Like any tool, communication can be used to build or destroy. How are you using it with your spouse?
“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”—Cool Hand Luke (1967)
Communication is the most important factor in the failure or success of any marriage, so much so that it’s almost become a cliché—pop psychology classics like Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus and The Five Love Languages have become part of our cultural lexicon even as they’ve made their publishers millions of dollars with each rerelease. The topic is “evergreen”—perpetually relevant, no matter a couple’s generation or lifestyle. Whether you got hitched in 1965 or 2015, whether you’re Ivy League alums or high school dropouts, whether you’re living the dream or living on a shoestring, communication can make or break your marriage.
Communication, or more properly a mode of communication, had broken our marriage when my husband and I showed up in our counselor’s office several months ago in a desperate bid to avoid a divorce that seemed like the only way out of a situation that had become unhealthy, even emotionally abusive, for everyone involved. It wasn’t any one thing that had pushed us to the brink of no return—it was all of the things, or more precisely, it was our feelings about all of the difficulties and stresses in our lives, and our inability to talk about those feelings in a way that didn’t make our other half feel blamed and helpless.
My husband is naturally passive-aggressive; I’m naturally suspicious and defensive. Take those two traits and multiply them over 15 years and you have a recipe for disaster that neither of us were self-aware enough to see coming until the damage was already critical. Over a decade and a half of loaded questions and angry retorts, we’d trained each other to expect the worst from each other. I saw every question he asked as a stealth test; he saw every answer as a deflection or a cover-up.
Those weren’t our only communication problems. We also struggled with the stereotypical dynamic of the “emotionless” man and his “hysterical” wife (the truth was more complicated than that, of course). We each spoke vastly different “love languages,” and had a hard time recognizing each other’s attempts to reach out to one another. Perhaps most damaging were our (faulty) attempts to read each other’s minds—and our expectations that the other would (correctly) do the same.
In part 2 of this topic, I’ll explore some of the most common communicative pitfalls that damage couples’ marriages – the unspoken expectations, swallowed disappointments, missed opportunities and more that distort our view of one another and foster discontent. After that I’ll tell you what we are doing to try to solve the problem in our own marriage, and point you toward help for yours.
The truth is, communication isn’t easy. If it were there wouldn’t still be so many best-selling books about it after all these years, and the divorce rate wouldn’t be as high as it is now. If you and your spouse are struggling to connect with or understand each other, no matter how hopeless it seems (barring serious abuse), I want to encourage you to hold on and keep reading. No, this series isn’t going to fix your relationship for you, but I hope it will give you a glimmer of faith that it can be done. Eight months ago I was sure our marriage was dead. Today, we’re working together as a team to revive it. I can’t tell you how to get from there to here, but I can tell you about the path we took.
Until then, Google “Retrouvaille.” It was (and continues to be) an important part of our journey, and it is all about communication. I’ll tell you more about it in a future installment, but for now, consider reserving your spot at the next session. (You can always cancel later if I fail to convince you it’s worthwhile.) If nothing else, head over to YouTube and watch the many testimonials of couples who were helped by this incredible program. Watched with an open mind, it may give you food for thought—and some desperately needed hope.