She sat in my office, tears running down her face. "I wish my husband would talk to me. But most of the time, he says nothing. I don't know how much longer I can take the silence."
This wife was expressing a deep longing for intimacy. But without communication, there can be no marital intimacy. True intimacy requires more than just two people living in the same house.
Communication isn't like an event—we attend, and then it's over. Communication is more like breathing, a continual process necessary to sustain us.
But even communication isn't enough. We require healthy communication. Just as breathing toxic fumes can lead to death, so unhealthy communication patterns can kill marital intimacy.
Here are four negative communication patterns I'll call the dove, the hawk, the owl, and the ostrich.
Dove: "Peace at any price"
In this pattern, one partner placates the other to avoid his or her wrath. Typical dove statements: "That's fine with me" or "Whatever makes you happy makes me happy." The dove is always trying to please, never disagreeing and often apologizing even for little things that provoke the spouse's anger.
In an effort to avoid conflict, the dove relinquishes all possibility of intimacy. When you don't share your thoughts, feelings, and desires, your relationship may appear peaceful, but it's a shallow peace. No relationship will thrive without open, honest communication.
Hawk: "It's your fault"
The hawk never accepts blame, instead pushing it onto his spouse. Typical hawk statements: "You never do anything right" or "If it weren't for you, everything would be fine."
Hawks appear strong and belligerent. In reality, they cover their emotional weakness by finding fault. The hawk isn't interested in what his spouse thinks. He's pictured in Proverbs 18:2: "A fool finds no pleasure in understanding but delights in airing his own opinions."
Owl: "Let's be reasonable"
The owl will give logical answers to every question. He sounds so reasonable that you wonder how anyone could have thought otherwise. The owl prides himself on his stoicism. When his mate shows emotion, he sits calmly until the storm passes and then proceeds with his reasoning.
One wife said, "My husband takes hours explaining things to me as though I'm a two-year-old. Though he lets me speak, he hears nothing I say. So most of the time, I don't say anything." It's almost impossible to win an argument with an owl. That's why many spouses simply stop talking—and the potential for an authentic relationship dies.
Ostrich: "Ignore it, and it will go away"
The ostrich seldom responds directly to what her spouse says; she changes the subject to something unrelated. Though she'll talk freely, she won't engage in potentially argumentative conversation. Arguments are extremely unsettling to the ostrich, who believes that if you ignore the issue, it will go away. She reasons, "Why invest energy discussing something when it will take care of itself if we simply leave it alone?" But the problem never goes away; it simply becomes a barrier to marital intimacy.
Unfortunately, instead of trying to change these unhealthy patterns, many Christians look for biblical reasons to continue them. For example, the dove may quote Romans 12:18: "If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone." The apostle Peter spoke against this twisting of Scripture to meet our own needs (2 Peter 3:16).
So how do you get rid of these four birds?
First, identify them.
Second, admit this bird is detrimental. Stand in front of a mirror and say, "I'm an owl. This is the way I communicate to my spouse, and it's hurting our marriage." Acknowledging it to yourself makes it easier to admit to your spouse.
Third, resolve to change the pattern. The Bible strongly emphasizes human choice. When you decide to get rid of the birds in your communication, you'll have the Holy Spirit's help.
Fourth, replace old patterns with new ones. The dove will speak the truth in love. The hawk will accept responsibility for his behavior. The owl will trade in the professor's "Let's be reasonable" attitude for the lover's desire to know, "What are your feelings regarding this?" The ostrich will replace silence with, "Let me make sure I understand what you're saying."
Get rid of the birds, and marital intimacy will return to your relationship.
Gary D. Chapman, Ph.D., author of Now You're Speaking My Language (B&H Publishing), has been married to Karolyn for 45 years.
Copyright © 2008 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.