Q. When we were dating, we could finish each other's sentences. But now that we are married, I feel like I don't even know what is going on in his head most of the time. We're having a really hard time understanding each other. What happened?
A. In a general sense, women prefer to relate and talk about feelings, while men want to solve issues and offer solutions. This pattern, barely evident during the dating years, becomes increasingly blatant after the wedding. So if you are feeling like you don't "understand" one another the way you used to, don't despair. You simply need to learn the art of communicating as a married couple.
The lesson begins by recognizing your various levels of conversation. In Rock-Solid Marriage (Word), Robert and Rosemary Barnes explain that once a couple gets married they tend to talk on three different levels. To have a growing and fulfilling marriage where both partners feel understood, a couple needs to move to "Level Three."
"Level One" is the most shallow level of communication, what the Barnes's call the Grunt Level. It involves obligatory responses: "Hello" and "How ya doing?" Words are exchanged but the communication is far from deep. Unfortunately, many couples approach each other at this level. They get home from work and "talk" a bit about their day but neither really listens.
"Level Two" is just a step above the Grunt Level of communicating. It is the Journalist Level where talking with one's spouse involves expressing opinions but only on mundane facts. The conversation involves politics, other people, the church, but it stops there. Nothing is said about each other's feelings. That's reserved for the next level.
"Level Three" is the Feelings Level. Spouses reach this level when they feel safe enough to share areas of weakness or feelings that may put them in a bad light. This is a vulnerable step involving opening up one's spirit and allowing your partner to see the real you. This is the only level on which true understanding occurs.
Whenever we counsel couples about these three levels, they quickly want to know what they can do to create the kind of safety where both of them are willing to risk communicating at the third level. Well, the answer is simple in principle, but more difficult in practice. It is to listen for each other's feelings and reflect them back. Underneath every message your spouse communicates is a river of emotions that you can tap into. Don't look for these feelings to be clearly labeled—they aren't. The signs are subtle, hidden beneath the verbiage and the body language. Your spouse may not say "I'm frustrated," for example, but he or she might reveal this in tone or demeanor. When this is the case, you can say: "It sounds like you are frustrated." A simple statement like this is all that is needed to bring Level Two conversation deeper—to the point where genuine understanding takes place.
Could Our Marriage Survive Job Loss?
Q. A friend of ours recently lost his job and he and his wife are not holding up well. We feel terrible about their situation, but truthfully, we're worried how our marriage would fare if something like that happened to us. What advice do you have on surviving a career crisis—together?
A. The word career in Latin translates: "to progress along a difficult road." In Greek, crisis is the "decisive moment." Thus, a career crisis may be thought of as "a decisive moment on a long and difficult road." And if you are wise, you will not expect your career path to be smooth. It is almost inevitable that at some point you will catch a jolt or two. And being prepared as a couple for this time may be what carries you through it successfully.
Regardless of the specific context, a career crisis typically creates a wide range of intense emotions, including shame, guilt, anger, self-loathing, denial, shock, and even relief. But one of the most debilitating parts of the aftermath of job loss or any other career crisis is self-blame. Although individuals in career crisis feel that they have been treated unjustly, they also believe they have been the cause of their own injustice. Journalist Harry Maurer has interviewed hundreds of people struggling with job loss and states, "Unemployed people feel they have been robbed of something, yet on a deeper level they feel it was their fault."
This being the case, help your partner move through the crisis by, first of all, being supportive and affirming. Any form of criticism or complaint is terribly damaging during this stage. Another practical thing to do is help your spouse maintain positive structure in his or her daily life. It is important for an unemployed person to continue participating in regular activities. It boosts morale and provides the fuel for maintaining a growing and productive stance in the season between jobs.
One of the most positive impacts of a career crisis is the window of opportunity it creates for career change. Loosing a job may give the license needed to consider opportunities that have only been dreamed about in the past. And a supportive spouse can make a tremendous difference in the process. Encouraging words or even a positive presence can help a hurting spouse transcend self-blame and move on. There may be no way to escape the anxiety of a career crisis or job loss, but with a committed spouse, survival and recovery are much easier.
Running Away from Conflict
Q. Whenever a conflict erupts between us, it ends with one of us checking out, emotionally or physically leaving the room. This has become a fairly predictable pattern, and it seems to get us nowhere. What are we doing wrong?
A. Few things are more destructive to your marriage than coping with conflict by withdrawing. And since this has become a repetitive way of dealing with your conflict, it is particularly important that you take note of some important research conducted by Dr. John Gottman of the University of Washington. For more than twenty years, he has been studying marriages and has identified the signs in conflict that almost always spell disaster. He calls them "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse." And when they gallop into your relationship, danger is imminent.
The first "horseman" is criticism. This is different from complaining. Criticism focuses on the person: "You never turn off the hall light." Complaining, on the other hand, would say: "I feel frustrated when the hall light is left on." It may seem like a subtle difference, but research shows that this fine line makes a significant difference in your quarrel quotient. To keep them straight, remember this general rule: Criticism usually begins with "You" and entails blaming, personal attack, or an accusation, while complaining begins with "I" and is a comment about something that is negative that you wish were otherwise.
The next thing to avoid when you fight is contempt. This is name-calling, humiliation, and hostile humor intended to insult and harm your partner. Contempt will poison every marriage. Once it is loosed, its venom does damage in ways you never could have imagined. An example of contempt is saying,"You are such a jerk; I can't believe you have to be reminded about every little thing in this house." It can also be conveyed more subtly, like with the role of the eyes or a sarcastic glance. Contempt causes a partner to feel belittled and hurt.
Contempt often leads to the next sign: defensiveness. After all, who wouldn't put up their guard in response to a belittling spouse. "You were the one who turned the light on, not me!" These kinds of defensive statements can become a reflex in homes where contempt is used. As understandable as this response is, it is still destructive. Why? Because the conflict escalates in the face of defenses rather than getting resolved.
The final horseman is stonewalling, which occurs when couples reach rock bottom. Feeling overwhelmed by emotions, partners withdraw by presenting a "stone wall" response. They try to keep their faces immobile, avoid eye-contact, hold their necks rigid, and avoid nodding their heads or making the small sounds that would indicate they are listening. When stonewalling enters a conflict, so does icy distance and disapproval.
From your own description, it seems like you and your partner often encounter this fourth horseman. If this is true, we recommend that you waste no time in seeing a competent marriage counselor who can work with you to break this destructive pattern. The more entrenched this pattern becomes, the more difficult it is to break it. The good news is that you can learn to fight constructively, no matter what your condition, if you are both willing to work at it. Your conflicts don't have to lead to withdrawal.
Leslie Parrott, Ed.D. and Les Parrott, Ph.D., are co-directors of the Center for Relationship Development at Seattle Pacific University and the authors of Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts, Becoming Soul Mates, and When Bad Things Happen to Good Marriages (all Zondervan). Visit Les and Leslie at www.RealRelationships.com.
Copyright © 2001 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.