God, trust, respect, and compromise are among the keys to a successful marriage, said Katasha Bozeman, a licensed and national-board-certified counselor based in Birmingham. But she and other professionals single out communication as the most important aspect.
“Communication is like having electricity in your home,” said Bozeman, a therapist at Shaping Lives Counseling Services. “If the electricity goes out, then you are left in the dark, and it is hard to find your way. Transparency and vulnerability are very important in being able to openly share your values, needs, and wants as it relates to those key ingredients.”
Bozeman added, “It is important for each person to feel safe in sharing their true emotions, whether good or bad, without judgment from the other. If there is no communication, then it is very difficult to know what each person needs.”
As Valentine’s Day approaches, the Birmingham Times recently interviewed several counselors and therapists to get their advice about what makes a sustainable marriage and what steps to take to avoid issues that could derail a relationship.
Deanna Hatcher, a Birmingham-based licensed professional counselor, said communication problems are one of the main reasons married couples split.
“Communication is critical to a successful relationship,” she said. “If there is minimal, ineffective, or even no communication, neither partner knows what to expect from the other. This causes conflict and stress.”
Hatcher, who has an office in Homewood and has been licensed for 12 years, said the first step is learning how to listen and understand what is being communicated.
“The way to do that is to focus on what your partner is saying to you when they are speaking, [rather than trying to think of a rebuttal], and reflect back to them what you heard,” she said. “Also, be kind and considerate of the other person’s feelings. Keep the focus on your feelings, and don’t point fingers.”
The inability to communicate can ruin not only the relationship but also the emotional health of both parties, said Jacques L. Austin, who is in private practice at JL Austin Counseling and Consulting in Homewood.
“Life and death are in the tongue—so are successful and unsuccessful marriages,” said Austin, 58, who has been married for 20 years. “A couple can fix communication issues by learning to listen. We may hear what our spouse is saying, but few of us practice active listening. This requires work for the individual. … Recognizing the inability to listen requires a deep search of self and a desire to fix one’s self for the betterment of the couple.”
So, how do couples improve communication?
“An environment should be set aside, one that is free of interruption, where a couple can openly and vulnerably discuss concerns,” Bozeman said. “If efforts to address the concerns continually present roadblocks, the couple may benefit from the support that can be provided by a therapist who can help facilitate identification of the root of the communication issue.”
Bozeman said we all communicate differently. And as a couple grows and builds a foundation, each person begins to learn the “language” of his or her spouse. Failure to address communication issues will inevitably lead to a host of problems, including emotional detachment, decreased physical intimacy, an unhealthy sex life, and financial instability.
Deborah Harris, a licensed marriage and family therapist who works in private practice at Brookwood Medical Center, said couples have a tendency to lean too heavily on the verbal and nonverbal cues of their partner rather than have open and honest dialogue.
“They often have a problem really listening to each other for understanding,” she said. “Instead, they act, respond, or react based on their perception of what the other is saying, which could actually be wrong.”
Couples have to realize that there is no such thing as a “perfect” marriage, but there can be wholesome marriages that entail mutual satisfaction and benefits for both individuals, Bozeman said.
“[A healthy marriage] is one that provides a safe, supportive, loving, accepting, and thriving environment … [that] flourishes from the foundation that has been established through open and honest communication,” she said.