Ask any group of people, such as friends or co-workers, “When do you feel loved?” and the answer will likely include something about listening. When people listen, we feel worthwhile and valued. Listening is hard when trying to start a love relationship, because we’d rather try to impress. Yet listening is one of the strongest ways to say, “I love you.”
Jesus’ example in this startles us. Why the God-man with all the answers would wait to hear our questions is provocative. But that’s just what Jesus did with the woman at the well. Though he knows immediately the answer to her need, he asks a question, listens, and waits for her response (see John 4). Why? Perhaps it is because, in knowing all things, he understands that his listening heart will be partly responsible for her healing.
A popular story tells of a little girl and a single mom who enter a toy store to buy a doll. As the little girl moves down the aisle, she asks her mother what each of the dolls can do. Some of the more expensive dolls walk, others talk, some sing or eat. Finally, the little girl picks up a doll the young mother can afford. But, when the little girl asks what the doll can do, the mother notices there is no description on the box. Then an idea comes to her. She whispers to her daughter, “Honey, this doll listens.” Although the little girl knew nothing about the costs of the other dolls, she chose the one that listened. The quaint story speaks to the child who lives in each of us. Why? Because, when we can, we still choose people who listen. This applies to all relationships and especially marriage partners.
In the middle of every loving heart is a listening e.a.r.”
An E.A.R. for marriage
Most of us have seen “lonely people” on talk shows, in the malls, and in the cubicles where we work. Out of sight and out of touch, these individuals long for someone who can hear their hearts. Like the girl in the doll aisle, they are waiting for a box that reads, “This one listens.” They want a marriage partner who is, to borrow the common expression, “all ears.” Every marriage can benefit from improved listening skills. The following acrostic can help us remember that in the middle of every loving heart is a listening ear.
E—Enter their worlds
In his book Caring Enough to Hear and Be Heard, David Augsburger explains that for effective listening to take place, we need to learn how to enter another person’s world. Entering our partner’s world will remove some of the communication barriers and help create an atmosphere where love can breathe. Sometimes entering our spouse’s world means building bridges by attending an event with them, reading a book together, or asking open-ended questions. When our spouse knows that her world is becoming more important to us, she feels our love more deeply. When we work through conflict this is especially important. Understanding our partner’s perspective can make it easier to find bridges we can cross together on the journey toward reconciliation.
A—Attend to the meaning behind their words
“You didn’t listen to a thing I said!” How many times do words like these crush a conversation? It’s like we’re giving an important recital of our thoughts and no one is in attendance. It’s important to attend our partner’s conversations. It’s important to be there. When we aren’t attending to the meaning behind our spouse’s words, the conversation can seem like a kind of verbal air hockey – our words fly back and forth, but seldom touch even the surface of our thoughts and feelings.
Solomon demonstrates this wisdom when he attends to the meaning behind his young bride’s words:
Tell me, you whom I love, where you graze your flock, and where you rest your sheep at midday. Why should I be like a veiled woman beside the flocks of your friends” (Song of Songs 1:7).
She seems to reprimand Solomon for making her chase after him, like an immoral “veiled” woman, because he failed to let her know where he was at “midday.” The chorus, the “friends,” answer her question “where?” by providing directions, “by the tents of the shepherds.” Their response might represent the typical husband who responds to words instead of meanings. Earlier, she advises, “Do not stare at me because I am dark, because I am darkened by the sun. . . my own vineyard [her body] I have neglected.”
Solomon remembers her words. His wisdom recognizes that a woman’s feelings about herself sometimes fashion her sentences. To love her, he compliments her beauty (1:9) and makes a commitment to take time out of his schedule to make her “earrings of gold, studded with silver” (1:11). He responds to her reprimand, not by defending himself or simply answering her question, but by attending to the meaning behind her words.
My wife, Linda, and I have learned that our meanings are different. When I say, “I’m OK” I mean it’s a good day. When she says, “I’m OK” it means she wants to talk about something that’s troubling her. “OK” can mean different things. It’s important to discover the meanings behind our spouse’s words.
R—Respond to their needs
A minister once told his youth group about the first time he kissed his fiancée. They were sitting beside a quiet stream when he asked, “Honey, can I kiss you?” She was silent. Although he considered the possibility that she didn’t want to be kissed, he chose to believe she didn’t hear him and asked again, “Can I kiss you?” She didn’t respond. Frustrated and wondering if he had already ruined his opportunity, he persisted, increasing his volume, “Honey, can I kiss you?” She was silent.
“Are you deaf?” he pleaded.
“Are you paralyzed?” she laughed.
The point is she wanted him to respond to the situation in a way that she deemed appropriate. The obviously had different ideas of an appropriate response to the situation.
After we’ve entered our spouse’s world and paid attention to the meaning behind his or her words, we can respond in a way that communicates, “I love you.”
To encourage healthy conversation in the church, Paul wrote that we should build others up “according to their needs” (Ephesians 4:29). Entering each other’s worlds helps us discover the other’s needs. Although Paul is specifically focusing on relationships within the body of Christ, his principle is especially relevant to marriage. In a romantic sense, when we fail to travel beyond our own worlds, we fail to understand and meet our spouse’s needs, and we trade away the stars.
This is the model Jesus used when he entered our world, attended to the meaning behind our words, and responded in a breathtaking way to our needs. When we become all E.A.Rs we can effectively love in a way our partner can hear. Every marriage can become more meaningful when we learn to listen our way to love.
Augsburger, David. Caring Enough to Hear and Be Heard. Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1982, 38.