Character and other issues within marital communication

Main post originally published 16 December 2012
See details of the free ebook version of this post here

I used to think that communication would be comparatively easy within marriage. In my mind, before two people decide to go out with one another, the time leading up to that decision can be filled with all manner of awkwardness, and dancing around. How do you subtly let someone know that you might be interested in them? And then once you are actually in the relationship, more awkwardness, as you diplomatically try to define boundaries, and work out whether you are both genuinely going in the same direction, and whether marriage would actually be a good idea. And then, to my mind, marriage would be a golden state, where you have actually managed to work through all these issues, and learned how to talk to one another, and you get to enjoy the relatively easy and straightforward communication. After all, you already know how you feel about one another, you have both already stood up to declare yourselves publicly. What else is there to feel awkward or vulnerable about?

Because of this, I actually used to wish that I could just wake up married one day, with all the awkwardness dealt with and behind me.

Communication difficulties start within marriage?
However, from listening to what people say, it seems that that is far from the case. From what people say, it seems that for many people, real difficulties in communication only begin within the marriage itself. This might be why communication remains one of the big difficulties of marriage. I can only deduce that many people actually did sleepwalk or dream their way into marriage, so that instead of much of the awkwardness lying behind them, when they finally wake up within marriage, all those big difficult things are there, waiting to present themselves. What I mean is that for many people, the period before their marriage seems to be a merry dance of fun, laughter, flirtation, looking good and having good times and the main questions that people seem to worry about are “Are you available?” and “Are you attractive?” So even where these big issues might be there, they can effectively be brushed aside, especially if you’re both concentrating on getting down that aisle. However this is not the case within marriage, of course, when you are both going to the same house there is no longer anywhere to hide from one another.
Communication – The Lifeblood of our relationships
Various wise and knowledgeable people refer to communication as the lifeblood in any relationship. And yet everyone acknowledges that communication in a relationship can be very difficult. Why might this be? In theory, opening your mouth and saying what you think, or what you feel, should not be so hard. Thinking about it, to me it is not necessarily the physical act of saying what you think, or how you feel that presents the difficulty. Rather, the difficulty might come in how it is perceived by the other party, or how you believe it will be perceived by the other party, or in making yourself vulnerable, that is, making yourself too bare. I believe that a lot of this will come down to how much trust exists between the two of you…and the level of trust will often come down to issues of character. Often people will say that a married couple should work hard on communication.
Communication needs Character
However, I feel that talking about communication without talking about character alongside it misses the point. Focusing on “communication” assumes that the parties have excellent character, that all you have to do is find a way of connecting that is meaningful or relevant for both parties. It also assumes that both parties will be reasonable, willing to listen, open to honest discussion, willing to acknowledge their faults and make changes. Frankly, if both spouses were like that, most marital problems would be at least half solved. SO I believe that instead of always encouraging couples to work on their “communication”, counsellors should also encourage people to work on their character.
Like a Diary, or like our own minds
It is like this. If you had a diary that you knew that absolutely no-one else in the world would ever see, would you not feel free to confide into it all your thoughts, fears, dreams, hopes, disappointments? Is this not why we feel free to think exactly what we like with our minds, because we know that no-one else will ever see into them? When we are dealing with our own minds there is no fear of being vulnerable as we know that our thoughts are safe, as long as we don’t express them to anyone else. So if you could trust your spouse, truly trust your spouse as much as you trust your own mind, would it not be easier to confide in your spouse, share those hopes and dreams, even disappointments?

These are some of the issues that might make you less inclined to share your thoughts with someone:

Not trusting your spouse
– If you know that your spouse is a lying cheating joker, so much so that you don’t trust them, are you really going to bare your heart to such a person? If you don’t trust someone then you don’t trust them – even if you do happen to be married to them.

Fear of being belittled
Perhaps you might feel reluctant to share your thoughts with your spouse because you are scared that they might instantly belittle you. “What, do you think that you are capable of achieving that goal?!” (As if anyone who ever achieved anything was not a human being like everyone else…) These days, I tend to keep my goals to myself because I know some people who seem to exist in my life solely to tell me that I am not capable of achieving the things I dream of achieving – and these are simple everyday things that people routinely do every day, things like…oh please trust me, I’m talking about the most basic everyday things.

Dealing with this in friends etc is bad enough. I would feel so frustrated if I had to deal with this in a spouse.

Fear of being laughed at
Perhaps you think that your spouse might actually laugh outright at you. Few things communicate scorn to such an extent as this. So what, you are going to make yourself vulnerable to someone, so that they can habitually pour scorn on your head? Even if this person is your spouse, obviously you would not do that.

