Take Time to Understand Each Other

Have you ever totally misinterpreted something your spouse said?  I sure have!   It is so easy to do and so destructive.  We think we know what our spouse is thinking at the moment so we assume the worst.  Here’s an example…

He asks, “What kind of spices did you use on this steak?”   She declares, “You don’t like it do you?  You always want the same old thing.  We can’t ever try anything different!  Dinners just get more boring all the time.”     He exclaims, “Well you got me pegged!  I was going to say I liked it, but I guess I don’t according to you!”

See how she wrongly assumed what he was thinking, and then blamed him for boring dinners?  Most of us could recover from this with a simple apology and move on to what those spices actually were.  But what if a wrong assumption was made during a discussion in which both spouses were passionate about their positions?  In that kind of situation there is more possibility for deep hurts.  Consider this scenario…

After much debate about which relatives to visit this summer she states, “I just can’t go to Florida this summer!”   He blurts out, “You know, I always wondered if you even liked my family. Sounds like you don’t and you’re ready to just write them off.  You know, I could do without your family too.  Maybe I should just go alone!”

 Some things to consider:

  • Are all the facts out on the table?  Instead of making an assumption, ask what else there is to consider, what else is on your spouse’s mind, what else he or she is feeling. You may be totally surprised what is behind a comment or question.
  • Do you let past issues build up?  Sometimes we make wrong assumptions when resentment leads us in the wrong direction.
  • Think back on times you have made assumptions about your spouse. Is there anything about these situations that made you feel inadequate?  Did a lack of confidence cause you to assume your spouse was criticizing you?
  • If you are getting emotional during a simple factual discussion, perhaps there is an issue that truly needs resolution.  In the first example, maybe she feels that she can’t cook with as much creativity as she’d like and that frustrates her.  She needs to express this so they can find a solution together.
  • Making wrong assumptions often leads to unwarranted blame that is very hurtful to your spouse who will wonder how you could think such a thing of him.  Walls go up between you.
  • Unspoken assumptions fester in your own heart and get blown up over time into bigger mountains.  You may think they are secret but they affect your attitudes and actions toward your spouse.

Letting assumptions remain will never bring a couple closer together.  But it happens so quickly.  I just did it to Alan today after I’d written this blog!  It totally surprised me how fast I fell into it. So think about it ahead of time…what will you do the next time?  Will you be defensive and let it escalate further or will you stop and take time to understand each other?

Be Your Spouse’s Best Friend

Lots of married people we know started their relationships as friends.  Alan and I were part of a group of friends.  We cooked dinners all together, went to church and school events, and met up at restaurants.  It’s like we were a crowd that often participated in the same activities.  Some in that crowd were dating each other, but not Alan and I.  In the process we got to know each other without romance clouding our vision.  I have always appreciated that we started out as friends.

According to John Gottman, as he explains in his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, “Happy marriages are based on a deep friendship.”  He goes on to say,

 By this I mean a mutual respect for and enjoyment of each other’s company.  These couples tend to know each other intimately- they are well versed in each other’s likes, dislikes, personality quirks, hopes, and dreams. They have an abiding regard for each other and express this fondness not just in the big ways but in little ways day in and day out…

Note that Mr. Gottman says respect is mutual, and they know each other intimately.  Friendship is a two way street and both parties must value and pursue the relationship for it to deepen.  If you have a true friend, you know you can always be yourself; you are accepted and safe, as is your friend with you.  You often do things intentionally to make your friend happy.  This is the type of friendship that is a foundation of the happy marriages Dr. Gottman has observed.

Do you have that kind of friendship still or has it started to wane with time and stress?  For most of us it does wane unless we cultivate it along the way. So how do we do that?

How about making your friendship with your spouse the focus of your date times?  Whatever thing you decide to do with the time, always use it to know each other more intimately, or to express your fondness.  For example, if you are going out for a cup of hot chocolate, talk about your hopes and dreams.  If you are going to a play or concert, find out what your spouse thought about it afterwards.  If you go for a walk together, hold hands and remember your courtship days.  If you just stay home, give your spouse a back rub and talk about what happened that day.  If your spouse needs to vent about a stressful situation, listen, empathize, and be glad he or she feels safe to vent with you.

