I will always remember the years I practiced from an office space located on the Puget Sound in
Washington state. It was a wondrous setting affording me the pleasure of taking peaceful and refreshing walks between appointments. The office itself had an expansive view, and many times I would catch myself staring at the beauty of the water, and the diversity of people coming to have a similar experience and enjoy ice cream from the storefront nearby.
On one particular day, I was in my office working on my computer, when I became aware of a recurring and very forceful sound. I looked outside and realized the water was pounding against the seawall, and huge clouds of mist were pouring onto the shore and its adjacent walkway. I was in awe of the sheer power of the water, and simultaneously thankful for the seawall serving as a protective boundary keeping it at bay.
Boundaries & Unexpected Emotions
I mention this experience because it reminds me of the sheer power of our emotions, which in terms of marital communication, often seem to arise out of nowhere when our spouse says or does something which rubs us the wrong way. That being said, couples don’t always have a border, or an emotional seawall, to keep what they are feeling at bay. Not having this needed boundary can be catastrophic, such as when spouses address each other in anger, and critically point out each person's flaws. It goes without saying that such interactions are damaging and create a context for hurt, increasing frustration, and emotional distancing.
Although marital conflict and the experience of strong emotions is unavoidable, healthy marital communication requires that husbands and wives recognize when their communication has broken down, and apply emotional and conversational boundaries serving to help them remain calm when navigating important issues in their relationship.
Let’s take a few moments to consider steps couples can take to help have calm and constructive communication.
(1) Know Thyself: Paying Attention to How You Feel
Being mindful or aware of how you are feeling is crucial in helping you and your spouse establish calm and constructive communication.
Situational Example: A husband is exhausted from a stressful day at work and can sense
he is on edge and in need of rest when he gets home. He anticipates his wife may bring
up a subject they recently argued about, but is hoping this may not be the case right away.
Option 1 (Constructive): Before leaving work, the husband sends his wife a brief text
message letting her know he is stressed and needs some time to decompress when he
arrives home. He also acknowledges the need for them to repair from their recent
argument, but asks that they pause their conversation for an hour or two until he’s had a
chance to rest and let his emotions settle. His wife replies that she understands and looks
forward to seeing him soon.
Option 2 (Less Constructive): The husband leaves work and arrives home without having
communicated that he is stressed and needs time to rest before they potentially try
repairing from their recent disagreement. Shortly after being home, his wife asks if they
can revisit that issue, whereby he reacts sharply, “No, I’m not ready. Leave me alone.”
The difference between option 1 and option 2 is the (a) husband slowing himself down to pay attention to how he is feeling after a long day at work, and (b) proactively communicating how he feels to his wife, who in turn (c) responds understandingly and acknowledges his need for rest. In essence, they worked together to create a situation reinforcing their care for one another, a context where they can draw upon that care when they attempt to revisit and repair from their recent argument.
In summary, putting the principle of knowing yourself into place requires slowing yourself down
emotionally, and asking questions such as:
● What am I feeling (stressed, angry, etc.)?
● What is my body experiencing (tension, calm, etc.)?
● What am I needing (alone time, rest, a quiet walk, etc.)?
It also requires communicating how you are feeling so those around you can respond appropriately and support you in engaging in self-care. Spouses can work together in this regard, while doing themselves and their marriage a great service, namely by using this strategy to help strengthen their communication and improve their marital bond.
(2) Prioritizing Process: Maintaining an Awareness of Your Tone
My experience is that couples more often than not skip right over how they communicate, and head straight for what they want to say. Though logical, this approach misses much of the point of marital communication, which is about nurturance, love, and responsiveness and less about hanging a continuous stream of words in the air. Tone is central in this regard, which can convey warmth and understanding (drawing spouses closer together), or convey harshness and a lack of understanding (pushing spouses apart and creating a context for conflict).
My encouragement to husband and wives is to consider the biblical notion of treating others the way you want to be treated:
“Treat people the same way you want them to treat you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.” - Luke 6:31-33 (NASB)
In other words, apply a tone that exemplifies how you would want your spouse to engage with you. No one is perfect in this regard, however consistency is the objective. Couples who consistently speak to one another in a calm and respectful manner build into their relationship an essential mutual respect and trust, which allows emotional safety and connection to exist. They also guard against the loss of safety and trust, which makes it far more likely that spouses will avoid needed conversations, or be more reactive and shut down when aiming to address important issues in their relationship.
At the end of the day, applying the principles of knowing thyself and prioritizing process require self-awareness and self-control. These disciplines must indeed be practiced, however they make all the difference in the world maritally speaking. My hope and prayer is that you and your spouse will consider what we’ve addressed in this article, and experience the benefits of calm and constructive communication.
Eric Gomez is a Marriage & Family Therapist specializing in building families, strengthening marriages and addressing the personal, relational, and cultural harms of pornography. He received his graduate degree in Marriage & Family Therapy from Seattle Pacific University and his undergraduate degree in Psychology from New Mexico State University.