We often feel that we can be the most rude to the people we are closest to because they will “understand where we are coming from” or because we have to “be real” or because that is just “how our relationship is.” Those are dangerous maxims in any relationship, but especially in a marriage. If manners matter to teach a 2-year-old, how much more do they matter for adults with so much more power to hurt with our words and actions?
Now I certainly can’t claim to be a marital expert since I’m still in a young marriage, but I can say to my husband with conviction: “I’m happier about being married to you today than I was when I first married you.” Apart from the grace of the sacrament, I am convinced that one of the top reasons I can say this is because of our dual prioritization of polite communication. We are certainly not perfect communicators, but there are a number of habits we’ve practiced from the very beginning of our relationship and throughout our engagement and marriage that I believe have a great deal to do with the daily joy we experience in our marriage.
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And while I’m no marriage pundit, I think these communication qualities came easily into our marriage because we individually prioritized them in other friendships long before we even met. So in the hopes of strengthening your own friendships in any stage of life (and especially your marriage) through stronger communication, I’ll leave you with an acronym of communicative adjectives that helps us both solve and avoid a lot of strife: P.O.L.I.T.E.
Did you know that researchers have found that the ratio of positive to negative interactions ought to be 5 to 1 for a healthy relationship? Is that the reality of your spousal interactions? Marital communication ought to be riddled with positivity. I can’t tell you how many times a day my husband says “I love you” or I tell him how awesome he is, but I know that neither one of us gets tired of hearing it. Simply put, you ought to be your spouse’s biggest cheerleader, and a day shouldn’t go by without both of us hearing how much we are appreciated by the other, be that in the little things or the big. It ranges from complimenting appearance (which my husband somehow sincerely manages when I feel like a mess) to appreciating an emptied dishwasher to texting a reminder that “I miss you and can’t wait to see you when we get home from work.”
It might sound like we are living in a blissful honeymoon stage, but I am convinced that our overtly positive communication is not that: It is the intentional formation of positive habits for a lifetime of love. These habits of communication impact not just the way we talk to each other but the way we talk about each other and even the way that we think about each other, ourselves and our marriage.
One of the most important things we have learned about marital strife is that assumptions do a lot of harm. Most of our arguments have stemmed from someone assuming (often incorrectly) something about what the other person was going to think or do or what they meant by what was said or left unsaid. Our cure for false assumptions has been to practice open communication. Relevant situations range from intimate and familial conversations to the mundane, such as chores and plans for what to do with evening free time.
In the simplest of terms, we have found that having the openness to sincerely ask the questions, “What do you need tonight?” or “Can you explain what you meant when you said…?,” and being willing to humbly communicate, “Here’s what I need…” and “That situation made me feel…” in the littlest things goes a long way to being able to appreciate and understand one another.
Taking the time to listen is a no-brainer for communication that I think we’ve all heard so often that I hardly need to repeat it. Yet it’s been said so often because it is profoundly true. I must be willing to listen until I’ve heard the other person out, and I must be willing to understand another perspective even if and when I don’t agree with it.
One of the listening tips that has most frequently recurred to my mind in stressful situations is “Don’t both panic at once.” In the words of Catholic marriage counselor Gregory Popcack, “[spouses] should never go crazy at the same time” (“The Exceptional Seven Percent: The Nine Secrets of the World’s Happiest Couples”). That is, if I notice that my husband is hyper-reactive, on edge, tense, or stressed tonight, I intentionally work at being an extra-calm and listening presence.
The reality is that we are all on emotional overdrive at times. And if we can work at not both being there at the same time, then we will grow from our strengths as a team and learn to appreciate and treasure the other person more. Admittedly, his “panic” mode looks more like angry frustration and mine more like hysterical weeping, but I can assure you: the more we can listen to the other person so that both those things don’t happen simultaneously, the more truly supportive and rational we are able to be, and the much less likely we are to enter into conflict with each other over a trivial issue.
A great marriage does not happen by accident. It comes about through the grace of God and intentionality: intentional prayer, intentional love, intentional effort, intentional scheduling, intentional communication. I could elaborate on this ad nauseum, but it is really that simple. If you wait around for your love to get more passionate, for you to suddenly start praying together, for you to finally feel comfortable apologizing, or for you to have time to schedule a regular date night when the last kid gets married … you’ll never get there!
Very little can replace intentional prioritization of your marriage and the commitment to continually nurturing and strengthening the marital bond. Some aids to greater intentionality include scheduled commitments such as a marriage retreat, reading a Catholic marriage book together (no, they are not just for marriage prep courses!), or scheduling monthly marital check-ins. But perhaps more important are the habits that mark your marriage as a top priority daily. These could include kneeling to pray together before getting into bed each night, making weekly time for couple fun, or writing a list of things you appreciate about each other that grows over the course of the year.
Most communication problems can be solved by communicating before the problem becomes one! My favorite examples are downright practical — the calendar and finances. In both cases, timely anticipatory communication resolves most of the difficulties.
For instance, I am likely to be frustrated if my husband plans a movie night out with guy friends after two days away at work. I am very unlikely to be frustrated by the same situation when he checks with me before scheduling it, asks me if I would rather he stay home because he knows it was a hard couple days with him away, and communicates with me at that same time about when we are next having date night. The result: my potential feeling of being ignored is preemptively transformed into one of being prioritized and treasured.
In short, when it comes to spousal communication, the wise rapidly ditch the flawed mindset, “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission.” To the contrary, communicating with your spouse in a timely manner before plans are made, money is spent, children are disciplined, etc., prevents conflict and builds trust.
Of course, everyone is going to make mistakes and not communicate something in an ideally timely manner. What I have found most helpful in this regard is to approach miscommunications as a team and with a growth mindset. “So we got frustrated tonight because of x. What can we do in the future to avoid that? … Ok, so next time I’ll check with you first, etc.” That type of communication goes a long way to both healing any rift and strengthening our relationship moving forward.
The importance of our daily communication is never open for debate. We both prioritize it as necessary and recognize that being available to communicate with and love our spouse is more important than all the other elements of the day (excepting God himself). To apply an age-old maxim: Do not go to bed angry. There have been a few times lying in bed after an exhausting day when my husband has been unsure if I’m upset about something or if I still need to talk something out. One of the things that has warmed my heart the most is hearing him say to me, “Sweetie, do you need to talk about something?” or “Are you OK?” when I know all he wants to do is go to sleep. It’s the focus on communication as absolutely essential that keeps us in tune with each other and helps us to both identify problems early and sort them out as a team before they morph into something bigger.
When all is said and done, most of my marital suggestions come down to common courtesy — but it is a courtesy that we all too often forget to give — and which can set the tone for the vibrancy, care and passion in your marriage. If we wish to rejoice in holy, life-giving, uncommon marriages, we must counteract the cliché that “familiarity breeds contempt” by fostering deliberate respect, appreciation and reverence for our spouses.