What if Communication ISN’T the Key to a Happy Marriage?

Guest Author: E.J. Smith, M.S., NCC, LPC-Intern and Military Spouse
Photo Credit: Tamptopia Photography www.tamtopia.com

You’ve heard it on television from Oprah, and you’ve read it in every self-help book you could get your hands on, so finish this sentence for me:  “The key to a happy relationship is good _______________.”

Odds are, you answered “communication” (… or sex but, that’s a different article).  Truly, marriage communication has been the golden child of marriage therapy.  The thought being: if couples can learn to communicate better-to express themselves in ways that more accurately represent their feelings on an issue, and to listen to their spouses with open ears and minds-the stronger the marriage.  There are workshops and retreats especially designed to help couples learn to map issues, set ground rules for discourse, and transition from speaker to listener.

But what if communication isn’t the Holy Grail of a happy, healthy relationship? Research shows that marriage counseling-again, most of which focuses on communication– often results in surface-level, or temporary changes.  Some researchers estimate the rate of relapse to be as high as 50%, making the relapse rate for traditional marriage counseling about the same for drug relapse! Ouch!

That’s not to suggest that learning good communication skills isn’t important for keeping your marriage healthy and strong.  Communication skills can definitely curb the abusive cycles that arguing often perpetuates.  And if you’re not verbally accosting your spouse during a disagreement, you have a better chance of being heard.  The problem is that therapy focused on communication skills presupposes that spouses value each other enough to bother listening at all… 



The Answer?

So if communication isn’t the be-all/end-all of marital bliss, what is?  As with most adult problems, there doesn’t seem to be one answer.  What I can tell you, however, is that The Gottman Institute-an institute with backing from the National Institute of Mental Health-conducted several longitudinal studies of marriages over the course of several decades, and their findings suggest that marriages that score high on happiness, satisfaction and longevity, also are teeming with partners who value, respect and appreciate each other. These marriages recognize that each partner is a whole, independent person (prior to the marriage, and throughout the marriage). These partners actively take interest in knowing the intricacies of the other- from the silly and banal to the profound. 

In short, contemporary therapists and researchers find that unless couples value and respect each other, the foundation upon which to start using those traditional marriage therapy communication skills is lacking.  And if couples who spend day-in and day-out with their spouses can become disconnected, it should come as no surprise that military families are even more susceptible to this challenge.   Military families are trained by deployments, TDYs and other obligations to let go of each other from time to time.  Service members learn to block out distractions and focus solely on the mission.  Spouses left behind learn to make decisions-sometimes major ones-completely solo.  We’re encouraged to be independent, and not place burdens on our service members.  When spouses return home, giving up complete control of the reins isn’t always easy.  As Kathleen Foley, AFI 2014 Marine Corps Undesignated Base Spouse of the Year noted, “As a woman, it feels almost like putting your heart back in the hands of someone you KNOW is going to break it- you know he can’t always be relied on, through no fault of his own, and it makes giving him authority to make any decisions really hard.” 

Of course, Kathleen and her husband work diligently to reconnect, co-parent and make decisions.  Other couples, however, might not navigate these waters as well. It’s not that they don’t know how to listen necessarily-it’s that at some point they lose sight of their spouse as a partner.


So how does one start connecting more intimately with their spouse?  First and foremost, get interested and get curious.  If you’re currently on good terms with your spouse-and I truly hope you are-ask each other random questions, and then listen to the answer.  When you ask how their day was, make eye contact and really lock into what they say in response. 

Test yourself:  How many of these questions can you answer correctly about your spouse?

1) How does your spouse take his/her coffee?

2) What’s his/her favorite food/dessert?

3) As a kid, what did s/he want to be when s/he grew up?

4) What’s his/her biggest worry at the moment?

5) What are your partner’s biggest hopes and dreams?

6) Who is his/her least favorite relative?

7) What does you partner believe or not believe about life after death?

Happy couples know one another as individuals, and are closely connected to their partner’s world.  This type of knowing allows spouses the opportunities to demonstrate their consideration and affection for their partners by remembering major dates in their history, anticipating needs, and allowing their spouses to grow as people.  This type of fluidity seems especially important for military couples.  Intimately knowing your spouse can protect marriages from unforeseen challenges and upheaval, like that deployment that got bumped up six months, or that PCS where the movers managed to lose an entire shipping crate.   



If you and your spouse are going through a rough patch, consider offering an “olive branch” in the form of sharing a favorite early memory of your relationship with each other.  According to Markman, Stanley and Blumberg, the authors of the very popular Fighting for Your Marriage and the PREP Program, couples that connect with happy memories (even when things aren’t going so fantastic in the moment) have much better chances of pulling through.  Hold on to the good times.  They are lifelines. 

Up for a Challenge?

One challenge I frequently present to my clients-even if they’re not specifically in couple/relationship counseling-is to write down those qualities and attributes they absolutely adore or love about their spouse.  If you’re going to do this, you must do it during one of those moments when things are good.  Don’t try to do it when you’re angry-believe me, it won’t work.  Save the paper some place where you’ll remember it.  When arguments or tense moments arise, when your spouse feels like your biggest adversary rather than partner, I challenge you read and acknowledge the good qualities about their spouse in that moment. 

Need an example?  Here we go:  “Even though my husband did not put the dishes from the sink into the dishwasher… he is a loyal man, a fantastic Marine, and an excellent father.” 

The goal behind this sort of exercise is to keep gripes within marriages ‘issue centered’, and not ‘person centered.’  It’s the difference between having a complaint about a situation vs. being critical of your spouse as a person. I also find that it’s pretty darn good for keeping things in perspective.  It also forces us to fight the “all or nothing”/ “black and white” thinking that can cloud our judgment in the moment.

Sound off…

Every marriage and relationship is different.  What have you tried in your marriage that has worked well for you?  What definitely hasn’t?  Share and let me know!

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