Val Farmer: Good manners are part of a joy-filled marriage

Editors Note: Val Farmer is on vacation. This popular column was published in February 2002.

Editors Note: Val Farmer is on vacation. This popular column was published in February 2002.

What do you think makes the difference between couples that are struggling in their marriages and couples who are not?

A) The amount of effort they put into meeting each other's needs.

B) The frequent expression of appreciation and admiration couples have for each other's positive qualities.

C) The use of respectful communication skills in resolving their differences.


"C" is correct. Both distressed and nondistressed couples are good at accentuating the positive in their marriages. They meet each other's needs. They are loving, generous and giving.

However, distressed couples engage in more destructive communication than nondistressed couples. They perceive their partner in a more negative light more of the time.

Unaware of rudeness. The spouses in distressed marriages mean well, but what they intend and what comes across are two different things. They are being rude without knowing it. They think they are saying their true feelings and don't take into consideration how hurtful they are being.

They are so anxious to make their points that they don't project a feeling of concern and appreciation for their partner's feelings or point of view. In short, they are poor listeners.

Distressed couples react to each other's moods. They have a hard time being loving and empathic when their partner is out of sorts or out of line. They are quick to join the battle, escalate a quarrel and reciprocate in kind. They have a low tolerance for contrary opinions. Perceived insults do not pass without comebacks.

Their partner, when confronted with a counter argument or "attack" is equally adept and willing to engage in argument, quarreling with details or putdowns. These couples mistakenly feel they can use logic to prevail in an argument. Unfortunately, in an atmosphere of anger and defensiveness, their logic isn't being heard.

They, in turn, do not listen to their partner's logic. Their mind is racing, triggered by the general notion of what is being said. "Yes" is followed so quickly by a "but" that it is obvious that little listening has taken place.

No problem solving. They spin their wheels. They bring up the past. They throw in the kitchen sink. They change the subject. They are easily derailed. Nothing gets solved.


Distressed couples do a lot of mind-reading. They think they know how their partner thinks and feels despite their partner's protests to the contrary. They make their points in excruciating detail and go on and on and on. They dismiss arguments out of hand. "That's not true." They use extreme examples, "you always" and "you never." This invites their partner to take offense or cite an exception.

Distressed couples use sarcasm. They walk off. They ignore. They hold grudges. They give the silent treatment. Even if their words don't communicate disrespect, their body language does.

At a recent "Smart Marriage, Happy Families" conference in Orlando Florida, Jack Rosenblum, EdD, JD, of Deerfield, Mass., presented a quick reminder to help couples practice good communication habits. He calls it HEART.

"H" stands for "hear and understand me." Couples listen well when they show they care through interest, curiosity and a caring heart. Body language and tone of voice that indicate attentiveness, concern and interest help. Respect his or her right to have the floor in a conversation and draw your partner out so he or she feels completely understood. Don't interrupt. Summarize your partner's point of view before responding. Validate his or her point of view whenever you can honestly do so.

"E" stands for "even if I am 'wrong,' don't make me wrong." Couples can disagree without being disagreeable. Don't kill the messenger because you don't like the message. How a person feels about you after a conflict discussion is more important than what you were able to solve. Don't use sarcasm, blame or find fault. Agree to disagree.

"A" stands for "appreciate the greatness within me." Abundant appreciation and recognition put the total relationship in a positive context. Be grateful and acknowledge the good your partner does and how special he or she really is.

"R" stands for "recognize my positive intent." Most people aren't intentionally trying to inflict harm or hurt. Give your partner the benefit of the doubt. Don't question their motives or commitment to change. Don't tell them what they "really" think or feel. Don't overreact to offensive or provocative statements or quibble with "untrue" details. Stay with the intent of their message.

"T" stands for "tell me the truth with compassion." Be sensitive to your partner's moods, needs and responsibilities before confronting a serious topic. Be tactful and tentative in the way you talk about something that might affect his or her feelings. State your own positive intent to find a mutually satisfying solution before launching into a conflict discussion.


If you communicate from the HEART, you will be showing kindness by the mannerly way you give respect and consideration.

Val Farmer is a clinical psychologist specializing in family business consultation and mediation with farm families.

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