Some couples live in a climate that is perpetually chilly. They don’t argue with each other, yet there isn’t a sense of warmth or intimacy between them. They go about their daily routines and never really connect. Other couples exist in a climate that is stormy and filled with arguments. These couples can’t seem to agree on anything and talking about issues only seems to make matters worse. Others live in a climate that is partly cloudy where communication is fine so long as certain topics— finances, sex, schedules—are avoided. Like rain clouds, these topics hang over a marriage and threaten to disrupt intimacy if discussed. Then there are some couples we meet that seem to live in a state of never-ending sunshine. They seem to always be happy, affirming of one another, and never utter a harsh word toward each other. The key for each of these couples is to understand how their climates formed and what it takes to maintain or alter them.
How you interact with your spouse on a daily basis is the single greatest factor that establishes the type of communication climate that surrounds your marriage. It isn’t “what we communicate about that shapes a relational climate,” note communication experts, “as much as how we speak and act toward one another” (Adler et al., 2007). The book of Proverbs forcefully states that both life and death reside in the tongue (18:21). Just as our speech can impart life and death, it also establishes the type of marital climate you experience every day.
While communication scholars agree that communication climates are vital to healthy relationships, not all scholars agree on the specific elements that make up a climate. After much discussion, scholars identify four key elements of a communication climate: acknowledgement, trust, expectations and commitment. Each one of these elements warrants our attention.
Acknowledging another person is the perhaps the most confirming form of communication and the most rare. We acknowledge another person when we take time to seek out and attend to his or her perspective. Acknowledgment is often expressed by eye contact, touching, asking questions and allowing a person to speak uninterrupted. Acknowledging another person’s perspective does not mean that we necessarily condone or agree with it. Rather, we simply recognize the validity and uniqueness of that perspective. To notice and engage another person as being unique and irreplaceable is a deeply encouraging form of interaction.
With alarming regularity, various media report of politicians, clergy, sports figures and presidents being caught in lies. Young athletes have grown up in the steroids era and now look at sports heroes with a suspecting eye. The cumulative result of this chronic lack of trust is we are encouraged “to interpret daily communication actions from a vantage point of mistrust and doubt” (Arnett, 1994). If the communication climate between two people is marked by mistrust a person “begins to question what is stated and looks for an unstated real answer, which begins a cycle of distrust and suspicion.”
On the day you said “I do,” you not only married a person, but all of his or her expectations of what marriage would be like. Words like husband, wife, bread winner, spiritual leader, sexual intimacy, handy man, provider are all highly personalized concepts. Where did your ideas and definitions of these words come from? The earliest and most lasting definitions you receive come from your parents. An author who writes on marriage tells couples that in the midst of a disagreement, they need to ask: “Who’s in the room with you?” He doesn’t mean just your spouse. He means, who has influenced your view of marriage, roles, responsibilities and expectations?
In an era described as the divorce culture, the health of a couple’s communication climate will hinge on a sense of commitment and mutual investment. “The hallmark of commitment,” notes relationship expert Julia Wood, is “the assumption of a future.” Psychologists have long noted how commitment between individuals fosters feelings of empowerment and positive self-image. In one study individuals who felt a secure bond to their spouses were given a list of adjectives to describe them. The more connected an individual felt to his or her spouse the more positive the trait he or she picked out. These same individuals readily admitted that they didn’t live up to all their own ideals, but still felt good about themselves based on the overall security of their relationship.
When evaluating your marital climate, make sure not to confuse climate with weather. For example, the overall climate in California is sunny and pleasant with occasional rain showers. It would be a mistake to judge California’s overall climate by one afternoon of thunderstorms. The same can be true of your marital climate in which the overall climate is healthy with occasional arguments or unmet expectations. Do not let the weather (the current disagreement you are having) color the entire climate (generally how we treat each other).
There are three aspects to taking a read of your marital climate. First, determine how you feel about the climate. Second, imagine how your spouse feels. Third, check your perceptions with your spouse. Below, you'll find a series of questions exploring each of the aspects of a marital climate. Notice that these questions ask you to first assign a number value (one being the lowest and five being the highest) and then ask a follow up question that allows you to write down thoughts and dig a little deeper. For some people, numbers help clarify their thinking, while for others, being able to write out complete sentences furthers the evaluation process. Remember, first you answer these questions. When finished, go back and answer how you think your spouse would respond to these questions. Then, go and talk it over with your spouse.
Overall, I feel that my spouse acknowledges my perspective.
1 2 3 4 5
Consider: What topic or issue do I wish my spouse would acknowledge more?
Overall, I trust my spouse.
1 2 3 4 5
Consider: What does my spouse do that makes it easy for me to trust him or her?
Overall, I am committed to my marriage as my highest priority (outside of fidelity to God).
1 2 3 4 5
Consider: Is there any other relationship (kids, parents) or aspiration (career, material) that competes with your marriage relationship being your top priority?
Overall, my marital expectations are being met.
1 2 3 4 5
Consider: Am I comfortable with how words like husband and wife are currently being defined within my marriage?
Tim Muehlhoff is a professor of communication at Biola University and author of several books, including I Beg to Differ and Marriage Forecasting. For the past 18 years, he and his wife, Noreen, have been frequent speakers at FamilyLife marriage conferences. Muehlhoff regularly writes and speaks for the Biola University Center for Marriage and Relationships. Follow Dr. Muehlhoff on Twitter.