Why Can’t We Talk to Each Other?

After 30 years of research, we now know what is predictive of divorce and what is predictive of happy, stable marriages.    Professionals can successfully predict the probability of how a couple’s conversation will end (moving towards each other or away from each other) through observing  the first 90 seconds of a couple’s dialogue.  I will describe how we are able to tell.


Imagine it’s Monday. Both partners and had a wonderful weekend with each other away at a romantic resort. They part ways in the morning giving each other kiss goodbye and off  to work they go. Both are relishing in the delightful weekend they have just had as they were able to spend time together following the demands of the previous week. The husband and wife stayed late at work the week before to complete tasks knowing they would be gone on the weekend. Additionally, the wife  finished extra work around the house to get ahead so she would be less anxious and more relaxed while away with her husband.

Now the day goes on, and each get caught up in the business of life and work. Work is demanding as usual and soon the delightfulness  that they each carried with them to work is tucked away in the bottom drawer of their busy schedule, daily tasks, and stressful demands.

Fast-forward to the end of the day.  The wife picks up the children from school and heads home to begin her late afternoon and early evening routine. Typically, her husband comes home late from the office. He knows that she has dinner ready at 5:45. She knows that he frequently gets caught up in his  tasks and often runs late.  Mealtime is very important to both of them as a means to connect. All the wife has ever asked her husband to do is to please call when he is going to be late so she can keep his dinner warm  and know that he is safe  or so she can possibly put dinner off a few more minutes so they can eat together as a family.

After their delightful weekend, the wife is really looking forward to seeing him tonight.   She has a smile on her face as she is getting everything ready and thinking about his return re-creates the warmth from the weekend inside her. She notices she is aroused sexually as well just thinking about it and so, the romantic weekend will continue on a Monday night – which is very unusual for this couple.  She feels comfortable and relaxed with this idea  because she still has most of the household task completed from the previous week. She knows he must be thinking the same thing!

Unbeknownst to her,  today is no different than most other days and the husband gets caught up in his tasks and is running late. He neglects to call her because he is thinking he just wants to get home as soon as possible.  He rushes out of the office to get home because it is important for him to be home and have dinner with the family and he is really looking forward to a relaxing evening at home after a long day at the office.    He is not thinking about the delightful weekend as he is goal-directed and singularly focused on “GET HOME.”

The husband comes home about 30  minutes late for dinner and is just glad to finally be home. Meanwhile, the wife has finished dinner and during the course of dinner and talking with the children as slow and silent change occurred unseen and unheard by anyone. The glow she had is now a burning frustration and demoralization.  She is thinking – “I can’t believe he did this again after our weekend. He is NEVER going to change. Doesn’t he care about anyone but himself? Doesn’t he know what he is missing out on? I don’t know what to do anymore…”

Meanwhile, he pulls into the garage and gets out of his car with a sigh of relief thinking “I am so glad to be home.” He keys the door, comes in and….the wife is at the sink washing dishes. He smiles and says, “HI!  I am so glad to be home finally!” The wife slowly lifts her head, looks at him and does not return the smile and says,  “Why can’t you EVER  be considerate of me and call when you’re going to be late?”

He freezes.  All the air has left his lungs and feels like he was just punched in the belly…The smile leaves his face and a glare comes over his eyes…”What the heck is your problem?! WHY do you ALWAYS jump on me the MINUTE I walk in the door!”  He goes off to his room and sits down at the computer…

Game over. No recovering tonight.  Both are now thinking, “So much for this weekend – what a farce..”


Clearly, both partners are hurt. Most couples think the other person is to blame thus the cure for the ailing communication and marriage lies within the other person. Both hold the same creed and battle-cry  –  “if only you would change.” The truth is more in the middle – like the proverbial ‘chicken or the egg.’ Both are feeling attacked and defensive and believe the other person ‘started it.’

The above example contains what is known as a  harsh start up (Gottman, 2007).   Both open the dialogue with a criticism of the other. This is not complaining but is a criticism, which is one of the ingredients in negative communication. Most of the time when a couple is talking in this manner, it means that this has happened hundreds of times at this point. Each partner is feeling hurt, rejected, and abandoned in some capacity. They may have begun gently complaining early on in the relationship, however; neither has felt the other has heard their complaints. As time has moved, complaints become criticisms and it feels as if  the problem has become more intense and more frequent. So, after the 105th time of feeling rejected  and hurt, both partners  are defensive and ready for battle.  While it is understandable, it is a toxic ingredient to marriages when it is mixed in on a regular basis.

Stop and Think

Remembering to stop and think that your partner is not malicious and giving them the benefit of the doubt may be the first step towards softening the start up. Approach them gently with how you feel and what you want to see happen in the future in an encouraging way. For example, “I know you are real busy at work. I love your work ethic.  Remember, I love you as well and want some time with you daily.  Please be home tomorrow on time” or “I know you feel hurt that I was late again. We had a wonderful weekend together and I know how much you plan for our evenings.  Please be more gentle with your words with me when I am late in the future.”

Even if it is the 106th time, the old addadge of “Accept what you cannot change” holds true. Keep your expectations of your marriage – don’t let those go (that can be the death knoll for a marriage). Express yourself differently.  Talk to each other about how a potentially hurtful topic can be opened for discussion with sensitivity – including the when and the where.  What does your partner need to hear to prepare themselves for the news that they have hurt you in some way?  Sometimes, it is as easy as “Can I talk to you about something that has really been bother me that I am hoping we can work on for the rest of our marriage?” Marriage is a lifetime. You have that long to work on it. Keep the faith!