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How 'thoughtful communication' can improve your marriage, according to a divorce attorney

This divorce lawyer says it's the small things that lead to major heartbreak.
by Julie Compton /
image: Young black couple lying in bed
Big problems — like infidelity or financial impropriety — are often the result of small misunderstandings that snowball over time.kali9 / Getty Images
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Married couples want to live happily ever after, but about half of marriages in the U.S. end in divorce, according to the American Psychological Association.

It’s a problem divorce attorney James Sexton attributes to couples simply not knowing how to communicate.

“We need to have a conversation about how to have the conversation,” explains Sexton, author of “If You’re In My Office, It’s Already Too Late.” Otherwise, small disagreements will build up over time and splinter the relationship.

The attorney says a happy relationship is about more than talking about what’s bothering us — it’s about doing it thoughtfully.

“We don’t have these conversations,” Sexton tells NBC News BETTER. “We don’t have a conversation about how we’re going to have a conversation in a marriage, and I think very often that results in people not knowing what’s a big thing, what’s a little thing, what’s a way to bring up the big things? What’s a way to bring up the little things?”

Hers’s how to have more thoughtful dialogue with your partner, according to the attorney.

Understand it’s the small things that lead to major heartbreak

Marriages don’t end over night, says Sexton. When people end up in his office, it’s usually because of problems like infidelity or financial impropriety, he says. But these big problems are often the result of small misunderstandings that snowball over time, he explains.

The attorney recalls a client who said her marriage began to fall apart shortly after she and her husband had kids. She said it started with the husband making small jokes about her weight.

“He thought he was being playful but, in reality, these were really cutting to her,” Sexton said. “And of course, as a reaction to it, when someone hurts us, we are very often inclined to hurt them back or we just don’t feel as affectionate towards them and it creates distance.”

This type of dynamic frequently leads to a couple feeling less affectionate towards one another, and, ultimately, a breakdown in communication over time, he explains.

“Again, these are little things,” he says. “They’re not meant to be hurtful. They’re not meant to destroy a marriage, but no single rain drop is responsible for the flood. These little things add up to the opposite of love, to a feeling of disconnection, to a feeling of not feeling supported.”

Use positive reinforcement

When we are upset with the person we love, our instinct is to criticize them, says Sexton. And while our intention is usually to improve them in some way, it often results in them feeling slighted or ashamed, he explains.

“Look, constructive criticism is still criticism,” insists Sexton. “You can call it constructive criticism, but that’s like saying, ‘Oh, it’s a positive slap in the face.’ It’s still criticism, and no one likes to be criticized, especially when it comes to their marriage [and] being told, ‘Hey, you’re not doing our marriage right,’ or ‘You’re not being very good at being my spouse.’”

The author recalls a woman he once dated who always complained when he took a break from shaving on weekends. While she simply wanted a smooth face to kiss, her criticism put him on the defensive, he says.

“I mean the net result is that I want this person to want to kiss me,” he says. “I want this person to want to be close to me, but I feel defensive, I feel that I’ve been criticized, and that doesn’t increase the empathy, that decreases the empathy.”

He says a better approach would have been if she had praised him when he did shave.

“If [she] had said to me after I just shaved on a weekday, ‘Oh, I love when your face is clean shaven, I love when it’s so nice, it’s so smooth, it’s so sexy to me,’ I can tell you right now I’d go out and buy 50 more razors because I want that positive reinforcement,” he says.

If you want to change your partner’s behavior, resist the urge to criticize them, Sexton advises. Instead, focus on praising the little things they do that please you.

For example, if you want your spouse to be more spontaneous, watch their behavior for small instances of spontaneity and let them know how much you like it.

“Even if it’s just a little seedling of something they do that’s spontaneous, some new piece of clothing they wore or some minor program that they watch on TV that they never watched before, just praise it,” he says. “Praise the hell out of that concept — ‘Oh, it’s so cool that you’re watching this new thing, I love it when you do new things like that’ — because that’s going to inspire them in a positive way as opposed to having them feel attacked.”

When arguing, focus on principles

When couples disagree, they usually try to reach a middle ground — what Sexton calls “positional bargaining.” This tends to lead to neither of them getting what they want, or simply “fighting to win.”

“We’re going to go back and forth until maybe we get to some middle ground between our respected positions, and it almost rewards each of us taking an unreasonable position, because if you’re going to settle on the middle ground, if you both take unreasonable positions to start, it almost rewards that,” he says.

For example, if your husband says something offhanded about your sister that you don’t like, you might instinctively respond by saying something critical about his mother. This, Sexton explains, results in bickering and hurt feelings.

Instead of attacking your husband for what he said, talk to him about why it bothered you in the first place, advises Sexton.

“You’re not upset at your husband because he said something about your sister in an offhanded comment,” Sexton says. “You’re upset at him because you felt it was disrespectful to your sister. You worry he doesn’t like your sister. So get to the core of that. Get to the principle behind it rather than the position.”

Put it in an email

In our culture, we tend to put great importance on conducting difficult conversations face-to-face, says Sexton. But confronting your partner in person about something they did has a tendency to put them in a defensive position, he warns, and often ends in bickering.

“If you wait until your partner or spouse is sitting on the couch and you go, ‘Hey, listen, what happened last night really bothered me,’ they’re immediately in a defensive position,” he says. “They may not be in a position where they really want to talk about that issue right at that moment.”

If your partner did something that touched a nerve, Sexton suggests putting it in a carefully worded email or text message. This gives them an opportunity to reflect on it and think about how they want to respond in a non-confrontational way, he says.

“When you send someone an email saying ‘Look, I just want to get this off my chest, this is what you said or did and this is how it sat with me, it’s bothering me, I feel like we need to have a conversation about it,’ it gives them a chance to A) review it and digest it as much as they’d like to and B) contemplate on it as much as they’d like to or need to and C) bring it up to you or respond either with an email back when they’re ready, when they’ve had a chance to think it though, sit on it or digest it.”

How to thoughtfully communicate with your partner

  • Sweat the small stuff. Tiny misunderstandings have a tendency to snowball over time. Learn to recognize how you might be hurting your partner in small ways and take steps to change it.
  • Be positive in your words. Even if it’s meant to be constructive, criticism hurts. Instead of criticizing or complaining when your significant other does something you don’t like, praise them when they do something you do like. This reinforces the behavior.
  • Stay focused when arguing. Couples tend to look for a middle ground when they argue, but this often ends in more bickering. Instead of trying to meet them half way, focus on getting to the principle of why you are arguing in the first place.
  • Use e-mail as a tool. If you are upset with your partner, confronting them about it in person may put them on the defensive. Instead, put it in a carefully written email or text message. This will give them time to think about how they want to respond in a way that avoids conflict.

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