Family Communication—How Can It Be Improved?
‘MY HUSBAND never talks.’ ‘My wife never listens to what I have to say.’ These complaints are common among married couples. Youngsters often feel like 12-year-old Max: “I’m not scared to talk [to my parents], but I’m scared of how they might react.” Barricades of silence thus separate family members.
Some might argue that in many cases the husband and wife are simply a bad match; that they are hopelessly incompatible and should never have got married in the first place! To be sure, many couples do take courtship lightly and fail to lay a firm groundwork for communication before marriage. (See box on page 9.) Nevertheless, the success of a marriage does not rest solely upon so-called compatibility. Far more crucial is whether a couple is willing to accept God’s standards for marriage and apply the Bible’s principles or not. Consider just a few of the things the Bible says about the roles and responsibilities of husbands and wives:
● “Let wives be in subjection to their husbands as to the Lord.”—Ephesians 5:22, 23.
● “Husbands, continue loving your wives, just as the Christ also loved the congregation and delivered up himself for it . . . Husbands ought to be loving their wives as their own bodies.”—Ephesians 5:25, 28.
● “Do not be irritating your children, but go on bringing them up in the discipline and mental-regulating of Jehovah.”—Ephesians 6:4.
When these principles are put to work, a solid basis for marital communication is laid. Why? Because a husband who views ‘loving his wife’ as a God-given responsibility will be more inclined to talk to her and listen to her. A wife who believes that obedience to her husband is a divine requirement will be similarly motivated. But how does one deal with stresses and strains that develop in a marriage? Can the Bible’s advice really help you cope?
When Problems Arise
Marriage is the most intimate of human relationships. In time a couple can enjoy a relationship so close that just a touch, look, or gesture conveys volumes. Few attain this blissful state however.
A young wife recalls: “We had a rough time financially after we got married. We were living from week to week and from hand to mouth. I wasn’t used to such insecurity.”
This young couple, however, eased their marital tensions by applying the Scriptures. Confesses the husband: “I guess I was just totally oblivious to her feelings. I thought everything was just fine. But I didn’t realize she was a nervous wreck.” What did they do about this communication gap? Recalls the wife: “We had long talks. They were at times uncomfortable talks, but they always helped.”
A husband named Richard said: “I had trouble adjusting to the routine of marriage. We were both working full time and my wife wanted me to pitch in with the housework. However, I had the idea that my wife should do everything. Besides, after a day of work I was in no mood to do anything but relax and watch sports. So if all of a sudden I heard, ‘Can you take the clothes to the cleaners?’ I’d say, ‘Do it yourself!’”
Richard and his wife, though, began studying the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses. Learning that God required him to ‘love his wife as his own body,’ he was motivated to carry a share of household responsibilities. Even the pressures of work looked different in the light of God’s Word. He recollects: “Once I had a reason to live and understood God’s purposes, I could get rid of the negative thinking I picked up on the job.”
The Bible, though, points to another possible source of problems: “For we all stumble many times. If anyone does not stumble in word, this one is a perfect man, able to bridle also his whole body.” (James 3:2) Yes, everyone is occasionally guilty of a tactless or even unkind remark. And when two imperfect personalities grate on each other, tempers may flare.
But what happens if a couple allows such problems to dominate in their marriage? Says the Bible: “A brother who is transgressed against is more than a strong town; and there are contentions that are like the bar of a dwelling tower.” (Proverbs 18:19) Communication may be cut off, with serious consequences for both the couple and their children. Indeed, experts say “persistent parental discord” is one of the most destructive influences on a child.
Applying the Bible’s counsel, however, can minimize such conflicts. Husbands are commanded not to “be bitterly angry with” their wives. (Colossians 3:19) And it takes two to quarrel. If your mate gets upset and angry, why not try to remain calm and tactful? Agree and sympathize if possible. As the Bible says: “An answer, when mild, turns away rage.” (Proverbs 15:1) Sharp retorts will only aggravate the situation. Better it is to ask in a kind way: “Did I upset you? What’s wrong, dear?” Lovingly and tactfully drawing out the cause of the trouble in this way will often help to solve it. On the other hand, it might be a matter of frankly, but kindly, telling your mate that you are irritated or upset by his or her actions. The Bible says: “Let the sun not set with you in a provoked state. But become kind to one another, tenderly compassionate, freely forgiving one another.”—Ephesians 4:26, 32.
