Can We Stop Fighting, Please! (A CLEAVE Model of Marriage Communication)

Marital communication can feel incredibly complex, especially when multiple attempts at resolutions to issues seem illusive and the only thing developing is the level of tension in conversations. However, it can be helpful to think of spousal communication as the following:      

Marriage communication is 25% information and 75% motivation.

I use this statement to help illustrate that much of the conflict spouses experience are often based in breakdowns in information (what they know about each other and about interpersonal communication) and motivation (their willingness to help each other feel loved, valued and understood).

Rarely have I worked with a couple who didn't love each other at their core. However, I have worked with tons of couples who are unsure how to communicate that love effectively and to reach out in ways that bring them closer together.  This is one of the reasons I developed what I call the CLEAVE method of couples communication.

Cleave Defined

CLEAVE is an acronym for the following principles: curiosity, listening, empathy, validation and encouragement. I have found these principles to be incredibly useful in helping bring couples closer together in their communication, while helping them to avoid unnecessary arguments. I'm confident you'll find them helpful as well. 

Here is a brief description of each element: 

  • Curiosity: inquiring for more information about your spouse's thoughts and feelings.
  • Listening: paying careful attention to what they are saying.
  • Empathy: placing yourself into the other member’s shoes emotionally.
  • Affirmation: highlighting what your partner is doing right versus wrong.
  • Validation: summarizing what they are telling you.
  • Encouragement: speaking to your desire to move through difficulties together.

Each principle will serve you well when engaging your spouse, and they will enable you both to feel heard, understood and validated in your discussions. There isn't an order of application either, you simply want to make sure to use as many components as possible in communicating with each other. Please know that doing so requires you to be other-focused, something I will discuss a little later in this article. 

Describing the CLEAVE Communication Model

The following information briefly describes each element in the CLEAVE model.

Curiosity is engaging your spouse by taking time to learn more about what they are telling you. It generally takes the form of asking questions related to key thoughts, needs and emotions being expressed by your partner. For example, if they are telling you about a need for quality time with you on a more regular basis, you can be curious by asking them to describe their vision of quality time with you. This action shows you are interested in what they are saying, and positions you to learn more about what is important to them.

Curiosity is making a genuine inquiry into what is important to your spouse.

Listening is more than just sitting with your spouse and hearing what they have to say. It involves focusing on what they are telling you instead of your next reply. It also involves using your body language to show them you are present and engaged in the conversation (e.g., making eye contact, facing them with your body). I would also recommend listening for key words and phrases about their thoughts, needs, and emotions. This will help you focus on the central themes they are trying to convey, which you can later reference when applying curiosity and validation. 

Listening invokes a sacred act of love that gives your spouse the freedom to engage in a core expression of self.

Empathy is one of the most salient elements of all the CLEAVE principles. It empowers the effective implementation of the other principles and additionally positions you to reflect upon what your spouse would be thinking, feeling, and doing if you were in your their shoes. It requires that you to stop judging or criticizing them, but rather try being them for a moment in time, so that you can see situations from their point of view. Practicing empathy takes time, yet as your ability to apply it increases, so will your ability to understand and resolve points of disagreement with your spouse.

Empathy is the principle that helps open our eyes to realities beyond our own. 

Affirmation is recognizing and verbally acknowledging your spouse's value and meaning, while sharing what they are doing right. It focuses you on expressing how much you love them and value their efforts in your relationship. For example, "I love you and am thankful for how you make me feel like a priority" or "I know we don't agree on this issue now, but I'm glad you're willing to listen to my side of things." Affirmation is a powerful way to build your spouse up emotionally and to strengthen your marriage relationally.

Always remember that building your spouse up will go much further in resolving issues than tearing them down ever will.

Validation is simply briefly summarizing what your spouse is telling you and it is one of the easiest ways to help them to feel heard and understood. Validation works well when you focus on remembering specific key words used by your spouse that highlight their primary concerns, emotions, needs, etc. Using these key words when you apply validation also lets them know you've been paying attention to them. You can use validation and curiosity together, for example, by saying: "So I heard you say my statement hurt you. Can you help me understand why?"

Validation confirms to your spouse you've been paying attention to what they're sharing with you, and opens them up to sharing more. 

Encouragement is a powerful way of providing hope and a momentum needed to move beyond presenting marital issues. It helps you both to see you're on the same side and that you are committed to having building a stronger relationship. It involves using simple statements of encouragement such as, "I know this situation is tough, but I love you and we will get through this together" or "I'm committed to working through this together and I want you to know that I love you."

Encouragement is both validating and motivating as it conveys your willingness to fight for one another, instead of fighting against each other. 

Together, these CLEAVE elements provide you with framework of resources to draw from, whether you are addressing something simple or complex in your relationship. Although they aren't hard to use, it can be well worth your time to practice them daily. 

Being Other Focused

Being other-focused is the underlying basis for CLEAVE, which recognizes that the richness of human experience includes joining with others who are unlike ourselves, whom we deeply love and have committed our lives. Within such an experience, like marriage, the aforementioned richness is never truly found when we make ourselves the focus. This is why pain and conflict become entrenched in so many marriages.

The members involved continue to vie for attention to their needs, while failing to recognize that by offering their spouse the chance to have their needs recognized first, that they would be opened up to reciprocating in kind. This may feel unintuitive, but it works and it's a vital part of us loving our neighbor as ourselves. 

"And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. This is the first commandment. And the second, like it, is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.” - Mark 12:30-31, NKJV

When you and I choose to put our spouse first, and to allow their needs and desires to take precedence over our own, we create a truly healthy environment where the love we have for each other can flourish. This is always better than taking a selfish perspective. Furthermore, being other-focused bolsters our capacity for working towards places of agreement and unity. 


For more information on the use of CLEAVE communication principles, or for more information on Fulfilled Christian Counseling, please contact us by clicking on the button below.

We look forward to hearing from you.

Eric Gomez, MS LMFT MHP
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
Fulfilled Christian Counseling