Communication Doesn't Work

“That’s not what I said!” Though his eyes were pleading for something more, the frustration and anger in his voice was clear. “That’s exactly what you said!” his wife countered, digging in her heels. What followed was the standard argument.

While she unpacked her convictions regarding the incident and its implications for the marriage, he retreated into himself; his eyes rested on the wall behind her – far enough to the left of her eyes so as to protect him from actually absorbing what was being said, while not so far away as to break the brittle illusion that he was listening. Her eyes burned deep into his, unaware of his detachment; indifferent to anything beyond her own satisfaction of expression, she forced her words into him like a bent key into a lock. I allowed this to go on for several minutes before asking, “Do you think that he is hearing you?” After a long pause… she found herself unable to answer.

Two days later, sitting with friends, I watch as a kinder and gentler version of the same is played out. My friend Billy is sharing the pain he has experienced since his divorce and the healing which God has – after five years – begun providing him only recently. His voice quivers with emotion and I am impressed by his courage, but aware of his vulnerability. Out of the corner of my eye I can see that my friend Sue has inched slightly forward in her chair. My stomach sinks as I recognize that she’s prepared her response to Billy’s situation. She’s no longer listening; she’s eagerly waiting for him to pause. When he does, she jumps in, offering her experience and opinion. They’re not bad thoughts – she’s a bright woman – but its clear that she is more invested in speaking her mind than pursuing Billy; in response, I see the subtle shift on Billy’s face as he retreats to safer emotional ground.

After 15 years in the therapist’s chair, I am acutely aware of the value of listening. A man recovering from depression recently paid me a great kindness when he said, “I really feel like you get me… most of the time I feel like I’m living alone on the Island of Weird and no one understands me at all… but you keep asking questions until you get it. I don’t feel so alone.” While these words are encouraging to me, they also highlight the unfathomable emotional divide which characterizes most relationships and, more poignantly, most marriages.

Ironically, research on communication in marriage indicates that it doesn’t work. More specifically, teaching couples in distant or conflictual relationships how to use concrete communication skills isn’t effective for fostering change. Within hours, days or – at best – weeks, these techniques are forgotten and unused at critical moments. However, that same research indicates that couples who establish emotional intimacy – a mutual emotional understanding and warm affection - easily adopt healthy communication strategies. Communication is, thus, only a tool - a means to establish intimacy; but if that shared emotional connection is not established then the tool is useless. Intellectual understanding is of little value. If you are not willing to set aside your agenda – your desires, goals and self-protection - for the sake of genuinely seeking to understand and respond your spouse, no amount of communication will make the difference. The question thus becomes, are you willing to strive for that understanding of your spouse? On behalf of your spouse, let me ask…

  • Do you hear who I am or do you hear who you expected me to be?
  • Do you hear my heart or do you only hear my words?
  • Do you listen to understand me or do you listen to appease me?
  • Are you listening for my needs and desires or are you listening for opportunities to forward your own agenda?
  • Will you dare to emotionally engage with me and hear all that I am saying - risking disappointment to listen beyond my words for the beating of my heart and the whirring of my mind?
  • Will you be curious enough to engage your mind and heart with me, asking questions until I make sense to you… until you recognize that I am not so different from you (and that I am so very different from you)… until you and I are a little less alone than before we started talking?
  • Will you recognize that words fail and understanding is hard earned, taking the time to tell me what you hear – insuring that you got it right… and I said it right - before you respond to me?
  • Will you listen and, in so doing, dare to acknowledge and bridge the frightening gap of emptiness that stands between us… the gap that leaves us both safe, but alone.

Let me recommend a simple tool that provides an opportunity for you to better understand your spouse and begin to foster emotional intimacy in your relationship. Try making “90 Meetings in 90 Days” happen with your spouse. Once a day for the next 90 days, take 10 minutes to exchange the following information with your spouse: 1) What was your high for the day? 2) What was your low for the day? 3) What was something interesting or curious that happened to you today? Reflect back your spouse’s thoughts to them and seek to establish a new or deeper understanding of their experience. Once you’ve established understanding, you’ll find that you feel with them and then for them.

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