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Communication Difficulties in Marriage

Regular communication will not automatically produce wonderful openness. Even when they sit down regularly to talk together, some couples find it difficult to open up and share the feelings and concerns they know they should discuss. Any number of problems can lie behind these blocks in communication. In this article, I want to discuss some of the most common of these problems.

Attitudes That Block Communication

Many breakdowns in communication stem from bad attitudes about ourselves, our partners, or even about communication itself. For example, some husbands and wives maintain very rigid attitudes about the division of responsibilities in the family. A wife may feel that the way she runs the house or spends her time during the day is none of her husband's business. A husband may feel that his duty to the family stops with his paycheck, and that his wife should raise the children and worry about the in-laws. Naturally, when these attitudes prevail, neither partner is able to express interest in the other's responsibilities or receive advice about his own.

It is right that each partner in a mature marriage have certain spheres of authority and responsibility, but the couple should not seal these areas off from each other behind rigid barriers. To do so is to seal of the insights, wisdom, love, and support that one partner can give the other. It represents a retreat from the spirit and practice of community life that a husband and wife have covenanted themselves to live. It may also represent a husband's refusal to accept his responsibility to care for the whole life of the family as head of the marriage, or a wife's refusal to accept the pastoral direction and care of her husband.

Another attitude that blocks communication seems to appear most commonly in men. Some husbands consider themselves incommunicative by nature and feel it is unreasonable for their wives to expect them to talk. Many men actually do have trouble communicating, but they cannot simply decide, “This is how I am. Adjust to it.” They must realize that a failure to communicate often means a failure to love; it is a serious weakness that can destroy a marriage. Incommunicative husbands should resolve to open up and talk. God wants them to change and will help them do so.

Sometimes, however, a husband's incommunicativeness can be aggravated by what seems to him an inordinate curiosity on his wife's part. While silent husbands should learn to open up, their wives must also realize that they do not need to discuss every conceivable topic with their husbands. He does not need to know every detail of the neighbors' new color scheme, and she does not need to hear every bit of news from his office. If a husband who already tends to be incommunicative gets a barrage of unnecessary or prying questions from his wife, he usually retreats even further into silence. This in turn may goad his wife into more determined efforts to draw him out, starting a vicious cycle that causes frustration and dissatisfaction on both sides.

Once a couple gets entrenched in such a cycle, they may have a very hard time pulling out. One couple had let a pattern of non-communication build up for years, until the frustrations it caused actually began to threaten their emotional health. Virtually every time the wife tried to communicate with her husband, she expressed so much anger and frustration that we could easily understand her husband's incommunicativeness. Yet we could also see that her husband used wife's anger to excuse his own failure to communicate.

The changes that had to take place in their marriage were very slow and painful. Their reactions to one another were so deeply embedded that they could go weeks at a time without making any visible progress toward overcoming them. It was painful for the husband to accept that he needed to change, that failure to communicate was a failure to love. It was difficult for the wife to be patient and trust that her husband could change or even wanted to. After a year of struggling with their problems, the change in their marriage was by no means complete. But at least both partners knew the direction in which they had to keep moving if their marriage was to become all that they and the Lord wanted.

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One help in breaking a cycle of non-communication is greater sensitivity to the individual needs of each partner. A husband is not usually ready for a lot of information or questions the minute he steps in the door after a long day at work. At the same time, if his wife has spent a long day at home with the children, she will not want to spend an evening in silence. Simply recognizing each partner's situation goes a long way toward helping both adjust to these needs. A couple might agree that the husband can take his first half-hour home to relax, but then spend some time with his wife after dinner instead of immediately turning on the television or reading the newspaper.

Friendship with other Christians can also help break a cycle of non-communication by relieving the pressure on the husband and wife's conversation. Rather than get frustrated because her husband will not talk about dress patterns, a woman should probably talk about them with other women who enjoy sewing. And if a husband finds his wife could care less about the World Series, he should probably save his sports-talk for some male friends who would join in. Establishing a sense of sisterhood among the women and brotherhood among the men in a Christian community provides a balance that can help the relationship between husband and wife.

One final attitude that can block communication is a reluctance to share burdens and problems appropriately with one's partner. Sometimes a husband may not be able to persuade his obviously upset wife to tell him what is bothering her. Or a wife may see that her husband is irritable, but get no response when she asks why.

