For about an hour a few afternoons ago, Edric listened to my rants, stories, and insights, all of which were pretty much unrelated to one another and totally random. He gave his input when he felt it was appropriate. But for the most part he just lay there with his elbow supporting his head, facing me to give me his full attention. Then he asked, “So this is what you like, right? Me, here, just listening like this?”
But of course!
He smiled knowingly, his dimpled cheek still a charming sight to me after all these years. I missed his company as we blazed through a hectic October. We were together a lot but busy working or serving others in some capacity. So this time with Edric was precious to me.
Although I have many women friends, Edric fills the need in me for a best friend and confidant. It’s been such a blessing to be married to someone whom I feel like I share complete honesty with. It helps that we cultivated this sort of relational climate even before we got married. As a result good communication has saved us countless times from drifting apart.
A young lady who is currently in a relationship with a guy whom she believes she may marry asked if it is normal that he isn’t that communicative.
I replied, “Marriage is so much about communication, so if this guy is serious about you and vice versa, communication matters. If he doesn’t answer personal questions, if he seems evasive or disinterested in discussions beyond the superficial level, then I would pray for him to change or reconsider whether he is worth committing to.”
If a guy doesn’t know how to listen or open up and share what’s on his heart when he is in the courtship stage, that ought to be a red flag. Communication doesn’t get easier in marriage. You tend to relate to one another the way you did when you were getting to know each other. But if your starting point is honesty and openness before marriage then that carries over into marriage and by God’s grace, blossoms into something even better.
It still takes effort for Edric and I to connect with one another. There’s the constant challenge of busyness which makes moments for stillness and listening elusive. And sometimes the hurts and disappointments trigger the instinct to avoid vulnerability. However, communication is so elemental to a healthy marriage that we prize and pursue it at all costs.
The reality is that when a husband and wife stop being authentic, masking their thoughts and feelings to avoid hurt or rejection; when they cease trying to understand one other’s fears, burdens, dreams, and joys; when they quit listening, pridefully unwilling to change or improve when their spouse requests them to; and if they fail to seek out the time to encourage connectedness, then the marriage moves in to the “danger” zone. The danger zone looks something like this: a husband and wife who live in the same house but are emotionally detached from one another. They have separate priorities. Intimacy is absent. And they preoccupy themselves with hobbies and activities, looking outside of the marriage to fill their needs and longings. It goes without saying that this is the perfect precursor to an affair.
How do we avoid getting to this point in our marriage? Ideally, both a husband and wife ought to be committed to good communication. However we can’t impose this on our spouse. So we have focus on what’s in our sphere of control. Healthy communication in marriage will have to begin with us. What can we do to become good communicators?
Be attentive. An attentive wife looks at the details — expressions, gestures, and the body language of her husband to discern his emotional temperature. Does he need someone to reach out to him, to ask how he is doing, or to offer to pray for him? Of course the most obvious way to be attentive is to put the gadgets away when you are together.
Edric doesn’t appreciate it when I am on my phone when he is in the car with me. There are times when we have work to settle as we plow through the traffic, but as much as possible, he wants me to be present and ATTENTIVE to him while we are in the car. This means putting my phone away.
Take initiative. When Edric gets home, I automatically ask him, “What was the highlight of your day?” As much as I would like for him to ask me how I am doing, I go ahead and make the first move to let him know that I am interested in what his day was like. He likes this and eventually, reciprocates with a “how are you” question to me. At times, I also ask, “Are you okay? Is anything troubling you?” when he isn’t himself. If he isn’t able to answer immediately, he files that question for a later moment when we can talk about what’s on his mind.
Apply positive silence when necessary. This is different than the silent treatment. For example, when Edric isn’t in the mood to divulge his feelings, I have to resist the urge to interrogate him. This means waiting patiently, silently. When he articulates an opinion or perspective that upsets me, I also need to temper my instinct to contradict or challenge him. This is soooo difficult, it almost makes me sick inside to restrain myself. But it works! The silent treatment is unlike positive silence because the former is a selfish way to punish a husband, while the latter is an unselfish way to invite a husband to express himself freely.
Do mirroring. One of the helpful tips I learned from my mom when it comes to communication is to reflect back what the other person is saying. When Edric uncovers his feelings, the most unproductive thing I can do is make statements that reject them. This is a sure-fire way to cut off communication with him. But when I echo his feelings by agreeing with him, “Yes, I can see how that must have upset you.” Or, “I would be hurt, too.” Or, “You are right, it doesn’t seem fair.” Or, “I understand why you are struggling.” Note that this isn’t necessarily saying yes to his opinion or perspective. However, it is about validating his feelings in a manner that encourages him to be vulnerable and honest.
