I’ve been thinking about the importance of language in relationships. Because, as a therapist, and a wife, and a writer, this is sort of thing that I contemplate on my commute home from work. But I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the language we use with those we care about. How can we better speak to those we love? How can we create a language that brings us together, instead of drives us apart?

Certainly, one of the great things about marriage is that we can fully be ourselves, that we don’t have to adapt the veil of professionalism or social etiquette necessary for the outside world. But sometimes we take this concept too far, failing to extend to our family the courtesy that we show others each and every day. Sometimes we think that choosing our words carefully is dishonest, that we’re not being real with our partners by being thoughtful of what we say. But what is more real than to show kindness and consideration to someone we love?  Read on for 4 key skills to use when talking to your partner about a problem.

Shift Your Mindset: Share Your Problems


In couples therapy, one of the key pieces of marriage advice is to re-frame a difficult issue or conflict as being shared between the two of you. In other words, once your spouse brings up a problem, it now belongs to you both. Ask yourself, how are we going to solve this problem?   What do we need to fix it? Keep in mind that the problem is the problem, not your partner. Both of you form the team against what could potentially come between you. This stance won’t make the problem magically disappear, but it does put you in a frame of mind that you are working together to solve it, instead of on opposite sides.

This position also helps reduce our focus on ‘being right,’ which is a killer in marriage, often leading to drawn out fights about inane details that usually don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Instead of proving your partner wrong, think about what each of you can do to handle this problem better in the future.


Avoid the Harsh Start Up: Set the Stage for a Good Fight


When you need to talk to your partner about a difficult topic or situation, be gentle with yourself and your loved one regarding how you bring it up. Instead of simply launching into the issue, or even worse, starting with criticism or sarcasm, be thoughtful regarding how what you will say might impact your partner. Take a moment to reflect on how it might feel for them to be hearing whatever the concern is. Be considerate of where and when you bring up the problem—if it’s a significant concern, sending an email during the work day, or jumping on your partner the moment they walk in the door, is probably not the best approach.

When you start calmly, and in a considerate time and place, you set the stage for the rest of the discussion to go well. Instead of your partner feeling attacked, and becoming defensive, they can feel you are truly open to working with them, and that you are more concerned with solutions than trying to prove yourself right.

The fact is, we make these considerations for others all the time. Chances are, if you have to speak with your colleague or a supervisor or a friend about a difficult issue, you spend some time thinking about what you want to say before you approach them. Some of this same courtesy goes a long way in marriage.


Apologize Like You Mean It


When you realize you have done something that has hurt your partner, be straightforward in your apology, and also allow your partner to express how they feel. Often, we feel the need to qualify our apology, saying, “I’m sorry, but…,” or we become defensive, “I didn’t mean…” But a sincere apology means really listening to your partner without jumping in to explain or defend yourself. It means saying you’re sorry, and letting those words hang there, without qualification or justification.

Further, it means listening to your partner talk about how your actions affected them. While this should not be a forum for them to heap abuse on you (see the section below), it’s an important part of the healing process for you to be a witness as to what your actions or choices felt like for them. It’s also important for you to sit with your own discomfort in having made a mistake, and then to begin to figure out together how you can do better in the future.


Forgive Like a Champ


On the opposite side, when your partner sincerely apologizes, it’s important to recognize it and to avoid making your partner feel small or ill-treated. A sincere apology is a vulnerable act, and deserves respect. It’s okay (and healthy) to share how their actions impacted you, such as, “it hurt me when you…,” or “I was really disappointed when you didn’t…” What’s not okay is to dissolve into name calling, blaming, or global assessments of their character, “You always…,” or “You never think about me!” Forgiveness in marriage is ultimately about reconciliation. Once your partner has sincerely apologized, and you each have expressed your own feelings surrounding the issue, it’s time to talk about how and if the problem can be avoided in the future.


A final word: nobody does all of these things perfectly all of the time. We all get frustrated, tired, irritable, and find ourselves slipping into defensiveness or pettiness, or launching into argument using criticism or blame. But the more that you practice these skills in your relationship, the easier they become to use. They don’t necessarily feel natural at first, particularly if you’re used to saying whatever you want to your partner, but through repeated practice, you can reach for these skills more readily when you need them.


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