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By Starfoxy

A day or so before our wedding, my husband and I went to a party store to buy some supplies for the reception. Running the checkout counter was a man telling anyone who would listen that he finally got his divorce, was finally free and that it was the best day of his life. As we were paying for our goods he inquired what the occasion was, and we told him we were getting married. He told us that it was nice we were getting married, and that he had just finalized his divorce.

Then he said “Always keep the lines of communication open. For us,” he said, “communication just ground to a halt! GROUND. TO. A. HALT.” We stared at him like deer in headlights, and might have mumbled some sort of assent as he handed us our stuff and we left.

From time to time we recall that scene fondly.

As I was reading through the recent FMH thread on housework I was struck by how many people seemed reluctant to talk to, and more especially to ask things of their partners. Perhaps the raving cashier at the party store had given us better advice than we initially thought. But it isn’t a huge secret that one is supposed to ‘keep the lines of communication open.’ Most people struggling to get their partner to understand them aren’t idiots and would just talk about it if they felt like it would do any good.

I’ve been to my share of ‘eternal marriage’ classes and they all play up the idea of different communication styles, and how men and women communicate so differently, and all you need to do is learn how the other sex communicates to ease the flow of ideas between you. But surely there are far more communication styles than ‘male’ and ‘female’ and many of them are not gender specific in the least. How can you learn your spouse’s style other than by careful attention and practice? How do you get this practice without stepping on each other’s toes?

I’m curious how other people navigate this potential minefield, and what advice they would shout at give to the engaged before they get married.

For me I’m married to a very kind man. Through all the time I’ve known him he has maintained a pattern in his discourse that is never ever cruel. I came from a home where teasing and sarcasm were thick on the ground and no subject was off-limits, and so I had (have?) a thin skin when it comes to criticism even though I was (am?) inclined to have a sharp tongue. I credit his habit of always speaking kindly with setting the tone for both of us. This underlying pattern of kindness allows us both to broach hard topics in a safe way and know that we never mean harm even when we do step on each other’s toes.


Starfoxy is a fulltime caretaker for her two children.

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12 Responses

  1. Caroline says:

    Good question, Starfoxy. It is a complicated subject. I don’t always respond very positively to criticism, and Mike knows it, so I think he swallows a lot of what he’d like to say. I imagine he picks his battles carefully.

    I think I might be more open about requesting/complaining to Mike about things – which I’m sure is annoying. But in my defense, I will say that I also give a lot of positive feedback. I’m very verbally affectionate – much more so than Mike – so hopefully that balances out some of my criticisms.

  2. James says:

    There is one bit of advice my wife and I read when we were first married that has helped. Although we don’t always follow it as much as we should.

    And that is: Never begin a conversation with your spouse with the word, “You.” For example, “You should have done X,” or “You didn’t do X,” etc.

    By starting with “you” it puts the other person automatically on the defensive and makes it much less likely that he or she will listen fully because the hackles are raised and the protective walls start appearing.

    Instead of using “you” use “I.” Such as “I would prefer it if you could do X,” or “I’d appreciate it next time if you wouldn’t forget X.” In this way you are communicating what you feel instead of pointing out the other person’s failings and blunders.

  3. Kim Siever says:

    James, what about a conversation that starts with “You are so beautiful”?

  4. Ziff says:

    How can you learn your spouse’s style other than by careful attention and practice?

    That’s a great question. I can’t think of another really good way. I would guess our communication styles aren’t something we usually even think much about or even consider to be a “style.” I mean, we’re probably not terribly conscious of the alternatives. What I’m getting at is that asking someone what their communication style is probably wouldn’t be much help.

    I guess maybe asking a partner-to-be’s family or friends might be useful. Although to the degree that the family and friends share the same style, they’re also not likely to be able to articulate it well. If it’s shared, it’s less likely to have become an issue that was brought to consciousness.

    As far as personal experience, my wife is, I think, very similar to how you describe your husband. Together we joke and laugh and are sarcastic about lots of things, but we’re never sarcastic with each other (except for extremely gentle teasing). I think she’s mostly set that tone, and it’s been a real positive in our marriage.

