I was standing with my family in a packed line for an amusement park ride when the couple in front of me began looking at their watches and arguing. “Oh, great.” The wife’s voice could be clearly heard above the noisy environment. “It’s almost 2 p.m. already. At this rate we’re going to miss the show with the kids.”
Her husband shook his head. “Well, that sort of thing happens.“
“Well, it wouldn’t have happened at all if you’d gotten the show tickets when we first got to the park. But no, you had to spend all that extra time looking at the map, even though the kids asked you to hurry. If we miss the show, they’re going to be really upset with you.”
Just as I couldn’t help overhearing, I couldn’t help wincing — not just at the woman’s words, but at her piercing and sarcastic tone of voice. I found myself thinking, Would you ever use that tone of voice with a close friend? If not, then why on earth would you ever speak that way to your husband?
Years later when I finished a major research study to identify what makes the happiest couples so happy, I learned that my initial concern at the amusement part wasn't just a rhetorical question. It turns out that how we speak to each other day to day is one of the most important factors in marriage.
The problem is, how we speak is also one of those things we simply don’t think about — or feel we shouldn’t have to think about. We figure that after years of marriage, we should be able to drop our guard and not have to watch every word. That’s a great point in many ways, but all too often we take it too far. Perhaps without realizing it, we take intimacy for license.
So what does that look like? Well, for example, “telling it like it is” is highly valued in our culture today. As is “brutal honesty.” As one man earnestly told me, “In marriage, you have to be able to be brutally honest with each other.”
I hear that sort of thing a lot. But I have never heard those words from the happiest couples. Instead, for them, speaking kindly has become a way of life. As one husband put it, “Yes, you need to be honest. You need to share the real deal. But those times are also when you need to be the most careful. You’ve got to be sure that you’re speaking in a way that doesn’t hurt the feelings of the person you love most.”
The old adage is true: So often what matters most is not what you say, but how you say it. In fact, I've discovered that one of the key factors that can change a marriage from tough to terrific is a purposeful effort to speak with kindness in all the day-to-day bustle of marriage.
So whether you are sitting down to discuss a life-changing issue or simply trying to hurry your slow-moving spouse out the door, ask yourself: How can I speak with kindness right now?Shaunti Feldhahn is a social researcher and the author of The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages. For more on Shaunti's research, visit Shaunti.com.