A week before their marriage, Heidi and Milt Shipp were gardening in her parents’ backyard. A family friend found them on their knees among the rows, laughing and attacking weeds together.
“Why, this is the best place you could be!” the friend said with enthusiasm. The remark startled Heidi; she could think of many more romantic activities she’d rather be doing.
“But you know, he was right,” Heidi observes. “Milt and I learned a lot about one another from working together in different situations. And because we knew one another well, the stresses and disagreements that came with marriage didn’t catch us unprepared.”
Listening, sharing, communicating—important elements of successful courtship—are important after the marriage ceremony as well as before. Healthy, growing relationships require ongoing cultivation, shared projects, conversation, time together. Maintaining these habits in marriage is a good way to avoid falling into communication ruts. And taking time to communicate with each other can help husbands and wives climb out of any ruts they may have fallen into. Here are some ideas that can help you improve your communication skills:
1. Decide to Communicate. Sometimes it’s easier to ignore tensions until the explosion point is reached. But it’s wiser to resolve tense feelings before they boil over and scald the relationship. Set up a regular—perhaps weekly—time to sit down with each other and talk.
Mark and Jill Andraeson have a regular planning session each week. “Because Mark works a graveyard shift while attending school,” Jill explains, “we have to communicate about our weekly plans so we don’t ignorantly tromp on one another’s needs. By planning for regular, weekly communication, we’re able to avoid letting problems fester for too long—and we can effectively deal with our irritations as they arise.”
Some people resist regular, scheduled communication, preferring spontaneity. But a scheduled time for talking together can build sensitivity and unity. You’re not groping in the dark—through discussion you can learn what pressures are making your partner temporarily grouchy. Knowing why can lead to understanding and to the resolution of the problem.
2. Choose a Good Time. Some things can’t and shouldn’t wait until a scheduled talk time. But it is still important to wait until the time is right. For example, if you’re hungry or tired or emotionally wrung out, don’t try to start a sensitive discussion. Your physical state affects your ability to communicate.
Finding the right time also includes waiting until your partner is ready to talk. “Time and experience have taught me to express my wish to communicate,” says Margie Weed. “That gives Dick a chance to mentally prepare or ask for a different time for discussion.” Your chances for a satisfying discussion are much greater if you can discipline yourself to wait for the right moment.
“If I’ve had a bad day at work,” notes Paul Glauser, “I come home and slouch on the couch, burying myself in the newspaper. That’s Vickie’s signal to leave me alone for a while. Once when I walked in the door and headed for the couch, our five-year-old, Mary, pulled me aside and whispered, ‘Be easy on Mom. She’s had a really hard day.’”
“And then,” adds Vickie, “Mary came into the kitchen and pulled me into a corner. ‘Be easy on Dad,’ she whispered. ‘He’s had a really hard day.’”
“It wasn’t until later that night when Vickie and I were comparing notes that we discovered what our little peacemaker had done,” Paul laughs. “She knew we’d both ‘had it’ and needed some help. And her little warning worked perfectly.”
3. Disarm Defensiveness. “We set the stage for a discussion by first reinforcing our genuine love and appreciation for one another,” says Susan Jones. “I express appreciation for his good habits and improvements before I discuss what’s bothering me. It’s much easier for Jeff to listen when he knows I don’t want to offend him and when he knows I recognize his good points as well.”
Another effective method for reducing defensiveness is to recognize that you choose to be irritated or angry. When something bothers you, assume responsibility for choosing to be bothered. Instead of flinging accusations that put your partner on the defensive, try expressing your feelings in a way that shows you realize you are responsible for how you feel. “I have a problem,” you might say, “because whenever (describe a specific behavior) happens, I feel (describe your reaction).” Such an approach invites your partner to work on the problem with you, instead of making him or her feel misunderstood and defensive.
4. Pray. Prayer is one of the greatest communication helps available because it invites the Spirit of the Lord to teach us and direct us as we listen. Prayer opens our understanding to what our partner is really trying to say. And having already discussed our feelings with Heavenly Father, we are better prepared mentally and emotionally to clearly express ourselves to our partners.
“Once I was upset with Dick,” Margie Weed remembers. “I held my feelings to myself for two days, feeling cold and distant.
“I remember distinctly how I felt as I sat at the kitchen table that afternoon, trying to sort things out. I didn’t like the way I felt, but I didn’t want to compromise. As I sat there, my thoughts came tumbling out in prayer. I asked what I could do to get rid of the harsh feelings inside.
“Just as I finished praying, I happened to look out the window. A small bird with a leaf in his bill was hopping along the porch rail toward the bird feeder in our garden. As I watched him, a spirit of peace and understanding overwhelmed me. For me, that little bird became a dove, and his leaf an olive branch. The Spirit of the Lord whispered that I was the one who needed to make peace.”
Margie pauses and adds, “That’s what I love about prayer. Not only do we share our burdens, but we reexamine our problem as well. When we talk over our concerns with Heavenly Father, he gives us a new perspective. If we’re sincere when we pray, if we keep the channel open, an answer will come. He wants us to succeed!”
