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Words to help a marriage thrive

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“Thank you; I’m sorry; I’m wrong; you’re right.” Can you remember the last time these phrases came up in conversation? Was it hard to say them? Did it fill your heart to hear them? It’s hard to believe that these simple words can move mountains when it comes to breaking down communication barriers in marriage.

Dr. William Commins, a clinical psychologist in Burke, has been helping couples become more familiar with the phrases for more than 30 years. He is a popular speaker at diocesan engaged conferences, where he guides couples through exercises designed to promote communication and help them learn about each other. 

“Thank you; I’m sorry; I’m wrong; you’re right.” Dr. William Commins

“Think of a question that the other would actually enjoy answering,” said Commins. He then asks the couples to share a time when they were hurt or disappointed by the other’s actions. 

“The blessing of all relationships is that we get all the gifts and benefits of two lives, not one,” said Commins. “You have to let them know who you are and want to know who the other person is without judging that they are right or wrong, good or bad. Just how are you? What is it like to be you? I’m not going to change you or fix you, but what is it like to be you?”

In order to enjoy the benefits, Commins says that couples need to know how to listen to each other, which can’t happen if one or both parties are on the defensive or distracted.

“We are afraid of being judged and found to be bad or wrong or inadequate in some way. So we get defensive. We close in to protect ourselves and when we are defensive we can’t listen,” said Commins. “To me this is part of original sin. What was the first thing that Adam and Eve did after the fall? They tried to protect themselves. ‘It wasn’t me, it wasn’t me.’  We have to work against that.”

He gave an example of a couple who got into an argument. Spouse A accused Spouse B of hating the other’s mother. While it is natural to defend one’s self in that situation, there is a better way to do it than saying, “I don’t hate your mother.” 

The more communicative response would be, “Why do you say that? Could you explain how you reached that conclusion?” The couple can then discuss whether the basis for the conclusion is valid or invalid. If Spouse A maintains that they are right despite receiving a rational explanation of how their assumption was wrong, Spouse A is more concerned with being right than making sure what they are saying is right and wanting to fix it if they are wrong, according to Commins. 

“If we are wrong, what better person to help us see that we are wrong than our spouse who loves us and cares for us and isn’t going to use that to hurt us,” he said.

For Commins, small acts of kindness and consideration are the ingredients of trust that can serve as an antidote for defensiveness. 

“We trust people to the degree to which we believe they are considering our interests. If they call home and say, ‘I’m really sorry, I have to work late tonight,’ it shows that they were thinking of you and considering your interests.”

For couples who wish to improve their communication, Commins recommends what he considers the most underutilized resource — other people. 

“Talk to people who have been happily married for a long time or to people who have been through a divorce. Figure out who is willing to share with you, and ask them, how did it happen?” said Commins. “The next time you go to a party, see if you notice the couples that say ‘I’m wrong or you’re right,’ to each other.” According to him, these are the couples who are more in tune with each other.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018