Why Is Straight Talk In Relationships So Damn Hard?

Why can’t we talk to each other more easily, or better yet – more effectively? Why do couples struggle with addressing their most basic needs and feelings? Why is being understood – and understanding – so damn difficult?

Couple at OddsIn a recent discussion with an old friend, also divorced, we wandered onto the subject of marriage. Naturally, the conversation came around to communication – as both cause and symptom of marital problems.

Well, you say, this is hardly news.

True enough.

But why do we start out so well, then fail to connect in this most basic way? Are we kidding ourselves in the beginning? Are we more critical or careless as time goes on? Are we afraid of being judged? Too tired to speak our minds?

Perhaps as we build history together and get caught up in the whirlwind of daily life, communication dramas that arise reflect a complex muddle of factors — including a lack of fundamental skills that we don’t notice until it’s almost too late.

And we’ve all fallen into unhelpful habits over time. Oh, you know the ones: assumptions over questions; sullen silence replacing straight talk; avoiding tough topics because conflict is hard. So we find ourselves smiling (because it’s simpler), grunting (because it’s expedient), nodding and dashing out the door (because we can), or turning to passive-aggressive behaviors as frustrations build and we act up rather than speaking out?

Cross-Talk? Men, Women, Communication Styles

Communication challenges aren’t solely the domain of male-female relationships. We have difficulty getting through to our parents. We struggle to process the intentions of our children. Friends erect self-protective barriers and refuse to share what’s troubling them, or to accept constructive criticism.

But there’s little question that men and women communicate differently. If we don’t pay attention, we may misread the insignificant or miss the obvious.

And let’s face it, this screws up our relationships.

Some time back, I referenced this 2010 article in Psychology Today on communication, providing expert input to what I had observed.

Most men have a hard time communicating anything that remotely resembles an emotion. Why? Because emotions are scary to men, who think much more than they feel… It is interesting to note that women think and feel at the same time, while men can only think or feel.

If we accept that this is true more often than not, can we change the way we speak to each other – and listen – to do a better job of communicating?

Marriage Basics: Communication

As I read online, certainly anything to do with marriage or divorce, the topic of communication is raised on a regular basis. If you scan comments on any of these articles (Huff Post comes to mind), beneath the anger or pain you may wonder (as I do) what might have been different if the couples concerned had been able to speak plainly and listen effectively.

But is anything between two people really that simple? Still, how many of us can look back at almost any relationship that fizzled or exploded, and see that straight talk and careful listening might have bypassed huge problems? If not that, could clear communication have expedited an ending, and spared some pain?

About.com’s Marriage 101 has this to offer, when it comes to wedded bliss – and its premature termination.

Lack of communication is a primary reason marriages fail.

What follows in their series of related articles is a variety of communication tips, including sample dialog to assist. That alone might help us embrace “plain talk” in ways that are not hurtful. There are also listening tips, suggestions on compromise (certainly important), how to deal with conflict, and recommendations like “talk with each other, not at each other.”

All helpful. But what about a different perspective? More skill and less psychology?

How to Communicate Effectively

As a marketing writer, before I craft any communication, I identify the goals, audience, and appropriate tone for effectively reaching my reader or listener.

Do we consider these same factors when dealing with the people in our lives? Could relationships be improved by applying “think before you speak” and a few tips on clear messaging?

Care for specifics when dealing face-to-face?

Our arsenal, from the speaker’s viewpoint:

  • Choice of words
  • Tone and body language
  • Awareness of our underlying emotions (frustration, insecurity, resentment)
  • Awareness of our agendas (persuade, inform, unnerve, “win”)
  • Knowledge of the receiver’s emotions, triggers, agendas, etc.

Similarly, stepping into the listener’s viewpoint, consider:

  • Potential openness or resistance to the message
  • Trigger words / sensitivities
  • Reading reception (words and body language)
  • Underlying emotions (as above)
  • Experience with this individual
  • Experience in similar situations

Communication is not static. As we “read” the response, we can adjust tone and message accordingly. As we’re speaking plainly, we also need to be prepared to listen – really listen – to the response.

Emotion and History

In the Real World of Relationships, it’s not so simple. Time is tight and the pressures are many. Loose lips may not sink ships, but they can severely damage an otherwise good relationships. Cruelty can sear, and a good word can uplift.

I’m also not so naive as to dismiss our histories. If we’ve lived through betrayals or abuse, we tend to protect our innermost feelings.

I know myself to be as guilty as anyone when it comes to dancing around difficult subjects (fear of being judged; dislike of confrontation). I was also raised in the mode of people pleasing (reinforced by living with a narcissistic parent), and insecurities led me to stay silent in ways that impacted my relationships, including my marriage.