When we pray over our disagreements and resentful feelings, we effectively slow down our response time so we can be in control. Then we can carefully consider what is really bothering us besides the immediate problem at hand. Inviting our Heavenly Father to help us opens up our vision so we can see with fresh understanding, with the same kind of love and acceptance our Father gives us.
Prayer is the greatest tool we have when our partner is struggling with such complex emotions that he can’t even understand them himself. Prayer can give us the insight to understand and endure, to love, when our companion doesn’t love himself.
5. Use Humor. The longer a couple has been married, the more there is to laugh about. Building on these happy memories, establishing private jokes, finding code words or funny faces that always bring a grin in a tight spot, are effective communication skills for relieving tension and improving relationships.
“Before we got married,” Allan Brinkerhoff says, “I had confirmed bachelor habits. For breakfast, I was lucky to grab a glass of milk. But I always made up for it by eating a good lunch. After our honeymoon, though, Mary got up early every morning to fix a lavish breakfast—omelets, hashbrowns, toast, grapefruit, cereal—you name it. But since she only nibbled on a piece of toast and sipped a glass of juice while I feasted, I could tell she was jumping through all those hoops just for me. Since I had not given up my lunches, after six weeks I was starting to get a new roll above my belt.
“If I had thought fixing extraordinary breakfasts was important to Mary’s self-image, I would never have spoken up. But she knew I thought she was an excellent cook with or without a big breakfast.”
“So after six weeks of marriage,” Mary chuckles, “Allan put my arm around his waist and had me pat his new roll. ‘I don’t know quite how to tell you this honey,’ he said, ‘but your breakfasts are ruining my lunches!’ Soon both of us were laughing, caught up in the humor and feelings of the moment. And since then,” Mary adds, “we’re having more oatmeal and less hashbrowns.”
Mary recalls being much more defensive as a new bride than she is now. When Allan used to say, “Now don’t take this personally,” Mary would cringe, fearing criticism. “But Allan said things in such a cute way, pulling such funny faces and teasing me the whole time—there was no way I could be cross. His humor has helped me get over my defensiveness and feel secure in our relationship.”
Laughter is a wonderful antidote for frustration. Half the joy of a good laugh is its spontaneity, but you can still constructively seek experiences that will bring laughter to you. Attending a comedy together, having a water fight in the backyard, slipping a funny cartoon next to your sweetheart’s plate for dinner—these are just a few ideas for generating laughter in your relationship. If you seek happy times, they will come to your rescue at awkward moments.
6. Be Fair. There are diplomatic rules as well as pitfalls in discussing sensitive issues. Certain words or references to touchy subjects can destroy any hope for good communication at the moment. As couples learn what sets one another off, it requires maturity and discipline to avoid those time bombs in the heat of an argument.
Another pitfall is “gunny-sacking”—saving up all the little things that bother you and then dumping them all on your bewildered mate. It isn’t fair to confront each other with incidents that happened two months ago, for example. Storing things inside until they fester builds resentment, a cancer that can spread far beyond the original cause.
“For me, honest communication means sticking to the issue and not bringing up the past,” says Martsie Webb. “I try to express my feelings honestly without sugar-coating or poisoning them. I am able to be honest because when Dennis knows I am earnest, he really listens. He has the maturity to be instantly humble.”
Successful communication requires fairness on both sides. Each partner should listen to the other’s perspective and feelings. No problem is one-sided, and a balanced, fair approach where each has a chance to talk and then listen increases the chances for finding a mutually satisfying solution.
An excellent communication skill is reflective listening. When your companion expresses his feelings, repeat in your own words what you think he is saying. Do not interject your feelings or advice yet—simply reflect back what you have heard. This careful, compassionate listening allows your partner to sort out his own feelings as he talks and to feel that you are truly listening to what he is saying.
7. Seek Solutions. Conflicts can be resolved successfully in three general ways: Compromising, acquiescing, or reaching a peaceful stalemate.
Compromising—“We were having an ongoing discussion about where to live,” reports DeAnn Sadleir. “Every Saturday for weeks we looked at houses—but we couldn’t agree on one. There was one house I especially liked, but Bill wanted a larger yard. We just couldn’t agree.
“When I started dreading Saturdays, I finally faced the fact that I was being stubborn. If we were ever going to buy a home, I realized, I would have to compromise. For the next week I reassured Bill of my confidence in him and my appreciation of his work.
“When Saturday rolled around, Bill asked where I wanted to look this week. ‘I’m not going,’ I announced. ‘I’ve decided that you know what we need as a family. You’ve carefully considered our needs and you’ve listened to my preferences. You go ahead and look today by yourself. I know you will make the right decision.’ Bill looked stunned,” DeAnn recalls, “but I could tell he appreciated my trust.
“When he came home that afternoon, he was all smiles. He had decided on the house that I had liked from the start! By giving him my trust, he was able to bend a little for me. It was a good compromise for us both.”
