A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” Proverbs 15:1
According to a large survey of married couples, healthy communication is one of the most telling differences between those who are happy and those who are not. Couples that are satisfied with how they talk to each other are generally happy. Unhappy couples show signs of poor communication: They often refuse to discuss issues or problems, make comments that put each other down, have difficulty asking each other for what they want, do not understand how each feels, and wish their partner were more willing to share feelings.
Healthy communication is one of the most telling differences between those who are happy and those who are not.
We are wired for relationships, and we have a basic and deep-seated need to be connected to others. Other people impact us in profound ways. Using a vast array of “mirror neurons,” our brains respond automatically and unconsciously to those around us, communicating moods like a contagion. As we respond to other people’s actions, intents and emotions, we begin to catch (and connect with) their internal experiences and feelings—a connectedness not unlike a wireless or a Bluetooth device. Such responses can form the basis of things like empathy and social intelligence, helping us know what other people feel and want, helping facilitate healthy communication.
Our wishes and desires for security, attachment and significance are often met and fulfilled in quality relationships with others, starting with parents and caregivers, our friends and loved ones, and in marriages with our spouses. However, by their thoughts and actions (or lack thereof), others can also make us feel unloved, devalued, slighted and dishonored.
Good communicators recognize that there are “events,” the “what” we argue about (like the dishes), and there are the “issues,” the hidden or deeper feelings. Couples that communicate well learn to identify the hidden issues and hurt feelings. In Psalm 139:23-25, King David wrote, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.”
Here are some healthy habits and patterns that happy couples tend to employ:
1. Create space to calm down (i.e., a “time out”) and reflect on the emotions and deeper feelings going on in you. These feelings should not be judged as good or bad, right or wrong, but rather as information on the status or condition of your soul.
2. Soften hurtful responses. Healthy marriages are emotionally and physically safe. Interactions are free from chronic negative patterns such as contempt, criticism and defensiveness, as well as any physical attacks.
3. Care for your mate’s heart. Caring means empathy. The goal is to care about their feelings, emotions and heart—empathy— putting yourself in your mate’s shoes, trying to see the issue from their perspective.
4. You do this by listening, helping your spouse feel understood and cared for; by being curious and not judgmental; by being compassionate and feeling their pain (letting your heart be “touched” by their emotions); and by apologizing, seeking forgiveness for any hurt or pain you’ve caused.
5. Valuing each other more than ourselves (Philippians 2:3). Such is the basis for empathy and intimacy in relationships.
Christopher Grace serves as the director of the Biola University Center for Marriage and Relationships and teaches psychology at Rosemead School of Psychology. He and his wife, Alisa, speak regularly to married couples, churches, singles and college students on the topic of relationships, dating and marriage. Grace earned his M.S. and Ph.D. in experimental social psychology from Colorado State University.