“Can we talk?”
If you are like me, when you hear the words, “Can we talk?,” roll out of your wife’s mouth, your first inclination may be to quickly think of something really important that needs to immediately be done.
Actually, as a Christ-following-EPH 5:25-husband, there is nothing more important than talking with and ministering to your wife. If your wife cannot freely, openly, honestly and frequently talk to you, she cannot connect with you emotionally or spiritually. If that is the case, she won’t want to have anything to do with you physically. In short, no talking equals no real intimacy of any kind. I learned this early on in our marriage and I learned it the hard way.
Ten years into our marriage, we were in serious trouble. Debra was ready to call it quits. Our individual histories of hurts, habits and hang-ups haunted us and clouded our ability to resolve our issues with the “BIG 3” – sex, finances and child rearing. Our inability to talk freely, openly and honestly had been slowly and subtly driving us farther apart. I most often chose to avoid those serious talks and I had been oblivious to how far she had traveled emotionally as a result. We had reached a point where only superficial conversations were safe, and I liked it that way.
For me, the less drama and real talk, the better. In other words, everything was fine as long as we were not “really talking” about our thoughts, feelings, wants, fears, frustrations or hurts. When or if those deeper topics arose, I would defensively escalate out of control using “my God given place of authority” to “make a decision or shut things down.” We severely lacked in communication and conflict resolution skills. The power of life and death was in the words I often shared in the heat of the battle and those words were killing our marriage.
Coming from a family that remains fractured to this day because of my parent’s divorce, I was both devastated and willing to try anything to keep our marriage alive. I begged Debra to give our marriage another chance. I promised to go to counseling and threw in my grave concern for the future well-being of our three impressionable young boys as leverage. It worked, and we committed to counseling.
In our first counseling session, things became so heated and hostile that the counselor decided it would be best to meet separately for a while. That was the turning point of our relationship, and the starting point of our mission to save the world one marriage at a time.
Over the past eighteen years we’ve sat down with numerous individuals, couples and families that were having similar communication trouble in their relationships. Like us, they could not communicate effectively. They could not, as individuals or as a group, freely share thoughts, feelings, wants, fears, frustrations or hurts without fear of ridicule, rebuttal or rebuke. In these relationships, mutual understanding and real intimacy could not be achieved because honest and real communication was being avoided and exchanged for topics that “were safe” but superficial.
This is not the kind of relational harmony, unity, or intimacy God had in mind for our marriages, families and friendships (Eph 4:1-3). Real intimacy and unity cannot be achieved without a free and fearless flow of inner personal truths. One of the most impactful epiphanies of my life was when my wife finally gained the courage to say the words,“I would tell you, but I am afraid.”
God used those words as they sunk deep into my soul. It was God’s scalpel performing a necessary and humbling spiritual surgery. I did not want anyone to fear communicating with me – especially my wife and children. I vowed to start rooting out any fear that remained in any of my relationships. I vowed to be approachable and open, and asked God for His grace to do so.
God’s relationship with us models how we are to communicate with others. God calls us forth to come to Him and talk and reason together(Isaiah 1:18). He encourages us to come to Him with confidence (Hebrews 4:16). We are comforted to know that when we call out to Him, He promises to listen with gracious and understanding ears (Psalm 18:6, 34:4, 40). God has created a bridge for communication from Earth to Heaven and back. We can send our messages – share our thoughts, feelings and wants to Him with complete confidence. His perfect love has removed any fear and thus, we feel free to tell him anything and everything. Even better, He answers with mercy, understanding and wisdom.
God intended for husbands and wives to “reason together” and work in unity. He desires us to be of one mind and heart. Yet, He did not make us identical. We are each uniquely different individuals. We each have our own history and predispositions. That is why it can sometimes be difficult to come to find common ground and agreement. It is also why we often respond defensively. Our differences may be a hurdle, but they are not the problem. The problem is how we share, listen, react, respond and resolve.
Throughout each day, we are constantly sending and receiving messages. We communicate with our words, our actions, our inaction and even our silence communicates volumes. It is common for messages to be misunderstood. We should expect and anticipate this. The goal is to become more aware, thoughtful and purposeful in our communication (James 1:19).
When it comes to communicating anything to anyone, here is a quick tip and seven basic things to consider.
