Not long ago a couple came into my office for counseling, ready to give up on a twenty-year marriage. After an hour of discussion, it was clear that in two decades of living together they had rarely—if ever—taken the time to understand each other.
The wife thought that the most important thing she could do for her husband was to take time away from the children and other interests to be with him. After talking with him, however, she discovered that it was more important to him to feel that she respected and supported him. He had felt that she would take the advice of others, especially her friends, rather than listen to him. He had also felt that he could not count on her support in family decisions or disciplining the children. Once she understood, the wife said, “I didn’t know that’s what you wanted; that would be easy for me to do.”
The husband then described how he treated his wife. He often went out of his way to meet what he saw as her needs. He took her out to dinner often, helped her find time to pursue her own projects, and let her have the major say in the number of children they had.
She admitted that those things were nice, but said that what she really wanted was verbal appreciation for her efforts to please and to help him and the children. “You mean that my telling you how good you are is all that is standing in the way of our marriage?” he asked.
“I guess so.”
“I never knew that was so important to you,” he replied. “It certainly is true that you are a good person, and I will enjoy telling you that.”
Isn’t it sad that it took this couple twenty years to communicate their basic needs and desires? This happens, I believe, because couples are either too sure that they have all the answers or are too busy to talk—really talk—to each other.
I have found that if communication is to be successful, it has to be divided into two separate phases—the Understanding Phase and the Resolution Phase. These phases must be approached as two separate procedures; in other words, you never try to resolve the problem while your communication is in the Understanding Phase.
Many people fail to understand one another because they are more interested in being right than in discovering their companion’s feelings and developing a stronger relationship. So in their conversations they spend a great deal of time trying to convince their spouse that their point of view is correct. They don’t stop to see the world from the other’s perspective.
This attitude often shows up as couples work out the seemingly small matters of their life together.
For example, one husband is in the habit of leaving his socks on the floor. His mother always picked up after the members of her family as a way of serving them. His wife, on the other hand, expects her husband to clean up after himself. She finds his attitude demeaning. After a heated argument, the wife gives in. The immediate problem is solved; they have established a way to keep the house clean. But the real issues—the wife’s wanting to feel important and respected as a person, and the husband’s desire to have a wife who shows her love through service—have not been mentioned. Neither grows in understanding of the other, and the real problem remains.
Trying to understand our companion’s deep thoughts and feelings can be a threatening process. To be willing to see someone else’s ideas might mean that we will have to change our own dearly held beliefs. And it is often just as frightening to reveal our own feelings as it is to listen to others. We sometimes feel that if we reveal what we really believe, we give our companion information which may be used to ridicule or hurt us. Both of these attitudes get in the way of understanding. True understanding and self exploration can lead to a deep and rich marriage relationship, but it can only take place when both partners have a Christlike attitude of wanting to love and serve the other.
I have found that when true understanding has taken place that one spouse can speak for the other about the problem they have discussed and be right without the other saying a word.
Principles in Understanding
1. Remember that as you try to understand your partner, it is critical that you don’t try to solve the problem during the Understanding Phase. That must wait until later. You are simply trying to see the problem the way your spouse does. It is also important to remember that understanding goes beyond times of conflict. If the only time you and your spouse try to understand each other is when you have a conflict or a problem to resolve, you probably won’t get very far. Understanding extends into all aspects of marriage. You can and should discuss ideas and feelings often.
2. When you are doing the talking, create an atmosphere that encourages the other person to listen. Since you are talking about your feelings, you won’t want to place blame on your companion, or make him or her feel guilty, hurt, humiliated, or defensive. Your motive needs to be to help the other understand, not to subtly try to get your own way.
3. Remember that no one except the Lord has an accurate vision of reality. Since men and women are different, their perceptions won’t be the same. All of us need to accept the fact that in any situation, we lack complete knowledge. We have a great need, therefore, for humility in our communications one to another.
4. Be specific about your feelings and perceptions. One young husband who was disturbed about how much his wife was spending on clothes used this approach: “I think you always look nice, and I know how important that is to you. Maybe I’m just jealous of the amount of money you spend, or maybe I feel inadequate because I don’t earn enough to provide you with what you deserve, but I’ve really been feeling frustrated when I see how much you spend on clothes. I guess I really just don’t understand why you want to spend that much. Could you help me understand your feelings a little better?”
5. Stick to the subject at hand. It is sometimes easy to get sidetracked and leave the primary issue unexplored.
6. Make sure you are tactful and considerate. Use moderation, especially when discussing areas that you know are sensitive or may be explosive. It is important that we be sensitive to each other’s feelings.
Being an Understanding Listener
1. In his appeal for understanding listeners, King Benjamin said, “Open your ears that ye may hear, and your hearts that ye may understand, and your minds that the mysteries of God may be unfolded to your view.” (Mosiah 2:9.) That is good counsel. If you want to be a good listener, you need to make your ears, your mind, and your heart available to the other person. Sometimes we are so busy thinking about what we want to say that we don’t listen to what our spouse is saying.
2. Respect your partner’s right to think differently than you do. If I want to be a good listener and to be one with my wife, I must not only accept her right to think differently, but I should protect that right. I must make sure that she feels that she can share any of her feelings with me and that I will still respect and love her.
3. Make a genuine effort to see the world from your partner’s point of view. You begin this effort with the attitude that your spouse has very good reasons for the way he or she is, or feels, and that his or her point of view makes good sense, if only you can understand things the way the other sees them.
4. Check to make sure you do understand what your companion has said. Don’t just parrot back the words you have heard, but test your perceptions and assumptions to see if they are correct. Ask questions, if necessary, but don’t try to place blame, interrogate, or intellectualize. Continue until both you and your spouse feel that you understand.
5. Remember that in the end no approach to understanding will really be effective unless both partners are compassionate and willing to change. Without humility, no approach to understanding will lead you to the deepened love that can bring the two of you closer together.
Understanding is not as easy as writing down alternatives and reaching a solution. It usually takes the average couple one-half hour of practice a day for about a month to become good at the skills necessary for understanding. It takes a softening of the mind and heart as both reach out to the other in love. But it is well worth the effort. I have found that when couples take the time to understand each other, both feel more appreciated and loved, and their marriage begins to grow in that unity which can seal heart to heart for eternity.
Dee W. Hadley teaches marriage and family courses at the University of Utah Institute. He is the father of four and currently serves as Gospel Doctrine instructor in his Salt Lake City ward.