I was having lunch last month with a colleague, Nathan. At 65 he’s at the height of his research career, earns a good salary as a university professor and has been married to Sheila for 35 years. They have three adult children, all grown and living close by.
Sheila, 64, is a public relations consultant, and one of her clients is the local professional basketball team. She loves her work and doesn’t mind putting in up to 50 hours a week.
Our conversation started with work, politics and the cold snap we were having but quickly turned to Nathan’s marriage and the fact that lately he and his wife seemed to be fighting all the time. “When the kids were living with us, we were more of a united front: Us against them,” Nathan said with a half-grin. “Now we seem to snip and contradict each other a lot."
I sensed he was looking for advice from me as a relationship expert. Nathan had heard me discuss the findings from my long-term study on marriage many times and even enjoyed reading my book based on the findings. So I invited him to come to my office later that week and discuss strategies from that research he might use at home.
Getting Out of a Communication Rut
The first question I asked Nathan was what they disagreed about so I could gauge the seriousness of the situation. “We don’t have rip-roaring fights,” he said. “We seem to squabble over household stuff, like who’s going to deal with the roofer because we’re both so swamped at work, and how we’re going to pay for it. Or why she made plans on the night I thought we were having dinner together. Or what we should do with my late dad’s Lincoln that’s been parked in our garage. Just stuff like that.”
But then he added, clearly frustrated: “She misinterprets everything I say. I make an effort to hear what she has to say, but it isn’t working.” He also expressed the feeling that she was more critical of him than he was of her. He looked at me with fear in his eyes and asked, “Is our marriage in trouble?”
My study of long-married couples shows that the real block to happiness and marital success isn’t the amount of conflict; it’s the ratio of positive to negative experiences. I’ve found that the positive times need to outweigh the negatives by a factor of about 5:1.
I felt that Nathan and Sheila’s areas of disagreement weren’t too serious. What’s happening here, I told him, was that they had fallen into a pattern of poor communication. But, I told him, by paying more attention to how they were speaking to each other, they could get themselves out.
(MORE: Generosity May Be What Matters Most in Marriage)
Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood
In my study I found, not surprisingly, that partners who communicate poorly with each other become very dissatisfied and unhappy in their relationships. So in that sense, Nathan and Sheila were having a problem that could potentially damage their marriage.
I told Nathan that while arguing is normal, what’s important is the way the spouses handle those spats. It’s essential that you feel you can resolve your differences, even if you agree to disagree on certain topics.
We don’t always realize that the message we're sending our partners is not the one they're hearing. This tends to occur for one of two reasons. First, there may be a discrepancy between our words and our behaviors (e.g., kind words but a disapproving look). If a disconnect like this does occur, the truth usually lies in our behaviors.
The second reason for miscommunication is that we occasionally have trouble articulating exactly what we mean. Nathan offered a textbook example: “I said to Sheila, ‘Let’s go out for dinner tonight.’ Oh boy, if looks could kill. She glared at me, and the mood was ruined. She inferred that I was attacking her cooking, which has become pretty perfunctory lately with our schedules. But I was really trying to ask her out on a date.”
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