Before we got married, it seemed like everyone had a bit of advice to offer. While some of it bordered on the ridiculous, the most common phrase I heard was, “Marriage communication is key.”
I loved this answer. My bride-to-be and I routinely spent hours talking on the phone; neither of us wanted to be the first to say goodnight. Obviously, we were experts in communication. If that was the key, I was sure we’d be alright.
After the wedding, it wasn’t as though we suddenly stopped talking to each other, but our new life brought new topics. Conversations once filled with hopes and dreams for the future morphed into discussions about schedules, bills, and dinner plans. Physically, we were together more than ever. Yet a few months into our marriage, I remember feeling a little cheated—We connected more before we married! What happened?
Marriage communication: But we talk all the time!
If you were to count the number of words we spoke to each other before marriage versus after, post-marriage would win. We “talked” all the time. Our problem wasn’t that we weren’t talking; it was what we were talking about.
Our conversations had descended into an endless stream of status reports. Information was exchanged, but there was no depth, no increase in intimacy. Our marriage communication became shallow and so was our relationship. If we were going to improve, we needed to recognize that all communication is NOT created equal. Our conversations needed to be deeper.
Here are four things we learned.
1. Deal with the fear.
There was one topic we knew would generate deep conversations. But it also had the potential to destroy the relative peace we were experiencing: What church would we attend?
My wife grew up deeply Catholic. I was passionately Protestant. We had come to a theoretical understanding of what we would do before we got married, but now we needed to find a church we could both be happy with. Every time we tried to talk about it, the conversation would devolve and we’d reach a stalemate. So instead, we talked about everything except for the one thing that was most on our minds.
Some conversations bring up deep convictions and emotions. Others are drenched in history from our families of origin and force us to challenge long-held assumptions and expectations. Whatever the case, we learn over time that to keep the peace, some topics need to be avoided.
But couples that have peace without intimacy are nothing more than roommates. If we want to improve marriage communication, we need to have the courage to talk about more than schedules, bills, or the kids. We must dare to discuss the “off limits” topics.
We adopted this rule: If it is important enough to think about, it’s important enough to talk about. True, the conversation might not be pleasant, but intimacy requires that we share what’s really going on inside of us.
2. Find the right time.
Another way we tend to avoid deep conversations is through activity. The busier we are, the easier it is to avoid certain topics. It is amazing how productive we can be when we’re trying to avoid something. Working, studying, cleaning, traveling, or babysitting for a friend are all good things. But good things can become bad things when they keep you from the most important things.
About six months into our marriage, no amount of distractions could keep us from the realization that we hadn’t yet gone to church. We were both used to going every week and now … nothing.
My wife was the first to bring up the elephant in the room. “We can’t keep going on like this. We need to find a church.”
Thankfully, she found the right time to tell me—in private, when the TV was off and we could give the topic the attention it deserved. Often, delicate conversations fail, not because of malice or bad intentions, but simply because we chose a bad time. If you need to have a deep conversation, eliminate as many distractions as possible and make sure you are both well rested. Starting a conversation after your spouse’s head has hit the pillow generally won’t go well.
3. Don’t try to win.
Our natural tendency in situations like these is to try to prove why our way is right and the other person’s is wrong. Whether we’re the type to argue with logic, emotions, or such a long stream of words that our opponent gives in from pure exhaustion, the result is the same. If you do manage to win, it means your spouse lost.
We couldn’t go on the way we were. But how could we find a church we were both okay with? You can’t compromise when it comes to your beliefs. Either we found a way to both win, or we’d both lose.
We spent hours talking through the kind of church we each hoped we could find. We didn’t try to convince each other of anything. Our guiding thought was, “I love you, and if I can better understand why this is important to you, it might become more important to me too. Tell me more. Help me understand.”
Good marriage communication means you fight the problem, not each other.
4. Find your core needs.
Sometimes we don’t even know why we want what we want. So trying to explain it to someone else feels impossible. We get so caught up on surface issues that we lose sight of what’s important. But good marriage communication begins with knowing what it is you want to communicate. Exploring your “whys” not only helps your spouse understand you, but it helps you understand yourself.
Our conversation started at such a high level that we didn’t understand what we were even fighting for. Catholic versus Protestant was too broad. What about each did we really care about? Was it the theology, liturgy, community, or just the architecture of the buildings? What were the areas we agreed?
It was also important for us not to try and communicate every single desire in one sitting. What we wanted was made up of a complex mixture of theological convictions, familial expectations, and personal habits and preferences. In the end, much of what we initially thought was important turned out to be nonessential, and we agreed on a lot more than we thought we could. Once we had a better idea of what was important to us individually, we defined what was important to us as a couple and moved forward as a team. We then made a list of potential churches and started the visiting process.
Marriage communication is key
After a few months of visiting churches, we landed on one we could both call home. Those initial conversations were hard, but I’m thankful we had them. It helped us know that no conversation needs to be off-limits. If we deal with our fear, take care to understand our needs, find the right time, and fight the problem instead of each other, we can talk about anything just like we did when we were dating.
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Carlos Santiago is a senior writer for FamilyLife and has written and contributed to numerous articles, e-books, and devotionals. He has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in pastoral counseling. Carlos and his wife, Tanya, live in Orlando, Florida. You can learn more on their site, YourEverAfter.org.