Kerry led the way into the counselor’s office, her troubled eyes detracting from her self-confident walk. Her husband, Bill, following close behind, immediately offered her the more comfortable of the two chairs and then moved his own away from hers. Both were disappointed with the other’s role in their marriage. Both were unhappy.
Kerry hesitated a moment then looked up and began talking. “I feel so lonely,” she began. “When we were dating, I felt so needed and worthwhile and loving whenever I was with him. We never had any conflicts worth mentioning. He was so agreeable, so easy to get along with. Now I feel resentful most of the time. Our marriage seems lacking in those things that matter most to me—our love for each other and priesthood leadership in the home.”
In his turn, Bill said, “I guess if I were to say how I really feel, I’d say I feel cheated. This isn’t the way I thought being married to Kerry would be. When we were dating, I used to do all sorts of things to please her. I just wanted to make her happy, and if she was happy, I was happy. Now neither of us is happy. I don’t know what went wrong.”
Kerry’s confusion and Bill’s feelings of being cheated are not uncommon experiences in some of today’s marriages. Further discussion with Kerry and Bill (not their real names) revealed that both had developed patterns of relating to each other that were detrimental to their marriage. They truly desired to contribute to the other’s happiness, but had mistaken ideas of what they needed to do to bring about that happiness.
Most often, we find that these mistaken ideas about how to bring happiness to others originate in relationships developed earlier in life with brothers, sisters, and parents. Kerry, for example, had grown up responsible for much of the care of her younger brothers and sisters. She had learned to lead out, to guide, to give directions, even to manipulate them into doing what she felt they should be doing. She was put in continual charge by well-meaning, busy parents. She disclosed that some days she felt like a circus ringmaster. The experience left her with the mistaken notion that in order to be worthwhile and valuable she had to lead and direct others. She had even come to believe that these behaviors were actually expressions of love.
Bill, by contrast, grew up with a dominating older sister and mother and a somewhat passive father. He developed the mistaken notions that it is best to please others, get others to make his decisions for him, and to keep his thoughts and feelings to himself, especially when there is any danger of conflict. He learned to think that this is safer than repeatedly being defeated and demeaned in verbal arguments, which had occurred with his mother and older sister. At such times, in order to protect his self-esteem, he learned to withdraw his thoughts and feelings from others much like a turtle withdraws its feet and head into its shell when danger threatens.
To bring the love and joy they wanted into their marriage, they needed to examine their lives and assumptions, looking for ways to improve. President Spencer W. Kimball states that frequent self-analysis is a key to marital satisfaction. “If each spouse submits to frequent self-analysis and measures his own imperfections by the yardstick of perfection and the Golden Rule,” he says, “and if each spouse sets about to correct self in every deviation found by such analysis rather than to set about to correct the deviations in the other party, then transformation comes and happiness is the result.” (Marriage and Divorce, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1976, p. 19.)
Because both Kerry and Bill truly desired to improve their marriage, both were willing to go through this type of analysis. Kerry found, when she looked closely at how she treated Bill, that, as with her younger brothers and sisters, she often told him what to do, talking for him in public, and making decisions for him. She discovered that she had felt that in order to express love for Bill and to be a good wife, she had to control his life.
When Bill evaluated his attitudes and actions, he found that, as with his sister and mother, he had let Kerry tell him what to do, but then felt resentful about it. Instead of telling her how he felt, he rebelled by not doing such things as leading out in family home evenings. These discoveries helped him see that he had mistakenly thought that to be a good husband he had to please Kerry continually, even if it meant not sharing his feelings with her. Their new awareness made them both want to change in order to achieve a happier marriage.
Many marriages suffer, as Bill and Kerry’s did, from mistaken ideas of what the other person wants from the relationship. A key to improving the marriage, then, is to learn to communicate in such a way that both come to know and understand the other.
One of the first steps toward improving communication is to communicate with Heavenly Father through prayer, and through prayer ask for the gifts of discernment and love. At first, you may wish to seek these gifts in private; however, as the implementation of these gifts progresses, you may wish to follow Elder James E. Faust’s counsel that one important way to improve communication is to pray together. (Ensign, Nov. 1977, p. 10.) Kneeling side by side and perhaps even discussing together what might be said in the prayer is a simple act with powerful results. It is hard to be angry or even distant from your husband or wife if together you approach your Father in Heaven.
