Frequent Problems Don’t Ruin a Marriage. The Way You TALK About Them Does
by Jamie Williamson, PhD
If it seems that all you and your spouse do is fight about money, the kids, sex, and not making enough time for each other, then you’re in good company.
The majority of married adults with children in the United States frequently report these topics as issues of distress and dissatisfaction in their marriage. Some also add “interference from in-laws”, “jealously over previous relationships”, and “no time with friends”.
Troubling as they are, however, these issues are not the ones most likely to lead to divorce.
Instead, “ineffective communication” is more likely to lead to divorce more than any of these other common issues. In fact, ineffective communication is the most common cause of divorce in America today.
How can that be?
Except for the very young and naïve couples, most people enter into marriage expecting ups and downs associated with finances, raising a family, and supporting each other’s dreams. They know that there will be times when one or both of them is too tired, to preoccupied, or too old to want frequent sex. They know there won’t always be enough money to go around. And, they know their families well and know how to predict how their extended families will interfere or try to manipulate them.
None of this comes as a surprise to most married couples in the U.S. today. But, what does come as a surprise is that they lack the emotional intelligence and communication skills to work through these predictable issues in a satisfactory way.
As a result, extant research shows that Communication satisfaction influences marital happiness and satisfaction more than satisfaction with finances, ability to visit with friends and family, or sexual satisfaction. That is, for example, couples who feel good about the way they talk through troubling issue about their sex life, are happier than those people who may have a better sex life, but have trouble sharing their feelings about it. Likewise, couples who feel good about the way they work through their financial troubles together, have a stronger, happier marriage, than those couples who have more money, but less cooperative discussions about their budget and financial plans.
When a couple has both financial problems (or sexual problems, or…….) AND poor communication skills, then their level of distress can become a negative spiral that whips around their home and across nearly all topics in their relationship.
So, how do you develop the type of communication patterns that lead to communication satisfaction and higher levels of marital happiness? First, you have to recognize the communication patterns indicative of marital distress when you see them. Then you can begin the skill-building work that will turn your current conflict in to productive, satisfying, and relationally enriching conversations.
Dr. John Gottman, a well-known researcher and expert on the communication that leads to divorce, summarized over 25 years of research into the following list of communication behaviors that distinguish non-distressed, happy couples from distressed couples headed for divorce.
Characteristics of Non-distressed, Happy Couples
- Partners are friends.
- Exchange more positive feelings
- Focus on each other’s positive qualities, good times, etc.
- Interact frequently
- Share power, rather than seek it.
- Engage in problem solving
- Seek understandings that overcome gridlock
- Create shared meaning , values, attitudes, interests, traditions
Characteristics of Distressed Couples Heading for Divorce
- Exchange negative interactions
- Perceive that they have negative interactions
- More sarcasm
- More negative feelings reciprocated
- More complaints
- More interpretations of the other person’s behavior as negative
- Engage in “problem escalation”
If you and your spouse display the characteristics of non-distress, happy couples, you are to be congratulated. And, as long as you stay friends and keep up these practices you and your family will likely remain happy, well-adjusted, and in-tack.
However, if you recognize that your marriage is rot with characteristics of the distressed couples heading for divorce, take swift and deliberate corrective action.
Marriage Mediation can work for couples experiencing distress who want to stay together and restore the joy in their marriage. An alternative to marital counseling, Marriage Mediation is a practical approach to resolving conflict or working through impasse. Marriage Mediation can make your marriage work again.
Share this post with your partner and suggest that the two of you get help breaking these bad communication habits before you pass the point of impasse and no return. It’s rarely “too late” for people who really want to “work it out”.
Let me know if I can help.