Unspoken communication—a raised eyebrow, a folding of the arms across the chest, a hand on the shoulder, an email—can be at least as powerful as words. It can help build your marriage—or chip away at it.

Communicating without talking can be tricky. You may not always realise what you’re "saying." And your silent messages may contradict your spoken ones, confusing your spouse.

It’s no wonder some wives begin to ask early in their marriages, "Why does my husband say one thing and act totally different?" Some husbands, on the other hand, ask, "If she’s really attracted to me as she used to be, why does she act like a cold potato every time I approach her?"

The unspoken can be very difficult to interpret properly. Nevertheless, nonverbal communication has its positive side. To help you and your mate make the most of those silent messages, here are some principles to remember:

Go low-tech when possible

When it comes to communicating with your spouse, don’t try to send important messages or work out sensitive issues over the phone or via e-mail. When you read an e-mail or listen on the phone, you’re not getting the whole message. You can’t interpret facial expressions, maintain eye contact, or sense warmth or genuineness. If intimate, relationship-building conversation is needed, have it face-to-face.

Don’t be "all talk"

Remember this advice: "Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead" (James 2:17). Actions do speak louder than words. You can tell a hungry man you care about him and wish him well, but if you don’t demonstrate your compassion the words are useless. The same is true for your spouse.
A church sign put it this way: "Actions speak louder than bumper stickers." Ask yourself whether the messages you’ve been sending your spouse lately have been through your actions—or the lack thereof.

Don’t rely on silence to send a message

Silence can be one of the loudest forms of communication, but it’s easily misinterpreted. What does it tend to say in your marriage? Is it "I don’t want to fight"? "I’d rather not say anything that could stir up trouble"? "Don’t bother me"? "I don’t care what you think or what you need from me"? The trouble with silence is that your mate may "fill in the blanks" with answers that aren’t correct. Learning to communicate what you feel will help your spouse know what’s in your heart—instead of encouraging him or her to take your silence and assume the worst.

Don’t catastrophise

In other words, don’t overreact. What you think your spouse meant may not be what he or she intended to communicate. Ask for clarification: "Remember the other day when I asked you about taking a holiday and you sighed real loud? Were you aggravated with me because I brought it up again, or were you frustrated with yourself for having forgotten about it?"

Watch your body language

Your facial expressions and eye contact send messages to your spouse about how interested you are in what he or she is saying. Actions like looking away, cleaning your fingernails, yawning, or flipping channels on the remote say, "I have better things to do." To avoid getting distracted when your spouse is trying to communicate with you, turn off the radio, TV, computer, or other electronic devices.

Use touch to communicate your love

When Jesus wanted to communicate how valuable children were to His kingdom, He didn’t just say, "Hey, kids, you are valuable!" He reached down and touched them and sat them in His lap. People need touch. Babies left untouched become ill emotionally and physically. Spouses who fail to affectionately touch each other by holding hands, rubbing necks, putting their arms around each other, and hugging will not be as close—literally and figuratively—as those who make these patterns part of their everyday routine.

Use your eyes to express warmth and caring

Most mothers are experts at controlling their children’s behaviour by simply looking at them; sometimes it seems a mum’s angry look in church can pierce 70 rows of bodies to reprimand a talking teenager. In marriage, your eyes can communicate warmth or disgust, contentment or dissatisfaction, love or hatred, approval or disappointment.
Many men struggle with looking at their wives. Some are by nature shy and developed a habit in childhood to avoid looking directly at a speaker. Some fear seeing disappointment in their wives’ eyes. Whatever the case, both men and women need to look their spouses in the eyes, especially when discussing sensitive topics or expressing love.

Practice, practice, practice

Make sure that what you feel in your heart is communicated clearly not just by your words, but also by eye contact, touch, and other "non verbals." Don’t assume that since you feel good about what you’re communicating, your spouse must feel good about it, too.

© 2006 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Adapted from "Focus on the Family’s First 5 Years of Marriage" by Focus on the Family published by Tyndale House Publishers. Article found at focusonthefamily.com.

Mitch Temple

Counsellor and author

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