awful and boring it would be to be married to yourself! Those conversations wouldn’t be very interesting, would they? As you spend time together, resist the temptation to try remaking your spouse in your image. Let the Holy Spirit transform both of you into the image of Christ. Allow and encourage your spouse to be the person God has created him or her to be, and enjoy that person.
- Be loving, respectful, and patient. The gift God has given you and your spouse is each other. In the end, He’ll probably be less interested in your professional success or how much money you made than in how you nurtured the gift He gave you in marriage.
Taking time to talk is part of that. Choose wisely how you spend those minutes, hours, and days—especially in your early years together.
Talking About Sensitive Issues
Talking about sensitive issues isn’t easy, but it can make your marriage the vehicle that drives both of you closer to God.
Let’s face it: Some topics are trickier than others. Even in the happiest marriages, issues like in-laws, finances, and sex can quickly shake things up.
When tough topics come up, couples can find lots of places to veer into the ditch. Many mistakes come from inexperience as husbands and wives bounce from one conflict to the next, experimenting with various solutions.
When it comes to talking about sensitive topics, some pitfalls are dug way before marriage. If you didn’t get the right skills in your family of origin, it’s hard to manage conflict with a spouse. The twin ditches of (1) avoiding conflict at any cost and (2) escalating into chaos are often more familiar than the path itself.
Even engaged couples need to begin communicating and making decisions as if it will affect the rest of their marriage—because that’s exactly what will happen. One couple encountered this challenge while preparing to choose a china pattern. The bride’s mother assumed she’d go with her daughter to make the selection; the fiancé recognized this as his privilege and responsibility. Fortunately, communicating these expectations early on opened the door to greater harmony in the future.
In addition to the old habits you bring into a marriage, new challenges can quickly crop up. Even the idyllic honeymoon phase can raise a number of touchy topics. A major purchase or holiday tradition can seem bigger than your relationship if you aren’t prepared.
How can you prepare yourself to talk about those sticky subjects? Here are three suggestions.
- Get practical skills. At the nearest Christian bookstore, you can find strategies for dealing with sensitive issues. Shelves of books on marriage address the role of communication. Improving body language, word choice, and tone of voice will greatly improve your results.
So will picking a better time and place for your discussion. If you’re trying to talk about a sensitive issue, get rid of distractions like television. Find a time free of interruptions from children and pagers. Still, don’t let things get worse while you wait for the “perfect” time. It may never come.
One of the most practical things to do is to start your discussion with prayer. This habit can transform your marriage as you invite the Holy Spirit to guide your conversation. It also helps you steer clear of the pothole of confronting your spouse impulsively.
Speaking of steering, remember that driving along a cliff is even harder going in reverse. In other words, don’t bring up past issues while trying to resolve new ones. If many of your old conflicts lack closure, get a mediator—a pastor or Christian counselor—to help bring your marriage up to speed and moving forward again.
- Be principle-centered. Don’t ask who’s right. Ask what’s right. Imagine a couple fighting over the perennially thorny issue of money. If both spouses take time to examine biblical principles of money management, they’ll often emerge with a plan they agree on. The idea of attacking the problem, not the person, creates safety for sharing at a deep, effective level on any topic.
- Partner with your spouse. While it’s critical to find the truth about issues affecting your marriage, relationship is always more important than issues. You’re partners, not prosecutors.
That partnership doesn’t end when you discuss sensitive topics. Ask yourself whether you’re showing your husband or wife the same respect you show your coworkers and friends. If you’re Christians, ask yourself whether you’re acting first as brother and sister in Christ, and second as husband and wife. If the prospect of discussing a sensitive subject has you fearing (or worse yet, predicting) your spouse’s reaction, you’re losing focus.
Your agenda should be to please God. If that’s your goal, you won’t hesitate to confront an issue like infidelity or addiction that tears your spouse away from Him.
