To me, it was always easier to play the silent martyr . . .
If we were to choose the one area that has caused us more problems than any other, and continues to be our weakest link to this day, it would be the area of communication. And in that we are not alone. Many other couples echo the same frustration over their need to communicate effectively.
My problem was simply that I didn't! I've always been a rather quiet person, not prone to reveal my thoughts readily, and it has been difficult for me to be open about what has been going on inside of me. Mary would ask, "What are you thinking?" And I would answer, "Oh, nothing important." In some instances; I was ashamed to admit what I was thinking. It may have been a doubt or a fear, and I didn't want to admit it because it would have made me look weak. It may have been a wild dream, and I didn't want to disclose it because I thought she would ridicule it and make me feel bad. It may have been a lustful thought, and I didn't want to acknowledge that because it would expose my lack of spirituality. It may have been an angry thought about something she did that bothered me, and I didn't want to say anything about it because it was petty and childish for me to be angry over such a small thing, or because it might have instigated an argument which I would rather have avoided.
It was safer to play the silent martyr role. And besides, that would make her suffer a little for hurting me.
Mary's problem was just the opposite, as she puts it:
"I blurted out almost everything that came into my mind, regardless of how it might have affected Richard. If I were angry about something, I seldom kept it a secret. I felt as though I had been taken advantage of or neglected in some way, I felt no hesitancy about letting it be known. Richard never had to guess what I was feeling. I told him in no uncertain terms, sometimes in loud, angry, insulting and belittling tones."
Neither of us was thinking about the other. We were each concerned about ourselves. Mary's attack would send me deeper into my shell for protection. And the more I retreated, the more forcefully she would come on, desperately seeking to have her needs met and desperately seeking to be understood. We knew that if our marriage was ever to improve, we had to work on our communication skills.
For openers, I knew I had to start talking, admitting what I was thinking, sharing what I was feeling, telling Mary what was happening in my life and letting her invade my world. So when I come home at the end of the day now, I try to sit down for twenty to thirty minutes and rehearse with her some of the events of the day, not only recounting the happenings themselves but also relating my feelings about them. For instance, if I have had the opportunity to introduce someone to Christ, I share the details and describe my joy over it. If I have done something poorly, I explain it honestly and admit my anguish over it.
When I am bothered by something Mary has said or done, I try to admit it instead of bottling it up and letting it build resentment. I endeavor to say it kindly and calmly, from the perspective of my own feelings rather than her faults, but I am beginning to speak up and say it. Not, "Will you please quit nagging me like that," but rather, "Hon, I'm feeling pressured right now. I would prefer to finish what I'm doing before I get started on that."
Honest communication does not mean that we must blurt out everything that comes into our minds. Some things are unmistakably hurtful and would be better left unsaid. But it does mean that we begin to develop a greater transparency about our thoughts and feelings, to share our hearts openly with the person with whom we have established this relationship of great trust.
How much should we tell? One good rule of thumb would be to share whatever affects our attitudes or actions toward our mates. If they are feeling the effects of it they have a right to know what it is. If I am feeling irritated with Mary because she has snapped at me, and my irritability is showing in any way (such as coolness, a sharp edge to my voice, a frown on my face), then she has a right to know, and I have an obligation to tell her--kindly and calmly and without laying blame on her, but honestly and forthrightly.
I have found that honestly admitting what is on my mind has helped make me more accountable to Mary, and this has helped me grow emotionally and spiritually. As I have grown, the pages of my mind have become more open still, contributing to a greater intimacy between us.
Mary is likewise growing in her ability to communicate constructively.
"I am learning that there is a right way and a wrong way to express myself," she says. "One of the most difficult things for me to do is to speak in a kind tone. I find that I get exasperated if Richard doesn't understand what I am trying to say, if he appears to be confused about what I am thinking, or if he questions me. I lose patience with him and reply in sharp, indignant or condescending tones.
"Sometimes I fail to express clearly what I want from him and why, and yet I expect him to know. If he fails to respond as I think he should, I find myself getting uptight with him and speaking in sarcastic or belittling tones. The same thing can sometimes happen when he doesn't agree with me or see things from my perspective. But I am learning that God wants me to speak in a kind manner no matter what I am feeling. I can say what I'm thinking or feeling, as long as I say it in love.
"I know now that I must allow him his own views. It isn't necessary for him to agree with me in order for me to feel understood. It's all right for us to disagree--to vote for different candidates, to have different opinions about how certain things should be done, to approach a passage of Scripture in different ways. I can express my thoughts and feelings, but to demand that he think and feel the same way I do is certainly not love. On the contrary, love is endeavoring to understand his point of view more accurately. The Lord brings two different people together to make a better ONE--to complete each other, not change or destroy each other."
One thing we have both found extremely important in communication is listening. It has always been easier for Mary to listen than for me. I have been the typical husband who often grunts "Uh-huh" to my wife when she is talking, while my mind is miles or decades away. And my interruptions with irrelevant comments have too often given me away.
I have learned that giving Mary my full attention is an important expression of my love for her. It doesn't come easy for me. It is an art that must be learned and cultivated. But I'm making progress. I've discovered that I cannot communicate effectively with the TV on or with a newspaper, book or magazine open in my hands. I must turn it off, lay it down, look Mary straight in the eye and say something like, "Let's talk about that. What you think is important to me. I really do care about how you feel." It makes me feel like a king when she shows that same degree of interest in what I want to say. And as we open up, share our souls with each other, then listen to each other eagerly, we are drawn together in an exciting and mutually satisfying intimacy.
Good communication takes a great deal of practice. Set aside a period of time each day (ten minutes minimum to start) to listen to one another, asking questions that will help to clarify meanings and enhance understanding.
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