On weathering marriage communication style differences

A heart drawn in the sand

Marriages can successfully weather significant communication style differences. It helps to set the foundation for success early, but if that boat’s already sailed, fear not — you can still change its direction.

My husband and I have spent 24 years on nearly opposite ends of the directness continuum. I’m a straightforward New Yorker, slightly mellowed by decades living in northern New England. He’s a Midwest transplant. I’ve written about our conflict culture differences before in articles like My Husband Speaks in Semi-Colons and We Don’t Do Conflict in the Midwest.

Our directness gap can be downright funny in easygoing moments, like these two we still laugh about years later:

Upon removal of a wool hat

What I would have said: Your hair is sticking straight up! You look like Christopher Lloyd in Back to the Future.

What he actually said: Um, are you aware that your hair is abnormally far from your head?

In a restaurant, just before the smoldering napkin lining the bread basket burst into flames. His water glass was empty. I had not noticed the smoldering napkin.

What I would have said: Well, I wouldn’t have said anything. I’d have reached over and grabbed his water glass.

What he actually said: I’d appreciate it if you’d hand me your water glass for a moment.

What followed was a brief conversation about why he needed my water glass. The conversation was brief because foot-high flames suddenly distracted us.

Our directness differences are fodder for lots of guffaws on a good day but can be hard to weather in testy moments. When angry, I can be too blunt and he can be too avoidant. So we’ve learned to temper the dark side of our communication style differences with this simple word: “Ouch.”

Ouch” is our agreed-upon signal. When he utters it, it’s a reminder to me that I’m being painfully blunt and at risk of leaving mangled bodies in my wake. When I utter it, it’s a reminder to him that refusal to deal with a subject I’d like to discuss leaves me feeling dismissed. It’s a word that’s stood us in good stead.

It doesn’t matter what your word or signal is, but don’t waste time and energy trying to get them to communicate more like you. Instead, jointly choose and commit to a simple signal you can each use as a flag on the play. Use it to pause the action, point out when something’s going awry, prevent things from going further amiss…you get the idea.

Do you and your spouse or partner have significant communication style differences? When do you most notice the difference? What do you do to bridge the gap? Do tell.

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  1. says

    I have had mediation clients come up with everything from, “that’s a dig,” to “places please” for a theater group. In my own relationship, we use, “Pepsi.” What does it have to do with anything? Not one thing. Because it is related nothing else in the conversation, it is a word out of the blue that signals that it is time to stop, figure things out & speak more carefully.

    • says

      Linda, “places, please” is hysterical…and perfect for a theatre group. Love it! Pepsi is a good one, too…good choice to pick a completely unrelated word, good signal to get the mind’s attention. Thanks for sharing these!

  2. says

    Great article Tammy! As usual :)

    I started dating a new man a few months ago after being totally single for 4 years, and I am still amazed what a huge thing our different communication styles is in the relationship!! The thing I’ve really noticed is that I am a highly verbal extrovert and he is a not-as-verbal introvert. So learning about I-E communication styles has been useful (we did a lot of that in my negotiation and mediation training). And I also use “ouch” myself. I think I will suggest he use it too.

    • says

      Kerri, many years ago, a boss of mine said to the entire staff, “So very often it’s not the “what” that creates a problem, it’s the “how.” How right she was! If we can master the how, the what becomes a whole lot less tricky. Sounds like you’re confronting that right now…you go, girl!

  3. says

    If I can stop laughing long enough, I will finish this reply!!!!! Laughing because I can just see him calmly asking for your water as the fire starts, when I would be screaming FIRE!!!! And the hat head around here gets merciless jabs from anyone and everyone.

    We ask for a bookmark. “I need to bookmark this.” And a bookmark means “I really want to finish the story, but I can’t right now.” It works for us because there is trust. Trust that we indeed will come back when we have taken care of our own triggers by seeking outside support, taking a bath, or pounding a pillow. :)

    On a lighter note, Dan would get VERY triggered when I started a sentence with, “Hey Dan…” His ex would complete the sentence with everything he did wrong or should be doing, so his entire body would tense up. When he finally told me, I laughed and asked if he would be willing to imagine that when I started a sentence with “Hey Dan,” that I was going to offer sexual favors. Now when it happens, he just says “YES YES YES!” and is smiling as he awaits the rest of my sentence. Needless to say, he is no longer triggered. We also used to say “I wish it was Tuesday” if we were having a bad day or needed some space. The joke was that “extras” only happened on Tuesday.