Another key in improving communication is expressing kindly our thoughts and feelings. Elder Marvin J. Ashton says that “communication is more than a sharing of words. It is the wise sharing of emotions, feelings, and concerns.” (Ensign, May 1976, p. 52.) For some—those who are used to hiding their feelings as Bill was—this type of sharing can be a threatening process. Yet our spouse cannot really know us if we are unwilling to reveal our thoughts and feelings. We can learn to share ourselves by using such phrases as. “I feel hurt when …” “I feel happy in our marriage when …” “I feel inadequate when …”
One wife learned of the benefits of sharing thoughts and feelings, ideas and concerns. Her husband had a great ability to concentrate. This talent was a real asset in accomplishing tasks at work and at home. However, she feared that in his concentration he might shut out their children when they needed to talk to him. Afraid to hurt his feelings, she kept her feelings to herself for some time. But as their relationship developed and she learned to trust him and to understand his desire to know of her feelings, she found the courage to talk to him. The experience was a bonding one. He, too, had had the same concerns, and finding that they shared the same feelings brought them closer together and helped both commit to give their children the time and devotion they needed.
Closely related to sharing ideas and emotions is the necessity of listening to understand. A husband or wife who begins to share important ideas with a spouse should be received with understanding. It is easy to assume that we know what our spouse is thinking and to tune him or her out. Yet the whole intent in listening should be to understand, not to solve problems or to “get this over with” so we can hurry to the next activity. Elder Ashton says that “we should increase our ability to ask comfortable questions, and then listen—intently, naturally. Listening is a tied-in part of loving.” (Ensign, May 1976, p. 53.)
Couples should be willing to listen and to ask questions until both understand and know that the other understands. Some questions which might help both to understand are “How do you feel when I … ?” “Are you saying … ?” “Do you believe that … ?” Once both understand, both have the information needed to act more kindly and lovingly and to solve problems.
Often loving and open communication reveals differences. For the communication to show positive results, couples need to respectfully negotiate these differences. In negotiating, each partner must be willing to believe that the other may have a better solution than the one he or she sees. Each must also remember, as President Kimball says, that the “good of the new little family must always be superior to the good of either spouse.” (Marriage and Divorce, p. 18.) Phrases which will communicate this willingness include the following: “What do you see as some alternatives available to us?” “I see the following possibilities. Do you think one of them will work?” “I believe this is the one I would like to try.” This willingness helps both partners feel more comfortable in talking and sharing ideas. Knowing that neither will be condemned and that both are eager to find the best solution for the marriage deepens feelings of love and trust.
Talking together and resolving differences often inspires one or both partners to change. But change is sometimes a long process and discouragement is common. In these times, encouragement—always a vital component of marriage—can be very helpful. One husband, struggling after years of marriage to learn more about home repairs so he could lessen the demands on a tight budget, found great comfort in his wife’s expressions of appreciation and confidence. She did not become angry when the pipes he tightened leaked, nor did she ridicule his efforts at hanging wall paper. Rather, she worked with him to learn what he was doing and laughed at her own efforts. A moment that could have become angry and accusing resulted in laughter and a closeness which both humorously treasure.
Kerry and Bill found that their self-analysis and the changes it inspired helped them develop a deep emotional unity. Their relationship did not immediately become perfect; indeed, they are still working on it. But they have found that the fruits of being able to communicate openly and lovingly and to resolve differences in ways that bring greater happiness to both are well worth the effort. They have found that marriage truly can bring a “lasting happiness” and provides a more “exultant ecstasy than the human mind can conceive.” (Marriage and Divorce, p. 16.)
Let’s Talk about It
After reading “How Do I Tell You I Love You?” you may want to consider the following ideas and questions and discuss them with your companion.
1. How well do you understand your husband’s or wife’s needs, dreams, and desires? When was the last time you talked of these things together? You may want to take time now.
2. The article points out the need to frequently examine your life to see what you can do to improve your marriage. Take time for that introspection, including analysis of your relationships with your siblings and parents when growing up, and discuss the results with your spouse in terms of how these things might be affecting your relationship with one another.
3. In what areas does your husband or wife currently need the most encouragement? What can you do to help?
4. The article points out that sometimes we are afraid to share our ideas and emotions. Making a list of the feelings and ideas you would most like your companion to know about can help. When both of you have made a list, plan a time when you can discuss them together.
G. Hugh Allred, father of five, is a marriage counselor and professor of Marriage and Family Therapy at Brigham Young University. He is also a member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.