Terry was lost in his thoughts as he drove home after a long, grueling day at the office. He was not looking forward to arriving home. After spending all day trying to get prospective clients to give him their business, he was convinced that upon getting home that his wife, Donna, was going to give him the business, and he wasn’t buying it.
“I can hear it now already,” he thought to himself. “The minute I get in the door, ‘We need to talk!’ will be the first words out of her mouth.” He wished that he could tell her, “No, you need to talk and I am supposed to listen to you endlessly drone on with the same old song and dance.”
He mumbled to himself out loud, “Just once, I wish I could come home and not have to listen to it.”
Meanwhile, across town, Donna contemplated her husband’s arrival. “I wish I could get him to listen to me. Just once, I wish I could get him to listen to me without getting angry. Why can’t we have a civil conversation instead of always having an argument?”
Does this sound familiar?
What is going on between Terry and Donna is quite common. When people have been married for years, they often think that they are reading each other. They think they can predict what is going to be said, perhaps word for word, within the first few seconds, and sometimes they will be right and sometimes they will be wrong. These predictions are part of the problem.
In a sense, they are already arguing before a word is actually said between them. In some couples, when one spouse tries to change the pattern, the other will work doubly hard, without meaning to, to pull the conversation back into the old pattern. They are in a conversational rut: communication seems predictable, including tone of voice and body language. Instead of joining in the same old argument, one spouse could tune the other out. Tuning the other person out is also communication, but it usually communicates something other than what is intended. Conversational ruts and tuning out both reinforce negative feelings toward each other.
Your relationship doesn’t have to be this way. Today I am going to show you how you can redirect yourself in communicating with your spouse to pull your marriage out of the conversational rut.
The Mind and the Motives
In order for you to understand what is taking place between Terry and Donna, I will refer to one of the classic understandings of the brain. The most recent findings are much more complex but not necessary for our discussion. Your brain has to have rich blood flowing in order to work properly. If you feel threatened, those resources are directed to a primitive part of your brain, the reptilian brain.
The frontal cortex, which deals with executive functioning, gets shortchanged. When your reptilian brain gets the majority of resources, your primitive or animal-like response is to feel compelled to win, as if your very existence were at stake, no matter how minor the issue was that started the process.
In order to improve your communication and your relationship, you have to learn how to rebalance your brain’s resources before those primitive responses create more problems for you. The frontal cortex is turned on when you are thinking logically or rationally deciding an issue. How does this information translate into action that can change your relationship?
Think Before Speaking to Your Friend
Once you start to feel upset and angry, your brain is already feeding the wrong part. The most direct access we have to changing this situation for the better is to engage our thinking. Effective thoughts would include “He is my best friend; I wonder why he is acting this way?” or “I am going to be her best friend; what can I do to help relieve her emotional pain?”
You cannot expect to start thinking positive thoughts in the heat of a problem situation if you aren’t ready. If you have never done long-distance running, would you run a marathon this afternoon? Of course not. You would need lots of practice and training first. Similarly, you have to practice good thoughts during neutral and good times-both when you are together and when you are separated.
Practice thinking only good thoughts toward your spouse so you will be prepared to think good thoughts if your partner does or says something you don’t like. Instead of expecting an adversarial response, you are training yourself to expect a friend-type response. If your partner delivers a response that is not what you hope for, be curious, not angry.
Another helpful thought is to say to yourself that you don’t want to be the kind of person who responds with anger toward someone you love. Using this or similar thoughts sets your mind to think of this as your own self-improvement program rather than trying to change your spouse. You have to do this yourself for yourself. When you become a better partner, your spouse will too.
There may never truly be a “good” time to discuss emotionally laden material, but some times are worse than others. You don’t want to choose to talk when your partner has other immediate concerns such as being exhausted, hungry, in pain, or stressed out from a bad day at work or just having had to deal with a child’s behavioral issues.
Understanding Through Empathy
When your spouse is upset, imagine the world from his or her viewpoint and understand how the situation is upsetting as your spouse experiences it, even if the perpetrator is you. Go for understanding your spouse, rather than arguing for “the truth.”
If you have a hard time starting this, begin by saying something like “I want to understand what you went through. I might not agree with your view, but I really want to understand it.” You might think you already understand, but if you allow your spouse to lead and you set your defenses aside, you will probably discover how much you didn’t understand.
Communication is one of the biggest challenges every marriage faces. However, the couples that stick together are the ones that learn how to effectively “talk.”