However, some couples have built-in radar-detectors, so to speak, to deflect inquiries into their feelings. They fear intimacies. And fear builds walls.
Many people are not natural "disclosers." They have great difficulty freely revealing their inner feelings. But even they can learn to do more of it and to enjoy the results. First, they must want to change. They need to recognize that things will go better in the relationship when they communicate honestly. When the messages sent in a marriage show acceptance, support, and love, happiness results.
The stories in this chapter illustrate the joys as well as the difficulties of honest, open communication.
Don't Forget to Talk
Brian and Joni have been married for fourteen years. They are a typical American couple: They've moved six times and have three children, two cars, a house and a mortgage, a cat, and two goldfish. Brian works for a public utility, and Joni works half days as the attendance clerk at a nearby high school. Their marriage is also typical in many ways: They get along well, love each other, go out of their way to help one another, spend time with their children, and try to work through difficulties.
Their busy schedule is typical of many modern, young families. Let's look at, say, last Tuesday:
6:45 Brian arises, showers, shaves, and dresses for work
7:10 Joni arises and showers
7:30 Brian makes toast, microwaves an egg, and greets the kids who are now getting up
7:30 Joni eats a piece of toast and prepares cooked cereal for the children
7:40 Brian leaves for work, followed at 8:10 by the children leaving for school
8:30 Joni drops her four-year-old off at the baby-sitter's on her way to work
5:30 Brian comes home. Joni has been home since noon, and the kids since about three o'clock. Joni is cooking dinner. Brian visits with the kids, helps a little with dinner, and watches part of the news on TV.
6:45 Dishes and cleanup, evening chores
8:00 TV off, kids doing homework, four-year-old in bed
9:30 Kids to rooms, Joni at the kitchen table catching up on family letters, Brian reading the newspaper in the living room, then working on a home-repair project and occasionally a little paper work brought home from the office
10:00 Joni and Brian watch part of the TV news
10:30 To bed, a few minutes of reading
Wednesday's schedule was identical until after dinner. At 7:00, Joni went to a reading-group discussion while Brian watched TV with the kids until 8:30. Joni came home at 9:25. She and Brian discussed the review briefly, but since he hadn't read the book and was in the middle of family budget calculations, his interest wasn't very deep. Joni started on next month's assigned book while Brian finished his budget work and read the paper. He watched the news while she continued to read. At 10:40, they went to bed.
If we looked at each day of the week, we would see a similar schedule, with a few evenings taken up with church meetings or social events. All in all, not a terribly stressful schedule; most people would find it pretty relaxed and comfortable.
Nothing in the schedule suggests a problem in Joni and Brian's marriage. They talk, they enjoy time with their children, they spend time together every day. But if we look closely, we see that they spend much more family time than couple time. They don't seem to talk in any great depth as a couple. They don't sense a need to, perhaps.
The question might be: Are they growing together, growing apart, or holding their own? Are they keeping in practice at talking so they feel in contact, as if they really know one another?
If talking is done regularly, then, when important matters come up, they can be discussed without having to build a framework for discussion each time or without feeling awkward. Couples who talk about small problems daily find coping with the occasional big ones easier.
And where will couples find the time to spend together? The answer is that they won't find it; they'll have to create it. It's as simple (and as difficult) as that. It's not a matter of how much time is available; it's a decision. An important one.
How We Talk
"Oh, I'm so frustrated," Diane said.
"What's up?" Reed asked.
"I came from shopping a few minutes ago, right? Well, I unloaded my sack of groceries onto the counter and stove top, hung up my coat, and went back to put things away to find one of the loaves of bread ruined. Melted plastic all over the burner, which someone left on.
"I didn't know the burner was on when I unloaded the groceries. But I should have. When Kari cooks, she leaves the stove on about half the time."
Reed started to speak, but Diane went on. "And it's about the third thing today! First, she used my sewing table, which is fine, except she leaves it a mess. I've asked her and asked her to leave things as she found them.
"Then, when I cleared up lunch, she'd put the wrong lid on the honey jar, one that didn't fit. She denied it, of course. So when I picked up the jar, it spilled on the table. I caught it quickly, but these things are frustrating, you know? You'd think she'd be old enough to start thinking a little. She is eighteen, after all. The burner really is the last straw."