One young husband learned to apply this counsel. He says: “My wife is very emotional. So it’s sometimes hard for her to have a calm discussion without getting really uptight. But I’ve tried to adjust to her personality and to be more sensitive to her feelings.” Such conscientious effort not only helps keep peace but endears you to your mate!
Communicating With the Children
The arrival of a young couple’s first child presents a real challenge to them. After all, a newborn infant needs more than just regular feedings and diaper changes. Researchers say that infants have a strong need to communicate. True, a baby cannot talk. But a parent’s eyes, touch, and bodily contact do much to open the lines of communication. This is one reason why many hospitals no longer separate mothers from their newborn infants. And, say Swedish researchers Winberg and de Château: “While close [mother-infant] contact during this period may directly influence the baby’s development, it may be of even greater importance to the mother, strengthening her bond to the newborn . . . This contact seems to influence her attitudes and sensitivity to the infant’s needs.”
What else can parents do to get communication with their children off to a good start? The Bible indicates that parents should speak to their children “from infancy.” (2 Timothy 3:15) Is this realistic? Researchers Winberg and de Château claim that singing and talking to an infant may be “important in meeting [his] psychological needs.” Soviet researcher M. I. Lisina similarly cites an experiment in which babies were spoken to affectionately, smiled at and caressed. The result? After two months these babies reached “a significantly higher developmental level” than other children who did not receive this attention. Such loving communication pays emotional dividends for a child, and as Dr. Lisina further observes: “We believe interaction with other people is critically important in the genesis of [a baby’s] verbal functions.”
Study and Recreation
Naturally, as the children grow older the problems of raising them become more complex. Many Christian families have thus found it helpful to establish a program of spiritual activities. This can do much to promote communication and unity. Such a program can be varied, flexible, and enjoyable for all.
Admittedly, establishing such a program may require some adjustments on the part of everyone. For example, in some parts of Africa, the father traditionally eats in dignified solitude. But upon becoming a Christian, he sees the need to preside over his family at mealtimes. The advantages? At breakfast, a Bible text or topic can be discussed, setting a good tone for the day. The evening meal can be a relaxed time for all to recount the events of the day and to have “an interchange of encouragement.” (Romans 1:12) Parents can encourage their youngsters to express themselves.
Time for serious study such as homework and Bible discussion is a must. But let us not forget the need for recreation. TV, films, and recorded music are popular with young folks, but these highly efficient means of communication are becoming like sewers—loaded with filth. According to a study by the National Institute of Mental Health (U.S.A.), “the evidence accumulated in the 1970s seems overwhelming that televised violence and aggression are positively correlated in children.” Parents therefore have to exercise tight control over their children’s recreation. (See Ephesians 5:3-5.) Picnics and other outings, as well as Christian gatherings, are some ways to provide youngsters with wholesome entertainment.
Talking With Teenagers
Some parents experience a breakdown in communication with their children when these reach the teen years. Those years bring for a youth not only rapid physical changes but also an onslaught of new emotions and desires. Some youths react by withdrawing into themselves. Others withdraw from their parents and become strongly attached to their peers. It therefore takes much determination on the parents’ part to keep the lines of communication open during these critical years. They must be sensitive to their youngsters’ moods and feelings.
Personal chats can be very helpful—especially when they are kept informal. “You must inculcate [God’s words] in your son and speak of them when you sit in your house and when you walk on the road and when you lie down and when you get up,” the Bible tells parents. (Deuteronomy 6:7) A father might therefore ask his unusually quiet son to work with him in the garden or on some repair project. A mother might likewise instruct her daughter in sewing. Such relaxed occasions often lead to a real sharing of feelings. Even intimate subjects such as sex, bodily changes, morals, faith, and goals in life can often be broached on such occasions. “I had some of my best discussions with my boys over the kitchen sink,” one mother recalls.
Be prepared, however, to hear about problems at times. Perhaps it is a bout with masturbation or even an admission of a lack of faith. Instead of scolding, listen calmly and show understanding. Otherwise the precious line of communication might break. “Know this, my beloved brothers. Every man must be swift about hearing, slow about speaking, slow about wrath,” says the Bible. (James 1:19) Even if wrongdoing is involved, you do not want to condemn your child summarily. It is the wrongdoing you want to reject—not the child. (Compare Jude 23.) First prove yourself “swift about hearing,” and then offer your child help and counsel. At times you might even be able to reassure him by saying, ‘You are not the only one who has had such a problem. Even I had to deal with it when I was your age.’ Your calm reaction may result in his confiding in you when the need for help again arises.
