Communication—More Than Just Talk
IMAGINE a crowd of tourists viewing a picturesque landscape. Although the entire group beholds the same scene, each person sees it differently. Why? Because each individual has a different vantage point. No two persons are standing precisely at the same location. Furthermore, not everyone focuses on the same portion of the scene. Each person finds a different aspect to be particularly intriguing.
The same is true within marriage. Even when they are highly compatible, no two partners share precisely the same outlook on matters. Husband and wife differ in such factors as emotional makeup, childhood experience, and family influence. The dissimilar perspectives that result can become a source of bitter contention. The apostle Paul stated frankly: “Those who marry will have pain and grief.”—1 Corinthians 7:28, The New English Bible.
Communication includes the effort to blend these differences into a one-flesh relationship. This requires making time to talk. (See box on page 7.) But much more is involved.
A Bible proverb states: “The heart of the wise one causes his mouth to show insight, and to his lips it adds persuasiveness.” (Proverbs 16:23) The Hebrew word here translated ‘causes to show insight’ basically means to be prudent, to weigh matters carefully in the mind. Therefore, the focal point of effective communication is the heart, not the mouth. A good communicator must be more than a talker; he must be an empathetic listener. (James 1:19) He must discern the feelings and issues that lie beneath a mate’s surface behavior.—Proverbs 20:5.
How? Sometimes this can be accomplished by observing the circumstances surrounding a conflict. Is your spouse under heavy emotional or physical strain? Is an illness contributing to your mate’s disposition? “What a joy it is to find just the right word for the right occasion!” says the Bible. (Proverbs 15:23, Today’s English Version) So considering the circumstances will help you to respond accordingly.—Proverbs 25:11.
Often, though, the cause of a conflict is rooted in matters outside of present circumstances.
Understanding the Past
Experiences in childhood do much to shape our thinking in adulthood. Since marriage mates come from different families, conflicting views are inevitable.
An incident recorded in the Bible illustrates this. When the ark of the covenant was returned to Jerusalem, David publicly expressed his enthusiasm. But what about his wife Michal? The Bible relates: “Michal, Saul’s daughter, herself looked down through the window and got to see King David leaping and dancing around before Jehovah; and she began to despise him in her heart.”—2 Samuel 6:14-16.
Michal displayed the faithless disposition of her unrighteous father, Saul. Bible commentators C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch suggest that this is why Michal is referred to in verse 16 as “Saul’s daughter” rather than as David’s wife. In any case, the ensuing dispute between them makes it clear that David and Michal did not share the same view of this joyous event.—2 Samuel 6:20-23.
This example demonstrates that subtle influences from upbringing can cause a husband and a wife to view matters quite differently. This is true even if both are unitedly serving Jehovah. For example, a wife who was not given adequate emotional support as a child may exhibit an extraordinary need for approval and reassurance. This might perplex her husband. “I could tell her I love her a hundred times,” he may exclaim, “and still it would not be enough!”
In this instance, communication involves “keeping an eye, not in personal interest upon just your own matters, but also in personal interest upon those of the others.” (Philippians 2:4) To communicate, a husband must see his wife from the perspective of her past rather than from that of his own. And, of course, a wife should be moved to do the same for her husband.—1 Corinthians 10:24.
When the Past Was Abusive
Personal interest is especially crucial when a mate has been raped or sexually abused as a child—sadly, a growing problem today. A wife, for example, may find that at times of sexual intimacy, she cannot separate the present from the past, her mate from the perpetrator, or sexual relations from sexual abuse. This can be frustrating, especially if the husband does not consider this delicate matter from his wife’s perspective.—1 Peter 3:8.
While you cannot undo the past nor completely cure its effects, you can do much to comfort a distressed mate. (Proverbs 20:5) How? “You husbands should try to understand the wives you live with,” wrote Peter. (1 Peter 3:7, Phillips) Understanding the past of your spouse is a vital part of communication. Without empathetic compassion, your words will be useless.
Jesus “felt pity” when encountering those who were ailing, even though he had never personally experienced their maladies. (Matthew 14:14) Similarly, you may not personally have experienced the same neglect or abuse as did your wife, but instead of downplaying her anguish, acknowledge her past, and give her your support. (Proverbs 18:13) Paul wrote: “We, though, who are strong ought to bear the weaknesses of those not strong, and not to be pleasing ourselves.”—Romans 15:1.
Trapped by Resentment
A marriage is like a priceless vessel. When it is damaged by adultery, incalculable harm occurs. (Proverbs 6:32) True, if the innocent mate decides to forgive, the pieces may be glued together through reconciliation. But the cracks remain, and during an argument, there may be an inclination to look at those cracks and to use the past as a weapon.
Resentment is a normal response to a mate’s unfaithfulness. But if you have forgiven your mate, guard against letting a lingering indignation undo the good that you achieved through the act of forgiveness. Whether it boils silently inside or is mercilessly unleashed, ongoing resentment harms both mates. Why? One doctor suggests: “If you’re feeling hurt by your partner, it’s because you still care about him. So by retreating or by reaching for retribution, you’re not only wounding your mate but destroying yourself. You further dismantle the relationship you wish were whole.”
