What exactly is healthy communication within marriage?

I can think of only a few instances in fifteen years of working with couples that communication was not a key reason why the relationship was breaking down. Communication can break down in numerous ways.

  • Most couples don’t spend the necessary time that is required to foster healthy communication: no eye-to-eye, body-to-body focus, with intent listening.
  • Most couples have at least one person who thinks the other spouse can and should be able to “read my mind.”
  • Most couples have at least one person who thinks the other spouse can and should be able to “pick up on my body signals.”
  • Many new couples, especially, don’t bond completely because one spouse still communicates more with her/his parents or siblings or old friends than her/his spouse.
  • Most couples only talk about (a) superficial things (like the weather, movies, etc.), (b) tasks (like getting the oil changed, picking up the kids from practice, etc.) or (c) problems.

Moreover, there are some typical communication patterns that can ruin a marriage. They are like default settings on a computer. Here are the top three most common dysfunctional communication patterns I’ve encountered:

  • Critical Parent to Rebellious Child – “It’s my role to correct him”/ “It’s my role to rebel and do what I want.” This is typically manifested in a nagging wife (either explicitly by yelling, or passively by guilt messages and manipulation) and a passive aggressive husband.
  • Adult to Child – “Let me fix it”/ “I wish he’d just listen to me.” This is typically manifested in a Spock-life husband who can’t wait to fix his wife’s problem and a hurt/stressed wife who needs emotional validation and encouragement. Then, when the wife doesn’t heed his advice, the husband becomes childish (“Fine! I’m just trying to help!”), while the wife becomes frustrated (“Why won’t he just be there with me and listen!”)
  • Silence – This is when the couple just doesn’t talk much at all about their internal worlds. Sure, they can talk about superficial things or tasks to complete, but talk very little about their internal worlds. Silence kills a marriage. You can’t be bonded with someone who doesn’t share in your internal world.

Healthy communication occurs when your spouse fully understands and validates how you feel about events in your life and when you fully understand and validate how your spouse feels about events. So, there are three key components:

  1. Sharing feelings about events
  2. Feeling understood (“S/he gets it! S/he’s with me!”)
  3. Feeling validated/affirmed (“Your feelings matter to me”; “I’m sorry”; “I’m proud of you”) This is where Gary Chapman’s “Love Languages” are so important.

To say it once more: healthy communication is not just “spewing on a person” and hoping the person gets it. It’s not just about talking about events. Acquaintances talk about events. Co-workers talk about events. Friends and lovers talk about how you felt about that event. It’s about processing the meaning of events. That’s the internal world of feelings and attitudes. Healthy communication between spouses only occurs when each person is certain that you both feel understood and validated about how you feel about events in your lives. This is the only way to create lasting bonding between couples.

What should you talk about? At minimum, anything that affects the marriage. Here is a small sample:

  • All financial decisions (e.g., where the money is, how much there is, etc.). And never forget: money doesn’t cause divorce. The improper communication and resultant stress money can bring causes divorce.
  • All issues involving your job/career. Know what your spouse does. Talk about work stress, changes, etc.
  • Your particular roles in the marriage (e.g., Who will work? Why? Who does the dishes? Etc.)
  • Your sex life
  • Your Christian life (e.g., what God is doing in your life; prayer life; doubts/struggles/victories)
  • Your wounds (e.g., anything whatsoever that surfaces over time about which you need support and encouragement)

How is your communication? If it can be better, then get to work. It always starts with you, not your spouse. Take courage and begin being vulnerable. Listen well. Be safe. Validate. And when you see that you're part of the problem, own it and change.