Language and communication are critical aspects of any relationship. And yet for as much as we talk, much is either left unsaid or the nuance of the communication is lost.
This point was brought home to me the other day when working with a couple at The Marriage Recovery Center.
Olivia and John, both trim and fit and dressed in jeans and tennis shoes, had come for help after only seven years of marriage. Both appeared stiff and sad, anxious about what would occur in their Marriage Intensive.
While still fairly ‘newly married,’ they reported that their only positive memories with each other were in the dating years of their relationship. What had gone so wrong?
“I keep asking for him to really listen to me,” Olivia said plaintively. “I think he listens to me but doesn’t really hear me.”
John seemed to be watching her and listening attentively now.
“I’m always saying, ‘Will you just listen to me please?” Olivia said.
“Do you hear what she is asking for, John?” I asked.
“It doesn’t really sound like a request to me,” John said. “She says it again and again, and I’m listening the best I can. Obviously I’m doing something wrong.”
John, who had been sitting upright, now slumped into his chair.
“I can’t do anything right,” he said with a mixture of discouragement and sadness. “I’m really trying, but she makes it clear that I’m missing the mark.”
“I don’t get it,” Olivia jumped in. “All I want is for him to listen to me. Is that too much to ask? Can’t he please just listen to me?”
I sat reflectively for a moment. What was happening with them? Olivia was asking for her husband to listen. He exhibited all the outer elements of listening—looking at her, asking gentle questions, reflecting back what she said—and still there was a disconnection that left both immensely frustrated.
Let’s consider her question again for clues.
“Will you just please listen to me?” she asks.
Ah, there are a few clues as to why his hackles may be raised—and once raised, his ability to listen is going to be compromised. You see, we listen best when we are calm, clear and feeling compassionate. We don’t do so well when we are anxious and feeling inadequate. Could it be that John felt shamed by the ‘just please’ phrase?
“I sense you are really feeling frustrated Olivia,” I stated. “You’re working hard to get John to really listen, and yet perhaps the harder you try, the more pushed away he feels.”
I decided to check that out with John.
“John, you said you ‘can’t do anything right,” I said. “Can you tell us more about that?”
“Sure,” he said. “I’m really trying to listen for what Olivia wants. But, I can’t seem to get it right. When she approaches me for something, I’m already uptight. I really want to listen to her and of course, I want to meet her needs.”
“Do you believe that?” I asked, turning to Olivia.
“No,” she said emphatically. “What I want is not that complicated!”
“So you think he is purposely holding back from you?”
“Yes,” she said, though John was shaking his head vigorously.
“Why would I do that?” he said firmly. Looking to her he said, “I’m really trying. Can you help me listen more effectively?”
She paused and considered what he was asking.
I was able to help John and Olivia work more effectively together. Consider these steps that might be helpful to you as well.
First, communication is a two-way street. Communication is a dance that must be undertaken by both parties. While we may be tempted to think it is simply our mate who is not listening, more often there are problems in the dance between the two partners.
Second, listen carefully to your listening and communication. Step back and pay attention to how you talk to your mate, and how you listen. Much can be learned if you take time to step back and notice how you talk and listen to your mate.
Third, much communication occurs in tone, body language and attitude. Pay close attention to the message you are communicating simply by the way you sit and the tone of your voice. Do your words convey respect and kindness, or do they convey disrespect? Watch your mate for their reaction.
Fourth, watch for communication nuances. Many communication problems occur in subtle nuances of relating. While some problems are glaring and overtly destructive to the relationship, others are subtle and take careful scrutiny to uncover. Notice where your mate winces; pay attention to when they withdraw; attend to the places where either mate becomes defensive. When a mate reacts defensively, it is likely they are feeling threatened.
Finally, agree together to fix the communication problems. Consider that the problems are created together and they must be remedied together. Don’t blame either mate for the problems, but rather assume that you are both doing something to create the problems.
Remember, both of you are responsible for your communication success or failure. Scripture says, “The tongue as the power of life and death” (Proverbs 18:21). Manage your tongue and the words you use. Know that much communication takes place in body posture, tone and attentiveness to your mate. Choose your words carefully, asking for feedback on what you can do to communicate more effectively.
I promised to offer a new opportunity to interact with me. Once a month I’d like to share two different points of view, one from the man, the other the woman. You can send your story to me in a forum called He Said/ She Said: Come Together. Please send your information about your situation to me at email@example.com. Share your story, from your two different perspectives, and I’ll respond with my opinion about how to handle your particular situation.
Please also read more about The Marriage Recovery Center on my website www.MarriageRecoveryCenter.com and YourRelationshipDoctor.com. You’ll find videos and podcasts on sexual addiction, emotionally destructive marriages, codependency and affair-proofing your marriage.
Publication date: August 26, 2013
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