For me, critical listening and reading body language is easier than speaking my mind. But over the years I’ve learned to speak more plainly. Kindly I hope – but plainly nonetheless.

I’m willing to confront issues though it’s still a challenge. So I take my time in considering the what, how and when, I choose my words carefully, and try to anticipate the possible responses. I also return to my objective – what I want out of the discussion. It may be nothing more than a sympathetic ear, or the conversation may involve constructive criticism, explanation of a behavior or situation, or a request for help in solving a problem.

And I remind myself: Never assume.

Your Communication Tips?

Communication can be damaging in its absence, and even more so if wielded as a weapon. But when effective and respectful – it’s powerfully connective. Why is straight talk in a relationship so damn hard?

Maybe we need to practice. Maybe we need to learn from the past. It doesn’t hurt if we get lucky – finding a communicator who can encourage us to do the same.

At present, I’m in enjoying a relationship in which a Good Man is a Plain Talker and a Great Listener. He is articulate, open, and non-judgmental. When I ask for an honest opinion, I get it – kindly. I would hope he can say the same for me, as it takes two for communication to work, and two to believe that it’s of the utmost importance.

  • How good are you at straight talk and real listening to your relationships?
  • Should we be auditing our own speaking and listening skills, and checking in with our partners on how we’re doing?
  • Your tips for improving communications with your spouse or partner?


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  1. says

    I believe we are all taught at a very early age to keep our big fat mouths shut. Do we know this is going on? Does a fish know it’s living in a fishbowl? Things happen which give us all a subliminal message and that message is to fit in, be a part of the peer group, and protect under any circumstances our public facade. How right was Sheila Kelley in her story of being chastised at the age of seven about going topless on a hot summer’s day? (Sheila Kelley: Let’s Get Naked: TED Talk)

    I am more than convinced that message is brought over to our married lives. Can I be totally honest with you about personal issues or am I going to get as your initial reaction, “Eew”? It doesn’t matter whether you tell me you won’t say that; I have a lifetime of subliminal training to overcome. And guess what? That obstacle can be so insurmountable that divorce may be the preferred course of action. Too bad but that’s reality.

    How can we improve communication? Our society is filled with so many mixed messages, anybody, man, woman, or child, can be totally confused about what is the correct thing to say or do. And let’s not forget that the “correct” thing to say or do is determined by the next person we are talking to. Congrats on having ” a relationship in which a Good Man is a Plain Talker and a Great Listener.” At least I can say one thing about shutting the door of my apartment and being alone: there’s nobody there to say to me, “Eew!”

    I’m reading. wb :-)

    • BigLittleWolf says

      So many subliminal messages as you say, Mr. Belle. Perhaps over the years, some of us unlearn those lessons – if we’re lucky.

      Do you find it to be worse than ever, or is that my imagination?

      Still, as I see more and more of my peers standing up and speaking their minds, women mostly, it seems encouraging.

      (Love the Sheila Kelly video, by the way.)

  2. says

    I think that in real life you find love in the most unlikely of places and not what your “programmed” for. When you are lucky enough to be with the one that loves you in spite of yourself, and that you can state the same, it is heaven on earth EVEN when life gets butt ugly and difficult. I recognize the fact that it is easy to love when times are good, but knowing you love and are loved “happens” when times (ex: illness) are bad. THAT is when you feel like the luckiest person in the world for not only not being alone, but accompanied by someone who you count on and counts on you… utter confidence. We are a team. And nothing, in my life, has ever come close to how good “us” feels.

  3. says

    I’m finding it tough these days. Men and women so often communicate so differently. And I straight talk until I keep getting the same response or an, “I can’t believe you’re mad about that!” response. Then I just don’t bother. But I worry that resentment is building. And that’s because talking shuts down. It’s a spiral – and not a healthy one.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Barbara, This is so hard. “Straight talk” is easy to say and difficult to do. I know. But resentment does build when things aren’t aired – even little things start to take on a life of their own, and we often imagine something entirely wrong, or misinterpret what we’ve heard or seen because of something we’re feeling.

      I know with my teenagers that one of the approaches that worked well was to get us out of the usual environment to talk. On a drive. Over a sandwich (not at home). I had to learn to ask “What can I do” or try “Something is wrong, how can I help? – in other words, removing all hints that any response would be judged or, if there was blame aimed my way, that I wouldn’t get defensive.

      I know. Hard to do. But the talking was essential. And in any relationship – kids, parents, friends, spouse – you’re right. When the talking shuts down (or the listening), the spiral isn’t a healthy one.

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