No question about it – one of the most significant problems that motivates couples to seek counseling is poor communication. The fact that the couple shows up in my office already aware that they need to work on it is very encouraging, because it’s a big step toward improvement. But, even among the most motivated couples, I find that many are hung up on some myths about communication in marriage that greatly undermines their progress.
Today we will talk about the first 5 of 10 Communication Myths that can cripple your marriage.
Myth 1: We should never go to bed angry.
I have worked with couples who have stayed up into the early morning hours trying to resolve an argument for the sake of not going to bed angry. Ironically, the very thing they are attempting to avoid – wrath – is exactly what they experience due to believing this myth.
Some working definitions will help clarify this issue. Anger is a normal emotion usually born out of impatience and frustration due to the belief you have been mistreated. Wrath is defined as intense anger, rage or fury, or as any action of vengeance which involves inflicting punishment or injury. You can imagine how much more difficult it is to resolve an issue that has escalated to that level of animosity. Now consider a practical reality common to normal humans: If it’s getting close to bedtime, you are probably tired, which makes it harder for you to think clearly and control your emotions. Experiencing both fatigue and anger while arguing is what often explodes into wrath. Therefore, when you or your spouse feel angry you are much better off calling a time-out and agreeing to revisit the issue in the morning or at another appropriate time. This is not a cop-out or a failure. It is Step One toward the two of you agreeing that solving the argument is worth bringing your best self into the discussion. That won’t happen at 2:00 A.M. Clinging to Myth 1 opens the door to wrath and a much deeper level of relationship pain and damage.
Myth 2: My spouse ought to know what I think, feel and want.
No one can read minds or ever know another person well enough to always accurately discern their thoughts, emotions or wants, especially when the circumstances that create those feelings can change by the day. Even if you have a loving partner who wants to anticipate your every need, it’s a moving target. The only way to ensure that they know what you think, feel or want is for you to appropriately reveal it. This is actually a critical key to marital intimacy because it is a result of being transparent and vulnerable by sharing the deepest part of who you are. It takes courage to share, “I am afraid” or “I feel alone, hurt, disrespected, misunderstood, etc.” Instead of waiting for your spouse to become a mind reader I encourage you to use that time to practice learning how to consistently and effectively express yourself and your needs and invite your spouse to do the same. Think of it as an opportunity to get to know each other better as time goes on. Don’t sell yourself short – none of us are so simple or shallow that someone else can automatically know what we’re thinking.
Myth 3: A successful discussion always ends in agreement.
It is great to be in agreement with your spouse, but it isn’t always necessary in order to have healthy communication and a strong marriage. You and your spouse are two uniquely different individuals which means you will have views, opinions and ideas that differ. Agreement is vital to problem solving and conflict resolution, however, at times that may involve agreeing to disagree. What couples want to ultimately strive for when solving problems and resolving conflicts is what’s referred to as alignment. When you align with your spouse you are agreeing to support and abide by the decision you made even when you don’t necessarily agree with the opinions and views that led to the decision. Of course, you don’t want to either agree or be in alignment with anything that goes against your deeply held values and convictions, but most of your disagreements will not fall within those arenas. For example, you may not agree with your partner’s belief that they need to go into the office for a couple of hours on a Saturday, but after discussing the matter you are willing to support or align with their desire (without complaining) because of your love and respect for them. Being in alignment doesn’t mean that you have necessarily changed your mind, but rather that you agree that your relationship is much more important than the topic of your disagreement. So a successful discussion is one where the relationship wins.
Myth 4: If we bring up or discuss a problem it needs to be solved now.
There are a lot of good reasons why it’s best to resolve issues as soon as possible. Unresolved anger can become resentment and turn into bitterness, bringing a chill into your marriage. But not every issue in life is simple or straightforward enough to fix when it first comes up for discussion. The challenge to allowing appropriate time to address and resolve an issue can arise from impatience, e.g. “I am upset and will not let this go until I am satisfied (whether you are ready to discuss it or not)” or the sheer magnitude of the topic of disagreement, like whether to move to another state, adopt a child, or go back to school. Sometimes when a problem is brought up, the only thing you can accomplish in the first discussion is to agree that it is an issue worth resolving, and maybe list a few ideas on where, when and how to approach it. Do you need to seek any kind of professional advice? Are there major logistical issues to consider? Who else will be impacted by the decision? What are the gains and losses you’ll experience in the decision? When should the two of you sit down again to process what you think and feel? The important thing is to respect your spouse’s reasons, opinions and feelings throughout the process. Take the time you need to come to an agreement you can both live with.
Myth 5: When I share my feelings my spouse must always do something in response.
Feelings are the by-product of thoughts that pass through your memories, experiences and sub-conscious mental filters. Though they are personal and real to you, they may or may not reflect objective reality. This myth may best be explained by an example. Let’s say, Patricia’s father was hardly ever home and she grew up overhearing her parents fight about her mother’s suspicions and her father’s excuses. As a child, she felt as though her father didn’t love her enough to stay home. Now Patricia is married to George, a great guy who loves and supports her and also loves to go bowling with his league every Friday. Because of her childhood memories, Patricia feels rejected when George goes bowling. It is very appropriate for Patricia to tell George about her feelings, but it would also be unfair for her to expect George to drop his one hobby because her feelings stir an unpleasant memory from the past. George may decide to quit the league on his own, but it may be more appropriate for him to talk with Patricia about what she needs in order to trust in his love for her. The two of them can brainstorm ideas to address the situation, like her joining a Friday group she enjoys, or even taking up bowling with George. But it may be simply that Patricia needs to express, acknowledge and own her feelings without George having to do anything different.
These first 5 Myths give us a lot to think about as we work on knocking down roadblocks to good communication in our marriages. I hope you will join me next time, when we discuss Myths 6 – 10.
Live, Work and Relate Well!