On Weathering Marriage Communication Style Differences

Tammy Lenski’s Conflict Zen Blog

Marriages can successfully weather significant communication style differences. It helps to set the foundation for success early, but if that boat’s already sailed, fear not — you can still change its direction.

My husband and I have spent 24 years on nearly opposite ends of the directness continuum. I’m a straightforward New Yorker, slightly mellowed by decades living in northern New England. He’s a Midwest transplant. I’ve written about our conflict culture differences before in articles like My Husband Speaks in Semi-Colons and We Don’t Do Conflict in the Midwest.

Our directness gap can be downright funny in easygoing moments, like these two we still laugh about years later:

Upon removal of a wool hat

What I would have said: Your hair is sticking straight up! You look like Christopher Lloyd in Back to the Future.

What he actually said: Um, are you aware that your hair is abnormally far from your head?

In a restaurant, just before the smoldering napkin lining the bread basket burst into flames. His water glass was empty. I had not noticed the smoldering napkin.

What I would have said: Well, I wouldn’t have said anything. I’d have reached over and grabbed his water glass.

What he actually said: I’d appreciate it if you’d hand me your water glass for a moment.

What followed was a brief conversation about why he needed my water glass. The conversation was brief because foot-high flames suddenly distracted us.

Our directness differences are fodder for lots of guffaws on a good day but can be hard to weather in testy moments. When angry, I can be too blunt and he can be too avoidant. So we’ve learned to temper the dark side of our communication style differences with this simple word: “Ouch.”

“Ouch” is our agreed-upon signal. When he utters it, it’s a reminder to me that I’m being painfully blunt and at risk of leaving mangled bodies in my wake. When I utter it, it’s a reminder to him that refusal to deal with a subject I’d like to discuss leaves me feeling dismissed. It’s a word that’s stood us in good stead.

It doesn’t matter what your word or signal is, but don’t waste time and energy trying to get them to communicate more like you. Instead, jointly choose and commit to a simple signal you can each use as a flag on the play. Use it to pause the action, point out when something’s going awry, prevent things from going further amiss…you get the idea.

Do you and your spouse or partner have significant communication style differences? When do you most notice the difference? What do you do to bridge the gap? Do tell.


Tammy Lenski

Dr. Tammy Lenski helps individuals, pairs, teams, and audiences navigate disagreement better, address friction, and build alignment. Her current work centers on creating the conditions for robust collaboration and sound decisions while fostering resilient personal and professional relationships. Her conflict resolution podcast and blog, Disagree Better, are available at https://tammylenski.com/archives/… MORE >

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