Reed said, "Well, I guess I'm in the habit of looking at whether a burner is on before setting anything on it."
"Oh," Diane snapped. "So it's my fault. Well, I didn't know we were talking about me. I'm not perfect, but what does that have to do with Kari's irresponsibility?"
We've observed here a case of spouses talking "past" one another. In its simplest terms, here is a summary of the situation: Diane is frustrated over a series of incidents with her daughter. Reed offers a response to how the problem might have been avoided. Diane feels blamed. Reed dislikes having his suggestion rejected. They have failed to communicate.
Another way to state it is this: Diane is venting frustration over repeated problems with her daughter. Reed offers a solution to future problems but gives no support to Diane's present concern. Reed doesn't mean it as such, but the message Diane receives is that he is rejecting her feelings.
Let's analyze the situation. Reed's answer is, in a sense, quite reasonable. Every cook has, at one time or another, left a burner on. Therefore, in the interest of safety, others in the family could conceivably train themselves to watch for hot burners by glancing at the stove controls occasionally, especially when setting things on the burners.
While Reed does provide a solution to future problems, he doesn't make Diane feel better. What she needs at the moment is someone to say something along the lines of, "Those things must be frustrating." Then, after that, he may go on to say, "And you're right: Kari does have a problem. How can we help her? And how can we avoid future burner problems?"
Presented after his acceptance of Diane's feelings, Reed's statement about looking out for hot burners would have been taken as a helpful safety suggestion. Presented before letting Diane know he understands her frustration, Reed's idea is as out of place as would be those of a police officer lecturing auto accident victims as to future safety considerations before he offers them first aid.
Of utmost importance is a consideration of not only what the speaker is saying, but what he or she is feeling. Without that attention, talking past each other will likely become a pattern, and meaningful discussion will cease in a marriage.
How marriage partners talk is vital. And order does matter. First aid has to come first: Feelings, then solutions.
Seeing the Other Point of View
"Here's the place," Donna said, and Mark turned into the driveway. "I hope this doesn't last long. I hate to leave the baby."
"Don't worry about it. Have a good time," Mark said. "This is about the last possible shower of your old high-school friends, isn't it?"
"Yes, I think so. They're nearly all married now, those still in town," Donna said. "You won't need to pick me up. I'll catch a ride with one of the girls." She leaned across the baby seat and gave Mark a kiss, then squeezed her two- year-old. "Bye-bye, sugar. Mommy will be back soon."
"Any special instructions?" Mark asked.
"No. Just a diaper before bedtime, no later than eight o'clock these days." She reached for the door handle. "But Mark, be nice to him. You know how you're sometimes gruff. You scare him."
"Be nice!" Mark retorted. "I'm his dad! He just doesn't respond as well to me because I don't spend as much time with him as you do."
"No, it's because he thinks you're mean. He can see by your face when you're upset with him."
"Because you show him by your reaction that I'm the bad guy when you come and rescue him from me! Just because I do things differently."
Let's end this unfortunate scene by letting Donna get to her party. Mark will go home and fume. Obviously, these two have a problem to work out. It's an interesting case, since both of them were presented with new information, another point of view, but neither wanted to accept it. Mark felt accused, Donna protective.
And while we don't know the facts (only their report of the facts) it appears that Donna thinks her husband is too gruff, and that Mark thinks the problem is that he isn't around the baby enough to be as easily accepted as Donna, who spends all day with him.
Both may have a point. Maybe Mark isn't aware of rough behavior that, to a two- year-old, could come across as frightening. It's a pretty common problem. And maybe Donna isn't aware of her own reaction in the baby's presence that may add to the problem. Her "rescue" of the baby from his dad could be the real problem.
We can learn from this experience how easily two people can reject each other's viewpoint without really hearing it, like two bands marching past each other on a parade field, bugles blaring, drums pounding to their own beat. If Donna and Mark can talk further about the problem later, they may come to see that both have a point. Such an approach will obviously be in the interests of their baby and any future children.
The Answers We Give
One Saturday in late November, Keith came into the house from an errand to town to find pictures of pilgrims, turkeys, and family scenes taped to the kitchen wall.
"Ann Marie!" he called.
"Yes?" she answered from the living room.
