My husband found me in my closet a few weeks ago and came in and sat down on the floor beside me. He just listened to me while I rambled on about what a bad mother I was and how I just kept repeating the same unwanted patterns.
He didn’t have to say anything to me.
His body language and presence communicated everything I needed to know—that I was seen, heard, and understood. That I wasn’t alone and that he was committed.
Aren’t those the messages we all long to hear?
There are lots of great strategies out there on how to improve your communication skills with your spouse, but it’s these messages that will speak louder than any words. If we can communicate them, we create the safety necessary for connection and expression.
That night I felt safe enough to express what my heart was feeling, but it hasn’t always been this way. It’s taken over 25 years of trial and error—and lots of blood, sweat and tears—to create an atmosphere where neither of us feel threatened and we know that our love for each other will remain intact in our exchange of words. (Well, maybe not the blood part—unless you count my husband’s fist when he hit the wall a few times when we were newlyweds!)
How did my husband go from hitting walls to being tender enough to sit down in a closet with me?
How did I go from fleeing the room and being afraid to voice my disagreements to standing confidently and expressing my opinions without charged emotions?
We just kept communicating these five messages:
Message #1: You are seen.
I’ll never forget when I had a major epiphany that changed everything about the way I reacted when my husband got defensive. I had always assumed when he raised his voice that he was angry at me, when all along he had been angry with himself. When I was upset it made him feel like he was failing as a husband.
It started with a prompting to see him not as my enemy, but as one with me.
Ephesians 4:2-3 challenges us, “Be completely humble and gentle, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” It goes on to remind us in verses 12-13 that “we are one body and one Spirit and as the body, we are to build each other up until we all reach unity.. and become mature, attaining the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”
The Message translation puts it like this: “Everything you are and think and do is permeated with Oneness.”
When we start seeing our spouse not as an individual but an extension of ourselves, much the way we view our children, it allows us to shift into a place of greater compassion and curiosity. From this place, God gives us eyes to see them as He sees them.
When we start looking at each other the way God looks at us, it creates the safety we need for transformation. We can let our guard down.
As long as we are looking at each other through eyes of judgment, we stay behind our walls. It’s not safe enough to be vulnerable.
Another great way to begin doing this is to practice getting off of our ‘map’ and getting onto theirs.
What we see is skewed by our ‘come from.’ Every experience we’ve ever had creates our perception of the world. If we can learn to step outside of our own ‘country’ and put on the same wonder and curiosity that we would if we were exploring a foreign country, we will be open to learning and discovering.
This is the first rule in developing rapport. Ask yourself, “I wonder what it’s like to live in their world?”
My husband and I used to take mission teams to Guatemala every summer and those that had a sense of wonder always enjoyed the trip more. My husband would try to prepare them to put on this mindset before we traveled, using the acronym, T.I.N.A. or ‘This is not America.’ He’d say, “If you go expecting it to be like America, then you will be miserable.”
When we show curiosity about people we are opening the door to relating, connecting, and communicating, even if we don’t speak their language! It’s an opportunity to discover “a whole new world and a new fantastic point of view!” (That’s from the movie, Aladdin, in case you didn’t recognize the reference!)
Not only do we need to learn to see our spouse, but we need to allow ourselves to show up and be seen by them.
“Daring greatly means the courage to be vulnerable. It means to show up and be seen. To ask for what you need. To talk about how you’re feeling; to have the hard conversations.”¹ – Brené Brown
Every time you find yourself hiding your tears and holding back your words, choose to face your fear and be seen.
Message #2: You are heard.
This is a hard one for me because my husband is not a talker.
I, on the other hand, am.
I love deep conversations and long car rides go so much faster when the person in the seat next to me loves engaging in them too.
But, what do you do when they don’t?
What do you do when your husband prefers less words and more silence and is perfectly content with a 6-hour drive with no conversation?
Well, when you’re newly married, you fume. You start making assumptions that he must not care about you. You try to initiate, but when it’s not followed up by inquiry or attempted understanding you give up. You open your book, get on technology, or turn your eyes to the window and sink into self-pity. You assume he doesn’t care to listen or hear your heart, so you close it back up.
