Summary: Communication in marriage is not usually the problem we sometimes think it is. Yes, it matters. But who you are and how you show up in the marriage matters so much more.
I was once in a really bad relationship. It involved lots of cold-shouldering (on the other person’s part) and groveling for approval (on my part—ugh!). It involved periods of great conversation, mutual goals, and fun together interspersed with all too regular “fights” (meaning I’d done something wrong and was in trouble). Being “in a fight” with another adult was very foreign to me, yet there it was, happening all the time.
All this drama inevitably ended, time and time again, in long conversations about what was going on and how *I* could be better (because in this situation, the other person accepted zero responsibility).
To say the least, it was not a good relationship.
But here’s the important point:
All through this relationship I was convinced that if I could just communicate well, if the other person could just hear me and really understand what I was trying to say, all would be right. We’d be able to just enjoy the good parts of the relationship and it would be amazing!
This is simply not true.
What was really wrong with this relationship was much deeper than just our communication. The same is probably true for you in your marriage.
Often when couples are struggling, they will say something like, “I just don’t think we communicate all that well.” And maybe they don’t. But the source of that problem often (usually) lies much deeper than the act of talking to each other.
Communication Problems in Marriage Point to Something More
It’s true. Communication is an important part of marriage. You need to be able to talk to each other about the challenges that come up (because they will). You want to be able to share good news when it happens. You long to be able to speak intimately about the things that matter most to you.
These things matter and create a good foundation for marriage.
But good communication doesn’t come from good technique. Anyone can use an “I statement” and still sound like a jerk: “I feel that you’re an idiot.” I statement used; situation not defused. Am I right?!
And it doesn’t matter how long you talk and try to communicate your thoughts if your spouse isn’t interested in hearing them.
So what does matter then?
Improving Communication in Marriage is About YOU
Let’s pause our conversation about communication for just a minute so that I can share a favorite analogy with you. (You’ll likely hear me talk about it other times too.)
I like to think of any relationship you are in, in this case, we are talking about marriage, as being like an onion. It has lots and lots of layers. You with me here?
Now communication is one of those layers, and like I said, it matters. But communication tends to be a pretty surface-level layer of the onion. It’s there, it matters, but there’s something underneath it.
Down lower in the onion are important qualities like love, respect, forgiveness, gratitude, and connection. Those things really matter in a relationship.
But right down there in the very middle of the onion—that’s YOU. Everything about your relationship stems from there because there’s no relationship without you. (Of course, there’s no relationship without another person either, but that’s their you. We all have a you, or a me, at the center of the onion.)
Now, if you are at the center of that onion, that means that every other layer that stems out from the middle is very much impacted by who you are and how you feel about yourself.
And that includes communication. How you communicate is going to be impacted by who you are and how you are showing up in the relationship. You don’t feel good that day? In a bad mood? Struggling with your self-worth? It’s going to impact how you communicate. So to work on your communication, or your relationship in general, it’s really wise to take a look at you. (Like Michael Jackson said, “Take a look at yourself and make a change.)
Who You Are Matters to Your Marriage
Let’s take this back to how I started this article, with my example of my bad relationship. Remember how I said that I did a lot of groveling for approval? (Something I am not proud of.) The thing is, I was basing my sense of self around how the other person viewed me.
So, if this person was mad at me, I felt bad about myself, or even like I’d lost part of myself because my identity was so closely tied to the relationship. If this person was in a good mood and wanted to spend time with me, I felt great! This meant that I was willing to do just about anything to make the other person happy because I wanted to feel good about myself.
So down there in the middle of that onion was an unhealthy me. A me who was reliant on another person’s approval in order to function.
Because of that, our communication, the thing that I thought was the golden ticket to success, had little to do with how that relationship went. As long as I needed the other person’s approval, this relationship wasn’t going to work.
And as long as the other person was willing to cut me off and make me work for approval or to criticize me for things I did, this relationship wasn’t going to work.
It didn’t matter how we communicated about it.
What mattered was how I showed up in the relationship. As soon as I realized this and stood up for myself and what I wanted, guess what happened? The relationship crumbled (or exploded might be a better word).
Oh sure, we had a few long conversations to see if we could fix things. We tried to communicate our way out of it. But we couldn’t. As long as I was going to be the real me, that me at the center of the onion who wanted a stronger sense of self, the other person was uninterested in a relationship.
But What Do I Do?
OK, but yikes! You’re probably not looking to make your own relationship crumble. (My relationship was not nearly as serious as a marriage, rest assured.)
What you do want though, is to feel better in your marriage, to feel valued, and to go back to that close connection you felt in the beginning. You were hoping if you could just improve your communication, all would be well. So, what do you do?
Instead of focusing your efforts on communicating more effectively, take time to develop yourself. Make sure that you are coming into the relationship from a strong sense of self. This means that you’re not groveling for approval. It also means that you’re not shutting the other person down or out. It means that you are willing to address your own shortcomings and to reflect on how you could improve and what it would be like to be married to you. It means that you’re willing to take ownership of yourself—you’ll speak up for the things that matter to you—but you won’t try to control your spouse.
Strengthening your sense of self is easier said than done…but it CAN be done. Just like with anything else, it’s hard when you start, and it takes time to learn. But little by little, bit by bit, as you start to strengthen your own sense of self, you will feel the changes.
A second warning:
If you’ve been locked in an unhealthy dynamic in your marriage and now you start to work on your own sense of self and to change, it may rock your spouse’s world a little bit. It may take time to adjust to this new pattern. That’s OK. Be patient in the process and know that in the end, it’s worth it.
And guess what? Your communication will improve as you do it.