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Three Hearts: Conference
- The First Challenge: The Mystery of Gender
- The Second Challenge: Time and Space The
- Third Challenge: Original Sin
- What’s the Solution?
- More Than a Date Night
- L.U.V. Talk
- Conclusion: The Journey Towards Perfection
All experts agree that the better spouses communicate with each other, the better their relationship will be, and the more fulfilling their family life will become — good communication is one way to keep the grace of this sacrament flowing freely. Those same experts also agree that effective spousal communication is one of the most widespread problematic areas among married couples.
During dating and courtship, future spouses seem to communicate great — they almost seem to read each other’s minds sometimes. What happens after they get married? Why does healthy communication suffer in so many marriages, even among virtuous, well-meaning spouses?
In this conference, we will first look at three challenges to spousal communication. Then we will look at two pieces of practical advice about how to steadily improve spousal communication.
The First Challenge: The Mystery of Gender
The Bible tells us that when God created mankind, he created us in his own image and likeness, and then it says: “male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).
Adam and Eve are equal in their human dignity; both
are full human persons. And yet, they are profoundly different, and the complementarity of their differences is an essential part of how they image God.
Scientists have been researching the differences between men and women for decades. Study after study shows that the complementarity between the genders goes far beyond mere sexual fertility. The realms of emotion, cognition, intellection, affection, even the simple activities of hearing and seeing — in all of these areas and more, the genders differ complementarily.
Science is confirming theology: God really did create us male, and female — equal in human dignity, yet mysteriously and fascinatingly different. This difference is the first and most basic challenge to spousal communication: men and women perceive and interact with reality in fundamentally different ways.
Spouses can come to understand each other, but it takes intentional effort, and there will always be room for greater understanding — gender complementarity will continue to be a glorious, though sometimes frustrating, mystery.
The Second Challenge: Time and Space
The human soul is spiritual. Although our minds work through material instruments, like our five senses and our brain, our intellect itself is spiritual, not limited by time and space. But inter-spousal communication is limited by time and space.
For example, most experts agree that the average person thinks at the pace of about 700 words per minute. But the average person speaks at the pace of about 120 words per minute. So what happens when someone is talking to me?
In one minute of speaking, that person communicates 120 words; in that same minute, my mind — thinking while I listen — races ahead by about 600 words. So, when I respond to that person, my thought-reaction to what they have been saying is already two pages — so to speak — beyond what they actually said.
But it gets worse. When I respond, I speak for a minute — 120 words. As I am speaking, they are thinking, so by the time they respond to me, they are about 600 words beyond where I finished. But since I started my initial response already 600 words beyond them, by the end of two minutes we are now separated by 1200 words — the equivalent of about four or five pages.
Now can you understand why so often we feel like we are talking and talking, but not really communicating!
As spiritual beings living in time and space, we face significant challenges to communication.
The Third Challenge: Original Sin
Besides the mystery of gender and the matrix of
time and space, another factor that disrupts spousal communication is original sin. Because our human nature is fallen, we have deeply entrenched selfish tendencies that inhibit us from being good listeners — we tend to turn in on ourselves rather than be sincerely open to others.
But that’s not the only effect of original sin. Because human nature is fallen, very few families are perfect. As a result, we all grow up in imperfect households. And so, during our formative years, we experience sorrow, loss, and trauma — some more, some less. This impacts our personality and the emotional patterns at work in how we interact with other people.
Most often, these patterns are not conscious, since
they can be formed even during our pre-verbal developmental period. So when two people get married, they are bringing to the table two separate bundles of subconscious emotional patterns that are not automatically compatible. This is one of the reasons that communication seems to get worse after the honeymoon.
As the spousal relationship takes root and deepens, the spouses encounter sectors of each other’s personality that simply never had a chance to emerge during dating and courtship.
This incompatibility can be shocking, painful, confusing… All of which throws up a challenge to continued spousal communication.
What’s the Solution?
At this point it may seem that effective spousal communication is an impossibility. But that’s not the case. We just need to recognize and accept the fact that there are very good reasons why inter-spousal communication is not always easy.
If we don’t accept that, we will never make a firm decision to invest in improving our communication — we’ll just think that it shouldn’t be so hard, and we’ll start blaming our spouse.
It’s not your spouse’s fault: it’s human nature’s fault. So what can we do about it?
If both spouses are committed firmly and explicitly to growing in this area, then any of the many techniques, exercises, and pieces of advice offered by marriage experts and counselors will be helpful and fruitful.
I want to share two pieces of advice offered by many of them, just to get you started.
More Than a Date Night
Most married couples have heard of the “date night” concept: taking one night every week, or every two weeks, where the husband and wife go out on a date, just like they used to.
The idea behind this practice is to intentionally create time and space for the intimate spousal relationship to reconnect, to synchronize.
Between work, and children, and in-laws, between traffic jams and social media and extra-curricular activities, there are so many demands on a married couple’s time these days that they often drift apart from each other without even realizing it. The date night is designed to counteract that tendency.
