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For Couples, Communication Is Multidimensional

April 8, 2011

There is little disagreement that effective communication between a wife and husband contributes to marital happiness. Communication is a means for couples to resolve problems and move beyond a conflict. Communication also is a way spouses express interest in each other’s lives and their happiness at being together.

Countless books on marriage include at least a few pages on communication, and researchers continue to investigate its workings. It commonly is believed that by improving their communication, spouses can improve their marriages.

Of course, human communication is multidimensional. To improve communication, it undoubtedly helps to recognize what a few of those dimensions are. One dimension has to do with the skills and strategies needed to communicate well.

I’ve learned over my three and one-half years of writing for this website that communication skills are of particular interest to writers and researchers in the field of marriage. Many experts clearly rank skillful listening first among the communication skills a wife and husband need to acquire. It is possible to learn to listen better, it is stressed.

Skillful listening requires patience in hearing the other person out, along with a genuine desire to understand what is said. This encompasses a willingness to hear what one may not expect or want to hear, it often is noted.

However, the listening that is vital to good communication is unlikely to occur if one spouse approaches the other in a competitive way by attempting to “win” an argument or accumulate points. In other words, attempting to settle a conflict solely on one’s own terms represents a form of unskillful communication in marriage.

In a 2010 book reviewed recently on this website titled “Fight Less, Love, More” (Rodale), writer Laurie Puhn, a couples mediator, said she has found “that most marital conflicts stem not from emotional problems but from weak communication skills.”

But a second dimension of effective communication on a couple’s part has more to do with “what” they talk about than “how” they talk about it. Couples need to assure that their conversations are a means of sharing what matters most to each of them, according to Terri Orbuch, a sociology professor at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., who has conducted research with married couples for more than 20 years. Orbuch wrote the 2009 book titled “5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage From Good to Great” (Delacorte).

Conversations that many couples label as “communication” often do not qualify as such in Orbuch’s view. Her “10-minute rule” urges couples to find 10 minutes a day – before meals, at bedtime, whenever – to converse without mentioning how their bills should be paid, who will get children to and from activities or other matters pertaining to the mechanics of daily life.

Writing in Psychology Today in February 2010, Orbuch asked men and women, “How often do you talk about things that really deepen your understanding of your mate?” She urged couples following her 10-minute rule to talk about something “other than work, family, the household or the relationship.”

Yet another dimension of human communication often is at work when a couple attempts to have a conversation, but finds the going tough. I’m talking about various recognized and unrecognized factors that undermine whatever communication skills a couple may have.

The 2010, revised edition of “Fighting for Your Marriage” (Jossey-Bass), by the well-known marriage authors Howard Markman, Scott Stanley and Susan Blumberg, examines a set of communication obstacles — called “filters” — that cause couples to miscommunicate. A filter is “at work” when what one spouse hears is not what the other said, the book explains.

A filter affects a person’s “ability to pay attention.” Thus, according to “Fighting for Your Marriage,” distractions are an important filter to consider. Noisy children, other background noise and sometimes even a poor phone connection make it hard for a husband and wife to pay attention to a conversation they are attempting to have.

Electronic devices — the Internet, cell phones, texting and e-mail, video games, i-Pods, etc. – also may function as communication filters, the book suggests. The authors explain that “the constant flitting back and forth between this and that makes it hard to pay attention to things that really matter.”

Those are external factors that hinder effective communication. But the book points to internal factors as well – factors that make it difficult for one spouse to hear what is said due to fatigue or thinking about something else, for example.

And emotional states can serve as communication filters. Feeling angry about anything at all, worrying or even a bad mood can color how one spouse hears what the other says. “If you are in a bad mood, you are more likely to perceive whatever your partner says or does more negatively, no matter how positive he or she is trying to be,” says “Fighting for Your Marriage.”

What, then, makes for effective communication in a marriage? Is it a matter of developing the right skills and strategies, or a matter of “what” is discussed and not simply “how” it is discussed, or a matter of recognizing the presence of external and internal filters that make it difficult to pay attention to what your spouse is saying?

I am certain that effective communication encompasses all those factors and many more. Communication is truly multidimensional – so much so that the writing and research on marital communication surely will continue for a very long time to come.

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Marriage in the News

Marriage in the News

David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.

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