Talking about sensitive issues isn’t easy, but it can make your marriage the vehicle that drives both of you closer to God. And two people with the same destination can’t help but move closer to each other, too.
Starting a Conversation
If you are have trouble starting conversations with your spouse, acknowledging that can be an excellent conversation starter.
Perhaps you are having trouble getting conversations started with your spouse. Maybe you’re avoiding certain topics. Maybe you or your spouse isn’t much of a talker. Maybe you just don’t know how to begin.
Fortunately, acknowledging that can be an excellent way to start a conversation. Be honest and state your lack of confidence. Stating your concerns and fears can open the conversational door.
If this is a problem area for you and your spouse, consider the following steps to beginning a conversation.
- Identify your concerns. Put your thoughts on paper. Practice saying them in front of a mirror if that boosts your confidence. When you begin your conversation, you may even want to read aloud what you’ve written. That’s okay. As you talk, don’t expect your partner to know what’s on your mind—and don’t make him guess. Keep clarifying things by asking your spouse what he’s heard you say or read and what he thinks about it.
- Get the timing right. None of us likes to be inconvenienced. Look for the right opportunity to begin your conversation. Is your spouse tired or preoccupied? It might be wise to wait until she’s rested and you have her full attention. If you have children, get them involved in some activity before you begin your conversation.
- Honor your spouse’s time. Don’t waste it. Be succinct; don’t belabor your point. Make sure you have sufficient time to complete the conversation well. Allow time for feedback during your talk, too.
- Use body language. Look your spouse in the eye directly, lovingly, and respectfully, and state your desire to begin a conversation. Ask your mate to sit down with you; take her hand in yours and speak calmly. The eyes can truly be a window to the mind and soul, and touch can allow you to show loving feelings.
- Keep your partner’s communication style in mind. People find us most attractive when we communicate in their style—in a way that’s familiar and comfortable to them. If your partner likes facts, give him facts. If she likes details, tell the story. If she values warmth, take time to connect relationally. If he wants choices, give options. If she needs time to process, slow down. If he likes a rapid pace, get to the point. If she’s analytical, provide data.
- Include your partner’s interests. If your spouse is interested in football, finances, movies — start with that subject. It’s a most natural way to enter a conversation, even if the topic ends up veering in another direction.
- Be interesting. Ask yourself why your spouse would want to listen to you in the first place. Be a creative and stimulating partner. Discover how to capture your mate’s attention. If you’re boring and negative, your conversation will be dull and depressing. If this is the case, you have some work to do.
- Be realistic. Don’t set yourself up for disappointment. If the two of you find it difficult to start a conversation, keep it simple. Don’t assume you can have a deeply intimate, nurturing conversation immediately if you’ve never had one before. Start with the basics. Do fun activities together. Laugh. Build a foundation for deeper conversations. Take one step at a time.
- Seek to accept and bring joy to your spouse. Beginning conversations is much easier when your spouse knows you won’t ridicule him or her. Learn to lovingly accept and enjoy each other, even when your opinions differ. Let your spouse know that you’re on the same team and that you support him or her 100 percent. Be your mate’s number one fan!
- Be appreciative and infuse hope. Thank your spouse for listening to you. Tell him he encourages you and that you want to encourage him. Life on earth is difficult—sometimes awful—and we need to be “life-givers” to our mates. When we speak words of hope to our spouses, we speak life and love. Remember Philippians 4:8: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”
If all of this seems overwhelming, don’t be discouraged. Just start and be patient and persistent; pick one or two ideas and begin!
Communicating Without Talking
Unspoken communication can be at least as powerful as words.
Unspoken communication—a raised eyebrow, a folding of the arms across the chest, a hand on the shoulder, an e-mail—can be at least as powerful as words. It can help build your marriage—or chip away at it.
Communicating without talking can be tricky. You may not always realize what you’re “saying.” And your silent messages may contradict your spoken ones, confusing your spouse.