"Have you seen what the girls did to my kitchen wall?" Keith wailed. <>P> "No, what?" Ann Marie said, as she hurried to the kitchen. She looked around but saw no cause for alarm. "What do you mean?"
"Why, these pictures pasted all over the paint."
"Oh, those?" Ann Marie said. "Those are Thanksgiving decorations they made at school. The way you were yelling, I thought they must have put them up with spikes or something. It's only masking tape. It comes right off."
"Oh, good grief," Keith groaned. "Ann Marie, don't you remember how this paint didn't stick very well when I put it on? It rubbed off just by cleaning, if we weren't careful. And now you've let them put tape all over it? The tape will come off, all right, and so will the paint."
"No, I didn't remember that, but . . . "
"Because you weren't the one who did the work to put it on!" Keith protested.
"But," Ann Marie said, angry at being interrupted and accused, "as I was saying, the paint is starting to look so shabby anyway, it didn't occur to me that taping on a few drawings would hurt anything. Where are the girls supposed to put their decorations?"
"I don't know, Ann Marie," Keith said. "I guess when I was growing up, we just didn't tape things to the walls."
"Maybe that's why, after fifteen years of marriage, we own so few paintings and wall coverings," Ann Marie said.
Sometimes the answers we give one another are anything but helpful. "Because you weren't the one who did the work to put it on," says Keith to Ann Marie. "Maybe that's why we own so few paintings and wall coverings," Ann Marie says to Keith.
Both of these comments are meant to hurt rather than to communicate, like dart throwers who forget the target and start tossing the sharp projectiles at each other. Keith's dart is a quick response to remind Ann Marie of how thoughtless she was with "my kitchen wall," as he calls it. While his concern may be understandable, his way of communicating it is not acceptable.
Ann Marie's remark is equally inappropriate. It moves the discussion from the current concern to a new subject: why the house has fewer wall hangings than she feels necessary. This completely ignores Keith's feelings about the paint and charges him with being uninterested in art because his parents didn't allow tape on the walls (a pretty big leap in logic). Sparks will surely follow such an accusation.
Both Keith and Ann Marie failed to listen to one another fully. Keith's key failure was at the point where he interrupted Ann Marie to imply lack of concern and poor judgment on her part because she hadn't done the painting, when, in fact, she felt she had perfectly good reasons to allow the pictures to go up.
Ann Marie's chance to salvage the conversation was lost when, instead of hearing Keith's real message (his concern about the paint) she disregarded his feelings and broadened the issue to one of no wall hangings: all Keith's fault.
What could have been done to keep this conversation from disintegration? At any of several points, either person could have become a listener, reflecting what was being said. "So, you feel that . . . " "You seem to be saying . . . " Phrases like these tell people that we're listening, not judging. Then, after we're sure we know what the other person feels, we can proceed to state our own feelings.
Even when a conversation has moved to the point this one has, with hurt feelings on both sides, one or the other partner can still say, "Let's back up. I want to hear what you're saying before I comment. Can we go back over your feelings once more?"
It's vital that either party, whoever thinks of it first, feel obligated to ask the right questions. Sometimes people let their pride get in the way: "She started it, so let her listen to me." Wrong, wrong, wrong. Either party can and must do the right thing. Loving listening will go a long way toward cementing relationships.
Darlene was in the middle of a story her sister Faye had told her about an encounter with a co-worker.
" . . . And so, Jan is really wrought up, by now. And she says, 'Faye, this is really bothering me.' And Faye says to her, 'Well, it isn't bothering me, dear,' and walks away." Darlene chuckled to herself. "I guess the look on Jan's face was just too much. Faye thinks she really made a point."
"A point about what?" Spencer asked.
"Oh, about not making such a big deal of things, you know, and always having to talk everything out. It drives Faye crazy."
"Reminds me," Spencer said, "of the time old Slade Embley, you remember I told you about him, how he was always going on about the way movies and TV and nearly everything else were corrupting us all; well, one day in the lunchroom, he was haranguing me about something, and I said, 'Slade, if we were all as righteous as you, the world would have no troubles at all, now would it?'
"It shut him right up for quite a few days."
Such cute responses. Such powerful "last words." Such effective conversation- enders. The ultimate punch lines. Some people love them. They use them, not as communication tools, but as weapons, to put us in our place, to tell us that our views are worthless and that we're pests for having feelings about things.