Unfortunately, date nights often don’t work very well — for one simple reason: they become a time to talk about all the practical things that have been piling up, unresolved.
Before the spouses were married, they didn’t share a home and a bank account and children; they didn’t have to talk about insurance and home improvements and vacation and in-law issues.
So when they went on a date, they could focus on each other, on simply enjoying each other’s presence, and exploring the mysterious attraction of the other person, of their ideas and feelings and dreams. A married couple needs to continue having conversations like that.
But those conversations won’t happen on a date
night unless the slate is clean, unless other practical considerations are dealt with adequately in a different, proper forum.
So, to make a date night work, it’s important to also schedule time on a regular basis to deal with practical things. One marriage expert recommends spouses in today’s world to schedule three types of regular meetings:
Family business meetings. This is where both spouses can talk about money issues, school issues, medical issues — all the practical stuff. If this meeting is scheduled on a regular basis, the pile
of unresolved questions and issues will quickly be reduced, and stay reduced, relieving untold amounts of tension.
Spiritual meetings. This is a time when the parents can get together and talk about their kids, about each child: the child’s needs, strengths, weaknesses, opportunities. This is when the parents can get
on the same page about how they are raising each child, and how to work together for the best of their children. Again, if this meeting is scheduled on a regular basis — early Saturday mornings over a cup of coffee, for example — the parents will stay up to speed on what’s going on in their children’s lives, relieving tension that can build up between spouses unintentionally.
Date nights. With family business meetings and spiritual meetings happening on a regular basis,
the slate will be clean, and a husband and wife can actually go on a date night that will feel like a real date, a real chance to enjoy, and be enjoyed by, the man or woman they married.
A second practice of communication that can revolutionize spousal communication is what author and marriage counselor Michael Smalley has called L.U.V. talk.
This basic principle is especially useful when spouses need to resolve conflict, but it can be used effectively in any meaningful conversation. The three steps of L.U.V. talk are simple but powerful.
“L” stands for “listen.” This simply means letting the other person speak, and paying attention to what they are saying. It means avoiding unnecessary interruptions, having eye contact, paying attention — treating your spouse with the respect they deserve.
“U” stands for “understand.” A lot of times when we listen, we allow our own thoughts to color our reception of what the other person is saying. This second step reminds us to really climb into the other person’s mind and grasp what they really want to communicate.
“V” stands for “validate” and “voice back.” For real communication to happen, each person in the conversation has to perceive that they are being listened to and understood. Otherwise, they will not feel completely free to listen to and understand the other person’s response.
After listening and trying to understand, the listener should voice back in their own words what they think the other person meant — this is the “voice back” stage. That validates the person who has spoken, and also provides an opportunity to clarify anything that may have been misunderstood.
Only after the listening spouse has done all three, L.U.V., should they then express their own thoughts in response.
Conclusion: The Journey Towards Perfection
The Three Meetings and L.U.V. talk are two practical pieces of advice that could give you a direction to
take if you want to move towards better spousal communication. But no technique will bear fruit without a true desire and firm resolution to grow. And even with the desire and resolution, the challenges will all remain.
Here on earth, we are always journeying towards heaven, which means that we will never achieve perfection. But that’s okay — after all, the sacrament of marriage is not the goal of life, but a magnificent gift to help us towards life’s goal: an ever-deepening and everlasting communion with God.
Take some time now to reflect on the ten questions of the Personal Questionnaire, designed to help deepen your appreciation for God’s great invention of marriage.
Note: If you are not yet married, reflect on these questions with an eye to the future, to prepare yourself to be the kind of spouse you really want to be. If
you are following a celibate vocation in some form
of consecrated life, you may want to reflect on these questions in relation to your consecrated community, or the Church institution that you minister to.
1. How would I describe my expectations for marriage? Are they more like a fairy tale romance, or a life-long journey deeper into the heart of God?
2. In what areas am I expecting my spouse to complete me instead of complementing and accompanying me?
￼3. What are my most common complaints about my spouse? How much are those complaints based on my love for them and what is best for them? How much are they based on my self-centeredness?
4. In my heart, what I am doing to continue honoring and respecting my spouse, even as I come to know better and better my spouse’s flaws?
5. When I experience conflict in my spousal relationship, what is my most typical pattern of response, and where does that pattern come from: withdrawal, escalation, belittling, or discouragement?
￼￼￼￼6. What topics generally cause friction between me and my spouse, and why? What can I do to address them in a positive, constructive way?
7. In my other relationships (work, social clubs, friendships), what kind of things do I do to assure good communication? How can I apply those better to my spousal relationship?
8. Have my spouse and I found a good way to pray together on a regular basis? If not, where can I look for some good ideas to improve this area of our relationship?
9. When was the last time I read a good book about married life? If it has been a long time, why have I waited?
10. How firmly do I believe that in loving and serving my spouse, I am fulfilling my primary mission in this life and growing in holiness? What other activities or relationships tend to try and draw me away from living a proper level of respect and love towards my spouse in this, my sacrament?