The Beauty of Being Unassuming

Most of the time, as we go through the day, we are not aware that the ideas underlying our internal narratives originally came from our childhoods. Yet, these are ideas that influence virtually every judgment we make. They shape our assumptions, beliefs, and expectations, which, in turn, determine not only our views of events and circumstances, but also the behaviors that flow from them. We’re able to function as efficiently as we do precisely because we process much of this information at a subliminal level. This automatic processing in terms of previous experience helps us to quickly and effortlessly interpret every situation or interaction we encounter. But this efficiency comes with a significant price.

The reality is that our belief-driven assumptions and expectations too often predispose us to interpret, and therefore to respond to, life events as negative self-fulfilling prophecies. In other words, because of painful past experiences, we’re not likely to accurately hear the words of the person speaking to us, nor will we remember accurately how the interaction happened as it did. Instead, we bypass the intended meaning and arrive at our own, often premature, conclusions.

As a case in point, many couples I work with often have what I call “historical accuracy” arguments when they’re trying to relate the circumstances around some disagreement and how it began. Each will say something like, “No, that’s not how it happened, don’t you remember?”, or, “I know what happened, don’t tell me differently!” They may go for some time arguing about who has the most accurate story to tell. Both are convinced they have it right. Yet, the truth is likely to be found somewhere between the two recollections. In other words, each has selected certain details in their recall and ignored others, based upon the filter of their past experiences. They are usually completely unaware of the distortions they have introduced into the narrative, distortions which derail any healthy communication.

Most of us need to speak less and listen more in our interactions with others, especially with our spouses.
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Most of us need to speak less and listen more in our interactions with others, especially with our spouses. That’s because, even in the best of circumstances, good listening is generally a hard thing to do, requiring great concentration and resolve. Unfortunately, for many people, this is nearly impossible, since they’ve become, for all intents and purposes, “content specialists”. This means that some seem to hear only put downs, while others seem to hear only positive words that feed their denial; others seem to hear only criticisms, while still others seem to hear only what they want to hear and erase from their minds everything else. They listen in this defective way primarily because their assumptions and expectations demand it. That’s why their listening habits so rapidly deteriorate into self-fulfilling prophecies. They walk away from each interaction with pretty much what they expected (though not necessarily what they wanted) to hear in the first place.

So, you see, our assumptions, because they’re often wrong, can have a very real contaminating effect on an already complicated process of communication. While we may think we are engaging in a simple conversation, we are actually providing six overlapping messages every time we exchange thoughts. Hopefully these are consistent with each other, though frequently they’re not. These messages include:

  1. What you mean to say.
  2. What you actually say.
  3. What the other person hears.
  4. What the other person thinks he or she hears.
  5. What the other person actually says about what you said.
  6. What you think the other person said about what you said.

With intersecting messages on so many different levels, it’s not a stretch to say that the communication process is really quite complex, with multiple places where it can break down. As a result, it’s very difficult to do it well. Since we exercise little or no control over our automatic thinking habits (assumptions, beliefs, and expectations), trouble lurks even before we actually respond to what someone has said. These habits of thinking wash over the layers of messages going back and forth, changing meanings and creating havoc with our understanding. All the while, we’re absolutely “certain” that we know what the other person meant.

It’s hardly surprising to discover, then, that we can seriously overestimate our own ability to communicate accurately. Unfortunately, this tendency can do extensive damage to our marriages, if for no other reason than to belittle our spouses’ ability to be candid in sharing their thoughts and opinions. So, if we want to interact more effectively, it’s natural to ask how we can stop making these assumptions, especially when they seem to be under our radar.

Divorce-proofing your interactions

The first step in the right direction is to consciously cultivate the virtue of humility in your relationships. Humility demands that you seek to do right rather than seek to be right. It means recognizing that you could be wrong in your grasp of the message given by the other person, and that you should seek the truth rather than perpetuate a misunderstanding. Remember, every aspect of your reality, as you see and understand it, is always subjective reality. It’s never objective reality, which only God Himself can reliably discern. That means your perception is subject to error like every other human judgment. When you essentially deny this by insisting that you’re right, you’re exposing your arrogance by placing your assumptions in a superior position over the meaning of the other person’s message.