Reluctance to open up to each other about our problems often reflects fear of burdening our partners, or even shame that we have problems. Some Christian wives who would not tell their husbands about particular needs or problems because they were afraid they would become a burden.

The reluctance may also have its roots in past frustrations. Perhaps previous experience has convinced a husband that his wife does not understand his problems, and cannot help him even if he shares them. Or a wife may remember some time when her husband shrugged off her problems as if they didn't exist.

Obviously, more is involved here than a simple refusal to communicate. But we should always bear in mind that normally a refusal to communicate seals off any possibility of solving the problem. To refuse to communicate is often to refuse to hope or love or forgive. Almost never is it a permissible stance for Christian husbands and wives.

Patterns of Speech That Block Communication

We can create many obstacles to successful communication simply by the way we talk to each other. If a husband regularly speaks harshly or critically to his wife, she will be understandably reluctant to open up to him. Failing to listen to a partner, regularly interrupting him, or finishing her sentences are other patterns of speech that create serious obstacles to good communication. Yet many people are surprisingly careless about the ways they speak to their marriage partners.

The attitude that often lies behind this carelessness is a feeling that people should be able to act any way they want within their families. We tend to view the home as a place to “be ourselves,” meaning that we need not be concerned about how we talk to or treat our partners and children. Some people even prize very free behavior in the home as a sign of honesty.

Honesty in communication is important, but it is also important to recognize that the Lord wants us to take responsibility for the way we talk to others and express our feelings. Harsh, unloving ways of speaking are sinful, whether in our homes or outside them because they violate our Christian commitment to treat other people with love and respect. We need to recognize when we speak unlovingly to our marriage partners and resolve to change with their help and the help of God.

Often, we ourselves may be blind to some pattern of harsh speech. Here husbands and wives need to help each other. We should learn how to point out lovingly to our partners those patterns of speech which disturb us, and we should be willing to listen to what they tell us about the way we talk to them. At one point in one couple’s marriage, the husband realized that he often spoke impatiently to his wife. He began to ask her forgiveness each time this happened. One day, the wife said that she could not keep forgiving him if he did not try to change the way he talked to her. That really helped the husband. He was forced to realize that he had taken his impatience too lightly and had not made any serious, sustained effort to change.

The husband began to take his impatience to the Lord in prayer, asking him to help him overcome it. One day as the husband prayed about the problem, he felt that God wanted him to understand that impatience never helps. It never resolves a situation; it only adds another obstacle to communication. The husband took “impatience never helps” as his slogan, and from that day he saw a gradual but definite change in the way he talked to his wife. The same kind of change can happen to anyone who decides to face unloving patterns of speech for what they are and root them out.

Unfortunately, many husbands and wives take the wrong approach when they try to correct their partners' speech. Often their own worst patterns of speech surface and turn the whole discussion into a fight. Suppose a wife decides that she must speak to her husband about the way he interrupts her. If she blurts out, “You hate me, and that's why you always interrupt;” she is not going to get a reasonable response. He will probably snap back, “Oh, you're always nagging me,” thus starting a bitter argument. A few rounds like that can discourage anyone from trying to correct a partner.

We all need to learn to accept correction without reacting defensively, but we must also learn to correct each other without sounding harsh or accusatory. We should never question our partners' basic love and commitment to us, condemn them, speculate about their motives, or make absolute judgments. Rather than say, “You always criticize me in front of our friends,” we should try to state our feelings objectively and without accusations. For instance, “When Bill and Mary were over last night, I felt embarrassed by what you said about my cooking. I feel this has happened a lot lately. Are you being too critical, or am I over-sensitive?”

By refraining from absolute statements and accusations, we help our partners listen to us without defensive. By admitting that our own perception of the problem may be wrong, or at least incomplete, we help our partners admit that they might also be wrong.

In order to make corrections helpfully, we may need to wait for the right time to bring a matter up. We might want to wait for an incident that provides a good example of the behavior that bothers us. If we are very upset, we may need to wait until we are calm enough to discuss the matter without heated feelings.

If we wait, however, we should be careful not to wait too long. When we let problems build up, we usually end by dumping everything on our partners at once, with an additional load of high-pressure feelings. We need wisdom and sensitivity, gained through both experience and the guidance of the Spirit, in order to improve our communication.

