Talking to each other seems like a pretty obvious topic, right? But, how many times have I asked Caleb, about a couple we’re working with, “Do they not talk???”
This is a really fundamental issue that we see in most marriages we help. Folks are simply not having the basic day-to-day conversations they need to, and as a result, there are misunderstandings, miscommunications, and then conflict! If we can just make sure we talk about these essential subjects, we can save ourselves a whole lot of pain!
One of Caleb and my earliest fights, when we were dating, was just because we hadn’t clearly communicated our expectations and plans. And let me tell you, it was a good fight…or bad fight, depending how you phrase it! One of the things we’ve learned to do over the years which saves us a ton of grief, is just to talk frequently about what’s going on.
This talking is not always profound – but just about what’s happening, who’s going where, and what our expectations are around that. It’s really just collaborating about the busyness of life.
This is where we jump into the research because reduced communication is actually associated with troubled marriages.
Reduced Communication Frequency is Associated with Troubled Marriages
One study we looked at found that greatly reduced quantity of communication in a marital relationship is associated with lowered marital satisfaction.
The researchers asked the question, “Can reduced communication serve as a reliable marker to identify marriages which are in trouble?”[i] The study looked at 26 individuals who reported low to moderate marriage satisfaction as well as 93 divorced individuals. They then measured the amount and topic of communication each individual participated in within their marriage or past marriage.
They found that the data from divorced individuals is very similar to that of married individuals who are less satisfied with their marriages. “The results suggest that less satisfied married individuals’ and divorced individuals’ reports … are very similar. Given these results, reduced communication in a marriage should be considered a probable marker variable indicating a marriage under stress.”[ii]
The point here is that it’s really important to the long term viability of your marriage to make sure that you are talking to each other frequently. It’s also more than just a viability issue though: it actually will improve the quality of your marriage too.
It’s one thing to make a marriage last. It’s another to make it enjoyable!
More Frequent Conversation is Associated with Higher Marital Quality
Another study looked at nearly 400 married people to understand the connection between frequency of conversation and marital quality. They measured four relationship characteristics to determine marital quality: liking, satisfaction, commitment, and trust. Those are all key ingredients in a happy marriage.
Not surprisingly they found that the more frequently couples communicated, the greater the quality of their marriage.[iii]
So, we want YOU to really be thinking about growing the frequency of your communicating in order to make your marriage last and to make it more enjoyable!
There are three parts to this though:
- First you have to be communicating
- Then, you need to look at HOW you’re communicating
- Finally, we’ll tell you WHAT you need to be communicating about.
The Five Universal Rules of Social Communication
So, how should we communicate? A study from 2004 suggests that while frequency of conversation is important, how couples go about these conversations is even more important.[iv]
It turns out that quality of communication, as measured by the five universal rules of social communication (see below), was also positively related with all four measure of marital quality (liking, satisfaction, commitment, and trust).
The five universal rules of communication are:
- One should be polite
- One should try to make it a pleasant encounter
- One should not try to make the other feel small
- One should not embarrass others
- One should be friendly.
Here’s the point: this association between marital quality and quality of conversation was stronger than the association found for marital quality and frequency of communication.[v]
So while frequency is important, quality is even more important. This only makes sense – if you’re bickering all the time you might be hitting the frequency target but it certainly isn’t going to be building up your marital quality!
Remember, politeness is so important.
Another critical area in marriage conversation is responsiveness.
The Important of Responsiveness in Everyday Conversations
Responsiveness is the “degree to which partners respond with caring, understanding, and validation to one another’s disclosures.”[vi]
Disclosures are just something that we share about ourselves – something vulnerable or intimate (I’m feeling afraid, I’m worried I’m going to lose my job, I’m scared that I’m never going to be a good enough parent – those kinds of things). Disclosures are things that are both very important and very personal.
How you respond to those disclosures is critical.
You could minimize it: “Oh, everything will be ok”, or, “Don’t worry honey, it’ll all work out”
Or dismiss it: “Bah, I’m not worried about it. You’ll be fine.”
In fact, you can do all sorts of things to move away from the emotions that make you uncomfortable.
BUT, if you do anything other than respond and move towards a disclosure like this, what you are really doing is killing any possibility of intimacy development. Intimacy is about knowing and being known.
What you need to do is respond with care, understanding, and validation of your spouse’s disclosure. This is what it means to be responsive.
The more responsive you are, the more you will elicit higher levels of disclosure from your spouse. In other words, if you really engage your spouse when they say something personal, they’ll give you more of that. And more is better![vii]
To get good at responding, there are two things you need to learn to do:
- The first is to make sure you really understand what your spouse is saying. This is so critical! There are times when your spouse will give up trying to tell you something if they feel like you are making no effort to understand them. It’s like, why bother?