Fear of having your issues turned against you
Or maybe you fear that they are going to turn your issues against you. If you express that you are scared of X, might this person deliberately use that knowledge to torment you?

Having to deal with huge insecurities
Or perhaps your spouse is the kind of person who cultivates huge insecurities which they casually leave lying around so that you can trip right over them. For instance, for some people, if you should try to express any kind of disappointment in their behaviour – no matter how graciously you might phrase it, they instantly flare up or get violently angry at the suggestion that they might actually be less than perfect. You know that they are going to hold it against you forever AND that they will be desperately seeking for a way to pull you down as a way of retaliating. Is this kind of attitude designed to encourage communication? So naturally, you keep quiet for the sake of “keeping the peace”.Fear that your mistakes will never be forgotten
Similarly, if you reveal that you have made a mistake, and you know that your spouse will not try to get over it as quickly as possible, but will rather keep dancing on your head about it, will that not discourage you from owning up, making you to live in fear of their discovering your mistake?
One way in which communication might “break down”
I’ve exaggerated in some of these examples, but these are some of the things that to me indicate that communication issues can often be issues of character more than anything else. I think that communication might “gradually break down” in a relationship for the following reason: when you first get married, and you are still in that wonderful glow of thinking that your spouse is amazing (otherwise you would not have married them, right?) – you think that they have got great character, and because of that reason, you trust them, you lay yourself bare with your hopes etc. However, as time goes on, and the scales are gradually yet forcibly pulled from your eyes, you get to realise that your spouse is not as excellent as you first thought…and true communication starts representing more vulnerability than you would feel comfortable with. Unfortunately a big risk with not communicating as issues happen is that they get bottled up and all spill out in huge, loud, violently angry confrontations – which I have been in myself a couple of times.
Positive behaviour to encourage communication
And yet, what a difference it would be to have a spouse you can trust enough to communicate with. When you know that someone is committed to loving you, despite your faults and failures, when you know that they will always be there for you, and that they will not go and share your secrets with their friends and laugh over said secrets with said friends; when they acknowledge that there are certain things that you struggle to express, and they are patient with you as you attempt to express them; when you know that they will listen carefully when you try to explain to them what they are not doing correctly AND they will not hate you for it – would you not feel confident and cheerful about sharing your heart with such a spouse?
So if you are married and struggling with communication issues – could any of these issues be responsible? Ask yourself whether you might be doing any of these things to your spouse. I sometimes laugh at people not for the sake of mocking them but because in my family we grew up teasing one another mercilessly. However I have discovered that many people have not grown up with the same experience and feel as if I actually am laughing at them. And then there have also been those times when I actually have laughed at people in a mean way. I realise that I am the kind of person who holds onto mistakes from others, so I might be capable of holding onto mistakes made by my spouse forever. Sometimes we might not even appreciate what we are doing, we might not realise that our faces contort themselves sceptically whenever our spouse says something. It is something that I am going to check myself on regarding my interaction with people around me. I encourage you to do the same – if you want to improve your communication with anyone, then work on your character, make it easier for people to trust you and know that you’ve “got their back”.
Character issues – not all on one side
Thus far, I have made it sound as if the character issues might always be on one person’s side. I think it would be more realistic to admit that neither you nor your spouse will be perfect, so in terms of “character issues” it might be a case of character issues from each of you clashing against one another. So insecurities from one party might bump against manipulative behaviour from the other party and together they might cause communication deadlock.
Blind to our own behaviour?
As human beings it is so easy to be blind to our own behaviour. We might not see how we are behaving, and we might not realise how it is wrong. Or we might actually know exactly what we are doing – and yet we might still feel justified in flinging accusations at our spouse, because we feel that their own behaviour is so much worse. Sometimes I think that if one party were perfect then there might be a chance to rebuild communication – but then pride gets into the way – “Why should I always have to be the one to back down?!!!” So firstly, in many marriages, it will be unlikely that character issues (which might affect communication) will occur solely on one side. The advantage in these “one sided” situations if you are the “excellent” party is that there is at least something you can do in these situations. You can swallow your pride. You can be the bigger person. If you are a Christian and you don’t want to swallow your pride, you can pray first, then swallow your pride! (If however you are the one doing whatever is wrong, then stop doing that wrong thing, then proceed as above!)
Overly Simplistic?
Even as I first wrote this, I found myself wondering: “hmm, is this all just overly simplistic?” But then I think that the issue in marriage and communication is that a communication difficulty can seem overwhelming, because marriages require communication about everything that as a family you share together in your life – it is about money, and it is about managing stress and frustrations at work and then also the kids and in-laws and then also different aspects of money – savings, retirement, spending priorities. Where the parties cannot communicate I can imagine that everything gets drawn together and twisted together into one convoluted, ugly mess. And yet, many marriages where there is excellent communication, where the spouses are excited about one another and happy about their marriage – will have exactly these same issues to deal with – sometimes their issues might be worse. The difference is that they view one another positively, they feel as if they are united in their team of two, and that their spouse is not actually the enemy, but that they can rather face and overcome the issues together. Where this teamwork and unity does not exist then each of these issues can be just another way in which the tensions present in the marriage are aggravated until finally, perhaps, the whole thing just explodes.
Taking responsibility for your own issues…and also those of your spouse
So I think that if this is you, and if this is what your marriage looks like, to make progress, to remain married, to work towards healing in your marriage, you have to be willing to take responsibility for your own legitimate character issues, and deal with them, so that you stop doing whatever it is that is proving destructive or unhelpful in your marriage. However, you might also have to take responsibility for your spouse’s failings. This means that instead of blaming your spouse for whatever they are doing – even if they are truly doing it, you have to find the most positive way of interacting with them, elevating and magnifying their positive attributes, while seeming not to notice their glaring faults (for which you will actually be praying desperately). Sometimes your spouse might still be blaming you, heaping scorn and ridicule on your head, and you just have to be as meek and as gracious as possible (as these do not represent my own natural characteristics, I am very much hoping that I will never have to face this situation!)Further causes of weak communication
I was also thinking of a few further reasons why communication might be difficult in your marriage.
Lack of total honesty and openness before marriage
1. If you were not totally open and honest about who you are before marriage. I think it would be easy to appreciate why your marital communication might be difficult if you had previously lied about having children, or about how successful you are in your job. However, what if it is not really about lying as such but rather not truly being fully yourself? I know myself for a fact that if I were to date someone I would go out of my way to be as vivacious, charming, physically attractive, glamorous, alluring, captivating as I can possibly be, teetering around on four-inch heels all the time (in fact the same day I originally wrote the post, I was reflecting that getting married and having someone to dress up for would finally give me a reason to wear my beautiful collection of shoes which I otherwise never really get the occasion to wear!) The thing about all of these attributes is that they genuinely, genuinely, reflect me and are representative of who I am. So I would not be lying when I present myself like this.