It is important, though, that you make yourself available to your children. One father had a quite responsible job, and as a result he spent much time at home in his study poring over papers. His daughter, though, had what seemed to her a serious problem. But with her father so busy, she kept it to herself. Soon she became depressed and left home. Fortunately she returned, had a good talk with her father and realized that the problem was only a minor one. However, thereafter her father arranged to do his work in the sitting room where he was more available to his youngsters.
Your just being there means more to your children than material riches. A single parent named Anita had five children, aged one to six, to provide for. Though child welfare granted her but a meager monthly allowance, she did not begrudge having to live off so little. This government provision allowed her to be at home with her children. And although money at times was very tight, she recalls: “We were never hungry. We learned to rely on Jehovah.” With the help of some Christian friends who furnished them with clothing, she was able both to provide materially for her children and to give them the attention they needed.
Happy, United Families
Loving, empathetic, communicative parents can do wonders for their youngsters. Wrote educationist Audrey Bilski: “‘I can talk with them about anything’ is perhaps one of the finest compliments a teenager or a grown-up son or daughter can pay to their parents.” Wives and husbands likewise appreciate it when they can confidently approach their mates to discuss even the most delicate of matters, knowing they will receive an understanding and sympathetic hearing.
True, in today’s complex world there are many pressures that work against family communication. And at times parents need guidance themselves. But there is no reason for you to feel helpless. Other experienced parents, especially mature Christians, can often help. And there is God’s Word, the Bible, which is “alive and exerts power.” (Hebrews 4:12) The book Making Your Family Life Happy, published by the publishers of this magazine, has helped thousands to improve their family life.
This article has presented merely a sampling of the Bible’s practical advice. Take the time to study and apply it regularly. By doing so, you can succeed in making your family a happy and united one.
[Box on page 9]
COURTSHIP and COMMUNICATION
“YOU make two great choices in life,” wrote Professor Ernest Burgess, “the selection of a profession or trade; the other, the choice of a mate.” Most people are fairly rational when it comes to picking their lifework. “When you marry, however,” the professor continued, “you are likely to behave in a romantic rather than a practical way.”
Courtship is therefore a time for doing some serious communicating. True, even before they actually meet, there can be powerful communication between a man and a woman. He may gaze admiringly at her, and she may flash an appreciative look. An old saying has it: “The eye is the mirror of the soul.” Our eyes can convey deep emotions and messages of the heart. In time verbal expressions of endearment may give way to another means of communication—touch. In many cultures such things as holding hands or embracing are considered appropriate expressions of love.
But while displays of affection have their place, a solid marriage is not based on passion. A touch from a person you love can arouse strong feelings and sexual desires. The Bible encourages Christians to “deaden” immoral impulses. (Colossians 3:5) This is not only a moral safeguard but good and practical advice. For when sexual desires are uncontrollably “turned on,” serious communication is often “turned off.” Couples can be blinded to obvious personality flaws and weaknesses.
Open and frank conversations during courtship will provide the answer to questions such as: Are we really well matched? Is he, or she, honest and kind? Does this person have good morals? Is he capable of being a good provider? Does he make good decisions? Will she be capable of caring for a home? Is she willing to submit to headship? Do we have true love for each other—and not merely physical attraction?
What if one is shy? Remember that a basic requirement of good conversation is being sensitive to the feelings and interests of others. That should not be difficult for two who really love each other. (1 Corinthians 13:5) Learn to ask simple, but appropriate, questions. Most people like to talk about themselves, their lives, families, and occupations and will do so willingly if tactfully drawn out.
These courtship chats might reveal that a couple holds many interests, goals, and hopes in common. What, though, if differences are revealed? Try to discern to what extent these differences will jeopardize marital happiness. The fact that a prospective mate does not enjoy a particular form of recreation, such as dancing, does not mean that the person will make a poor husband or wife. Perhaps there are other, more important things that could be shared in common. Or there is the potential of developing new interests in common. At any rate, Professor Ernest Burgess further stated: “Couples should discuss and try to settle the important issues in their relationship, such as children, in-laws, finances, religion, and philosophy of life, before the wedding date. It is generally a vain hope to expect to reform a mate after the wedding ceremony.”
[Pictures on page 7]
Parents should use every opportunity to build up communication with their children