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by Jacob Ninan
The whole purpose of conversation in marriage is different, from any other communication that you can think of. A salesman talks a lot, to sell his product, usually exaggerating the qualities and downplaying the limitations. His goal is clear--sales--and he is willing to subjugate any argument that might come in his way in order to achieve his target. Two teams on the opposite sides of a debating competition are bent on winning the prize, and they keep on emphasising their points and rebutting every point the other team raises--irrespective of what is right or wrong. The opposition party in the government opposes--no matter whether what the ruling party proposes is good for the country or not. Colleagues in the office may talk nicely to each other, but beneath all that camaraderie is cold blooded competition for the next promotion. Business deals between firms seem to go for a win-win situation, but no one denies the fact that each side is only looking for its own gain first in the process. Legal battles carry on with the question of technicalities and procedural correctness, while neatly overlooking the real issues and the seriousness of the crime involved. We can see how these types of communications, when brought into marriage, can create hell on earth, rather than the heaven both spouses hoped for. These examples tell us how not to have conversation within a marriage.
Keep the goal in mind
The reason why many marriages don't even start off well is that most of us don't really know when we get married, from God's point of view, the main reason why we are getting married. (See Why get married?.) In brief, God wants us to become intimate companions to each other and become one. There are many things the husband and the wife lack individually in terms of understanding, breadth of outlook, skills, etc., some of which the spouse can supply. God knows that it is not good for a man or a woman to be alone because they cannot be complete without the other, and He has brought the two together. So the synergetic relationship can result in more than the sum of their individual contributions. In other words, in a marriage relationship, 1+1 > 2.
We see straightaway how this relationship is unique, and drastically different from the relationships mentioned above! In other words, the goal of conversation in a marriage, and therefore the way it is done, have to be very different from the way other conversations take place in this world.
We are not in competition!
We are here to complement and supplement each other, and not to show who is greater or better. Sometimes I am right and at other times I am wrong, and sometimes my wife is right and sometimes she is wrong. None of us is right all the time, and we shouldn't attempt to show that we are right all the time. Rather, both of us should see what is right and not who is right! And we shouldn't be wasting our time to pin down the one who is wrong this time, but instead go forward with what is right no matter who it came from!
Some bad examples of discussionA debating competition. Where you have these competitions, the teams have to fight on opposite sides of an issue. Usually one side has to take a position which they know is not right, but they still have to argue for it in order to win the competition! So, putting aside their sense of right and wrong, they rebut every argument that their opponents bring! Certainly this is not how we should have it in marriage. If we find that our spouse is right in one point, we need to yield on that point and go on to discuss further details. Our goal is to find out what is best, and not to win any ego competition.
A sales pitch. When a salesman talks about his product, his goal is to somehow convince the customer to buy it, and so he exaggerates the good points and hides or minimises the faults or the 'fine print'! If husbands are wife do this with each other, they aren't being honest with each other. How then can trust grow? No. They have to jointly look at issues (the good and the bad aspects) and find out what is best for them.
Political opposition. Opposition parties prevent the ruling party from taking too much liberty with governance and help to maintain prudence and accountability. But it looks as if the goal of the opposition party in a democracy is mainly to pull down the ruling party. What if they oppose whatever the ruling party says, whether it is good or bad for the country? Isn't this what happens when one spouse tries to shoot down every idea that comes from the other?
Mayhem. We have all seen discussions where everyone is trying to talk at the same time, with each one trying to out-shout the others. This also means that no one is listening, but everyone is only trying to impose his/her views on the others. Don't spouses need to have separate times for each one to speak, while the other spouse is listening? Also, it can happen that when a couple is discussing a subject, one spouse is actually preparing the answer while the other is talking, and not listening to what the other spouse is really trying to convey.
It takes a lifetime to understand our spouse
One of us is a man and the other is a woman, and that makes us so different from each other! We think differently, look at life and people differently, talk differently and feel differently. It is not sure that what we say or do with the best of intentions will be understood that way by the other! We are, in addition, from two different family backgrounds that have shaped our value systems and the way we think and behave in different situations. Our temperaments may be, in all likelihood, opposites! Our perspectives regarding spiritual life may be different. Our intellectual levels, skills, hobbies and other interests may be different. How do we communicate with someone who is so different from us unless we learn to understand him/her better?
Many times when we speak we are trying to get our point across, and even when the other person is speaking we are trying to prepare what we are going to reply. The result in such a case is that both people go on trying to shove his/her point of view down the other's throat without trying to understand what the other person thinks, feels, where he/she is coming from, etc. This will possibly end as a shouting match with serious consequences.