If a discussion on a sensitive issue does get off track and feelings start rising, someone has to step in and stop it. Otherwise the discussion may escalate into more and more extreme charges. For example, a husband complains that the toast is burnt. His wife responds, “Well, you spilled paint on the garage floor.” He comes back, “That was only once. You haven't cooked a decent breakfast in years.” “If you ever did anything right around the house, I'd feel more like cooking a decent breakfast.” And on and on they go.

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If a conversation takes this course, either husband or wife should break it off and suggest returning to the original topic another time. Sometimes a suggestion to turn to the Lord and pray together can help establish a climate for reasonable discussion. But such suggestions should not be stated in a way that blames the other person for the argument. That is, we should not say, “You are obviously not able to talk calmly about this right now, so let's wait till tomorrow.” A better way to break the discussion would be, “Okay, we don't seem to be getting anywhere. Why don't we stop and talk about this later?”

With a little experience, husbands and wives may even learn to recognize times and circumstances which make for tense discussions. One couple had moved to a new city and found that driving around town could trigger a lot of tensions. He would drive, she would read the map and he always became impatient when she could not give him directions in time for him to act on them. They were told that they discuss this problem sometime when they were not actually driving and reach some realistic agreement about what they could expect of each other when they were in the car.

Learn to avoid difficult subjects late at night, when both of you are too tired to be fully rational. If one of you feels particularly tired or pressured, the other should wait for a better time before offering a correction. Other couples will discover the particular situations in which they are especially prone to tension. Usually a little patient communication will help them learn how to handle them.

Fears that Block Communication

One last area that can create problems in communication is fear. Many husbands and wives are simply afraid to discuss certain difficulties or feelings with their partners. Some individuals who carried some burden alone for years because they were afraid to talk about it. They were afraid to talk about their dislike for the in-laws or afraid to tell what they were experiencing or not experiencing sexually. They were afraid to bring up some concern about the children or to mention those little habits of their partners' that were so irritating.

The root of these fears is often concern about hurting the other person. Or a person may be afraid that once the problem appears in the open, it will prove to have no solution and the total situation will be worse than before. Sometimes a husband or wife is afraid of being selfish - “It would be selfish for me to bring up this problem, because I would only be trying to make things better for myself.” Some Christians over-spiritualize their problems, feeling that they should bear the difficulty in silence because that would be sacrificial.

Forbearance certainly has a place in Christian marriage but normally the Lord wants us to discuss our problems, even those problems we are afraid to discuss. We can work them out. Our partners are usually able to accept and handle far more than we think, and the Lord will help us when we face a problem that does go beyond our resources.

In fact it will be good for both our partners and ourselves to face problems openly and deal with them. We will mature, and our marriages will mature. Our relationships will become more genuine and adult because we have had to face difficult problems as couples and work them through.

Where Do We Begin?

How do you begin putting all these principles for good communication into action for your marriage? You can make an excellent start by talking with your partner. You can decide to establish time for regular communication, following the guidelines outlined here. And you can use that time to discuss the other facets of life: about sex, raising children, being a husband or a wife, growing in unity and love, and so on.

Perhaps your husband or wife is too busy, or doesn't even want to talk about marriage and family life now. It is very important that you be sensitive to his or her feelings and ask God for wisdom about how to communicate.

Your partner may respond to a suggestion. Then again, your partner might violently object to such a suggestion. You may be able to get across in a low-key, non-accusatory way some of the information here that would help your marriage or family. You would do better to focus on these suggestions that can help you better love and serve your partner and children, rather than on those ideas which would help your partner love and serve you.

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In the book of Sirach, we read that three things are delightful to the Lord and to men: “agreement between brothers, friendship between neighbors, and a wife and husband who live in harmony” (25:1). Regular communication is an important element in establishing that harmony between wife and husband. Our effort to establish communication will be well rewarded as it contributes to the peace and unity God desires for our marriages.

As a couple gets accustomed to talking regularly and freely, they find it easier to discuss sensitive areas of their life such as their sexual relationship. Husbands and wives are often unaware of each other's basic attitudes toward sex, nor are they sure what attitudes are right for Christians to hold.

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