My father’s entrance into the Spirit World preceded my mother’s by ten years. My mother spent her last years in my care and died in my home. One of her most poignant observations-especially when she knew her passing was imminent-was, “I’m anxious to see your dad again. I hope I have the chance to get to know him.” My heart ached. She had lived in the same house with him for 57 years, yet she said, “We never talked about our feelings, and I never really knew him.”
She’s not alone. Dr. Tony Campolo, a marriage counselor, cites studies indicating that if you add up all the words couples say to each other, including such wonderful phrases as ‘Pass the salt,’ and ‘Did you bring in the mail?’ the average husband and wife talk together an average of 10 minutes a day! 1
That sounds about right for what I observed in my mom and dad’s relationship-and have, unfortunately, experienced at times myself. No wonder so many people don’t get to know the person they have married! No wonder emotional intimacy goes out the window!
The Pain of Not Feeling Known
Is there anyone on the face of the earth who should know you better than your own spouse? Why, then do couples so often live as strangers in the same house? Why don’t we put more priority on sharing our lives and feelings with the person we married?
Psalm 142:4 reads: “I looked on my right hand, and beheld, but there was no man that would know me: refuge failed me; no man cared for my soul.”
Can any of us feel really cared for if we don’t feel “known?”
What Makes Us Feel Genuinely Cared for, Really Known?
My soul does not FEEL cared for and I do not feel “known” unless another person willingly chooses to listen to what I think, how I feel, what I value. I do not necessarily feel cared about–and certainly do not feel “known,” because someone wants to tell me all about their knowledge or beliefs or feelings, but doesn’t give me equal time to share mine. I may even feel infringed on or pressured or unaccepted-or that my agency is being challenged. Consequently, one-sided sharing isn’t likely to strengthen a marriage.
At times in the more than four decades I have spent being married, I have taken the wrong approach in my attempt to feel “known.” I’ve tried to overcome this “no talking” pattern by doing a lot of talking, barely noticing that my partner was doing almost none. If one person in a marriage does most of the talking, they unknowingly rob the other of the chance of self-disclosure and rob themselves of the chance to really know them. And the person pushed into the listening role is probably feeling resentful and closed to the messages being given.
Attempts to openly change the other person through our words is also a practice which does not motivate the other person to open the doors of their hearts. Any spouse who feels like a “project” will more than likely close down, and defend their agency-the right to think and feel and be what they choose.
What Is the Price of True Intimacy?
Most of us crave closeness but don’t have a clue what its price is. Emotional intimacy is impossible without sharing heartfelt feelings. This practice is uncommon in mainstream society, and does not come easily to most people. Some men feel their masculinity is threatened by even having vulnerabilities or tender feelings-to say nothing of expressing them! Women may shrink from sharing because attempts to share have resulted in feelings of rejection and hurt. Both may miss the point that sharing feelings doesn’t mean “letting it all hang out” or “letting the other one have it” when you are angry.
The common fallacy of conventional marriage therapy is that communication skills will solve all your problems. However, whether communication strengthens or weakens a relationship depends on what is communicated and how it is communicated!
Love is like a bank account that requires positive deposits (expressing love and appreciation and noticing strengths) before any attempt at withdrawals (negotiating for change or improvement) can be even remotely successful. As Wallace Goddard said, “If my partner tells me my faults with perfect equanimity and precision, does that increase my affection for her and strengthen our relationship? If I use best practices in describing how my spouse falls short in meeting my expectations, does that guarantee that she is motivated and able to change in the way I want? I don’t believe so.” 2
More than any other one thing, the climate that encourages us to share, comes from trusting the other person to love us as we are and to care about our total well-being. Such trust brings emotional safety.
In reality, it is not skill at communicating, but the loving spirit with which you communicate, that makes the difference.
Can Loving, Safe Communication Be Learned?
The most life-changing teaching I ever experienced of the principle of loving communication in a safe environment was at a marriage enrichment weekend my husband and I attended recently. Sitting at the feet of three “leader couples” we saw the fruits of loving communication by example. They freely shared their own stories and how their lives had been changed by the principles and practices they taught us.
The weekend started with the introduction of the motto “Love Is a Daily Decision” and an invitation to share the most endearing quality we saw in our mates. (They assured us this was the only thing we’d be asked to share in front of the group.) The leader couples led out, doing it first. The room was filled with a spirit of love and appreciation as each person in turn shared something wonderful about his or her spouse.
