All couples run into "touchy subjects"—topics that stir up frustration and lead to awkward silences. Sex and money top the list in many marriages. But chances are good that you and your spouse struggle with a third area: how to talk about spiritual things.
Talking in-depth about spiritual issues can create significant anxiety. "Will I sound immature if I talk about my relationship with God? If I'm honest about what's going on in my life, will my spouse think I'm not spiritual enough?" Ever since sin came between the first married couple and God, fear, self-consciousness and embarrassment have made spiritual intimacy a difficult proposition. The vulnerability it takes to talk about matters of faith leads many people to keep the conversation short or avoid it altogether.
A second obstacle is the way each spouse was brought up. Maybe when your mate was growing up, her family talked about Christianity as easily as they did the weather. But at your house, family members rarely spoke of spiritual things beyond saying "good sermon today" on the way home from church. And, of course, many people never even attended church until they became adults. Some people grew up with spiritual expressiveness being as natural as breathing, while to others, it's still a foreign concept.
Add to that a third difference: the natural tendencies of different personality types. In Experiencing God Together, David Stoop writes, "When we approach the subject of spiritual intimacy, our personality differences obviously predispose us to certain approaches to God … and to our basic understanding of how religion relates to life."
For instance, some people have a strong bent toward duty and responsibility. Their spirituality is shaped by their desire to serve and make the right choices. Others are more mystical, emphasizing the importance of experiences and leadings from God. A third personality type is more people-oriented. These folks think of their spirituality in terms of how it relates to the people they care about. Still others are problem-solvers. They are most interested in "how-to's" and identifying the best course of action from a spiritual perspective. A fifth group is more intellectual about faith issues. They emphasize learning facts and grasping spiritual concepts.
Different personalities use different languages of spirituality. If a mystical type marries a problem-solver, they can easily end up talking past each other.
Who's More Interested?
Often, the sticking point comes down to an uneven level of interest. Typically, one partner feels a much stronger need to talk about God to feel close spiritually, while the other is content simply to share activities like worshiping together or spending time with friends from church. Sometimes this difference is a reflection of overall communication patterns: The more-interested partner is more expressive about all areas of life. Other times the more-interested person is experiencing a spiritual "growth spurt" while the less-interested partner is on a plateau.
But whatever the reason, this interest differential can lead to hide-and-seek patterns. One spouse actively pursues spiritually oriented conversations by bringing up first one subject and then another. If the other spouse "hides" by failing to show an interest, the more-interested mate can end up feeling a lot of resentment.
Less-interested mates see things differently. They feel pressured, making them want to hit the "eject" button whenever a spiritual topic arises. Those less interested can also feel they are being judged as less committed in their Christianity simply because they don't talk about it as much.
These patterns make a tough topic even tougher. So what can you do?
The "More-Interested" Spouse
If efforts to deepen your spiritual communication have failed, it's time to take a different tack.
- Learn your partner's language. By becoming more attuned to yourspouse's spiritual personality, described earlier, you can learn to use thelanguage that will communicate most effectively.
- Appeal to your mate's spiritual strengths. If your spouse'sspiritual focus is on people and relationships, ask for input and opinions froma relational perspective. If he or she has a more mystical bent, you might asksomething like "How can I figure out what God wants me to do in this situation?"When we ask questions that are tuned in to our partners' spiritual wavelength,they may feel they have a lot more to offer.
- Break the hide-and-seek pattern. Gently end conversations aboutspiritual matters when you notice your mate is withdrawing or becominguncomfortable. It's better to try again later than to cause frustration bypressing to keep alive a conversation that's not going anywhere.
- Catch your partner doing something right. When you do get spiritualinput from your mate, jot him or her a note: "Thanks for your perspective."Expressing your appreciation can go a long way toward easing your spouse'sdiscomfort. When less-interested partners know they'll get credit for theefforts they make to join in spiritual conversations, they are more likely toopen up the next time.
The "Less-Interested" Spouse
Even if you don't feel an urgency about deepening the spiritual communication with your spouse, chances are good that he or she does. To meet your spouse half-way, consider some of these steps.
- Recognize the importance of your role. When it comes to spiritual intimacy, there is something your spouse values deeply that only you can give. Though talking about spiritual matters doesn't come easily to you, God has called you to be your mate's spiritual helper. That's an important role that belongs only to you.
- Share your fears and uneasiness. Write a letter to your spouse to assure him or her that you know talking about spiritual things is important. Include the reasons you find it difficult to discuss your spiritual life. Don't assume your mate knows these things. Even the letter will count as a spiritual connection to your partner.
- Recognize that questions are better than answers. Take some pressure off yourself by remembering that active listening and asking good questions both make for good conversations. The role of "spiritual sounding board" is a valuable one, and it's easier than trying to come up with a lot of interesting things to say.
- Cultivate spiritual expressiveness. You can even do this alone by putting your spiritual life into written words. As you write down your thoughts about God and his work in your life, consider which ones you could share later with your spouse.
Tim Sutherland is a marriage and family therapist.
Copyright © 1997 by Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership Magazine.