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Communications breakdown in marriage

Jacob Ninan


If we define communications in marriage as the process of sharing together thoughts, ideas, feelings, problems, hurts and issues freely between husbands and wives, breakdown of communications can be seen as the most common problem in marriages. Every other problem leads to this, and this leads to further aggravation of all other problems. When the breakdown becomes serious many husbands and wives practically withdraw into their own worlds even while living in the same house, and many others decide to separate.

Communication is an art that needs to be developed by couples right from the start. This involves active listening, trying to understand what the spouse is saying through words and body language, and responding in a way that encourages further communication instead of cutting it short. But many are blissfully unaware of this need, and continue to carry on with their individual styles without trying to understand their partners and learning to tune in to their frequencies. As a result, when problems come up – and they do invariably come up in all marriages - they are least able to discuss and resolve them. And instead of seeking to take a crash course on communications, they tend to grow more distant from one another. Many others get locked into self-preservation postures, and do not allow themselves to come out into the open and discuss things. Some know only the blame game and refuse to make any changes in their own behaviour.

What are some of the common causes for communication foul-ups and breakdowns?

1. Wrong postures. There are several wrong assumptions people have at the back of their minds about life, marriage, dealing with others, etc., which can act as foundations for building up wrong communication practices. Some of these are:

  • I am the standard. My way of looking at things, doing things, responding to problems, etc., are the right ways. My partner would do well to listen to me.
  • This is the way I am. My partner had better get used to me.
  • My partner can guess what I am thinking.
  • It is better to have peace and not raise problem issues.
  • If my partner doesn’t want to talk, why should I take the trouble?
  • What is the need to talk about this again?
  • Time will heal.
2. Gender biases. God made them men and women. They are both equally important to God, but they are different from each other, not just physically but also in many aspects of psychology. If couples do not understand how different their partners are from them just because they are of the opposite gender, a lot of communication can get fouled up.

  • Men talk with the goal of exchanging information. Women talk just to connect with other people.
  • When a wife shares a problem with her husband, the husband tends to offer a direct solution. But the wife is not necessarily looking for a solution as much as emotional support.
  • Men can basically handle only one task at a time. Woman can handle several tasks at the same time.
  • When men face problems they tend to withdraw till they can figure out how to proceed. Women respond to problems by sharing with as many people as possible.
  • Men do not wish to appear vulnerable by asking for help. Women like to appear vulnerable because then they will have someone coming to help them.
  • Men like to act independent and avoid intimacy. Women enjoy intimacy and dependence.
  • Men like to talk in public because it makes them feel important, but hardly talk in private. Women talk much in private because it builds intimacy, but feel insecure in public.
  • Men tend to talk to gain significance. Women tend to talk to gain security.
  • Men tend to talk on one subject at a time. Women tend to flit from subject to subject.
  • Men tend to talk directly and factually. Women tend to talk indirectly expecting to draw the others into a conversation.

3. Selfishness. In a sense this is the root of all problems. But there is a special effect selfishness can have on communications.

  • My partner’s duty is to make me happy.
  • Unless my partner changes I cannot be happy.

4. Bad role models or lack of them in childhood. Experiences in childhood leave an almost indelible impression on our mind. We tend to imitate our parents or other caregivers and authority figures in the way they communicated with others.

  • The dominant father and a subjugate mother
  • The (virtually) 'absent' father or mother
  • The exalted father who is unapproachable
  • The nagging mother
  • The quarrelsome parents

5. Past experience of failure to resolve conflicts. People give up thinking that it is no use trying again. Without understanding the differences between how husbands and wives communicate, couples who try to communicate seem to come up against a wall.

6. Unwillingness to acknowledge mistakes and set things right. This is an ego problem where no one is willing to back down or take the first step forward. It is easier to sit back and put the blame on the other partner than to try and find better ways to communicate. The golden rule is, “If your way has not worked so far, maybe you should try a different way.”

7. Unwillingness to acknowledge breakdown. When communications do breakdown, many couples are not willing to face up to the seriousness of things and seek help, for fear of losing face. This is the ultimate problem of couples who have separated, and who would rather sit separately and suffer than make attempts for reconciliation.

What is needed for healing this breakdown?

Couples need to see that these types of breakdown can be overcome, by putting some effort to understand themselves and their partners better, and taking deliberate steps to communicate. If previous attempts have not worked out well, perhaps what is needed is a change of approach. A good counsellor can be a big help in this direction. But couples must see that communication is the lifeline of their marriage, and they need to keep that going at any cost.

There is generally a lack of awareness of the issues that might come up in marriage. In many homes in India, the picture is that of an exalted father who is unapproachable. The children do not often get to see meaningful exchanges taking place between their parents. They also do not see 'public' expression of affection between the parents or between the parents and the children except when they are small. Criticism and demand for better performance are generally what the children get from their parents, with the result that they tend to believe in a performance based acceptance and love. In a large number of homes the wives are expected to be subservient to their husbands and at their mercy. In many homes newly married couples stay with the parents and do not get much opportunity to develop communications between them.

Prevention is better. Pre-marital counselling is still very rare, but it is slowly catching up. If prevention is better than cure, this is what is required on a larger scale and in different forms. There is need for greater outreach to young audiences in the form of seminars, talks, books, etc. While there are many books for married couples, there are very few available for young people planning to be married. The subject of communications should be given a prominent place in pre-marital counselling because good communications can prevent a lot of problems, and when problems do come up, communications are absolutely necessary to deal with them.

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