Yes, you simply cannot reconcile differences in your marriage without quieting your anger. Therefore, at a time when emotions are not heated, discuss your feelings with your mate. Explain why you feel hurt, what you need in order to feel reassured, and what you will do to preserve the relationship. Never use the past simply as a weapon to gain leverage in an argument.
Addiction Wounds Communication
A marriage undergoes intense distress when a mate abuses alcohol or drugs. The nonaddicted mate may be in a situation similar to that of Abigail, as reported in the Bible. While her husband Nabal “was as drunk as could be,” Abigail was strenuously attempting to reverse the consequences of his unwise behavior. (1 Samuel 25:18-31, 36) Marriages in which one spouse is torn by addiction and the other is caught up in attempts to change the addict’s behavior often resemble the household of Nabal and Abigail.*
Understandably, great relief is felt when an addict begins recovery. But this is just the beginning. Imagine a severe hurricane wreaking havoc upon a small town. Houses are collapsing, trees are being uprooted, telephone lines are falling to the ground. There is great joy when the storm is over. But now extensive repair work is needed. The same is true when a mate begins recovery. Collapsed relationships must be reconstructed. Trust and integrity must be reestablished. Lines of communication need to be rebuilt. For a reforming addict, this gradual reconstruction is part of “the new personality” that the Bible requires Christians to cultivate. This new personality must include “the force actuating your mind.”—Ephesians 4:22-24.
A Bible study enabled Leonard and Elaine to stop abusing drugs, but the force actuating the mind had not come into full play.* Soon other addictions surfaced. “For 20 years we tried to apply Bible principles and have a satisfying marriage, but it was always out of our grasp,” says Elaine. “Our addictions were deeply rooted. We were unable to study or pray them away.”
Leonard and Elaine sought counseling to understand the causes of their addictions. Timely material from “the faithful and discreet slave” on child abuse, alcoholism, and respect for women has been of particular aid.* (Matthew 24:45-47) “We have been helped to repair the damage and draw back together,” says Elaine.
Rebekah felt unbearable anguish over her son Esau’s wives. Fearing that her other son, Jacob, would follow Esau’s example, Rebekah vented her frustration by saying to her husband, Isaac: “I have come to abhor this life of mine because of the daughters of Heth. If Jacob ever takes a wife from the daughters of Heth like these from the daughters of the land, of what good is life to me?”—Genesis 27:46.
Note that while Rebekah spoke firmly about her feelings, she did not attack Isaac personally. She did not say, “It’s all your fault!” or, “You should have better control of this situation!” Rather, Rebekah used the pronoun “I” to describe how the problem affected her. This approach evoked Isaac’s empathy, not his desire to save face. Not feeling personally attacked, Isaac’s response to Rebekah’s plea was apparently immediate.—Genesis 28:1, 2.
Husbands and wives can learn from Rebekah’s example. When a conflict arises, attack the problem rather than each other. Like Rebekah, express your frustration from the standpoint of how it affects you. “I am frustrated because . . .” or, “I feel misunderstood because . . .” is much more effective than “You frustrate me!” or, “You never understand me!”
More Than Endurance
The marriage of the first human couple, Adam and Eve, endured for centuries, producing a family of sons and daughters. (Genesis 5:3-5) But this does not mean that their marriage was worthy of imitation. Early on, a spirit of independence and a disregard for the Creator’s righteous laws marred their one-flesh bond.
Similarly, a marriage today might be enduring, yet may lack vital elements of communication. Strongly entrenched reasonings and inappropriate personality traits may have to be uprooted. (Compare 2 Corinthians 10:4, 5.) This is an ongoing educational process. But the effort is worthwhile. Jehovah God is deeply interested in the marital arrangement, since he is its Creator. (Malachi 2:14-16; Hebrews 13:4) Therefore, if we do our part, we can be confident that he will recognize our efforts and supply us with the wisdom and strength necessary to heal any breakdown in marital communication.—Compare Psalm 25:4, 5; 119:34.
Help for families of alcoholics is discussed in the May 22, 1992, issue of Awake!, pages 3-7.
Names have been changed.
See Awake! issues of October 8, 1991, May 22, 1992, and July 8, 1992.
[Box on page 6]
“The garbage got more time!”
A HUSBAND and wife who were experiencing marital difficulties were asked to estimate how much time they spent taking out the garbage each week. Their answer was about 35 minutes a week, or 5 minutes a day. They were then asked how much time they spent in conversation together. The husband was shocked. “The garbage got more time!” he declared, adding: “We’re fooling ourselves if we think that five minutes a day is enough time to maintain a marriage. And it certainly isn’t enough time to make the marriage grow.”
[Box on page 7]
Establish Ground Rules
□ Express feelings; do not make accusations (Genesis 27:46)
□ No hitting (Ephesians 5:28, 29)
□ No name-calling (Proverbs 26:20)
□ Aim to reconcile, not to win (Genesis 13:8, 9)
[Picture on page 4]
When a conflict arises, attack the problem rather than each other
[Picture on page 8]
Express feelings; do not make accusations