Have you seen the movie This is 40? You won’t find any kind of sage marital advice or existential profundity – but you will find yourself hopefully able to laugh hysterically about the absurd situations every married couple has found itself in, at one time or another. Check out the fight scene from the movie here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8NN-XC4_TAE

Ever had this kind of a fight with your spouse where both of you are trying to follow the “rules” of “good communication” and it turns out rather absurd, rather quickly? Consider these 5 tips to improve bad communication in your marriage.

  1. 1. Good communication is not about following rules or squeezing techniques into tense moments. Sometimes tense moments are just tense moments. Trying to “behave” during them sometimes misses the jewels and gems you may learn about yourself and your spouse. I’m not advocating “blowing” at your spouse. Walking away when things get tense can be a very important relationship saving discipline. But on some occasions losing your cool can be useful. It may help you recognize the load you are carrying in the relationship and it may help you let go of it a little. It may help you identify feelings you weren’t aware you had. It can sometimes even help you let go of these feelings. One wife I spoke to recently saw her husband’s newly emerging, occasional angry vents as a sign of progress – a change from his normally stoic approach to their every problem. He experienced the relief of not holding on so tightly. They both look forward to a time when feelings and thoughts can be shared between them openly and without too much fear.
  2. 2. Good communication is separate, equal, and open. Good communication is about adopting a stance characterized by 3 qualities: separate, equal, open. When individuals can separate themselves, even just a little, from the emotionally reactive blob of couple-ness, they can start to settle down and respond more from thought – much like they may be able to do with, for example, a work colleague. Working toward separation from this blob in turn generates more of a sense of equality and openness. The two shall become one may be a truism rather than an ideal for couples when it comes to good communication. 
  3. Bad communication is a symptom, not the problem. What is the problem? According to Bowen Theory, the problem has to do with an imbalance between two powerful relationship forces: the force toward togetherness and the force toward individuality. When the relationship togetherness pressure is greater than the ability of each spouse to be separate individuals, communication falls by the way side. It is a matter of too much anxiety or togetherness pressure and too little individuality. Being able to be an individual when the pressure to conform increases is key to improving bad communication.
  4. 4. It’s about the “I” Position – not “I” Statements. Did you see the couple’s absurd application of using “I” statements in the movie clip above? Using “I” statements is a way of thinking – not a technique or formula to apply as if we are in grade school learning how to write sentences. Perhaps a better way of thinking about “I” statements is the “I” position.  An “I” position is a way of being – a lifestyle not a diet. An “I” position is a way of being we develop over a long period of time with sustained focus and effort. It involves increased self-awareness, not only of what principles we live for and live by, but also a self-awareness of how we contribute to the stuck-ness and crises in our relationships. Harriet Lerner does a wonderful job of describing the “I” position in her books. The Dance of Anger or The Dance of Intimacy would be great places to start.
  5. 5. Keep it light. Ever think about why friendships seem so much easier to maintain than marriages? One theory I read about recently – in Roberta Gilbert’s book Extraordinary Relationships – posits that friendships tend to automatically make fun and lightness a priority. When you can cool off some of the emotional reactivity to make a point of having more fun with your spouse, you will go a long way to being able to resolve some of the stickier issues in the relationship. This is not a quick- fix kind of idea. Developing this ability and having it be a more stable aspect of a marriage takes a long time with sustained effort. But if the married couple in This is 40 could have broken down and started laughing at each other and at themselves during this fight, we would all have been laughing with them. Some of us were anyway.