Here’s a challenge:  Do something in the next week specifically to build a positive atmosphere of friendship in your marriage that helps you keep the inevitable negative times in perspective.  And have fun in the process!!

Are We Clear? Crystal.

Many of you remember that great movie with Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson, A Few Good Men released (oh my!) twenty years ago in 1992.  (No wonder Tom looks so young.)   There is this great line in the movie when the young lawyer Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) is questioning his witness Col. Nathan Jessep (Jack Nicholson).  The colonel thunders a question at the persistent lawyer, “Are we clear?” The lawyer replies, “Yes sir.” Driving home his point the colonel raises his voice and repeats the question with a guttural, “Are we clear?”  The young lawyer this time says, “Crystal.”

Is your communication with your spouse clear?  Would you say it is crystal clear? It’s true that we tend to suffer from “miscommunication” affliction.  There are times when we just don’t say what we mean and then there are times when we say exactly what we don’t mean to say.  We speak in veiled innuendoes and mask our true meaning, thinking that somehow our spouse will be able to unlock the code, and rightly interpret what we are not saying and what we really meant to say.

  •                Don’t listen to the words that I’m saying, listen to what I meant to say!
  •               If you could just understand me better.
  •               How many times do I have to tell you?
  •               Why can’t you just understand what I’m feeling?

Any of that sound familiar?

How about the husband who turns out the lights and gets into bed at 11:30, reaches over and softly touches your shoulder, saying, “So what do you think?”  And you say to yourself, “What do I think?  What do you mean, what do I think?  It’s late, I’m tired and I’ve got to get up at 5:30 and you’re seriously asking what do I think?  Are you kidding?”  The truth of the matter is that he’s been thinking about it since right after dinner.  He just didn’t say anything to you.  He didn’t even hint at it.  And then at 11:30 he says “So what do you think?”

Or the wife who is frantically getting dinner ready and she says to her husband, “The trash is really getting full.”  He says, “Yep, it sure is,” as he walks over to the family room and sits down.  She wanted him to take the trash out and he simply acknowledged that she’s right.  The trash is full.

Many fights and arguments in marriage are caused by miscommunication.  We somehow expect that our spouse will magically interpret what we are saying.  Sometimes we act like our spouse is a mind reader, stating, “Well, you should have known what I was feeling!”

Here’s a personal growth item for the week:

  • Practice clear communication.
  • Say clearly what you need or what your expectations are.
  • Wait till you have your spouse’s full attention.
  • Be aware of your spouse’s mood, agenda, and energy level.

For example…. She says, “Honey the trash is really getting full.  Would you mind taking it out for me please?”  To which he may reply with a twinkle in his eye, “So what do you think?”

Talk about It

In order to experience a truly fulfilling soul mate relationship, be vigilant to ensure that you don’t allow issues to go unresolved.  The ones that are the most difficult to discuss are issues that have deep hurts attached.  You may have said or done something that has deeply offended your spouse and be totally unaware that he or she is harboring hurt feelings.  As a matter of fact, the actual incident may have happened years ago, and your spouse “buried” the issue because it was too painful.  It didn’t get fully resolved when talked about originally.  This is one of those boxes that clutters up the shop and is marked “DO NOT OPEN.  DO NOT TOUCH”.

These issues are the most damaging to a truly close and intimate relationship.  They create an emotional barrier keeping the relationship at a superficial level.  The day to day interactions function just fine but real depth and intimate connection is illusive.  Ignoring them is perilous because they will seriously damage your relationship.  The longer you wait to open a discussion, the harder it is to talk.

 All couples experience disagreements and say and do things that are hurtful.  How you deal with the problem is what will make the difference.  Do you approach issues as adversaries or as teammates?  Remember you are on the same team.  Working through an issue to a resolution that satisfies both spouses means your team wins!