"Faye thinks she really made a point." Oh, she did. She made the point that she isn't interested in what Jan thinks and that people with concerns had better not bother Faye with them. Spencer made a point, too: that Slade could take his opinions elsewhere.
Now, we don't know Jan, and we don't know Slade. Maybe they really are pests. Maybe their views are weird, indeed. But they're also people. And if they need to be told to back off, they can be told in kind ways. Words weren't meant to be bludgeons.
Without starting wars, nations can, when they try, tell other nations when they think a policy stinks. Similarly, people can be told anything, anything, if they're told in the right way.
In a marriage, the cute response is divorce-fodder. A husband or wife who uses the sharp retort or clever answer in place of listening and discussing will build a wall of fear and distrust that may be nearly impossible to tear down.
It all seemed to happen in slow motion. The other car appeared out of nowhere, coming straight at them: a sleek, green, deadly missile. At the wheel of the station wagon, Wayne knew instantly they were certain to be hit. His foot, more than his mind, sensed that speeding up, not braking, was necessary. As his cerebrum caught up with his instinct, he knew the reason: being hit further back on the rear fender would certainly be better than broadside on his door. Karen, belted in beside Wayne, made a sound of some kind; she couldn't remember later whether she spoke words or just yelled and pointed at the oncoming car. She saw the startled look on the face of the young driver as he realized too late the certainty of a crash. His brakes screeched and he yanked the wheel to the right, but there was no doubt in Karen's mind it would not be enough.
The jolt was fierce and the tug on the seat belts made clear how valuable they were. When the noise stopped, Wayne shook his head to clear it. His glasses were gone, and he found them down between the seat and the door, neatly folded as if he'd placed them there himself. With them back on, he saw that his station wagon had spun 180 degrees and slid up against the curb, facing the opposite direction, the engine still running. He turned off the ignition.
"Whoa," Wayne breathed. "Are you all right?" Karen looked fine, other than being a little pale.
"Oh, I think so," she said. "You?"
"I hit my shoulder on the door, but I'm OK."
They looked through the windshield at the green sports car, its hood sprung, slanted across the intersection. The young driver got out, glanced their way, and went to examine the front of his car.
"That was a stop sign," Wayne said. "He went right through it."
"It's a good thing he hit us where he did," Karen said, "And not a few feet further forward." Her voice was shaky.
Wayne went on like he hadn't heard. "We had the right-of-way and he went right through the sign." His voice was rising. Suddenly, Karen sobbed aloud.
The sound startled Wayne. "Are you OK?" he asked.
Karen's face crumpled. "Oh, yes. . . . Just scared. I'm fine. I need to cry a little, I guess."
"Well, I'm gonna find out what that dummy thinks he's doing, running a stop sign like that," Wayne said sharply. He grabbed his door handle. "Stupid little creep."
Same incident, different emotions. A story like this reminds us of how differently two people can react to the same external event. Both Wayne and Karen are naturally upset by the accident, but Wayne's feelings come out as anger, Karen's as tears. Of course, neither of these responses is necessarily more correct, reasonable, or better than the other. They are simply emotional releases, part of our humanity.
Some people reject emotions on principle. They feel they get in the way of logic and reason. Perhaps they do. (One might also wonder whether logic and reason are clearly the absolute pinnacles of life, though.)
Whether or not emotional responses are always helpful misses the point: Emotions are part of us. As well might we try to reject our pancreas or our liver; emotions are simply built in.
Having emotions isn't wrong; how they're handled and what they do to other people sometimes is. If couples can learn to express their emotions honestly, without blame and without guilt, their communication will bear fruit: they will understand one another (and themselves) better.
Too Much Communication
Spouse A, looking out the kitchen window, agitated: "I'm feeling really angry, and I'm going to spill it, like they say to. You agreed with me a while back that, when you worked in the yard, you wouldn't leave the tools and the stack of pulled weeds heaped on the lawn. But I can see from here you didn't mean to keep your word. That hoe out there was there night before last. And the pile of weeds has probably turned the grass yellow by now."
Spouse B, getting up from the table to look out the window: "Oh, boy. I asked Len to..."