It’s no wonder some wives begin to ask early in their marriages, “Why does my husband say one thing and act totally different?” Some husbands, on the other hand, ask, “If she’s really attracted to me as she used to be, why does she act like a cold potato every time I approach her?”
The unspoken can be very difficult to interpret properly. Nevertheless, nonverbal communication has its positive side. To help you and your mate make the most of those silent messages, here are some principles to remember:
- Go low-tech when possible. When it comes to communicating with your spouse, don’t try to send important messages or work out sensitive issues over the phone or via e-mail. When you read an e-mail or listen on the phone, you’re not getting the whole message. You can’t interpret facial expressions, maintain eye contact, or sense warmth or genuineness. If intimate, relationship-building conversation is needed, have it face-to-face.
- Don’t be “all talk.” Remember this advice: “Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:17). Actions do speak louder than words. You can tell a hungry man you care about him and wish him well, but if you don’t demonstrate your compassion the words are useless. The same is true for your spouse.
A church sign put it this way: “Actions speak louder than bumper stickers.” Ask yourself whether the messages you’ve been sending your spouse lately have been through your actions—or the lack thereof.
- Don’t rely on silence to send a message. Silence can be one of the loudest forms of communication, but it’s easily misinterpreted. What does it tend to say in your marriage? Is it “I don’t want to fight”? “I’d rather not say anything that could stir up trouble”? “Don’t bother me”? “I don’t care what you think or what you need from me”? The trouble with silence is that your mate may “fill in the blanks” with answers that aren’t correct. Learning to communicate what you feel will help your spouse know what’s in your heart—instead of encouraging him or her to take your silence and assume the worst.
- Don’t catastrophize. In other words, don’t overreact. What you think your spouse meant may not be what he or she intended to communicate. Ask for clarification: “Remember the other day when I asked you about taking a vacation and you sighed real loud? Were you aggravated with me because I brought it up again, or were you frustrated with yourself for having forgotten about it?”
- Watch your body language. Your facial expressions and eye contact send messages to your spouse about how interested you are in what he or she is saying. Actions like looking away, cleaning your fingernails, yawning, or flipping channels on the remote say, “I have better things to do.” To avoid getting distracted when your spouse is trying to communicate with you, turn off the radio, TV, computer, or other electronic devices.
- Use touch to communicate your love. When Jesus wanted to communicate how valuable children were to His kingdom, He didn’t just say, “Hey, kids, you are valuable!” He reached down and touched them and sat them in His lap. People need touch. Babies left untouched become ill emotionally and physically. Spouses who fail to affectionately touch each other by holding hands, rubbing necks, putting their arms around each other, and hugging will not be as close—literally and figuratively—as those who make these patterns part of their everyday routine.
- Use your eyes to express warmth and caring. Most mothers are experts at controlling their children’s behavior by simply looking at them; sometimes it seems a mom’s angry look in church can pierce 70 rows of bodies to reprimand a talking teenager. In marriage, your eyes can communicate warmth or disgust, contentment or dissatisfaction, love or hatred, approval or disappointment.
Many men struggle with looking at their wives. Some are by nature shy and developed a habit in childhood to avoid looking directly at a speaker. Some fear seeing disappointment in their wives’ eyes. Whatever the case, both men and women need to look their spouses in the eyes, especially when discussing sensitive topics or expressing love.
- Practice, practice, practice. Make sure that what you feel in your heart is communicated clearly not just by your words, but also by eye contact, touch, and other “nonverbals.” Don’t assume that since you feel good about what you’re communicating, your spouse must feel good about it, too.
On Listening and Other Rare, Exotic Habits
By tuning in to your spouse, the two of you can enjoy more meaningful, rewarding communication than ever before.
Any of us who are task-oriented, type A, obsessive-compulsive males especially must learn to slow down and let people into our lives. It may be popular in our hectic paced culture to be a fast-tracker with a full day timer, but we will impact people spiritually and permanently only by careful, deliberate, one-on-one contact. In this age of telecommunications and voice messaging, there is still no substitute for quiet, prolonged exposure of one soul to another. With all the marvels of the Internet and a reach-out-and-touch-someone technology, husband and wife are more in need of quiet and prolonged communication than ever before. The more busy and crazy our lives become, the more communication protects the marriage.