  5. Starfoxy says:

    James- While I think Kim does have a point- it is possible to insult someone with an “I think” or praise someone with a “you are”- I do think the advice you received performs a very valuable function.
    In taking a moment to figure out if your next sentence follows the rule of starting with ‘I’ instead of’you’ you are really taking a moment to look at your sentence from your partner’s point of view and reminding yourself that you aren’t supposed to be insulting each other. So it may not matter exactly what words you actually end up using, but that you go through that extra contemplative step before saying anything.

    Ziff- I think you’re right that talking to family members isn’t likely to be very productive in figuring out your partner’s communication style. If for no other reason than that you have relationships with them that you want to maintain, and they have their own communication styles to figure out as well.

    And your comment made me think of something else, shared communication styles aren’t necessarily complimentary communication styles. For example my mother-in-law and I are both pretty soft-spoken and tend to just not be very talkative in large groups. I was expecting her to be like my mom who is a world class monologue-er, and for a long time I worried that she didn’t like me (we are good friends now).

  6. James says:

    So it may not matter exactly what words you actually end up using, but that you go through that extra contemplative step before saying anything.

    Agreed. The advice we had read went into much more detail along the same lines as what you described. But as a rule of thumb we found the “I” vs. “You” idea to be useful for us at the beginning of the marriage. And then we built upon that to make something that became comfortable for us to use over the years. With the occasional road bump here and there.

    I also agree that you shouldn’t take the “I” vs. “You” idea at face value and only adhere to the strictest interpretation of that advice. Instead, as you say, it is meant to help you “take a moment to look at your sentence from your partner’s point of view.”

  7. Starfoxy says:

    James, another positive about that advice occurred to me last night. If you are following that advice in the strictest sense it may communicate to your partner something about your intentions.
    It is easy to joke about the formulaic “I feel sad when you [X].” But using that sort of awkward language communicates to your parter “I’m trying to do this right, and I don’t want to hurt you.”
    It will be obvious when you start to say something, catch yourself and begin again using the formula, and that obvious effort can help the listener be more inclined to give you the benefit of the doubt.

  8. Ann says:

    Not long after Left Field and I got married, I was attending a Relief Society Thing on a Saturday. I overheard a woman talking to her friend about Valentine’s Day. She said, “I told G. not to get me anything for Valentine’s Day.” (pause) “He better get me something.”

    She was not kidding. I decided then and there that I would only tell my husband what I was really thinking, and would not expect him to read my mind.

    Don’t just expect him to know what you need and want. Tell him.

  9. EmilyCC says:

    I wish I had some ideas on communicating, but each marriage feels so unique that I can’t come up with anything that doesn’t sound overly trite.

    But, I am a strong advocate of marital counseling. Nate and I go every few years for a little tune-up. (We also did pre-marital counseling–brilliant idea on the part of my mom.) I feel like marital counseling carries a stigma, like, “Oh my gosh, the CC’s are in counseling. They must be on the verge of divorce!”

    It’s been so helpful in making sure the lines of communication are open. And, after a few sessions, I often feel like I do after I do a really thorough job of cleaning my house.

  10. AS says:

    I have to say that as much bad press that men get on the communication thing, we women can be just as bad (as evidenced in the response mentioning Valentine’s Day). But, if we can say what we need in a non-threatening way, and not always in reference to just now how you really hurt my feelings…

  11. D'Arcy says:

    I am not married, so I don’t know about that. But I am in a relationship and I can tell you that often I feel I can’t say the things that I want to say because I get worried that I will become “that girl”. I’ll become the needy, nagging, whining woman that so many men complain about because I want to know where things are going, I want to know details, I want to be reassured. Now my boyfriend is wonderful at doing all of this and he doesn’t consider my moments of needing “to talk” as anything major, and yet I always do, I always apologize that I am being so “emotional” and I wish that I didn’t have that stigma attached to my mind.

    I’m such a strong and independent woman, I have relationships but haven’t had a deep one in awhile, and during all of them I have struggled with being as open and honest as I should because I’d rather just play it cool…(which by the way builds up into big episodes of three hour long talks until we get it all worked out when five minute talks along the way would have probably been better)…sigh.


  12. Mary Siever says:

    Honesty, humour, kindness, loyalty and yes communication. Remember the kindness in communication! My loving wonderful husband is always very kind in his communication, but doesn’t shy away from the truth. He hasn’t offended me either and we have been married 14 years.

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