Inject humor. When there is tension between Edric and me, I have learned from his example of inject humor. If a topic is hard to talk about, a joke or two can cut through the heaviness and put us both at ease. And flirting as a form of humor works wonders, too!
Ask the right kinds of questions. Some people are natural conversationalists. They know how to disarm and charm people to get a conversation started. Others only know how to talk without engaging the person they are with, or they are too quite and say nothing.
Edric has interviewed over a thousand guests for his show, On the Money. (At present he’s taken a leave from the show.) Through the years he’s picked up valuable tips about asking questions. If guests are nervous and uneasy, he alleviates their stress by asking questions about something personal he has researched about them, something he knows they will feel comfortable talking about. Then he can go to the more technical questions. But first he convinces them by his line of questioning that he’s interested in what is important to them.
This similar approach can be applied in marriage. When I ask Edric questions about his interests and passions, it opens the door of opportunity to ask other questions. It puts him in a “talking mood.”
Use the power of body language. There’s the listening-with your-ears kind of listening and then there’s the listening-with-your-body kind of listening. I can be hearing what Edric’s saying but multi-tasking at the same time. Or, I can lean in his direction, look intently into his eyes, and smile while he is talking. Of course he prefers the latter version, and will more likely enjoy having a conversation with me when even my body language says to him, “You are important and I am so glad to share this moment with you.”
Be sweet. This is primarily about tone. Edric told me the other day, “When you call me in the office, I usually have you on speaker phone and a lot of times you don’t sound sweet.” Oops!!! Since then I have been more conscious about my tone with him. I have to admit that when I am in my pragmatic mode, being sweet isn’t really top of mind for me. But I want to improve because tone matters…not just the verbal tone but even the written tone.
Today, Edric kept using the word “baby” in all his responses to my text messages. I finally said, “Wow, you’ve used ‘baby’ a lot today. I like it.” His reply was, “Yeah, baby!” This simple exchange put happy thoughts in my head about him. When he got home, I was eager to spend time with him because he had already “set the tone.”
Avoid judgmental statements. Edric and I were trained through seminars to reject saying words like “always and never” in an accusatory manner to your spouse. For example, it won’t benefit my relationship to blurt out a statement like, “You are always too busy to talk.” But I have used statements like, “I really miss you,” or “I feel like we haven’t had quality time together,” which have produced desirable results in terms of getting Edric to actually abandon what he is doing to sit down and have a conversation with me.
Lastly, cultivate a friendship. As I was finishing this post, I asked Edric what he thought was an essential factor in good communication. He suggested that building a friendship with one’s spouse helps a lot. He reminded me that we had a friendship before we got married that made communication come more naturally for us.
I still have to build a friendship with Edric even if we had one as a starting point. This means continually looking out for hobbies or activities that we can participate in together. For example, Edric and I do a lot of ministry work together. Because we have this in common, it’s very natural for us to slide into conversations about spiritual realities. Although we have some interests that we pursue apart from one another (i.e. my writing, crafting), our friendship grows more when we share hobbies or activities. The point is we try not to live separate lives that will polarize us or cause us to have conflicting priorities.
Most importantly, (I woke up early this morning realizing that I needed to add this), our personal faith unifies us. Since we both believe in Jesus Christ, it’s easier to come to a consensus and to resolutions when our conversations turn into conflicts. Our views on fundamental principles, like why we should forgive or why we should remain committed to our marriage, are the same because we are one in Spirit. We refer to a common standard to govern our choices. This is what binds us together. “Always be humble and gentle. Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love. Make every effort to keep yourselves united in the Spirit, binding yourselves together with peace.” Ephesians 4:2-3 NLT
Every marriage starts off with the hope and expectation that good communication will be an integral part of it. However the unfortunate reality is, it takes so much work to engage one another in marriage and connect with each other that it’s simply not going to happen automatically unless our effort index is high. So let’s get to it! There are many more great conversations to enjoy in our marriages yet. Let’s find the time to have them!
A beautiful thing happens when we start paying attention to each other. It is by participating more in your relationship that you breathe life into it. Steve Maraboli (Unapologetically You: Reflections on Life and the Human Experience)