Communication in a marriage

Reena felt hurt because her mother-in-law criticized her about not staying at home enough to take care of all her husband’s needs. She tried to tell her husband Sujit about her feelings, wanting his support. Sujit thought she was criticizing her family and ended up flying into a rage. At the end of the whole incident, Reena ended up feeling angry, hurt and misunderstood by both her husband and her mother-in-law.

This is a typical example of the way in which we often get our wires crossed when trying to communicate with our partners. The value of healthy open communication in any relationship, especially a marriage, can never be overstated. It can be a frustrating and hurtful experience when you are misunderstood by your partner. Prolonged communication problems between spouses can end up seriously damaging a relationship as neither partner truly understands what the other is like.

Prominent couples psychotherapist Dr Vijay Nagaswami notes in his book ‘The 24/7 Marriage-Smart strategies for good beginnings’ that often, you might see that arguments arise because the receiver of a message has stopped listening to what his/her partner is trying to communicate after the first sentence or so. He/she assumes what the rest of the message will be and reacts to it based on his/her own assumptions. In Sujit’s case, he was unable to understand that what Reena needed was his empathy. Instead, as soon as he heard her complaining about his mother, he became defensive assuming that she was being critical of his family. It helps if we actually listen to what the other person is trying to say and accurately understand their intentions before jumping to conclusions.

Researchers have identified some typical patterns of communication between couples. These communication patterns are often also influenced by an individual’s desire to exert power or control his/her partner. This might be done consciously or unconsciously. Two main patterns of conversation through which partners try to exert control are Complementary discussions and Symmentrical discussions.

A symmetrical discussion is one in which partners send similar messages that are designed to control how the relationship is defined. In other words, both partners use the same tactic while trying to resolve an issue about their relationship. There are three types of symmetrical discussions:

  • Competitive symmetry discussions– Here, both partners compete with each other and the conflict between partners escalates. The discussion becomes a competition in which both aim to defeat the other. This win-lose approach sets the stage for escalating hostilities. Whenever Sunita complains that her husband Sudhir is working too much, Sudhir reacts by listing out every instance when Sunita has not been at home when he wanted her. Their argument soon degenerates into a competition of who has made more mistakes than the other.
  • Submissive symmetry discussions– Here, both spouses try to give control of the situation to the other. Both avoid taking control of the situation, attempting to win by passing responsibility to the other. Akbar and Nisha are both non-confrontational people who hate having open fights. Whenever they have a problem to be resolved, neither one wants to be the one to take the step to bring the issue out into the open. Finally, their issues remain unresolved and continue to pile up.
  • Neutralized symmetry discussions– Here, the spouses respect each other and try to avoid exerting control over each other. The spouses adopt a win-win approach which ensures that partners will have time to enjoy each other instead of fighting. Obviously,neutralized symmetry is a preferred approach to healthy marriage communication. Usha has come to understand that her husband Pratap will never be comfortable socializing with her friends. She has stopped trying to convince him to do so. In return, Pratap has stopped working on the weekends so that the two of them can spend more quality time with each other.

Complementary discussions are characterized by the fact that the two partners adopt two different tactics while trying to resolve an issue in conversation. For example, Ram might become very silent and agree to everything his wife Sangeeta says during an argument whereas Sangeeta becomes dominant and demands that Ram accept her points of view.

Communication can be most effective when the issue of trying to exert control over one’s partner is dealt with so that the partners can spend more time trying to genuinely learn more about their spouse and respect their space.

TalkItOver provides professional counselling services by trained marriage counsellors which you can make use of if you want to work on improving the way you and your partner communicate. Please contact us for further information or counselling.

Reference: Nagaswami, Vijay.(2008). The 24/7 Marriage: Smart Strategies for Good Beginnings. New Delhi: Westland.

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About Sarayu Chandrashekar

Sarayu Chandrashekar is a qualified Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT). She has an M.S in Marriage and Family Therapy from Purdue University, USA, an M.S in Psychological Counselling from Montfort College, and a B.A in Psychology from Christ University, Bangalore. She has worked in a de-addiction centre and a family therapy clinic in the US as well as with the Association for the Mentally Challenged, Bangalore in the past. She has also completed a research study for her MFT degree on Indian couples living in the US and their marital satisfaction. She has nearly 1000 hours of counselling experience. She incorporates a combination of systemic family therapies and cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) in her work. She has a passion for couple and family therapy and group work.