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How to Harness Indirect Communication, the Unspoken Language of Marriage

Sometimes, we don't need words. But we better be damn sure of those times.

Joy Velasco for Fatherly

Whether by intent or plan, patterns get set at home. Sunday night is pizza. The couch looks good where it was originally put down. The same goes for personal routines. One partner meditates every morning in the study; the other bikes on the weekend. Often, they come with tells –  a specific pair of sweatpants goes on or both earbuds go in. The unspoken signal is clear: “I need this time. Don’t bug me.” 

Indirect communication is a big part of relationships and we’d all be better off if we learned to read the signals. While indirect communication is certainly not useful in a number of scenarios and can quickly come off as passive aggression, there are ways to use it correctly. Debra Roberts, a relationship expert, communications specialist, and author of The Relationship Protocol, puts it this way: “As we get to know each other, it’s natural we have shortcuts.”

And those shortcuts are crucial. When you spend more time at home — like when you have a new baby or, oh, there’s a pandemic — we all need to find moments to ourselves and thus the need for indirect communication grows. Few partners would argue with the proposition. Many already ask for a timeout, but sometimes not having to say any words to get it is a relief. When indirect communication is present, there’s no need to lobby or get any “Really, now?” looks. “It’s not face-threatening,” says Stacy L. Young, professor of communications studies at California University Long Beach.

But to make the exchange silent, it first needs to be worked out to set the ground rules and expectations. Do that right and you experience one of the highlights of a committed relationship: wordless understanding. But when you forgo the planning and over-rely on non-verbal cues, it can slide into not talking, assumptions, and resentment, the last of which has never been labeled “No. 1 Relationship Builder”.

Here’s how to talk about your shortcuts and use indirect communication so you don’t have to talk about them anymore.

Wordless Exchange: How to Establish Indirect Communication

You and your partner’s unspoken signals might seem obvious, and they might have been effective in the past. But they often need to be revisited, because, well, everything in the world has changed. 

It begins with a conversation laying out intent. If you don’t take, partners will go ahead and figure out what’s going on, because, “People are natural sense-makers,” Young says. But with only bits of information, the guessing game about why a partner is in the other room and for how long usually only involves worst-case scenarios. 

 But when you talk, you strip away the mystery and get the necessary ingredient: buy-in. “Anything is okay as long as people can be onboard with it,” says Lesli Doares, licensed marriage and family therapist outside Raleigh, North Carolina and creator of the Hero Husband Project

One partner says what he or she needs, what the details might look like, and even ask at the end, “Is it alright if I did this?” It’s not requesting permission but as an acknowledgment that it’s a together transaction. The other partner listens, without asking for any justification or explanation. Those just get a person to defend up, and “the implication is there’s something wrong with it,” Doares says. 

There isn’t, because the fundamental given is that alone time is important. But it’s also not carte blanche. “There’s the ideal world and there’s reality,” Doares says. “The further those two things are, the harder it will be.” After the need is laid out, a partner can say, “A and C work, but not B. Let’s deal with B.” And that could be time of day or length or whatever, but now it’s merely a discussion of the details and how to actualize the plan. 

How to Make Sure Indirect Communication Is Working

Even with a discussion, the shortcut might become a problem because it eventually stops working, or it doesn’t work as well as it was imagined because of course it doesn’t. This can lead to one person fuming over, “Doesn’t my partner see this is the worst time to take a break?” No, it’s not that obvious. The willingness to rethink any arrangement should be part of the original agreement, but it’s up to the aggrieved to bring up concerns, Doares says. Mind reading still is not an effective communication approach. 

If the day is busy, quickly say, “I want to talk later about the shortcut,” but propose a specific time, because, on its own, “Later never comes,” Doares says. When it does comes, affirm that personal breaks remain a priority, but explain why it’s not working in its current form, keeping it about how you’re feeling and not what your partner is doing. Then use, “Let’s,” and “We”, “much more positive and encouraging words,” Roberts says, and problem-solve how you two can make it fit. 

There’s a balance that needs to be struck. You and your partner can agree up front that the shortcut will happen, regardless of screaming children or regular workloads. And you also can hold to be true that, “As we know, things can change on a dime,” Roberts says. 

That certainly has been 2020’s motto. The pandemic in December is not what it was in July or in March. Kids make everything more so. What they do and need can change without much heads-up. In order to have your unspoken shortcuts, it’s about staying flexible and working as a team. As Doares says, “You need to accept that stuff doesn’t always work out, and kids always come up with something new.”