“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.”
(John 16:33, NLT)
Positive communication allows couples to become emotionally connected. Two individuals can understand each other better when they listen well and express their needs, thoughts, and feelings honestly. Healthy couples communicate about daily matters, and they have positive conversations that enrich their relationship. They are willing to share both joys and sorrows, dedicate time to regular communication, and strive to learn more about each other.
The marriage-triage experts at Focus on the Family’s National Institute of Marriage (NIM) tell us that lack of communication is the most commonly mentioned problem among couples who are struggling to keep their relationships alive. Conversely, the best research indicates that healthy marriages are always built around a solid core of open, honest, and empathetic person-to-person dialogue. It’s all about both partners becoming transparent enough to know and be known at the most basic level of their humanity.
How do you foster and promote this kind of dialogue and interaction in a marriage? Here are some ideas to keep in mind.
Vive la difference!
Men and women were created for community, to be known intimately, to feel understood and still be desired. Among all other human relationships, marriage is supposed to be the place where this process of communion and “in-othering” takes place at the deepest and most intimate level. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always come easy. As a matter of fact, it can sometimes be the most difficult work you’ve ever faced.
Why should this be so? There are many reasons. In another article we mentioned that you and your spouse are two different people who come from two different backgrounds. You’re also male and female – representatives of the two “halves” of humanity, two opposite sexes (Genesis 1:27). You can’t read each other’s minds. All too often you may find it difficult even to relate to each other’s viewpoints. This may sound like a problem, but it’s actually a blessing. While you can’t automatically look into your spouse’s soul, you can learn to know and be known intimately. This is actually better than reading minds because learning to know and be known forces you to become better marriage partners – and better people – in many different ways.
Whatever your differences, you need to do more than grudgingly face up to them. You need to learn how to revel in them. You need to celebrate the lights, darks, and contrasting colors that make up the blended one-flesh union you call “us.” Positive communication makes this possible.
Enjoy the journey
Thriving couples know that the way they respond to their differences is far more important than how they resolve them. To state this in broader terms, they understand that, in marriage, it’s the process that counts. Real communication is a journey – it’s about walking humbly with each other and with God (Micah 6:8). And the journey is more important than the destination.
Dr. Bob Paul and Dr. Bob Burbee, two of NIM’s most skilled therapists, describe this journey or process in terms of something they call Heart Talk. They point out that there are actually two types of communication used by people involved in close relationship: Work Talk and Heart Talk. Work Talk, they explain, is task-oriented. It focuses on problem-solving and the accomplishment of goals. Heart Talk, by way of contrast, tries to go deeper. It’s concerned with the relationship and driven by feelings and a desire for understanding. Instead of a task or a goal, it aims at cohesion, attachment, and the strengthening of the interpersonal bond.
How do you do Heart Talk? It’s primarily a matter of caring about the other person’s feelings and taking turns as speaker and listener. The folks at NIM sum it up with an acronym: ICU. First, Identify (I) your feelings and the feelings of your spouse. Second, decide to Care (C) about those feelings. Third, seek to Understand (U) those feelings with the assistance of your mate. Then keep on talking and listening until both of you are satisfied with the results.
More than words
What is it that keeps so many husbands and wives from experiencing this kind of heart-to-heart connection? Dr. Gary Smalley suggests that, somewhere along the line, they’ve bought into the idea that real communication occurs when they understand each other’s words. That’s unfortunate, because, as the concept of Heart Talk demonstrates very clearly, words are actually just the beginning. Genuine two-in-one bonding only kicks into gear when we get behind mere verbiage and drill down into the heart of the matter.
The phenomenon of interpersonal communication is something far more robust and proactive than mere talk. It involves openness and empathy—a willingness to enter into the thoughts and feelings of another, to weep when he or she weeps and to laugh when he or she laughs. That’s because real communication is about knowing and being known from the inside out – and “who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man’s spirit within him?” (1 Corinthians 2:11)
Finally, it’s important to remember that relationships are dynamic. They change over time, as do the individuals who are party to them. There are a couple of fundamental reasons for this. On the one hand, people are made in the image of God, which suggests that they are, in a sense, endlessly complex and mysterious. On the other hand, people are finite, mortal, imperfect, and sinful, and this implies that there is always room for growth and improvement in every human personality. No matter how long you are married to your spouse, then, you will never completely grasp everything there is to know about him or her. This is why it’s so important to stay curious.
Husbands and wives who stick together are good students of each other. They learn to ask questions instead of passing judgment. Rather than lashing out in anger when a spouse behaves inexplicably, they know how to say, “Tell me what you’re thinking” or “Help me understand why you reacted that way in that situation.” These couples feel an openness to share with each other on a heart-to-heart level. Not only are they comfortable talking about both facts and feelings, but they prioritize communication and schedule regular time to connect. In these ways, they fan the flames of ongoing romance and keep the wonder of their first love alive.
Questions for Discussion
- What are some practical steps we can take to foster more Heart Talk at the center of our marriage? How can we become more intentional about resolving life’s practical problems by means of ICU?
- What are some practical steps we can take to stay current with each other? What does it mean to you to be a “student” of me? How can I become a better “student” of you?
- What does the Bible mean when it says that “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry?” (James 1:19) What can we do to place the principles expressed in this verse more solidly at the center of our relationship?