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Winter Edition
Volume 100, Number 3

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bride and groom

illustration by Ammon R. Perry '09

When two become one

What makes a happy marriage? Can a failing marital relationship be turned around? Researchers have found some answers to these questions and have developed concrete advice about what works in a marriage and what doesn’t. Faculty members in Messiah College’s Department of Human Development and Family Science regularly engage in scholarship and offer education programs that focus on enhancing marriages and families. In the following pages, these scholars share practical information and suggestions to help couples navigate the ups and downs, and the give and take, of married life.

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Say it well

How to communicate constructively

“Communicate, communicate, communicate,” the old adage advises. But it is not only how much, but also how well you communicate that determines the health of your marriage. Fortunately, numerous research-based suggestions for marital communication have bolstered flagging relationships and affirmed vibrant ones. Being aware of the following communication tools, warning signs, and practical strategies can help couples bridge misunderstandings and connect more closely with each other.

The speaker-listener technique Outlined by Scott Stanley and his colleagues at the University of Denver’s Center for Marital and Family Studies, the speaker-listener technique offers a helpful strategy for communicating respectfully and clearly. Here’s how it works:

Couples begin by giving each other their full attention. The speaker shares thoughts, feelings, and concerns in small chunks, then pauses to allow the listener to paraphrase without interpreting what the listener heard. Once the speaker feels he or she has been accurately heard, the “floor” passes to the other partner, who then shares his or her own thoughts.

This kind of structured conversation is often helpful for more difficult or sensitive topics because it tends to reduce escalation, invalidation, and withdrawal. It provides couples with a method to apply the advice of the apostle James: “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger” (James 1:19).

Four warning signs in couple communication

John Gottman, co-director of the Seattle Marital and Family Institute, says he can predict divorce in 91 percent of cases just by watching how couples interact with one another. He identifies four warning signs in communication: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

Criticism occurs when  spouses denigrate their partner’s character and personality.
Contempt, the most damaging warning sign, conveys disgust for one’s partner, often evidenced in name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, hostile humor, and mockery.
Defensiveness exhibits itself by denying responsibility, making excuses, cross-complaining (responding to your partner’s complaint with one of your own), repeating one’s own point of view rather than listening to one’s spouse, whining, and stiff body language. Stonewalling, more common among men, expresses disinterest in what the partner is saying. This disengagement, or turning away from one’s partner, usually evolves later in the marriage, after criticism, contempt, and defensiveness have worked their damage.

Strategies for fostering positive communication

Emotionally turn toward your partner in everyday life. Make “bids” for your partner’s attention by injecting attention, affection, humor, and support. Remind yourself of your partner’s positive qualities, since admiration and appreciation stave off contempt in times of conflict.
Practice “soft start-ups” (messages that are devoid of criticism or contempt) when broaching touchy issues. Avoid “harsh start-ups” (such as saying, “How many times do I need to remind you to . . . ?”). Talk about specific behaviors, not your partner’s character.
Identify and employ “repair attempts” (a wink, humor, reaching out to touch your partner’s hand), which are strategies that de-escalate tension during heated discussions. Accept your differences, recognizing that every disagreement does not have to be resolved. Learn to understand your spouse’s viewpoint, even if you disagree; and learn when to compromise and how to let your partner influence you.

Be friends first. Excellent marital communication is based on deep friendship; when one’s spouse is a valued friend, you are motivated to communicate carefully so that disagreements don’t spiral out of control.



Raeann R. Hamon and M. Njoroge Mbito

Raeann Hamon Njoroge Mbito

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