Highlands Blog

Is Your Communication Style Killing Your Marriage?

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Posted in Highlands Blog under Family, Marriage, Relationships

Married couple having an argument.

Identifying Marital Communication Problems

I’ve been reading a lot recently from the writings of Malcolm Gladwell, whose books I have found fascinating and I highly recommend them to you. In his book Blink, as part of a larger discussion of how we know what we know seemingly instinctively, he wrote about a psychologist who studied the communication styles of married couples. He placed them in a room and asked them to talk for thirty minutes about any topic that had caused them tension as a couple. He videotaped and analyzed the interaction repeatedly looking for a large number of specific, predetermined, tendencies and dynamics. This concept was called “thin slicing,” where you look at specific narrow parameters instead of trying to take every variable in at once. By doing this, he was able to get to the point where he could predict—by only observing thirty minutes of conversation—whose marriages would survive. His accuracy rate was a staggering ninety-five percent. By only focusing on four of the main indicators, his accuracy was still almost as high.

4 Indicators of Bad Communication in Your Marriage

What were these four indicators? What were the four symptoms that indicated a growing cancer in a marriage?

The first bad sign was when communication during conflict had a high presence of defensiveness. When one or both parties were consistently defensive during times of conflict, the ability to productively resolve the issue was greatly hindered.

Another bad sign was when one or the other parties resorted to stonewalling. Perpetual roadblocks, soul freezing silence, irrational inflexibility, or just ignoring the pleas or objections of the other person.

The third sign was the frequent use of criticism when dealing with the other person. Putting them down, belittling their opinion, making their concerns of little value or significance by speaking ill of them.

The last indicator, and the most significant one according to the psychologist, was the presence of contempt for the other person. Expressing hatred, lack of respect, general disdain, verbal attacks, biting sarcasm, and even the tactic of rolling the eyes when the other person tries to speak or explain their position are all examples of this indicator. If this was a strong descriptor of the conflict resolution style of a couple, even if the others were only mildly present, he considered the marriage to be in grave trouble, and in need of immediate help. His predictions were remarkably accurate.

Speaking pastorally, I see these indicators as symptoms of a greater problem. There is definitely some teaching and work that needs to be done from a practical communication perspective because some of this is done unconsciously often modeling what they have seen either in their own homes growing up, with friends, on television, or in movies.

Bring Life Back to Your Marriage

However, as in the medical field, true healing doesn’t usually happen by merely removing outward symptoms. Root causes need to be dealt with. In the marriage example, I see these four toxic indicators as symptoms of deeper problems: insecurity, a lack of trust, and pridefulness resulting in an obsessive need to win in any conflict.

If we are secure and trust the other person with our hearts and opinions, we can more easily reach out and consider the position of the other person as valid and having merit. In short, we can lose without fear. In fact, we don’t really think of it as losing, it is merely a resolution. When we are insecure, the first natural response is one of self-protection. We think we can’t lose or we lose some of ourselves. We think as individuals, instead of as a couple, or as one flesh.

Now, when you read this, your instinct might be to think of ways that your significant other might be manifesting these indicators. While they might be present in the other person, I would urge you to first look in the mirror. Look and listen closely and see if you might be doing some or all of these things. If so, confess and repent of it to God and to the other person. Then, seek to foster more positive communication. Seek the counsel and help of another, more mature, couple and let them help you. Learn to listen to the other person and understand them first, even speaking it back to them to be sure you heard and understood them properly. Then, they will be in a better position to understand you. Then be willing to be flexible instead of perpetually needing to always win any conflict that arises.

Conflict in marriage is inevitable for we are sinful people. Let your communication style be an aid and an enhancer to better communication, not a hindrance. May your words and actions bring life to your marriage, not death.


Have you experienced how different types of communication change the conversation within your marriage? Talk to us in the comments below.

  • 69ESQ10

    A very good reminder. Conflict in marriage cannot be a zero-sum game. Oh the self-protective feelings we have.

    • Jay Barfield

      Agreed!

  • tionico

    Rather than focussing on these symptoms, as many would be wont to do, focus rather on the concept hinted at above: you are no longer TWO, but ONE. It is the prospering in every way of that new ONE that God has made by bringing you two together that is the goal, any couple who remain focussed on what I get, preserve, “win”, is already doomed…. you are acting as two, not one.

    Honour ALL men

    As much as possible, as far as it lies within you, be at peace with ALL men (not gender specific term here)

    Look upon the cares of one another, and so fulfil the LAW of Christ

    • Jay Barfield

      I agree that the one flesh instead of two issue is the root problem. These are merely practical manifestations of the problem. However, I also see folks who resort to these tactics instinctively due to it being their norm growing up, not even thinking about winning. And it still does damage.

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