One time, I tried engaging him, and asked, “A penny for your thoughts?”
He replied, “I’m not thinking anything.”
That was the day I realized we were very different, and that there really wasn’t anything going on between his ears!
(Disclaimer: This doesn’t mean that my husband doesn’t think deeply; he just thinks differently. My brain would love it if I followed his example and took a break from thinking more often! We learn so much from each other when we clear away the assumptions and simply listen.)
How many times had I made assumptions about what I thought he was thinking of me when he wasn’t thinking anything?!
So, how do you listen to a man that doesn’t talk? You have to listen to his non-verbal messages.
What is he saying when he can sit silently beside me all the way to the beach? That he is content to just be in my company.
What is he saying when he goes to work every day without complaining? That he is loyal and steadfast and wants to provide for me.
What is he saying when he helps with the dishes or puts in a load of laundry? That he loves me and has my back.
What might he be saying when he comes in after a long day at work and turns on the TV? Maybe that he needs some downtime to decompress from the meetings he has been in all day.
Where we have to be careful is making their silence mean something that it doesn’t. One of the lessons in my Mastery Coaching program on developing rapport is:
The only thing you can assume is that you know nothing.
When we are assuming we are ‘on our map.’ We are making educated guesses based on our past experiences and wired in memories.
If we want to connect with our spouse, we have to get on their map and the only way we do that is by asking questions.
One of the reasons there are so many misunderstandings between couples is because we are constantly making assumptions that we know what the other person is thinking or saying.
The second problem is that we don’t speak precisely.
My husband would say, “Amen!” to that one.
I asked him for his input on this blog post, and his contribution was, “Just give me the facts. Say what you mean in as few words as possible.” To him, the purpose of verbal communication is to convey information. The lesson for me is if I want him to hear me, I need to be direct. Tapping him on the shoulder to make sure I have his attention isn’t a bad idea either!
“Give me a direct question and I’ll give you a direct answer.”
If we want to be understood, we need to get clear on what we want and ask for it.
This is an area I’ve struggled in most of my married life and am just now getting more proficient at it. We have this preconceived idea that it’s wrong to state our needs and desires, yet our husbands are begging for us to just say it already! Instead of using nonverbal cues like stomping up the stairs to communicate you resent the fact that you had to get up off the couch after a long day and put the kids to bed again, why not try saying, “Hey babe, you know what I would love? I’d love it if you’d put the kids to bed tonight.” Then create an incentive by showing them how it will impact both of you positively. “If I could just sit down for a bit, I might have more energy later.” Wink.
Most of the time, we expect them to read our minds and offer without being asked. We think, “I shouldn’t have to ask!” Did you hear me say earlier that there really isn’t anything going on up there? They depend on us to tell them what we need.
Truly effective communication goes both ways. Start cultivating the art of really listening. Don’t interrupt. Don’t get defensive. Just hear them and then ask them to tell you more.²
People are more likely to listen when they feel heard.
To improve communication in our relationships, we must discover how to listen, not how to talk.² Communication is to a relationship what breathing is to the body; if we are not communicating we are assuming. Don’t assume anything. Always assume you know nothing about what the other person is thinking. Then, ask clarifying questions until you do.²
Message #3: You are understood.
Proverbs 2:2-5 states, “Making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding; yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasure, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God.”
It’s this kind of understanding that we need to apply not only to grow in our understanding of God but in our understanding of our own hearts and those of our husbands. In order to do this, we have to know what gets in the way of our ability to do so.
Proverbs 3:5 reminds us to trust in the Lord with all your heart and NOT to lean on our own understanding.
Sounds like a contradiction doesn’t it?
I’m actually smiling as I’m writing this, as it seems so clear now, but man did I get this wrong a LOT.
How often do we try to understand and come away thinking, “I WILL NEVER UNDERSTAND THAT MAN.”
“God, I just don’t understand. What am I doing wrong? Why can’t I ever find the right words to express myself?”
“NO ONE GETS ME. HE WILL NEVER UNDERSTAND ME.”