The first step in the right direction is to consciously cultivate the virtue of humility in your relationships.
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The sooner you realize this, the sooner you will prioritize the task of developing better listening skills. This includes periodically feeding back your understanding of the message to make sure you are accurately tracking it, and to reassure the other person that you are making every effort to listen carefully. Turning off the television (or eliminating other distractions), asking follow-up questions, making good eye contact, and giving signs of acknowledgement, like nodding your head, all serve to reinforce the message that your spouse’s thinking is important to you. Most arguments erupt, not because of differences, but because one or the other (or, more likely, both) feel that their ideas, beliefs, and opinions aren’t considered important in the conversation.

Humility is embodied in your attitude of selfless service, which invariably treats others as so important that you’re willing to pull out all the stops to cultivate the significance of what they have to say. Little wonder that the Bible spends so much time emphasizing the role of humility in taking the Gospel to the world at large. You must be willing to hear another’s pain before you can hope to convince them of the significance of your faith. Indeed, as Jesus himself taught, humility is the defining characteristic of greatness in the kingdom of heaven.

The second step to take in order to reduce the power of your assumptions and expectations over your communication is to expose them for what they are. This means taking a look at the messages you got from the significant others in your early history (especially parents and step-parents), messages which reflected more their own troubled pasts than who you were as a child. If, for example, you were heavily criticized by your parents and repeatedly told you would never amount to much, the result is often that you will have a far lower threshold for interpreting your mate’s comments as criticism or a put down. Arguments will follow, confirming to you all the more that you’re viewed as inadequate and your responses unacceptable. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out where that will lead in terms of the temperature of the relationship.

So, it’s important to review the origins of your assumptions and expectations, to challenge their untruthful basis, and to ask yourself what the truth really is. Often, a Christian therapist you trust can help you in this worthy endeavor of sorting out fact from fiction. Remember, while lies imprison you (i.e., emotionally destabilize you), only the truth shall set you free—and that includes, most importantly, how God sees you. To the extent that truth is your goal, not merely rehashing the myths you learned in your early history, you’ll come to realize just how much the assumptions you make have corrupted communication with your spouse. In effect, lifting these mistaken assumptions that have weighed you down through the years is a cleansing process for both you and your partner.

Finally, it’s important to apply your new-found freedom to addressing your differences with one another by exercising a creativity that wasn’t possible before, largely because your former thinking had been too rigid. It’s not enough merely to reduce the power of your old, dysfunctional assumptions. You must also call upon your new flexibility to help you develop your ability to think “multi-optionally”. In other words, it means inviting your spouse to help you find alternative solutions that address both of your sets of concerns, instead of thinking in either-or terms, where it’s either your way or the highway. Together, you can even take time to pick other couple’s brains for new ideas if you run out of ideas of your own. No stone need be left unturned.

The collaborative character of this approach to dealing with your differences establishes, from the outset, the goal of finding mutually acceptable solutions that bind you together rather than push you apart. It’s far more useful for the health of your marriage to select an alternative solution from among a variety of options generated by exploring all the possibilities than to argue endlessly over whose position is best.

With these three important steps, you’ll find that, not only will your marital communication improve significantly, but so also will your appreciation of one another’s unique characteristics. The motive for making this kind of change was put into perspective by the Apostle Paul when he said, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21). That is to say, serve each other, for honoring Christ’s sacrifice is pleasing in the sight of God.

More than any other institution, Christian marriage is specifically intended for such divine pleasure. With that in mind, why not give it the beauty it so richly deserves?

More than any other institution, Christian marriage is specifically intended for such divine pleasure.
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Dr. Gary Lovejoy has, for over 34 years, conducted his private counseling practice where he has extensive experience serving individuals, couples, and families. He continues an active private practice with Valley View Counseling Services, LLC in Portland, Oregon, of which he is the founder. Dr. Lovejoy was a professor of both psychology and religion at Mt. Hood Community College for 32 years. He earned a master’s degree in religious education from Fuller Theological Seminary as well as a master’s in psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and completed his doctorate in psychology while attending the United States International University. Dr. Lovejoy has conducted numerous seminars on depression and been the keynote speaker at many family camps, couple’s retreats and college conferences. Dr. Lovejoy and his wife, Sue, have two adult children. He is co-author of Light on the Fringe: Finding Hope in the Darkness of Depression.

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