Spouse A, very agitated: "Not another of your excuses. I see the same pattern over and over. You never do what you say you will. It's like you try to make me upset. I work to keep the place looking decent..."
Spouse B, now agitated also: "Hey, you're not the only one who does anything around here. You ought to feel grateful somebody pulls the weeds in those flower beds. You certainly never get around to it."
Is somebody carrying a referee's whistle? Let's stop the action right now before things get any worse, which they certainly will, the way these two are going.
I avoided naming these participants or identifying their sex, so no one could dismiss their story as that of a shrewish wife or an abusive husband, or vice versa! Either sex is capable of accusing and making problems worse than they merit.
Spouse A justifies his or her rampage by saying, "I'm feeling really angry, and I'm going to spill it, like they say to." This is an apparent reference to popular thinking of the day, which tends to advocate saying what you feel, getting your feelings out. There's a general attitude that bottled-up emotions produce cancer and heart attacks, and that releasing them is necessary to avoid tension and to promote deeper, more honest relationships.
Perhaps so. Proper release (in the right way, at the right time, to the right person) is helpful, and it can promote better relationships. However, when carried too far, this view is dangerous. What we've seen here is certainly not building relationships, and it seems to be creating its own tensions rather than releasing them.
While there are useful ways to reduce feelings of anger, most "ventilationists" point out that overly aggressive behavior becomes self-feeding and turns small anxieties into big ones. Which of us hasn't shouted at someone, only to find ourselves getting angrier the more we shouted? Who can doubt the "psych-up" value of the aggressive fist-jabbing movements many football players display after a successful tackle or quarterback sack. Emotions feed on themselves.
Look at the harmful and destructive language in the discussion above: "You didn't mean to keep your word." "Not another of your excuses." "You never do what you say." "It's like you try to make me upset." All of these are accusations against the other person rather than useful expressions of feelings.
Does a spouse have a right to express anger? Definitely. But how? How about this three-step process: First, delay. This is where one can simmer down, count to 10, 50, 100, whatever it takes to become calm. Second, decide. Will expressing these feelings improve or hurt the situation? In the short run? Long run?
Third, after analyzing questions like these, if this seems to be one of those times when expression is better than silence or delay, then by all means make an honest statement of feelings, but without blaming, accusing, or making the problem worse.
Compare Spouse A's approach with non-threatening statements like these: "I feel angry about the hoe and weeds in the yard. I think we need to talk. Now or later?"
Expressing anger is neither good nor bad in itself. It depends on the situation. Couples may feel free to express feelings, but only after thinking about the consequences, and after a commitment to civility, restraint, and empathy. None of these will give us cancer.
"OK, honey, I think we can talk now," Kelly said. "I got the baby settled down, and the other kids are finally getting to bed. What was on your mind?"
"Quick. Bar the door. Maybe we can get four minutes for ourselves," Lance said.
Kelly laughed, "Sometimes it is wild around here, isn't it? Did we know when we started out what having five kids would be like?"
Lance shook his head. "Are you kidding? Some things can't be understood without being there. And it's a good thing we didn't! But one thing I did know, Kelly Ann Webb Levine."
"Oh, and what's that, Lance William Levine?"
"That I loved you very much."
"My, aren't you romantic tonight."
"And still do."
"Keep talking. I'm all ears."
"And what I wanted to talk about will help us stay in love even more in the future," Lance said.
"I'm all for that, mister."
"OK, here's the deal. We've had our share of arguments over the years. Probably no more than normal. Sometimes we've managed to understand each other and come to a compromise or resolution. Other times, we haven't done so well. We've hurt each other, said things we shouldn't have, and maybe wounded the relationship." He paused. "Right?"
"Yes, and sometimes we've just dropped it because we couldn't agree."
"That's right. Well, I read an article a few months ago that's stuck with me. It talked about setting up ground rules for discussion, and it sounds like a good idea to me. You know, to take time, when there is no problem (like right now) to lay out a few guidelines for how to handle things when they do come up. Sort of a Levines' Rules of Order, I guess, so we stand a better chance of coming to solutions without hurting each other."
Kelly was thoughtful. "OK. Yes, it sounds good to me."
"You're hesitant," Lance said.