That’s because we are trying to understand with our heads. The key to understanding is to get out of our heads and into our hearts. This is where we access wisdom, insight, and the path to peace.
Proverbs 3:13-18 paints a beautiful picture of this: “Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding, for the gain from her is better than the gain from silver and her profit better than gold. She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her. Long-life… (and long marriage!) are in her right hand… Her ways are pleasant, and all her paths are peace.”
If we are going to create safety for communication and connection, we also have to understand what causes ourselves and our spouse to shift into the primitive flesh response of fight or flight.
God designed this survival instinct to keep us alive. The problem is most of us are activating it every day! All we have to do is to perceive a threat and our brain goes to work preparing our body to respond or react in self-defense.
I hear so many of the women I coach say,” It’s me. I keep getting in my own way. I’m my own worst enemy.” That’s how I was feeling in my closet that day. Yes, there is an enemy that desires for us to drop into that place of despair, but these women are onto something.
Communication is a learned behavior driven by our habits.
Our habits are automatic responses that happen on a subconscious level. They will drive us in a direction we don’t want to go without our permission if we don’t interrupt them and replace them with new healthy ones.
If we want to learn to do it well, we have to gain awareness around our habits and be intentional about the kind we want to cultivate.
Here are a few ways you can begin doing this:
- Study your personality and that of your spouse. Grow in awareness of your greatest fears and greatest needs, your coping strategies and your triggers.
- Learn what you and your spouse’s communication styles are.
- Find out what your love languages are by taking a quiz.
- Learn how to take captive your thoughts and begin noticing which ones are sabotaging your ability to connect and communicate with your spouse.
Message #4: You are not alone.
“Empathy has no script. There is no right way or wrong way to do it. It’s simply listening, holding space, withholding judgement, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of ‘You are not alone.’¹ – Brené Brown
The message ‘You are not alone’ is not communicated in words, but in action.
Communication is cultivated through connection. We have to do life together, alongside each other, day in and day out to say to our spouse, “You are not alone.”
One of the best things we ever did for our marriage was move to Alabama away from both sides of our family. It caused us to literally “leave and cleave.” When our first child was born, we even made our poor parents wait two weeks to come visit! We wanted to bond as a family first. I think that has played a huge part in the reason our parenting has been a shared experience.
Shared experiences connect us in a way no verbal exchange can ever do.
When we share experiences our inner and outer worlds overlap and intersect laying down superhighways of memories in our brains. This is the foundation for relating. The more we relate, the more we can communicate.
We do a pretty good job of communicating this message to our children. We lay by them at night. We tuck notes into their lunch boxes. We are attentive to their needs. The question is…How present are we with our spouse? Your presence—or lack of it—communicates volumes.
If you want to have healthy communication, commit to prioritizing being with them. Do life with them.
You can’t create the safety necessary for vulnerability and connection without this. When life starts pulling you in two different directions, it may be time to reassess what needs to change that has become a priority over your relationship. It puts a strain on communication because the only kind you have time for is surface or critical conversations, like,”Who is picking up the kids?” or “We really need to talk.”
Communication is a habit and habits are built on pleasure. If there is no pleasure, it will not be reinforced or cultivated.
So, what can you do?
Do more together! Create an opportunity for pleasure! If you haven’t seen your spouse in a week, don’t dive in with a problem-focused conversation. We want to create a craving to come back for more. Be with them. Listen to them. Share an experience. When you do this you set the stage to engage in the crucial conversations when they arise.
Message #5: I am committed.
Communication takes work! Commit to making it a priority. When you feel your defenses rising and you are tempted to revert to silence, violence, or suppression, step back and breathe, calm your critter brain, and then re-engage in the conversation. It’s tempting to avoid conflict in the name of peace, but beware, “The absence of conflict is not the presence of peace.”
- Brown, Brené. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. New York: Gotham Books, 2012.
- Tony Robbins. (n.d.). 10 Guiding Principles of an Extraordinary Relationship. Tony Robbins. Retrieved from https://www.tonyrobbins.com/ask-tony/extraordinary-relationship/.
Written by Kate Bartley
This is an updated edition of a post originally published on Jen Roland