I collapsed on the couch next to my husband, Ted. It had been a long, emotional day.
We’d packed four dance recital shows for three separate daughters into it. It was fifteen hours of costumes, makeup, performances, and in-between-show food pickup.
All had gone well. That is, until the last show.
One of our daughters suffered disappointment over missed choreography, while I experienced an awkward interaction with another parent. By the time I got home, I felt spent. I was eager to talk to Ted about it.
“So I had this strange conversation…” I continued, after filling him in on the choreography mess-up.
Before I could finish my sentence, though, Ted suddenly interrupted. As we’d chatted, music had quietly played in the background.
He motioned toward a soon-to-end song and reminisced, “Did you know I played this song in college?”
I was baffled.
Did he just interrupt me?
Any other moment, I may have welcomed his college memory, or laughed aside his out-of-the-blue tangent. But not this time.
“You know I was in the middle of talking, right?” I asked, bewildered.
“Yeah,” he replied, “but I was afraid the song would end and I’d miss my opportunity.”
Angry and hurt, I shut down. For the rest of the evening, we sat side by side and watched TV together, our conversation left unfinished.
Maybe you’ve had similar moments in your marriage. It’s possible that you, too, have cut off communication when it’s become frustrating or felt dismissive.
You know what I’m freshly reminded of, though?
When I shut down, it doesn’t breathe life into our relationship. Rather, it tends to shut the relationship down, too. I allow the hurt to cause me to construct walls, which interrupts connection.
So what might I do differently in the future? Here are three really practical things I can do. You may find them helpful, too.
3 Steps to Take When Communication Is Frustrating
1. Take a break.
When communication becomes difficult, it can help to pause and take a break. Acknowledge that it’s just too much for now, that it can wait for later.
A break isn’t me walking away and slamming a door. Instead, it is me expressing, “I need some time by myself to think about this.”
This allows me to temporarily step away from the stress of the conversation. When I take a break, it should always be with plans to later revisit the issue in a way that benefits the long-term health of our relationship.
Following Ted’s interruption, it may have been wise for me to do this. Instead, I responded, “I don’t want to tell you anymore.” As a result, we ended the day with tension.
2. Identify what really happened.
A break offers the perfect opportunity for me to try to identify what really happened. Was Ted simply being insensitive, or did we suffer a communication miss?
What is a communication miss?
Imagine that my words are arrows and Ted is the target. The objective is that my words and their intended meaning hit the bull’s-eye. I want Ted to not only to hear what I’ve said, but also to understand what I meant to convey. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen. His words – and mine – can be misheard, misinterpreted, and misunderstood. When this occurs, we have what’s called a communication miss.
How can I recognize a miss for what it is?
I can reflect on the timing, delivery, and surrounding environment. Is it possible that where and when we communicated may have worked against clear understanding? Communicating at the end of a long, stressful day may have worked against clear understanding, for both of us.
3. Try again.
After I take a break and identify what really happened, I can try again. In situations such as this one, it may seem easier to let it go. However, if not resolved, if simply swept under the rug, it can negatively affect our communication for days, and damage the connection between us for longer than that.
To try again means to talk over what happened and how it made me feel, and then listen carefully to his response.
It also means opening up a second time. When I choose to tear down the wall I’ve constructed and be vulnerable, knowing Ted really does love me and enjoys hearing about my day, musical interruptions and all, we’re able to hit reset and start fresh in our communication.
I won’t lie. To take a break, to determine what really happened, and to try again can be messy and uncomfortable. It isn’t fun and it isn’t easy.
Yet to choose to patiently and lovingly engage rather than shut down offers long-term relational rewards. That’s what I want to see in my marriage: a long-term, rewarding relationship with the person God has brought into my life.