Walter, a psychologist, makes his living by helping hurting people. Although Walter cares about the people who come to him, he has learned to care without becoming emotionally involved. It’s the only way he can survive the constant stream of critical problems that he faces every day. If he didn’t practice a little detachment, he would burn out faster than a cheap candle.
Walter has a wonderful wife, Sharon. Sharon wants Walter (the man who makes his living by listening, understanding, and communicating) to pay some attention to her. But she needs his attention as a husband, not as a professional listener. When Sharon has an emotional need, Walter responds calmly and logically, just like he does with his clients. That drives Sharon crazy. She thinks that Walter, the professional counselor, can understand just about anyone but her. She doesn’t resent the people he helps. She just wishes Walter would give her more of himself than what he gives his clients.
Earth to Walter, Come In Walter!
Walter and Sharon are struggling with a common problem. Let’s call it disconnection. Drained by hours of listening to troubled people, Walter finds ways to avoid Sharon, or at least maintain some emotional distance. Frustrated by her husband’s cool, logical response, Sharon feels like giving up.
A couple’s conversations can degenerate into shoptalk: necessary words, but no more personal connection than you would feel with a someone you met at the supermarket, and maybe even less. Like the old cliche says, “Familiarity breeds contempt.”
Even good marriages can have some connection problems. Take, for example, this lady’s comments: “My husband is a delightful guy, a kind man, and a wonderful lover, but something is missing. I am so lonesome I could cry.” For some reason she didn’t understand, she and her husband were not connecting.
Connection has two parts: expression and understanding. Both are vital. Just as the human body requires both veins and arteries for healthy circulation, relationships need both expression and understanding. Block either one and you threaten the heart of the marriage.
Strong Connection Repair Kit
If you feel disconnected from each other, here are some tools and techniques to help you express yourselves and understand each other.
Ask more questions. Make no false assumptions
Good questions invite sincere responses. Assumptions make you look proud and insensitive.
Ask questions to understand, not to interrogate
A man we know bombards his wife with questions, like a police officer questioning a felon, or an attorney cross-examining a hostile witness. For this man, questions are weapons. He doesn’t want to understand. He wants to keep her off balance, like a swordsman in a duel. Then, when she stumbles in her responses, he lunges for the kill. Remember: the value of a question depends on the underlying attitude of the person who asks it. If the attitude is sincere inquiry, questions can help. If we only want to wound, or protect our own hurting soul, questions become weapons.
Learn to listen and take time to listen
Like me, you may have trouble listening. People like us resemble Martha, a woman in the Bible. One day Jesus visited the house she shared with her brother and sister. Martha got busy preparing a meal for her honored guest, but Mary, her sister, sat with Jesus, giving him her full attention.
Serving a meal is important in Middle Eastern hospitality. Martha was a good hostess to her honored guest. But she felt that Mary was a slacker, so she complained about her lazy sister to Jesus. Jesus told her that Mary was actually doing what pleased him most. It seems that Martha thought she was fixing the main course, but she was really missing it. That day Mary’s attention was more important to the Lord Jesus than food.
You might have a spouse who says the same about you. My wife once told me that I was the only person she knew who could leave a room without using the door. Sure, my body is there. I nod, and even look straight at her, but my mind could be anywhere. Sometimes I even start doing some chore or read an article while she is talking with me. That kind of behavior doesn’t exactly assure her of my attention.
Thankfully, I am becoming a better listener, not great, but greatly improved. You can too. As a good friend once told me, “Learn to be present to the moment.” Don’t be so anxious to get to the bottom line. The trip is as at least as important as the destination; the process is at least as important as the conclusion. Give each other the wonderful gift of time and attention.
Finding the Right Pace
People think and respond at different speeds, like computers with different processors. Some, like me, think quickly and sometimes speak impulsively. Others, like my wife, need more time to process information and form a response. Neither type of person is more intelligent. They just think at a different pace.
If you are the faster thinker and respond more quickly, slow down. It will be good for you and good for your marriage. And, if you can adjust your pace in your marriage, you’ll become less impulsive and more patient in other settings as well.
If you are more deliberate, ask your spouse to be patient with you, to give you more time to process. Some of us need that reminder.
Most important, don’t leave your husband or wife hanging in silence. It’s like someone who puts you on hold when you call them, and then forgets to come back. Your silence may be necessary for you, but fast thinkers can generate many false assumptions during long, awkward pauses. Assure your partner that you’re listening, that you want to understand, and that you need some time to ponder. It will help reduce misunderstandings.
Learn to understand silence
You know the sound. You’re talking on your cell phone when suddenly, instead of your friend’s voice, all you hear is silence. You have been disconnected. Some couples have been disconnected all their married lives, seldom speaking or listening. Please do not assume that silence means rejection or anger. Silence can have many meanings:
- I have no words for how I feel. For some of us, this is often true. It’s hard to put feelings into words.
- I don’t trust myself to speak without doing some major damage. Because we fear that we can’t find the right words, we remain silent.
- I am afraid you’ll misunderstand me. Fear of being misunderstood disturbs many relationships, and sometimes with good reason. Some of us do a great job of making our spouses think they don’t speak clearly and accurately. It’s just another tactic for avoiding personal responsibility.
- You might ridicule me or belittle me. Does anyone want to appear foolish? Yet how often do we, in subtle ways and obvious ones, make our spouses feel like foolish?
- I am angry. It’s better to let an angry spouse have a little time to process. Agree that you will talk about the issue a little later.
- I have given up hope. The only way to help a hopeless spouse is to assure him or her that you really do want to understand. Then put your assurance into action.
Avoid picking at words
People who criticize every word do not want to understand. Like the religious teachers in Jesus’ time, they divert attention from the real issues by making a big deal out of insignificant details. Jesus said those religious teachers filtered out little insects and swallowed big, ugly camels. Out of pride and defensiveness, and a desire to control their mates, some spouses do the same thing.
Feelings are often deeper than words and sometimes, no matter how carefully we try to express them, we hurt each other. Remind yourself that the goal is a healthier relationship. If you pick at words, making an issue out of every small inaccuracy, you will never reach that goal.
Choose the right time and the right place.
We can really frustrate our efforts to communicate by trying to force communication at the wrong time. Of course, for some couples no time ever seems right. Too many obligations, too many appointments, and too little energy make it easy to remain disconnected. And when a couple have been disconnected for a long time they often find it easier to just stay that way.
Plan a time. Pick a place. Don’t let anything interfere. Talk like friends. Do not force the conversation to become serious right away. Laugh. Discuss. Let the talk develop. Though it may not feel spontaneous, given time you will relax and reconnect.
1. As a couple, do you have anything in common with Walter and Sharon?
2. Which is harder for you personally: expressing your thoughts or understanding your spouse?
3. With your husband or wife in mind, finish this statement: “It would help me understand you if you would . .”