John came into marriage counseling ready to bolt from his relationship with his wife because he claimed either she never seriously listened to him or she dismissed the importance of his feelings about almost everything. “What’s the point of being married, if two people are merely living one person’s life!”, he said. His wife cried out, “But you never told me that you thought differently…all you do is grunt or tell me, with disinterest, to go ahead with it…I just never knew you felt that way!” He retorted, “No, I’ve told you….you’ve just never listened”.
Obviously, this couple was not really communicating with each other in a way that could be described as even remotely effective. It’s easy to point fingers and blame one or the other for the problem. But, as with most issues, marriage is a carefully orchestrated dance that involves both partners. Often, that dance is the product of conflicting rules of engagement learned early in life. Sometimes, as was the case in this relationship, there is also an inadequate grasp of how love and humility are intertwined, a deficit which profoundly affects a couple’s communication skills. As a therapist, I have found that, even among Christians, very few really understand the connection between the two, let alone how it plays out in a marriage.
The operational definition of love—God’s love and its manifestation in us—is one of the most frequent ongoing conversations in the Bible. Second only to it, and, in fact, intrinsically related to it, is the topic of humility. You cannot truly love someone without also being thoroughly humble; nor can you be genuinely humble without truly loving that person. These twin realities are the pillars of both the New Covenant in Christ and the marriage covenant before God.
Rarely, however, do couples understand what humility looks like in their communications with one another. Most merely assume that it means conceding the rightness of the other’s point of view and dismissing or ignoring their own. Essentially, they see it as placating the other’s wishes for the sake of that person’s happiness (and, perhaps, at the expense of their own)…and for the sake of avoiding unnecessary conflict. In short, it frequently has the look of emotional martyrdom. But such a self-effacing interpretation of humility in communication strips our relationships of both vitality and growth, and invites the incremental, almost invisible, build-up of underlying resentment. Why? Largely because it denies the importance of assertiveness, which practices respect for both our spouse’s needs and those of our own. Being assertive in a relationship means we are actively cultivating a “we-ness” in our conversations, a sense of true bilateral communication that transcends the self-centeredness of selectively focusing primarily on getting our own point across (or our frustration over our failure to do so). It means, too, listening intently and asking relevant clarifying questions in order to verify the accuracy of what we’ve have heard.
While all of this may seem obvious when pointed out, we rarely conduct our conversations with one another in this way. The reason for this is that it’s actually counter-intuitive—especially when we’re upset about something—to enter conversations with our spouses with the primary intent to more fully understand what they are saying. Instead, we’re focused on “helping” our partners better understand where we’re coming from, particularly since we’re usually convinced that, if they already knew what we wanted, such conversation would be unnecessary in the first place.
This mindset can be seen in such statements as, “What I’m trying to say is…”, or “Let me be clear about this…”, or “You’re not hearing me; what I said was…”, and so on. I call these “self-summarizing statements”. They almost always reflect rising frustration, often leading to a further breakdown in communication, with both partners locked into a defensive posture guaranteeing a communication dead end. The problem, of course, is that they are not really listening to one another. Rather each is more narrowly focused on their mutual conviction that the other is not really interested in what they have to say.
The expression of humility in these situations is not responding with, “Oh, whatever”, or “You, dear, are always right; I’m wrong”, or simply stepping aside in withdrawn silence. Instead, it’s training your interest on making sure you understand what your spouse is asking for, sometimes summarizing what you understand he or she is saying to verify that you’ve heard it correctly, before you give a response of your own. This is essentially a validation of the concerns of your partner, which serves his or her needs in the relationship. Sharing your own response with honesty should be given with the invitation to engage in negotiations to come up with a solution that reflects both your concerns and those of your spouse, should they be different (which is often the case).
The focus that true humility demands, then is, not upon making sure you’re clear about your own needs, but rather upon making sure you understand your partner’s needs. That means asking plenty of clarifying questions and feeding back what you’ve heard to guarantee the accuracy of your understanding. If your partner does the same, you don’t have to worry about the clarity of your own position or whether your spouse has heard you—your partner’s questions and, more generally, efforts to understand your needs will inevitably bring out the clarity you desire. Even more importantly, you will each experience the other’s interest and concern to serve one another. In the end, this is the ultimate translation of love. As our Lord put it to his disciples, “Love one another, even as I have loved you” (and this meant to tirelessly serve one another, which he had just demonstrated by washing their feet). Unfortunately, this kind of servant concept is not very popular in our current culture.
When we’re left to guess what is going on inside the skin of another, or are defensively self-summarizing our own views of things, there is little likelihood we will ever communicate with understanding. The alienation that follows only renders us cynical about ever finding the love we say we want. Simply telling our spouses we love them is not enough. It’s only when we make the effort to integrate Jesus’ teaching on humbly serving one another as an expression of love (which trains us to focus outside of ourselves), will we finally discover the joy of companionship and fellowship in marriage. The best news is that good communication skills tend to be the natural outgrowth of this discovery.