Here are a few ideas on how to handle these issues:

  • Pray and ask for special grace
  • Be honest and take the risk of bringing the issue up again
  • Set aside uninterrupted time when you have the freedom to focus
  • Actively listen as you each share feelings and endeavor to understand your spouse
  • Try not to blame or bring accusations
  • Remember that you are bringing this up again so that you can have a closer relationship
  • The goal is a heartfelt resolution where a deep understanding is achieved
  • Be willing to apologize and ask for forgiveness.  This needs to be genuine and not superficial
  • Have an attitude to forgive.  It may be hard to forget, but you will need to truly forgive
  • Allow time to reflect for several days or even longer if needed.  Be patient
  • Never be demanding.  Be patient and calm
  • Seek counsel if you come to an impasse

Always keep in mind that the objective is to strengthen your relationship so that you can be closer together and experience a deeply fulfilling relationship.  True intimacy can not happen when we harbor unspoken resentment and hurts.  You must have the courage to continue to work at all issues.

I Don’t Want to Talk About It!

Have you ever been in a discussion with your spouse and one of you says, “I don’t want to talk about it!”  Have your ever heard those words or spoken those words?  If we’re honest, most of us have on occasion.  There are many reasons why we resort to this defensive position.  Here are some possibilities:

  1.  We are flooded.  Our emotional bucket is too full to continue a rational discussion.   John Gottman, professor of psychology at the University of Washington, in his book The Seven Principles for Making a Marriage Work, explains that a spouse feels flooded when he or she feels defenseless. To avoid the criticism and attack of a spouse, she steps back and disengages emotionally.
  2. We are angry.  We’ve had this discussion so many times and it never gets resolved. So we block further dialogue to keep from experiencing more pain and back away, shouting that we are done talking.
  3.  We are frustrated because we see no way to get this issue resolved.  Endless discussion is not producing a resolution.  In our frustration, we shut down, walk away and block any attempts at further dialogue.

The end result is usually the silent treatment. This can go on for days.  Even if there is a quick recovery to polite interaction, the unspoken cold war is waging underground, still causing a silent coolness in the relationship.  Sure, you can manage superficial conversation, get the kids to bed, get the chores done, and even get to church with a “happy face.” In reality, the unresolved issue lingers like a relationship virus that keeps you from the close connection you really want.

So what can we do when we get backed into a corner and want to break off communication and flee?

We must first realize what is going on.  Our emotions have peaked and we are not in the best position to continue the discussion.  Be honest and ask your spouse if you both can take a break in order to reflect and let the intense emotions subside.   After you’ve both cooled down, ask your spouse if you could share your feelings about the particular issue.  And here are the rules of engagement:  Your spouse needs to listen without offering a solution or restating his or her position.  This is to be a one-way conversation.  Restate your position, share how you feel, and ask your spouse to take a day or two to think it over.

When a few days have gone by, take time out together so your spouse can express what he or she thinks and feels about your position.  Many times, just the time alone to reflect will result in a positive solution.  Your spouse may even say they are sorry and that they feel they understand you much better now. Or, you may be able to continue working through the issue when you both are more rational.

Remember:  Never let the sun go down on your anger.  Actively seek to keep even minor issues from being pushed aside.

Cleaning up the Mess

Last time we talked about your relationship being like a shop. Over time it gets cluttered with boxes of “stuff.” Hurt feelings and unmet needs hinder a relationship from being close. Some of us begin our marriage with baggage that we carry from when we grew up. We seldom begin with a “clean shop” so to speak. Before we come back from the honeymoon our shop is already piled with clutter.

So how do we apply common sense to clean up the clutter in our relationship?

First, honestly assess the quality of your relationship. Both spouses should independently score themselves from 1 to 10 on the following:

  • overall quality of our relationship
  • time together
  • communication
  • finances
  • physical health
  • free time
  • relatives
  • kids
  • romance
  • sex life
  • mutual trust
  • household chores
  • handling problems and decisions
  • spiritual life
  • church involvement
  • goals
  • dreams
  • desires

Add additional items if you feel they are needed.