Compromising is not a call to sacrifice what is truly important to you. And you cannot force a compromise without injuring each other’s respect. Effective compromise is reached when both partners weigh their priorities and reexamine their solutions. By careful evaluation, a new solution that is mutually agreeable is worked out.
Acquiescing—Given an unexpected day off, Paul Glauser wanted to take the family fishing. But Vickie wanted him to take them to the zoo.
“I knew if we went fishing with him,” Vickie explained, “he’d have a wonderful time while I tried to keep three bored little girls out of the lake. But if we went to the zoo, it was a choice that everyone could enjoy.”
“It was a little hard to give in,” Paul admits, “but I ended up going to the zoo—and having a pretty good time besides.”
Acquiescing requires humility and maturity. In your own way, it’s appropriate to thank your partner when he or she gives in to your choice. Couples should be careful, too, that one person isn’t repeatedly acquiescing to the other’s demands. Don’t abuse your partner’s good nature by dominating and forcing acquiescence. On points that aren’t critical to you, be willing to take a turn giving in. By doing that, you’ll help create a willingness in your partner to acquiesce occasionally too.
Reaching a Peaceful Stalemate—“Jack is slow-paced, and I’m hyper,” says Mindy Stevens. “When our two styles of doing things conflict, we have to talk it through and reevaluate the value of my racing versus the value of his relaxing. We are learning to appreciate and accept our differences and leave room in our relationship for both styles of living.”
A peaceful stalemate is a legitimate solution, as long as the stalemated difference doesn’t cause future blowups. Different habits and approaches can make us more interesting people, and we don’t have to be identical in order to be successful at marriage. The key factor in a peaceful stalemate is open discussion of your differences, why they exist, why both of you don’t want to change, and how you can both accept and live with those differences. Stalemates can teach us a great deal about our values and our styles of living. Periodically, stalemates should be reevaluated to make sure both partners still feel the truce is acceptable.
When you use appropriate communication skills, your options are positive. Competent communication uncovers the real problems—not just the angry emotions of the moment—and provides ways to solve those problems.
8. Be Willing to Change. Some problems are not solved completely by talking; they must be worked out. Marriage sometimes demands basic changes before growth can occur. “One of the greatest things about marriage is that it breaks you out of those older habits and characteristics you bring from your past. It hones and refines you,” says Scott Jameson. “Change is very painful, but it brings true growth.”
Marriage can provide an environment of positive love and acceptance. When we truly feel loved, that acceptance gives us the exhilarating freedom to change and grow. Ideally we should pattern our love after the Savior’s love for us. The Savior asks us to give up our sins, to seek righteousness, and to develop a celestial character. At the same time, he loves us no matter where we are in the process. Marriage is one of our greatest opportunities to practice this form of true charity.
9. Reinforce Each Other. No matter what solution is reached, it’s important to follow through with expressions of love and appreciation. “If Robert knows I have felt bad, the checkup the next day is important,” says Candi Merrell. “When he asks, ‘Do you feel better,’ it lets me know that he still loves me.”
Candi particularly recalls the morning after a long discussion on whether or not Robert should go golfing with some business associates that day. The Merrells were tending three children besides their own for a couple on vacation, and if Robert went golfing, it meant Candi would be left alone with five very young children. However, Robert had just finished two months of working overtime, and this golfing party was a company celebration now that their deadline had been met.
Though she didn’t want to spend the day taking care of all the children by herself, Candi relented and agreed that Robert did deserve to go golfing.
“The next morning,” Candi recounts, “I was downstairs in the laundry room sorting clothes. I heard the laundry chute open upstairs, and suddenly a little love note came swishing down on top of the clothes. It was Robert’s way of telling me he appreciated my willingness to let him go. It made me feel so much better! I kept his love note on the refrigerator for a week.”
Following up on a disagreement with positive reinforcement and support makes it easier for a solution to really work.
Eternal marriage is a daily decision, a daily act of love. We cannot lay a foundation of courtship and simply intend to build a wonderful marriage. We must learn and use the resources and skills available to us.
Being competent in the use of communication skills helps us become peacemakers in the full sense of the Beatitudes. When we learn to create peace and harmony in our relationships, we truly are the children of God in our abilities to love and grow, listen and share.
Tolerance, patience, perspective, understanding, security, and peace are rich fruits of honest communication. In our marriages we have a great opportunity to build Zion, to truly be of one heart.
After reading “Talking It Over” individually or as a couple, you may wish to consider some of the following ideas and questions.
1. The article states that “healthy, growing relationships require ongoing cultivation, shared projects, conversation, time together.” How much time have you spent together as husband and wife in the past week? What projects do you share? Is your conversation in a rut?
2. Depending on your answers to the above questions, what one thing could you do in the immediate future to improve your relationship?
3. When is the best time for you as a couple to plan your week or simply talk together?
4. Discuss the successes you may have had in the past with any of the ideas mentioned in the article for improving communication.
5. As a husband or wife, what five things do you appreciate most about your spouse? When was the last time you expressed these feelings to him or her? If it has not been recently, you might want to consider doing so now.