Written by Hilary I. Lebow
You can’t build a house without the foundation, right? That’s what communication is to a marriage: brick and mortar.
Most of us have had moments in marriage where we want to say something to our partner but we simply can’t find the words. Instead, we bury it, avoid the conversation, or even hope that our spouse can magically read our minds.
But if this hasn’t worked for you so far, it’s not surprising — and you’re not alone.
Relationships need real talk, even when it’s uncomfortable. The more you prioritize communication, the more it can help you and your spouse bond and strengthen as a unit.
Fixing communication problems in marriage can provide residual benefits in the household and other aspects of your lives as well.
What causes a lack of communication in a marriage?
Communication challenges happen for many reasons.
Positive communication may not have been modeled to you by your caregivers growing up, or your current relationship challenges may have left you more than a little tongue-tied.
Some possibilities include:
breach of trust
difficulty with vulnerability
lack of time together
insecure attachment style
Common problems behind closed doors
While each couple is different, there are common communication problems in marriage.
1. Talking and yelling ‘at’ them
Talking “at” someone often means you’re trying to be heard. Talking “with” someone, on the other hand, means you are trying to understand each other.
Yelling can make things even more complicated. Being yelled at activates the fight, flight, or freeze response and floods the body with stress hormones. When this happens, all nonessential systems shut down, like complex problem-solving ability.
It’s not that your spouse doesn’t want to understand you. From a biological perspective, as research Trusted Source shows, they literally can’t — at least not until things have calmed down.
You might try
taking a 20-minute timeout until you’ve both calmed down
moving your body to release pent-up tension and aggression
writing down your main points briefly and reading the note to your spouse
2. Letting resentment and bitterness take root
Being bitter toward your spouse is like holding a heavy suitcase: You can do it with little consequence for 5 minutes, even an hour. But over the long term, the suitcase weighs you down and makes it hard to get anything else done.
A 2017 study involving 335 couples over 16 years of marriage found that while men are more likely to feel this kind of marital tension than women, the numbers indicate it’s typically women’s unhappiness that tends to lead to divorce.
Bitterness and resentment can also turn into contempt, one of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” according to renowned marriage researcher John Gottman. This is when you start to look at your spouse unfavorably for who they are, rather than for what they do.
You might try
avoiding building a “case” against your partner
communicating your needs and complaints regularly
separating your spouse’s actions from their character, such as “I feel hurt that the dishes weren’t done” versus “You’re a lazy slob”
articulating why you feel grateful for your partner
3. Making plans and taking actions that are about me instead of we
When it comes to relationships, two halves don’t make a whole. It’s more accurate to say two “whole” people come together, each with separate interests and identities.
However, too much separation can spell trouble. When you or your partner start making plans or decisions without considering the other person, someone may feel like their needs aren’t being met.
Interdependence is a healthy compromise. According to a 2018 review of 30 studies, couples who refer to “we” instead of “me” function better and have happier relationships.
You can try to remember that the two of you are on the same side. It’s not you versus them — it’s you and them versus the challenge. It’s ideal to tackle the issues like a team.
You might try
shifting the pronouns to “we” instead of “me” when talking about your relationship
doing trust-building activities together, like rock climbing or couples yoga
learning your spouse’s love language and sharing your own with them
How do you fix communication problems in marriage?
Effective communication in marriage may not be intuitive for everyone. For many of us, it’s a skill set that takes some know-how. Here’s how to get started:
Process your feelings
You may find it helpful to take a moment and sort through your feelings ahead of time. This could look like:
journaling stream of consciousness
observing your thoughts in meditation
practicing what you want to say in a mirror
writing a “vent” letter (that you don’t send!)
Create a ‘container’
You can pick a time and a place, preferably when both of you won’t be rushed or distracted. From there, you might try this process:
Put your phones on silent.
Relax your body language to signal “openness.”
Lay down some ground rules, like no interrupting or raising your voice.
Set a timer for a previously agreed upon amount of time.
Stick to the topic at hand — and only that topic.
Avoid complaining and blaming.
Use “I” statements (e.g., “I feel sad when I cook dinner and end up eating it alone”).
While you’re silent, hone your active listening skills.
When the timer goes off, reset it so the other person can speak.
If your communication challenges stem from old relationship issues, like a breach of trust, you may personally find it helpful to speak with a compassionate professional who can help you work through it, so you can bring your mentally healthiest and whole self to the marriage.
Consider couples counseling
An objective third party, like a couples counselor, can help point out patterns and strengthen your bond with communication exercises.
While not the sexiest topic, communication is arguably the most sacred part of a union.
Done correctly, it can smooth out relationship turbulence, improve emotional intimacy, and strengthen your bond for the long haul.
Improving your communication skills takes work, but it’s well worth it. If it’s difficult for the two of you to do on your own, consider working with a couples counselor.
As author and entrepreneur Tony Robbins says, “Do you want to be right, or do you want to be in love?”
We’d pick the latter.