First, the quick tip: Remember Offense and Defense.
Try this approach the next time you come home and get a cold shoulder. In other words, you come in from work to a silent, but offensive welcome. You ask your wife if there is something wrong, and she says somewhat curtly, “no. nothing.”
If you are offended by something a person has said or done, stay objective (do not get emotional), and start by asking that person if you have offended them or hurt them in any way. If they say yes, you have just discovered the key to resolving your conflict, and the likely reason they are acting offensively toward you – hurting people, hurt people.
If they say no, say, “The reason I asked is that I noticed you seemed upset with me when you said or did _______ . I do not want anything to be between us, and if there is something, I want to make things right, and I need your help to do that.”
This approach will either identify what you have done or convict the person of how they are acting offensively to you. Just about everyone I know has been guilty of misdirecting their frustration for something or someone else at work toward a safe, but innocent, target in their own home. Believe me, this is a highly frequent occurrence.
When someone is offended by you and they want to discuss it, never offer a defense. You will win the right to be heard after you listen quietly to their perspective reality, calmly investigate their reality and maturely deal with that reality whether you agree with it or not. Remember and apply Proverbs 15:2. If you allow yourself to get defensive and angry, you slam the door shut and damage the communication bridge you are trying to create or maintain. If their perception is that you are a jerk, apologize for being a jerk. Assure them you never intended or purposed to treat them unkindly (like a jerk). Lastly, ask them to help you understand what that looked like for them so you won’t ever be “a jerk” to them again.
If you can be humble enough to receive criticism when it comes without initial rebuttal, it will not only create a sense that it is safe and you are approachable, it will generate openness when you share your side of any situation. (Rmn 12:18)
- What is my goal with this conversation?
What is it you want to/need to say? Why do I need to say anything? How will talking about this effect the relationship? What am I hoping the outcome will be when I share what’s going on inside of me? Am I making something major out of a minor issue? Will a heightened mutual understanding be the end result? Is there currently obvious division? Will greater unity be established if we have this talk?
- Who is this person I am speaking to?
Are they older or younger? Are they prideful or humble? Are they often angry or quiet? Do they tend to stuff everything inside or are they prone to blowing up? What do I know about this person’s background or upbringing?
- What do I want to say?
What is it that you are thinking, feeling or wanting? Is there a specific fear, frustration or hurt? Think about your content. A list or notepad may be needed and helpful.
- How should I say what I want to say?
Begin with a statement that affirms the listener and verbalizes your commitment to the relationship. This will usually calm the listener while disarming a potential defensive reaction. Begin sentences with, “I.” ‘I’ statements give insight to what is going on inside of you without accusing or blaming. Avoid starting a sentence with the word, you. Sentences that start with, “you always, you never, you should, you should not,” sound accusatory, judgmental and controlling. Statements that begin with the word, you, set the conversation up for conflict.
- When should I say what I want to say?
Timing is everything. If your spouse has had a long or difficult day at work, the moment they walk in the door may not be the best time. When someone, including your children, are hungry or tired, it is probably better to wait till after they eat, relax or rest. If you are concerned about the timing, ask if there is a good/best time to talk. If you postpone the discussion, be a person of your word and set a real time to come back and have that discussion. Avoidance is never the answer!
- Am I willing to be a good listener?
Speaking is only half of communicating. Are you the type of communicator that plans your response instead of really listening to everything that is being said? Listen and try to identify the thoughts, feelings, wants, fears, frustrations or hurts that are being shared. Watch the body language and facial expressions for clues to what is not being said. Gently ask questions when you need clarification. Again, remain objective and open.
- Will they know me by my love?
Would it be obvious by the way you communicate that you unconditionally love and truly care for the relationship with the person you are speaking to? Would it be obvious that you are a Christ follower? Would others see you as a reconciler and restorer of broken relationships? In other words, if someone was sitting in on your conversation what would they think about your tone, body language, facial expressions, content and delivery? (Eph 4:29)
Healthy “real” relationships are founded upon the freedom to “really” talk about things that are difficult, awkward or uncomfortable. If we give each other the freedom to speak our individual truths, our relationships will mature and grow in intimacy. It has taken Debra and I a lot of practice to love each other more and more perfectly. We can confidently say that we are each free to communicate fearlessly, and that we are committed to staying that way til’ death do us part.