Thursday, October 4, 2012

Saving Marriage -- Part IV

This is Part IV. Part 1 is here, Part II here, and Part III here. In Part III, I talked about how we can’t change a spouse, but I promised to talk about how we can share needs in a way that might lead to change. Here’s that discussion:

In a workshop on family communication I learned this: Everyone has a right to express his needs; he does not have a right to have his needs met.

In that workshop, we learned about assertive communication (as opposed to passive/aggressive or just aggressive communication).

How we communicate in a marriage makes a great deal of difference about how we feel about ourselves and our partner, and it may also be driven by how we feel about ourselves and our partner.
Let me start in the middle:

Assertive communication is a way for me to share my thoughts, feelings and needs in a way that is complete and honest, but does not threaten my partner. It allows me to be clear about what I want, but it does not make undue demands. And it does not hide my real intentions.

Passive/aggressive communication, on the other hand, masks controlling behavior in compliant communication. I seek to get what I want without actually saying what I want. Think stereotypical martyr-mother: Oh, that’s fine; don’t worry about me!

Aggressive communication, on the third hand (how many hands do I have??) is just that – it makes demands without regard for the other person’s feelings or point of view. Think drill sergeant or domineering spouse.

How we communicate says a lot about how we feel about our self and our partner. A wife who fears her husband is less likely to choose assertive communication. She may discount her own opinion because she has little confidence in it, or she fears his response to it. So she may passively accept whatever he has to offer.

By the same token, a person who leads but lacks confidence may be overly aggressive in his communication to compensate for his feelings of inadequacy.

Emotional health fosters – and is fostered by – assertive communication in which each partner can speak honestly about his or her feelings without the false expectation that he or she will get everything he or she wants.

Let’s look at an example:

He: (Thinking he’s being polite) I’m glad we’re going out to dinner tonight. Where would you like to go?

She: (Thinking: He always does this! Why does he make me choose? Why can’t he take responsibility for the date?) Oh, I don’t care. Wherever you want to go is fine with me.

He: Ok. I really feel like a burger. How about the Tavern Grill?

She: Really? Oh. Ok, I guess.

That’s classic passive/aggressive communication. It may be true that Dear Husband blew it by not planning the date better, but Lovely Wife ended up disappointed because her needs were not met. And why were they not met? Because Dear Hubby had no idea what they were.

How could it be better? Let’s look:

He: (Thinking he’s being polite) I’m glad we’re going to dinner tonight. Where would you like to go?

She: Honey, thanks for asking my opinion, but it seems every time we go out, you ask me where I want to go.

He: Oh. I just wanted to see if you had anywhere special you wanted to go.

She: That’s sweet of you, but sometimes it feels like maybe you haven’t made any plans.

He: I guess I can see how you might think that. Would you rather I choose a place?

She: I do like it when you make plans for us. It makes me feel like we’re on a real date. But I also like having input. I just don’t like feeling like I have to make the decision every time.

He: Sounds like you feel like I’m inviting you to dinner, then making you make the plans. I guess that’s not much fun for you.

She: Well, yeah, I think you’re right. But I do appreciate your taking me to dinner, really!

He: How about if I suggest a place, and if you’d rather not go there, you can tell me, and then we can choose something else. That way I’ll have given it some thought, and you won’t have to feel like you’re planning it. But you’ll also get a vote in where we go.

Ok, I know it all sounds pretty corny, doesn’t it? Would it surprise you to know my lovely wife and I had almost that exact conversation a few years ago (right after we took that communication class)? The impact of that simple exchange has been remarkable.

Here’s why:

1. My lovely wife had some unmet needs. First, she had a need for me actually to plan our date. And second, she had a need to be able to tell me how she felt.

2. Although I thought I was being polite by seeking her point of view, I was not meeting her need to have me plan the date. And I wasn’t making it very easy for her to share her point of view, either. (She was afraid she’d hurt my feelings.)

3. Because we had been practicing assertive communication, in which we each shared our needs with one another, she was more comfortable telling me what she really thought. Because she cared about me, she did it in a way that was kind, but also clear. Because I cared about her, I listened to what she said instead of becoming defensive. Her need to share became more important to me than my need to defend my position.

4. Once she shared her need, I mirrored back what she said to be sure I understood. When she saw I was getting the message (instead of being defensive), she was more willing to keep sharing.

I’ve used a very simple example, but the principle works in all sorts of issues in a marriage. I really believe (as you know from my other “Saving Marriage” posts) that we can’t control another person’s behavior. But we can influence one another. Assertive communication is a key tool for developing an honest and open dialogue with our spouse. And that honest and open communication is key to sharing – and ultimately meeting – one another’s needs.

President Kimball taught the following about marriage:

The formula is simple; the ingredients are few, though there are many amplifications of each.

First, there must be the proper approach toward marriage, which contemplates the selection of a spouse who reaches as nearly as possible the pinnacle of perfection in all the matters which are of importance to the individuals. And then those two parties must come to the altar in the temple realizing that they must work hard toward this successful joint living.

Second, there must be a great unselfishness, forgetting self and directing all of the family life and all pertaining thereunto to the good of the family, subjugating self.

Third, there must be continued courting and expressions of affection, kindness, and consideration to keep love alive and growing.

Fourth, there must be a complete living of the commandments of the Lord as defined in the gospel of Jesus Christ (“Oneness in Marriage,” Ensign, March 1997).
It’s his second point – subjugating self for the good of the family – that gets to the heart of successful assertive communication. We do not subjugate ourselves by ignoring our needs. We do it by mutually working to meet each other’s needs. I am the first to acknowledge that in an emotionally unhealthy relationship, subjugation of self is a dangerous thing. That’s why all four parts of President Kimball’s formula are so important.

But even in less-than-perfect marriages, assertive communication -- communication in which we say what we mean, mean what we say, but don’t say it meanly – can help partners to express their needs, leading to healthy discussion. Assertive communication can reduce aggressive or passive/aggressive communication that would continue to foster the unhealthy relationship.


  1. Sooo - in your example, your wife gets her needs met by having you plan the date, yet she gets to possibly make the final decision as to where she wants to eat? I'm all for "say what you mean, mean what you say," but I think your example may be off. Early in dating, the Asker does do all the planning, and if the date is properly accepted, they do what the Asker wants to do. However, as the parties feel more comfortable with each other, flexibility naturally sets in. After all, who wants to go on a date with someone and always do exactly what Asker wants to do. Then, as we continue on in marriage, that flexibility usually remains, so that asking your spouse their opinion and input is polite and nice. The fact that you organized the basic elements of the date (baby sitter, time off work, etc) should be enough. Some dates are going to be set in stone, yet others are just a chance to be together, so that whether the activity is dinner, a movie, or sitting in the park - anything is sufficient. It just seems like in your example, the wife could have simply said (and truthfully) - "You know, dear, thanks for asking. I don't care where we eat as long as I'm with you." Neither party is passive -- agressive, and he has asked what he meant to ask, and she has answered what she meant to answer. No manipulation, no game playing.

  2. Yes, of course she could have responded that way. But she didn't. And both uof us can work to improve communication. I do not believe it is helpful to assign blame in a relationship of equal partners, but it is better to work together for the success of the partnership.?