On the other hand, if we were to focus as much on what the other person is saying as on what we want to say, won't there be better understanding between us as time goes on, less quarrels, greater appreciation, etc.?
Gender differences in conversation
There are so many jokes by men about how women go on talking. But it is nevertheless necessary for men to learn to talk more with their wives and for wives to talk less and with more focus to their husbands. (See Different communications - men and women.) By listening seriously to what their wives have to tell them, husbands make it much easier for the wives, and also understand the way their wives think, what they are going through, etc. Wives shouldn't assume that poor conversation from their husbands is an indication of lack of love, even though it shows a lack of understanding!
Transparency and trust
It goes without saying that a marriage relationship is built on trust. Trust can develop only as we get to know each other better. We ought to remember that trust is a goal towards which we must move and not something that can be demanded straightaway. Suspicion and doubt will grow fast in the soil of secrecy and independence. Just as we would like to know more about our spouse, we must also be willing to disclose more about ourselves. Our conversation must include mention about our own feelings, inner struggles, ambitions, challenges we face day by day, etc. This, of course, may create a sense of being vulnerable. But when openness is cultivated at the rate which both partners feel comfortable to handle, more trust will develop, and communications will become smoother.
Some tips on conversation
The following are some tips to follow when we talk to each other in our marriage. It takes time to learn, and practice makes perfect.
- Active listening. If we are to understand what the other person is trying to tell us, we must focus actively on listening to them. Communication experts have found out that only about 7% of the full meaning is conveyed through the words themselves (take note, all who send emails or 'text,' even with smileys). 38% comes through the tone of our voice, and 55% is from visual cues such as facial expression, gestures and body posture. There is also the possibility that our spouse is not telling us the full thing because of the fear of consequences. How can we understand, unless we are making real efforts to listen and understand? We can also give a feedback through paraphrasing what we heard, or reflecting the meaning or feelings that we understood, so that we can hear from our spouse if we have understood him/her properly.
- Empathy. Empathy is an ability to put ourselves in another person's place without necessarily agreeing with him. We can understand what that person is going through, what he feels about it, why he is doing or saying things, etc. It is when we can empathise with our spouse that we can respond appropriately and in love.
- Take turns. We can be so passionate about our own point of view that we interrupt our spouse before he/she can complete what they have to say. But we can train ourselves out of this habit and wait.
- Recognise your limits. All of us have a threshold above which we lose control. If we can't understand that we are crossing it, our spouse can. If one of us recognises that a threshold is getting crossed, it is better to call off the discussion for the moment and agree to have it later. No useful discussion can take place in a relationship that we want to build, like our marriage, if we get worked up.
- Wait for the right moment. We can learn to become sensitive to recognise emotions, ours as well as our spouse's. It would be naive to speak out whatever comes to our mind without assessing how it might be received by the other.
- Talk about your hurts too. People foolishly think that by ignoring or swallowing our hurts we can maintain peace. But such hurts continue to cause us problems inside, and our spouse may be completely unaware that he/she has hurt us. We need to let our spouse know that we have been hurt, but in a way that will not cause a fight. (See the next bullet.)
- The 'I' message. From the time of Adam we are used to passing the blame to others. In marriage our tendency is to quickly blame our spouse with a 'You' message such as, "You are like this. You always do that. You never listen to me. You are not bothered about me." But when we blame our spouse, it is very likely that he/she will resort to self-defence, counter accusation, etc., which will be counter-productive. Psychologists advise us that we are more likely to succeed if we take the 'I' message approach. Here what we do is to express ourselves as an appeal for help rather than a comment about the other person's behaviour. We may describe the problem or issue and its effect on our life, and how we feel about this. This usually puts our spouse into an attitude of wanting to help us. He/she may say that what they meant was different, and how they are sorry we got hurt. Then both can discuss how things ought to be understood and what to do about them.
- Put things behind. We must remember we all make mistakes, and when our spouse makes a mistake and it has been dealt with, we mustn't raise it again, just as we don't want our spouse to bring up our old mistakes again and again. Forgiving each other is absolutely essential if we want to have a healthy marriage.
- Look behind the words. Not everyone is good with the use of words, and many fights develop on the basis of the wrong word used. (See When godly people quarrel.) Sometimes words like 'always' and 'never' are used with exaggeration for generalisations. There would be no end to arguments if we latch on to words. We need to learn to listen carefully and understand what our spouse is 'actually' saying.
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