Healthy Marital Communication: Some Strategies for Parents

By Dr Saunia Ahmed

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Couples in my office will sometimes turn to me and ask me how I manage to stay so calm and objective when I work with partners who fight so much. They may be surprised to learn that I find myself humbled to witness how hard they work to make their marriage work and how touching it is to see them work their way through such a challenge.

Marriages are hard work.

Going from being single to being married is a major adjustment and new couples are often surprised to learn just how hard this transition can be. Love is not enough, but you certainly need love to stay dedicated to the process.

I would say most couples struggle with communication at some point in their marriage, often in the early years of their marriage, and definitely when they have children. In fact, studies suggest that marital satisfaction deteriorate substantially after couples have children.

But it does not have to be this way. The challenges couples face after having children is an opportunity to really look at where they need to improve in order to strengthen their relationship.

Couples with children need to communicate in order to effectively manage their roles as parents. Some couples try to manage the emotions they experience around disagreements by not talking because they fear it will make things worse. Couples I work with often tell me they fight a lot, but never in front of their children. While it is a good idea not to expose your children to explosive conflicts, children pick up on tension between parents. Good communication not only improves your ability to be more coordinated in your parenting but to also model for your children an affectionate and supportive relationship.

Here are some suggestions for healthy communication:

1) Express your feelings and needs:

Express what is bothering you by talking about how you feel about what your partner is saying or doing instead of criticizing. One way to do this is to take what you were going to say and replace the ‘you’s with ‘I’s: For instance, instead of saying “You never come home on time” tell him/her how their behavior makes you feel by saying something like “When you come home late, I feel unimportant”

2) Listen and empathize with your partner:

Many couples tell me they don’t understand how communication is supposed to help when they talk and talk and talk but get nowhere. The problem is that both partners are talking but neither are really listening and genuinely considering what their partner is saying to them. And sometimes they think they are, but they are often listening to their interpretation of what their partner is saying rather than what their partner actually means.

3) Make time to talk:

Make time to communicate when there are no distractions. Today’s couples are very busy even before they have children, but when children come into the picture, they have even less time. You will need to make time to communicate, even if it means skipping out on your favourite tv shows after you put the kids to bed. Make a point of having regular check-ins with your partner. You need time to share how you feel and any concerns you have, and to spend quality time with each other. This nurtures your relationship and makes your co-parenting roles run more smoothly.

4) Apply the 10-minute rule when you are very angry:

The adage “Don’t go to bed angry” makes a lot of sense. You certainly don’t want to allow resentment to brew. Otherwise, minor events will start to trigger bigger arguments. However, sometimes when people try to talk about an issue when they are very upset and angry, they are more likely to react in ways that further exacerbates the issue. They may say or do something that can be hurtful, such as yelling or swearing or being critical of their partner, and later regret it when they have calmed down. I sometimes suggest to people who tend to react quickly with unconstructive remarks to ask their partner for a 10-minute time off to collect their thoughts. This needs to be a strategy you and your partner agree upon in advance so that the other person does not feel rejected when you say you need a time-off. Instead, your partner understands you are doing this so that you two can have a constructive conversation. The key is to make sure you come back to the table to talk and not go to bed angry. You have allowed your body and mind to calm down, and you are more likely to listen to your partner and express yourself as well.

About the Author

Dr. Saunia Ahmad is a registered Clinical Psychologist and Director of the Toronto Psychology Clinic. She provides individual psychotherapy and marriage counseling/couple therapy to adults. Dr. Ahmad has extensive experience in assessing and treating emotional and behavioural concerns that range from general issues (e.g., work place stress, relationship conflict, poor self-esteem, procrastination) to serious mental health problems (e.g., depression, anxiety, bipolar, etc.).

Dr. Ahmad has been providing marriage counseling for over a decade. She also initiated a project to develop a more culturally sensitive approach to couple therapy during her doctoral training at York University and has published papers on her work. She has provided workshops and presentations on the topic of marriage counseling and provided training and supervision to other marital therapists. Dr. Ahmad has been invited to talk about her work in the media.

To learn more about her work visit www.DrSauniaAhmad.com