When I [Hans] talk to other men about this common ailment of obsessive behavior, they all seem to have the same problem-that is, their wives don’t feel like they take enough time to listen.
Well . . . I [Donna] am going to share a news flash with all you men out there who care to listen up. Women don’t want to hear your advice! They don’t want solutions to their crises. They just want an arm around their shoulders and a soft-spoken, “I understand” (if you do!) or I hear you, and I care about how you’re, feeling” (if you don’t!).
Women want to:
- see that you care about their interests;
- feel your closeness and love; and
- know you have truly heard them.
In 1 Peter 3, Peter spoke of the responsibilities of husbands and wives. So many times the subject of submission is the focus of teaching from this passage. As I (Donna) studied this passage for teaching last year, I was amazed to learn new meaning in these verses. Verse 7 reads, Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers. The words normally translated “weaker vessel” or “weaker partner” can also be translated literally, “feminine one.” Our uniqueness as women is clear in this passage. Peter knew that, and he wrote clearly that God commands husbands to:
- be considerate living with your wife,
- treat her with respect,
- understand her unique feminine needs, and
- remember she is your coheir of salvation.
If husbands fail to do those things, Peter said that their prayers would be hindered. That’s powerful! If husbands will truly love their wives in this way, we believe their marriages and home life will be revolutionized. Men, if you’re reading this, at the top of your list of responsibilities must be “Find her frequency.”
I [Donna] see in myself, and other women I have known, a common trait of “responder.” Here is what I am saying: I respond to Hans. When he is on target with God’s commands set forth in Scripture (I Peter 3 and Eph.- 5) and is seeking to daily care about me in my world as a woman and wife, I will respond — that is, I will naturally be more what he needs and wants me to be as a companion, friend, and lover. It is true! Here is how he tunes into my frequency (and I’m telling you, I respond when he’s tuned in these ways). By his:
- supporting me (backing me up in my authority with the kids; appreciating the pressures I face in my own job).
- respecting what I do (1) in the home, by joining in the care of the food, clothes, kids, cars, and so on — even the smallest gesture can make a world of difference; and (2) in my work, by recognizing that it has as much value to me as his does to him.
- giving me warm affection — physical touch, occasional cards, flowers, and so on . . . even when sex isn’t going to happen.
- sharing home responsibilities — taking the initiative to share in everything related to the daily life of a household.
- listening to me — asking questions and digging deeper to find out where I am.
- sharing with me — allowing me to be close to him by his communication of his world to me.
If men would tune in to these things, I truly believe, they would be shocked at the changes in their wives! Their wives will respond to them in ways they would never have anticipated or even hoped for. Men, do you really want your wife to be there for you in your greatest needs, including sexual intimacy? Then I challenge you to tune in to hers! Try out this list on a consistent basis. Your wife will be a happier woman. She will be less crabby and irritable (I’m not going to guarantee “never”); and you will hear less complaining from her about her work. Although the weight of her responsibilities may not lessen on a regular basis by the changes you make, she will better be able to cope with and even enjoy her varying roles.
Next Steps and Related Information
Additional resources addressing communication and conflict
Popular questions on this topic:
- I have a hard time communicating with my spouse, and our relationship has become rocky. How can I save our marriage?
- How much do I tell my spouse or fiancee about my wild past?
- Is it wrong to need my own quiet time?
- Complete Guide to the First Five Years of Marriage (Hardcover)
- The Language of Love and Respect
- Conversation Starters for Couples (Paperback)
- Moments With You
- The Five Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts (Paperback)
- Turning Your Marriage Around
- The ‘Love and Respect’ Principle
- Fighting Fair
- Devotional: Communication and Conflict