Unfortunately, recent history has told us that approximately half of marriages today are successful. Half is really a discouraging number when you consider all that is at stake, all the misery to the family members that a marital breakup can cause. Why is the success rate only 50/50? Those aren't very good odds. It takes quite a bit of courage to go into any endeavor when the odds are not particularly in favor of success. I wish that the courage it takes to go into marriage in the first place would last through the trying times, but that doesn't seem to be the case. So, we have to ask, "Why are so many marriages dissolved?
We know the main given reasons: wrong choice ( a mismatch that can't be fixed), immaturity (lack of readiness to live as a team instead of as two singles), financial stress ( often hinging on overly high expectations), and trust (focusing on the lack of fidelity). And, of course, there are the extremes, such as battering or addictions.
But there are other factors that are often huge contributors to the unhappiness of the partners. The one that I see most frequently as a marriage counselor is the pattern of verbal abuse, the unwillingness of two people to respect each other by the choice of words. Couples can get into this very bad habit, ( and it is a habit), of showing contempt and, certainly disrespect, by the way each talks to the other. Insulting speech erodes good will and when good will is gone, the partners become enemies and don't hesitate to use any ammunition they can.
It is really amazing what people will say to each other, so often forgetting that public relations are important with everyone: spouses, children, other family members: in reality, everyone. No one likes to be cursed, called names, or labeled with words like "stupid", "fool", or "ugly", not to mention four letter insults. Yet often couples, although highly intelligent and successful in other areas, fall into the trap of thinking that in marriage any language goes. So the insults fly, and. unfortunately, insults are very contagious, just as anger is highly infectious. And, before you know it, adrenaline levels have risen to uncontrollable highs. Words are flung, designed to cause pain and suffering, and the argument goes straight downhill from there.
Then, I think of the children who are perhaps witnessing this verbal onslaught. What kind of modeling for settling arguments are these children getting? Visualize the frightened child retreating to his room where he can sob in anguish as his parents hurl insults at each other.
It was found, in a lengthy study of 700 married couples conducted at the University of Washington in Seattle, that marital success is not based on the amount of communication, but rather on the way that couples settle their differences. Those who may not talk extensively but who can have disagreements and settle them without becoming disagreeable themselves, tend to be happier than those people who lack the skill to disagree and settle their differences without rancor. Furthermore, the longer the ineffective pattern continues, the more discouraged the partners become until they see no hope for the relationship.
Unfortunately, it is very easy to get into the habit of talking a certain way to your partner. Using profanity, for example, is an especially hard habit to break. Once a pattern gets started, it will continue unless both partners, or sometimes even one, can reverse the trend. Angry styles, such as using sarcasm, mimicking, accusing, and yelling, are destructive, although the user may feel a momentary high at "getting" the opponent with words. But the results are certainly not worth any moment of triumph, and the partners wonder why their relationship is not working. It is easy to forget what you may have said to someone else but it is not easy to forget what that person said to you. I love the saying that I saw on a school bulletin board: You may forget other things, but you will remember how someone made you feel.
Verbally abusive talk also kills humor and playfulness, two ingredients that are so important to a marriage. Oh, I know, there are some couples who get energized by fighting dirty but I don't think that is a healthy way to get energized. There is a big difference between playful sarcasm, for instance, and hurtful sarcasm. If both parties know they are being playful and agree to this style then there is not a problem. But frequently this agreement has not taken place.
So….. I tell couples contemplating marriage: be sensitive about how you talk to each other. Make a commitment to use tact and respect when speaking to your spouse. You don't have to lie, just be careful how you tell the truth. You don't have to hold back, just be aware of how your approach could affect someone else. You can complain about what you don't like, just don't make your partner a villain for not pleasing you. From the very beginning, don't allow yourself to become verbally abusive.
Our society has made unbelievable progress in science. Medical science is erupting with new technologies which help us with our health. Yet no science has arisen to eliminate the primitive ways people have established to wound each other. And verbal wounds can go very deep. Let us hope that we, as an advanced culture, learn that effective speech embraces kindness and love and that negative, wounding speech needs to become as obsolete as the gramophone. We need to outgrow our need to insult. Learning to disagree effectively is basic and, yes, I think it should be taught in school. Surely we can learn to honor our partners, as well as everyone else, by developing the maturity to speak honestly but honorably.
Deanna Kasten, M.A.,LPC, LMFT, LCDC has been in private practice as a counselor in Dallas for over twenty years and has taught seminars at Dallas Fort Worth area junior colleges in self esteem building, assertiveness training, and coping with difficult people in the workplace. She has written articles for counseling journals as well as local newspapers relating to counseling. To learn more about Ms. Kasten and her practice please visit her profile here.