The counseling session in my office sounded like a scene from the Abbott and Costello comedy routine "Who’s on First?" — except this was no comedy.
I had been working with Kevin and Kendra for several weeks. They were in their forties, married 16 years with two preteen children. They told me their marriage had been stable and mostly happy with a few bumps along the way. These "bumps" were nearly always exacerbated by the couple’s inability to communicate clearly and effectively with each other.
We worked together to improve their communication skills — a common malady for many couples. Things were going well until they had a heated encounter in one of our sessions, where I was able to see first-hand some of their difficulties.
"I don’t like the way he spends money," Kendra said abruptly, with obvious tension in her voice.
Kevin rolled his eyes in exasperation, and then shot a darting glance at her.
"What’s the problem," I asked.
"I just don’t like it, and he knows it and does it anyway," she said again, even more forcefully.
"I hear your frustration, Kendra," I said, "but can you be specific about what bothers you about his spending?" She continued talking as if she hadn’t heard me.
"He knows what I don’t like about it, but he still keeps doing it. He didn’t used to be so bad about it, but it’s gotten worse lately. Sometimes, I think he is mean. He spends money we don’t have, and guess who has to pick up the pieces? I do."
"Never mind, Doc," Kevin said impatiently. "I know what she’s getting at. She resents my motorcycle. It’s easier for her to look at me and my spending than look at herself. She hasn’t told you about her shoes. Must have twenty five pairs."
As the conversation vaguely centered around money, I tried to get a clearer picture of the issue. More importantly, I wanted them to arrive at a common understanding of the problem and begin developing ways of talking about it and solving it. But, this was more difficult than it seemed.
"I can understand a man needing his motorcycle. I guess all boys need their big-boy toys," she said sarcastically. "But he blows money lots of other ways and it drives me nuts."
"Like what," Kevin jumped in angrily. "I work my tail off so I can have some nice things and you resent them. I told you when we got married that I work to play, and that’s not going to change. I make sure I spend time at home with you and the kids."
"That’s not the point," Kendra said firmly. "And besides, you’re gone a lot of weekends riding with the guys." She paused for a moment. "I just don’t like the way you spend money, plain and simple. I’m not going to argue about it, and I don’t know how else to say it."
Kendra looked over at me, ignoring Kevin and his icy stares.
We continued to try to determine the real issue that morning. I encouraged both to look not only at what they considered the real issues to be, but also their way of communicating. They were a classic example of "speaking Greek" in marriage, and it is no wonder issues using this muddled method do not get settled. Let’s look more closely at what it means to speak Greek and what can be done about it.
"Speaking Greek" means talking in a way that obscures the real issues and keeps them unsettled. It includes the following unfair fight tactics:
• Changing the topic — Greek speakers shift from one issue to another, refusing to stay focused on the topic and the desired outcome
• Refusing specifics — Greek speakers refuse to offer their mate specifics about what exactly is bothering them and what they need to feel better
• Blaming the other for the problem — Greek speakers blame the other, thereby raising the level of tension and adding to the confusion
• Becoming defensive — Greek speakers refuse to look at their part in the problem, thereby playing hide and go seek with the issues
• Playing the victim — Greek speakers act like they are getting the raw deal in the transaction, keeping the focus off them and their issue
• Crazy-making — Greek speakers keep the other off balance, deflecting critical comments, shifting the blame, minimizing their actions, always trying to keep the other off guard rather than solve problems.
If speaking Greek doesn’t work, what are some skills you might try in your marriage to solve problems and settle issues? Try speaking a language your spouse understands.
1. State exactly what you are feeling about an issue, what exactly you think, and what exactly you want. No assumptions, innuendos or vague statements. Just the facts -- as you see them.
2. Do not attack your mate. This does not help in solving problems. Assume that you are both doing something wrong that can be changed.
3. Address the problem. Stay focused. When one drifts, call them back to the central issue and your desired outcome.
4. Manage your emotions. If you become too heated, take a break. Avoid drama — maintain an even-tempered, concise and clear discussion about the issue.
5. Leave room for your mate to have their opinion. Understand that this opinion is as much about them as it is about you. Make it safe to have perceptions, opinions and thoughts, knowing these stem as much from their past as the present situation.
6. Make agreements using negotiation. Always move the conversation to things that you already or will agree upon and an outcome that feels good to both of you. .
With practice Kevin and Kendra learned to communicate effectively with one another. They learned to keep things simple, stick to one topic at a time and ask for exactly what they needed. They reached agreements and stuck to them. They enjoy their marriage more now than ever before.
Are you having trouble with communication — speaking Greek more often than relating in a healthy way? Speaking a common language, filled with grace and generosity, will cut through many conflicts. The Apostle James says many of our struggles in relationships stem from our selfish desires — trying to push our point, rather than communicating effectively. (James 4:1) Listening to what your mate wants — what they really need — and responding accordingly, will end much of the tension in your relationship. Stop speaking Greek and learn how to listen and share from the heart. You will enjoy new peace in your marriage.
Originally posted on Crosswalk Marriage in December 2005.
This article is third in a series on nine mistakes most couples make. Read part 2: Distant Elephants: The Issues We Avoid in Marriage.
This article was adapted from Nine Critical Mistakes Most Couples Make (Harvest House Publishers, 2005).
Dr. David B. Hawkins is a Visiting Professor at International Christian University and specializes in interpersonal relationship counseling as well as domestic violence and emotional abuse in relationships. He has been a frequent guest on Moody Radio Mid-day Connection, Focus on the Family, and At Home Live. You can visit his website at www.YourRelationshipDoctor.com.
Do you need sound, Biblically-based advice about an issue in your marriage or family? Submit a question to Dr. David's new advice column by contacting him at TheRelationshipDoctor@gmail.com.