"Well, only because I'm not sure yet what you have in mind," Kelly said. "And, if I'm honest, I guess I still harbor the idea, romantic and idealistic as it is, that we ought to learn to control our tongues and love each other more and everything would be fine.
"Not that I believe that always works," Kelly went on. "When I really think about it, I know that things come up, people have feelings, biting the tongue isn't always best, and all that. But my first reaction is more the 'leave it alone and it will go away' idea.
"But never mind. I know certain things need to be talked out. Erase my hesitancy. I'm in favor."
"OK," Lance said. "Well, I listed here a few ideas, some I remember from the article, some are my own. These are only a beginning, and I'd want us to add to them. Maybe I can explain these, and you can think about them, then we'll talk about them tomorrow night.
"First, I wrote here, 'Listen, listen, listen.'meaning to take the time to really understand the problem before wading in with the answer."
"OK," Kelly said.
"Next, 'Stop recycling.' "
"I think I know what that means," Kelly said. "We sometimes like to drag out all the old issues when we're in the middle of something."
"Exactly," Lance said. "It gets in the way, and takes us off the subject. Next, I have 'Set aside time.' What does that one mean to you?"
"You mean to bring things up when there's really time to discuss them, not necessarily right when they occur?" Kelly asked.
"That, plus making a regular time (once a week at least, maybe even daily, for a couple of minutes) to check in with each other and see how life in general is going, before things build up, you know?"
"I like that," Kelly said. "I think it would help a lot. We get so busy with the kids and everything, sometimes it's like we're strangers."
"Next . . . "
"Before you leave that one, Lance," Kelly said.
"Well, I heard somewhere, at a church meeting, I think, a talk about that kind of daily meeting, and I remember that the woman speaking said she and her husband started out each session by talking only about the good things that had happened that day, and complimenting each other. This made them feel closer and kept them feeling good about each other. After that, they went into talking about specific categories as needed.
"They used a checklist with things like money, children, household chores; I remember those three."
Lance was writing them down. "Good. I'd add one right off, and that's talking about goals and plans. Sometimes I feel like we don't know what the other one intends, like a few years ago when you thought of our savings as for a piano, and thought I agreed, and all along I was thinking of a second car."
Lance and Kelly have a great list started, and a great idea: to set the ground rules for discussion while things are calm. With a little more work and some practice, they'll come up with enough basics that their arguments will be reduced, and those that occur will be better handled.
Couples can easily fall into the habit of really talking only when there's something to settle. How much better to talk regularly. Kelly's initial hesitancy is often typical. We've sometimes been raised to feel that disagreements are simply bad, and that if we were better people we wouldn't have them. We would simply exercise "Christian" restraint and let everything go by us.
It's a misguided idea. Christianity has nothing to do with it. Those people who allow no ripples ever to trouble the smooth surface of their marriage usually have a superficial marriage. They don't really relate, and they certainly don't grow as a couple. They merely co-exist, side by side, because they never know one another in depth. They avoid problems by avoiding real interaction with each other.
A realistic view tells us that two intelligent, distinct personalities are bound to view certain things differently, no matter how much alike they may be. Ground rules help provide a way to work through inevitable differences. And setting aside time for compliments and positive comments will ensure that at least some of the messages we send one another will be more than neutral or negative, but positive and uplifting.
Both spouses are responsible for improved communication in their marriage. Good communication is vital to the long-term as well as the day-to-day operation of a relationship.
Questions for Discussion
Are we, as a couple, in the habit of talking? Do we agree on the amount of time to spend at it? Can we talk easily about small and large matters, or are we out of practice?
How do we talk? Are we mostly able to resolve problems and help one another without making the problem worse by making comments of the wrong type? How can we improve our ability not to "talk past" one another?
How are we at accepting new information and other points of view?
Are we effective listeners? Do we need to practice? Are we committed to the concept? Are we willing to stop a conversation when we're unclear and state our interest in understanding the other person's view?
How are we at holding our clever tongues? Do we hurt one another and cut each other off by smart remarks? How can we avoid this problem?
How are we at allowing varied emotions in each other over the same event?
Do we know how to express strong emotions without blaming each other or making the situation worse? Can we talk through how best to express these emotions? Would a few practice sessions help?
Do we both know the ground rules for discussion in our home? Do we have a regular time to positively share ideas and thoughts and to routinely discuss important matters?