The stage was set for noticing strengths. More extensive sharing–opening up to each other and expressing tender feelings, was done privately in each couple’s hotel room, not in front of others. The basic guideline was that all sharing was to be done in a loving way. What a difference that makes!
We spent Thursday evening until Saturday afternoon together, and I was mesmerized by each succeeding presentation. Even better, I was thrilled that my husband’s response was as positive as mine.
To me, the most important skill we brought home with us was the daily dialogue. Here’s how it works: We each have a notebook to write in, and we agree on a question such as “How do I feel when you listen to me with your heart (or I listen to you with mine)?” Sometime during the day (my husband does it during his lunch break at work) we each write for up to ten minutes answering a question. At the dinner table we trade notebooks and read what the other person has written. (We are empty nesters, so we are alone together. Couples with children at home would need to choose a different time.) Then we talk about what we have written. As instructed, we follow a 3-step format for our discussion:
- Take turns summarizing what the other person said, to be sure you really understand.
- Ask the other person “is there more?” and listen attentively.
- Thank your spouse sincerely for sharing.
Before we started this practice, at best our dinner-time conversations had been getting sparse, and at worst, we both had our noses buried in the newspaper. My husband’s response to dialoging has been something like, “We’ve talked more about things that matter since we have being dialoging than we have in years”! We have been amazed at how much our tender feelings for each other have increased as we have taken the time to share.
We have also been able to work on problem areas, once we knew how the other person really felt.
Radio Personalities Comment on Marriage Enrichment
Mark & Gayle Van Wagoner wrote of this same Marriage Enrichment seminar. They said, “Victor Cline, an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Utah states, We find even with good marriages it can always be better.’ To help make marriages better, Dr. Cline founded his Marriage Enrichment Seminars. Now over 30 years strong, with it’s theme, Better marriages beginning with our own, thousands of couples have found ways to strengthen their marriages, even when they felt their relationships were as strong as they could be!
“Licensed marriage counselors have come as participants in these seminars and have all walked away with renewed determination to improve their relationships. They have discovered new ways to keep their marriages strong and have fun in the process!
“Life is hard and it is not going to get any easier. The greatest support you have to weather the storms is your husband or wife. He or she is the most important person you know and should be treated as such. Too many people hit a bump in the road and give up on the one thing they should hold onto the hardest.
“Even the best of marriages takes work to make it happen. Log onto www.marriage-enrichment.org or call Victor and Lois Cline at 801-278-6831 to find out more.” 3
Many couples have found a great motivation to feed and water the plants of their marriage through attending Marriage Enrichment seminars. This program is sponsored by a nonprofit foundation and has been kept going for 30 thirty years by volunteers such as Dean and Joan Connolly, who say their involvement gives added purpose to their lives. Dean is a busy dentist nearing retirement age. Dean and Joan are the parents of the astounding number of 13 children! Yet for decades they have volunteered as one of three “lead couples” who offer their time without charge a few weekends a year to host Marriage Enrichment Seminars. Why? Because the same experience greatly enriched and strengthened their marriage when they first participated and they feel compelled to share what they have learned.
The Importance of Trust in the Relationship
Have you ever tried to communicate with someone you don’t trust? No skill with words or plethora of words can make up for trust. But oh, the wealth of communication that can occur with a single glance between two people who love and trust each other, who are safe with each other. We trust when we feel known and accepted. The reason we can trust the Lord so completely is because He knows us so completely. 2 Chronicles 6:30 reads, “thou only know the hearts of the children of men.”
It is not possible for us to know each other’s hearts as fully as God knows them. However, if we turn to Him and communicate our feelings to each other in loving ways, He will help us get to know each other better and better.
Oh, how we are inclined to love the people we really get to know! It seems impossible to harbor bad feelings or hang onto resentments when we see into a person’s heart and begin to understand the depth and complexity of their feelings. How can we judge another harshly if we are allowed in to sense their vulnerabilities and the hurts left over from childhood or later betrayals? If we have spent a lifetime building up defenses against hurt that keep even our spouses at a distance, there is always hope. It’s never too late. We can make a conscious decision to get to know each other on a level that allows for genuine emotional intimacy. We can spend a few minutes each day sharing our thoughts and feelings in a loving way.
We don’t need to live out our lives as strangers in the some house. We can open our hearts and lives to the person we exchanged vows with. If we both are willing to try, we can overcome the ache of not feeling “known.” We can truly know and care for each other!