    Now I am laughing again.

    Thanks. I needed this today!

    • says

      Deborah, thanks for the good morning laugh…I love your “Hey Dan” story. Another great example of the pretty simple ways we can change the trajectory of a conversation with a little forethought (not foreplay! hah!) together. And that helps maintain the trust that, in turn, serves you in good stead next time. So great to hear from you!

  4. says


    This is a great reminder. Thanks.

    My wife and I are similarly different. She’s pretty direct. I’m not. I ask questions that sound to her like an attack. She makes statements that sound aggressive to me. It’s often funny later – not so funny in the moment. And, we have also figured out some ways to navigate the inevitable challenges our communication styles create.

    We haven’t negotiated a single safe word, but we do have some agreements about how we interact with each other that fit specific situations and work for us. For example, when I say “How much did that cost?” my wife hears criticism. After years of trying to get her to hear me differently, I learned that “How much did we spend?” or “What number should I put in the check book?” are safe for her. I found that changing my approach had a bigger impact than trying to change her filter.

    As always, I enjoy reading your posts and learning from your experiences. Thanks for the reminder. I think Sandra and I might need to revisit the use of “safe” words for our relationship.

    • says

      Hey, Guy, how are you? Happy new year to you.

      It’s amazing how just a subtle shift in language can have a big impact, isn’t it? Your example is just perfect and also a testament to your own skill. You could just get ticked that she doesn’t like your question, but instead you put on your Columbo hat and experiment with alternatives until you find one that fits the bill.

  5. says

    I’m still laughing, too, Tammy. Those are just great stories. Jim and I (40 years this year!) use the word “relationship” as our checkpoint, as in, “Is this a ‘relationship’ conversation?” It works because it usually makes one or both of us laugh, and humor is always centering. Thanks, as always! -Judy

    • says

      Judy – 40 years! How very wonderful! I really like that your word often makes the two of you laugh. You’re right, that’s centering and shifts the emotional state of the conversation. Maybe Rod and I should find a word that makes us laugh, too…I’m going to ponder that one.

  6. Jagoda says

    I too am laughing, Tami, because my husband and I have the exact same communication style differences you describe, though your fire story trumps any I might have. We used to use the phrase “pay attention” in the early years of our marriage as our reminder that we needed to accept and learn about each other’s differences. I love the idea of bookmarking from Deborah. I’m adding that one to my repertoire.

    • says

      Jagoda – I’m glad the post made you and others laugh! It’s good to know I achieved some of what I set out to do. I’ve heard back (here and by email) from a lot of people saying they have the same directness style differences in their own marriages and that’s interesting to me. It’s good to know we’re not alone!

      • says

        Well we tend to be certain in our own very different communication styleshusband dry Vermonter, me out front Pennsylvanian)…so adopting something that I heard you say once, we say…hmmmm…we are certainly certain about that??? Because we have talked about this often, we say it tongue in cheek and often we begin laughing so hard it lightens the moment. Thanks for your contribution to that!

  7. says

    Tammy, this reminds me of something that I worked out with my brother when we were both about 10 years old. I noticed that it was difficult apologizing after we had been fighting so I suggested to him that we use a neutral word that would make it easier. I suggested ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ and to this day if one of us feels a need to express regret over something – we go back to using that word and it makes us laugh. Hey! Even at 10 I must have know this work was right up my alley. Thanks for the post.

    • says

      Good one, Nancy! These shorthand, inside “joke” codes do more than stop us from getting in deeper…they create connection in the moment. Thanks for sharing!

  8. says

    SO TRUE – great article!!! In our house, our different communication styles are most challenging when we are fighting. At one point we agreed to “and there’s the line” (referring to the line in the sand – that just got crossed). This was a signal for a time out. That did not last long, because my husband is the type who has to be “right” and has to have his resolution immediately. Now, when we get to that point I simply say, ok I am done for now. He generally does not react well to this initially, but he does accept that I have shut down emotionally at that point and there is not point for him to continue (not saying this is ideal, but it is the only way I protect myself psychologically at that point). During minor disagreements, when we are antagonizing rather than resolving we say “poke” or “there’s the jab” to bring us back on task. Sometimes, it is as simple as what you say is not what the other person hears and feelings get hurt. On those such occasions we attempt to clarify I know you said bla-bla-bla, but what I heard was yada-yada. That allows the other person to either confirm or deny their intention and can prevent a lot of miscommunication.