What are the three most important parts of a marriage? Communication, communication, and communication. Seriously. Every issue, large or small, that plagues a marriage likely stems from some sort of communication breakdown — who said what and how, who said they would do something but they didn’t, who said something in a way they didn’t mean mean, who meant what they said but didn’t phrase it correctly, who didn’t say anything at all, who rolled their eyes and said more than words ever could.
Communication is complex. We all — fingers crossed — want to have it down pat with our loved ones. But so many factors compete with that. Say partner one wants to bring up an issue with work they’re experiencing but partner two is focused on their own work thing and what the kids are doing tomorrow, so they listen, but not really because their mind is elsewhere. Partner one feels like partner two is not giving them the proper attention and, at the very least, a tinge of resentment occurs. Partner one feels invalidated; by not explaining where their head was at, partner two didn’t express their needs very well.
Situations like this occur all the time because there are hundreds of factors that get in the way of our good intentions and create unwanted outcomes. Proper communication can be difficult in a marriage because of course it can. The only way we can get better at it is to, well, try to get better at it.
Part of that requires keeping an eye out for the smaller, less obvious communication issues that can creep up without us even realizing — specifically invalidation, not communicating your needs, competing, ignoring bids for connection, expressing yourself passive aggressively. These subtle, almost imperceptible behaviors can lead to problems that can grow over time into serious issues. If you can pinpoint and eradicate — or at least call yourself out on — these five behaviors, you and your marriage will be the better for it.
1. Emotional Invalidation
What it is: When you tell your spouse how he or she should feel, using such phrases as “It’s not a big deal,” “Stop overreacting” or “You’re being too dramatic.”
Why It’s a Problem: Even if you mean it harmlessly, this kind of behavior sends the message that your spouse’s feelings are not important. “We emotionally invalidate because it soothes our anxiety and because it’s what we learned from our parents,” says Doug Noll, a lawyer and professional mediator. “However, emotional invalidation kills love, intimacy, and emotional connection. It destroys emotional safety.”
How to Prevent it: Employ active listening. Hear what your partner is saying and, rather than dismiss it outright, reflect their feelings and show your understanding. “I understand that you’re feeling frustrated.”
2. Not Communicating Your Needs
What It Is: Silently expecting your partner to automatically know what you need and how to meet those needs without you ever having to ask.
Why It’s a Problem: Your partner is not in the Marvel Universe, and therefore not a super-powered mind reader. If you think that your partner should be meeting your needs, but you’re not communicating, then you are slowly going to build anger and resentment. Keep in mind that your partner may not have any idea that there is a problem, and therefore can’t react accordingly.
How to Prevent It: The solution is simple: Tell your partner what you need. But, as important, is to understand and be okay with the idea that sometimes they can’t give it to you. “Meet your needs inside yourself before you ask someone else to meet your needs,” Noll says. “For example, if you have a need to be respected, respect yourself. You can only receive respect to the degree you respect yourself.”
3. Ignoring Bids for Connection
What It Is: With life being as full of distractions as it can be, it can be hard for couples to feel connected. Often, one spouse or the other will make a so-called “bid for connection,” which could be something as simple as reaching out to hold hands, or trying to initiate conversation, and it goes ignored.
Why It’s a Problem: When those bids aren’t picked up on, it can be isolating for your spouse, making them feel as though you aren’t interested in them or that they are alone in the marriage.
How to Prevent It: Learn to pick up on the cues your partner is sending out and, if you can’t, ask them what those cues are. “Talk about bids for connection in a calm, neutral space,” says Meagan Prost, a licensed professional counselor and the owner of the Center for Heart Intelligence. “Ask your partner, ‘If I can’t attend to your bid at the moment, is there a way I can help you feel supported? Because I don’t want you to feel rejected.’”
4. Passive Aggressive Behavior
What It Is: Instead of telling your partner how you’re feeling about a situation, you respond in an off-handed way (“I’m fine.”), offering no eye contact or cold body language.
Why It’s a Problem: In a sense, this behavior is a power grab that holds your partner hostage. “This kind of indirect communication is a problem because it does not allow for honest, open dialogue about what each person needs to feel good in the relationship,” says Board Certified Clinical Psychologist Dr. Cortney Warren. “The indirect, subtle yet strong emotions that are felt but not talked about will create tension and resentment between both parties in the relationship.”
How to Prevent It: Express how you feel directly and up front. Don’t wait for a situation to grow worse before you address it. “Start using an ‘I’ statement and describe what you think and feel about your partner’s behavior,” says Warren. “Then start a conversation about how you can handle it differently so that it does not cause tension in your marriage moving forward.”
What It Is: The constant need to win, not resolve, a situation.
Why It’s a Problem: When couples can’t resolve conflicts in a healthy way, the goal becomes trying to one-up each other instead of focusing on the problem at hand. Compromise goes out the window and and nothing ever gets resolved.
How to Prevent It: “In a healthy marriage, both parties should think and act like a team. With that, a little bit of humility goes a long way,” says Michelle Davies, a professional life coach amf the co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Best Ever Guide to Life. “When both can let go of their need to validate their individual stances, then a common ground can be achieved. Remember, each conflict solved through loving teamwork adds to the overall strength of the marriage’s bond.”