Now, each should list about 10 items that you really appreciate about your spouse and any items that are a struggle. Honesty is important. Hiding issues lets “boxes of stuff” remain covered.

Now list four things that you feel would help your relationship grow closer.

And finally, list anything that has really hurt you. This can be difficult. It requires that you dig deep. Often when we have been hurt, we bury our feelings because they are too hurtful to talk about. But these particular “clutter boxes” can be the very issues that keep us from being truly close. We can easily overlook socks left on the floor, but deeply felt wounds are like invisible forces that keep us from being close. (More on Hurt and Forgiveness in a future blog.)

Completing the assessment above is merely a first step to let you know if you have clutter in your relationship. The list and your answers will help you to begin a discussion on how to take a particular area and begin the process of making it a 9 or a 10.

Here are some helpful tips:

  1. The shop is “our shop.” It isn’t “your box of junk.” Both must realize that in order to have a close relationship you both need to be responsible to work on getting it healthy. Look at an area of concern in this light: What can “we” do together to work at making this issue less of a hindrance to us having a close relationship.
  2. Patience should guide your actions. It took us a week to clean up our messy shop. Relationships are much more complex and patience is needed to allow time to resolve issues. We bring issues into our relationships that have been issues since we were young children. They take time to work through. Don’t try to resolve them all at once. Take a few steps and be thankful for your progress. Be patient and gracious with each other.
  3. Communicate with each other in a kind, loving, and non-demanding manner. Remember that you are working at cleaning issues up so you can enjoy the richness of a soul mate relationship.

Big Problems

What if we have big problems? Can Common Sense help us to resolve these problems?

I remember several months ago we needed to clean up our shop. It’s a large shop and we had accumulated 30 years of stuff like garden and shop tools, and boxes of things we had moved from California. We had several old used appliances and lawn mowers, old rugs and stuff not even worthy of saving for a garage sale. The kids had used the shop for playing air soft games and so various barriers were built as hiding places. One of the lofts had old furniture. The other loft was full of old files and boxes, some from college and high school classes. There were ping pong tables and piles of old wood. You’re right, a cluttered mess. When we removed one pile, it uncovered another with more stuff to be sorted, cleaned, organized or thrown out. Embarrassing. How did we get so much junk? How did it pile up into such a mess?

We knew the shop needed to be cleaned out. Starting at one end, we moved things out to sweep, vacuum, rearrange, and set up a garbage pile. It ended up being a very big pile. And just for the record, we swept and vacuumed up thousands of air soft pellets. But after almost a full week of cleaning and a few trips to the dump, we got it done. We even took pictures!! A pretty big task when we started but it looked so good when we got it done.

Sometimes our marriages, just like the shop, get all cluttered up. We begin with small problems. Those problems, when left unresolved, cause other problems. A husband may have a habit of not remembering to call when coming home late from work. At first, his wife gets upset about the cold dinners, eating alone and disappointed children. She lets him know how upset she is about his lack of consideration, and then she nags him about it for several months with no fruit. He gets upset about the nagging, and she eventually quits bringing it up, burying her feelings. Resentment and bitterness fester causing a noticeable distance in their relationship. He comments about how cold she has become and how he misses being affectionate. She responds in cold silence. He is totally unaware that his lack of consideration has snowballed into a mini cold war. What started as a simple problem grew into a huge problem. Over time, add five or six other issues into the mix, compounded by unspoken needs and expectations, and you have a real mess. Just like the shop. And you’re left wondering how you begin to get this mess cleaned up.

Something to consider: Does your relationship have clutter? Are there boxes of unresolved issues? Are there issues that you don’t even talk about? When you first got married, did you and your spouse bring boxes or “stuff” and put them in your shop? Did you have goals, dreams, or desires that never materialized and are a source of tension or disappointment?

Next time: What steps can you take to deal with the Mess.