Lessons from 25 Years of Marriage

My husband, Richard, and I celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary this month. We are still madly in love, and we look forward to a ‘second honeymoon’ later this month in St. Lucia. We’re hoping for many more years together.

A friend recently asked for advice on relationship therapy. He is getting married and wants to be a better communicator. I told him he is headed in the right direction on two fronts – marriage is all about communication, and an expert can help. In the early years of our marriage, juggling three small children, a business start-up and financial challenges, Rick and I got disconnected. We just needed to talk it through, but we kept getting stuck.

We were introduced to a communication technique called ‘Imago Therapy.’ It’s a basic framework for effective communication, and it got us past that rough patch (and a couple others along the way). Now many years later, neither of us can remember our therapist’s name (Wendy… something), and honestly we don’t use the ‘technique’ very often any more. But we both credit it with maintaining our strong relationship.

Overall, it’s a fairly simply approach, and every good book on communication has some variation on these themes: Mirror. Validate. Empathize. In the approach, one person has the opportunity to be heard and is the sender; the other only focuses on listening and is the receiver. An overview of the process:

  1. The sender shares their feelings on one aspect of the relationship using “I” statements about the situation – ‘When you’re late every night, I feel disrespected and less important to you.’ These are shared calmly from the sender’s perspective. The receiver’s only role is to hear and repeat what they’ve heard. Not to respond with any explanations or defensiveness. Just mirror the thoughts – and the calm tone. ‘You’re saying you feel like you’re not important to me when I am late. Is that right?’
  2. Once the receiver has agreement from the sender that they’ve heard the message – ‘Did I get that?’ – the receiver validates the feelings. ‘It makes sense that you would feel like I don’t respect you if I am always later than the time I’ve said I’ll be there.’ Even if the receiver wouldn’t feel the same way in the same circumstances, validation is about getting the connection between the actions and feelings from the sender’s perspective.
  3. The final step is the receiver acknowledges and empathizes with those feelings. ‘I imagine it feels hurtful for this to happen repeatedly.’

Once the sender confirms that they’ve truly been heard, there can be an opportunity to reverse roles and continue on the same issue from the other’s perspective – but only if both agree. 

It sounds simple and straightforward, but can be really challenging in practice. It helped us to have a coach at first, and to remember some key rules.

  1. Timing matters. The request to be heard in this fashion starts with this question – ‘Are you available?’ And a yes means you are ready to calmly hear about something that is bothering the other person. Sometimes you’re not in the right place to do this, and you have to be honest or the technique doesn’t work. If you say ‘no’ to the conversation then, make a commitment to work toward being available for the conversation soon. Warning: It is almost impossible to switch to this type of talk in the middle of a heated discussion.
  2. Not for everyday use. This isn’t a tool for regular, ongoing communication – this is for when the going gets tough and you find you’re nursing hurt feelings and feel like the other person doesn’t get it. Use this carefully, and remember like anything else, it takes practice to get good at it.
  3. Everyone has their own perspective. Each of us has our own internal ‘reality’ and at the heart of good communication is acknowledging and accepting that others have a different point of view that is valid and relatable. Relationships improve and get stronger when you take the time to really understand your partner’s perspective. And it feels so good to be understoond!

Effective communication is the cornerstone of a happy marriage. It’s trite but true. And while we want communication to be natural and effortless, we’re all different people with our own thoughts, approaches and feelings. Sometimes it will get challenging, and practicing communication strategies (sometimes with assistance) can be transformational.

Communication is the theme for this year’s TeamStrength Leadership Workshop because it is also critical to success in your companies. And sometimes it gets really challenging to feel heard and to understand others. For all of your important relationships at home and work, take time to think about how you communicate, and be willing to get help and use special techniques at times.

Talking to Rick about writing this blog led to some great conversation about our journey and our bond. Here’s to many more of those along with the few tougher ones from time to time.  Love you, babe!