Dear Tzippora,

Sometimes it seems like my husband and I can talk for hours – about literature, politics, or Jewish ideas we are studying. Yet other times, the simplest exchange, like who should've bought milk or who is driving carpool, can set off an argument. I don't understand why sometimes it is so easy to talk to each other, and other times so hard. It is almost like we are different people from one conversation to the next.

All Talked Out

Dear All Talked Out,

Your question touches on the essential difference between conversation and communication. In the first case, when you and you husband are discussing books or ideas, you are having a conversation. There is nothing that you truly want or need from the other beyond a willingness to listen and participate in the discussion. Basic conversational skills are enough to ensure that the conversation is a successful one.

Yet in the second case, in which you are called upon to negotiate and delegate household responsibilities, you need to do more than have a simple conversation. You need to be able to communicate with each other. Now it becomes necessary to express your separate needs, and identify the needs of your household. This conversation has an agenda and an urgency that your previous conversation didn't have, and therefore it requires additional skills, i.e., communication skills.

In order to communicate with each other effectively, each of you must be able to express your needs while simultaneously listening to and respecting the needs of your spouse. However, when people become threatened, they worry that acknowledging someone else's needs will cancel out their own needs. At that point they become defensive and unable to listen.

It is possible that this is what happens between you and your husband, and is it why you seem to become "different people" during this type of discussion. While it is perfectly normal, and many married people experience power struggles during these "agenda driven" discussions, it is not inevitable.

Begin by recognizing that these discussions about mundane matters truly affect the smooth functioning of your home. Once you acknowledge that these topics are worthy of your respect, you and your husband can choose to make a concerted effort to work together on your communication skills. Increasing your ability to communicate about household and family matters will allow you to create a more peaceful and supportive atmosphere in your home.

Keep these discussions short, direct, and non-judgmental. Focus on what needs to be done and how to make it happen, rather than on who has done what and whose turn it is now. Don't try to keep score. When your household runs well, you all win.

Consider that sometimes less is truly more. Our sages teach that a simple vegetarian meal eaten in peace is better than an elaborate meat meal eaten with conflict. A modern day application of this idea is that sometimes it is better to let things go, and serve everybody Cheerios for dinner rather than arguing over whose turn it was to cook.

Thanks for writing,

Tzippora Price, M.Sc.