You need to feel understood when you’re sharing something of significance.
- The second part is responding compassionately. This is just expressing empathy. Going back to our example of “I’m worried I’m going to lose my job” your empathic response could sound like, “That would really be a tough thing to go through, hey?” or “Yeah, I would be scared too – that possibility leads to a lot of uncertainty, doesn’t it?” That empathic and compassionate response really engages and continues the discussion.[viii]
When you respond like this, you’re inviting your spouse to share, to bring you into his or her world, and to open up. This is where intimacy happens and where couples can take their day to day experience to a new level of connecting more deeply.
So now that you know you NEED to talk, and we’ve shown you HOW to talk, let’s look at a few things you should be talking about EVERY DAY!
Three Things to Talk About Every Day
Maybe you’ve got into a bit of a rut here and you’re just looking for some practical tips to ease into this. We’re going to give you three things to talk about every day just to get you started.
Take It Up A Notch (or 7)
Want to go further? We have a cheatsheet available to our patrons called “10 Things to Talk About Every Day” These are things you should be talking about most days if not every day. Remember, we can help you with the quantity but you need to provide the quality!
So here are three ideas for you.
- What are your plans for today?
I love this question. It is so obvious and so simple, but it opens the door for more conversation later too! When we find out what our spouse has ahead of them that day, we can be responsive. If it’s going to be a stressful day, we can empathize. If it’s going to be exciting, we can be excited too.
And best of all, later that day, we can ask how _____ went. This shows your spouse you heard, and you cared enough to remember!
- What time will you be home this evening?
Again, this seems like such a simple question, but believe me, this has removed so much tension from our marriage. It removes false expectations.
Let me give you an example. Sometimes instead of asking Caleb when he’ll be home, I assume he’ll be home at a certain time so I have supper all ready for that time. When he doesn’t get home for another half hour, or even an hour, I get pretty grumpy, feel my supper is ruined, blah blah blah, and by the time he gets home I’m fuming at him. The crazy thing is, this is totally not his fault. In fact, it’s not really anybody’s fault – just expectations that weren’t discussed.
See how such a simple question can ease a lot of conflict?
- Happy Moments and Sad/Difficult Moments
Another important thing to talk about is your feelings. Sometimes it’s hard to just state what you were feeling at any point during your day. Instead, ask, “What was your happiest moment today?” or “What was your most sad moment today?” These questions cause the person to stop and consider what they felt during their day and are a great conversation starter.
We did this when we had two university girls staying with our family. It became a tradition, and everyone looked forward to sharing parts of their day. Happy memories!
Obviously there is a lot more to talk about in a day than just these three items, but this is your nuts and bolts, day-to-day stuff. You need to coordinate both the practical, scheduling part of your lives so that you function as a team, but you also need to connect emotionally so it’s not just what is happening but how it went, how you experience it, how it impacted you, etc.
Try using these three things (or even better, download the cheat sheet and use all 10!) every day for a week, and see how things go for you. There is so much to talk about, but it’s easy to get in a rut and forget to talk to the person you care most about. Let us know how it goes!
[i] Megan Lyons, Melissa Bekelja Wanzer, and Virginia P. Richmond, “Amount of Communication as a Symptom of Distressed Marriages Based on Reports of Divorced Individuals,” Communication Research Reports 15, no. 3 (June 1, 1998): 327–30, doi:10.1080/08824099809362129.
[iii] Susan L. Kline and Laura Stafford, “A Comparison of Interaction Rules and Interaction Frequency in Relationship to Marital Quality,” Communication Reports 17, no. 1 (Winter 2004): 11–26.
[vi] Amanda L. Forest et al., “Discount and Disengage: How Chronic Negative Expressivity Undermines Partner Responsiveness to Negative Disclosures,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 107, no. 6 (2014): 1013–32, doi:10.1037/a0038163.
[vii] Susan Sprecher and Susan S. Hendrick, “Self-Disclosure in Intimate Relationships: Associations with Individual and Relationship Characteristics Over Time,” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 23, no. 6 (December 2004): 857–77.
[viii] Lauren A. Winczewski, Jeffrey D. Bowen, and Nancy L. Collins, “Is Empathic Accuracy Enough to Facilitate Responsive Behavior in Dyadic Interaction? Distinguishing Ability From Motivation,” Psychological Science, February 4, 2016, 0956797615624491, doi:10.1177/0956797615624491.