However, I know that I would also make every effort to hide the parts of my personality which are phenomenally quiet….serious…thoughtful…reflective – and which are also genuinely part of me – in fact this if anything is my innate personality, the “outgoing” parts of my personality are learned behaviour, but are now second nature. Somehow, I have managed to persuade myself that my natural quietness is not genuinely attractive in a romantic sense. So if I were to do the whole “dazzling personality thing” and get married on the basis of that, after marriage it make me feel too vulnerable to admit that this is my real self, and I might feel too scared of rejection to share this part of myself with my husband. However this might be just silly because it might be that very quietness that he might connect best with or that he might find most compelling about me.

So I think it really makes sense to practise honest communication before marriage, so that you both know what you are really getting. Yes I am often bright and bubbly, but I am also immensely quiet – and I’m deep, damnit!
I think this kind of honesty requires immense vulnerability – especially if you’re trying to explain that you’re scared that someone might be put off by this part of your personality, or if you’re worried that they might think that you’re boring. As I write this I honestly don’t know how you would deal with this before marriage, as on one hand you do want to build a foundation of honesty between the two of you. However, on the other hand you do not necessarily want to share absolutely everything about yourself with one another before you actually get married. I guess it’s something you have to keep mindful of, and if you realise that you have given a false impression of yourself, you have to go back and correct it. Because the tendency before marriage will be to give overly exciting impressions of yourself, you have to be ready to keep going back and making corrections and clarifying.
PS – Added 19th March 2019 Well as I was reading all that it occurred to me that part of the reason that marital communication might be difficult might occur not between the two spouses, but all within one spouse. Perhaps they find it hard to think through a certain issue even within themselves.  Perhaps it is too intellectually challenging or involved, or perhaps it is too emotionally difficult or painful. So if they cannot even process these issues for themselves then clearly they will not be able to communicate them to anyone else.  I can imagine how frustrating it might be to be “the other spouse” in this situation, especially if the matter seems really clear and straightforward to you, and you cannot really understand or appreciate why anyone should find this so painful to think through, or you’re trying to be patient, but “secretly” you think that your spouse is being a little childish…  Now imagine if on top of this stressful deadlines are involved and they are fast approaching and yet you cannot deal appropriately with them because your spouse is still “struggling to process the pain”, and you just want to scream: “For crying out loud, pull yourself together!”

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