Q. When we were dating we had a fight every now and then, but that pales in comparison to what it's been like since we've been married. I know some couples who say they never fight and that makes me all the more nervous about my marriage. Does having conflicts mean that we're destined for trouble?
A. Like you, we have heard some mature couples, married for decades, who say that in all their years of marriage they have never had one single fight. Pretty impressive, huh? But in all honesty, we often wonder about these couples. They seem so proud, like not having conflict is the goal of marriage. Actually, it makes us wonder how deep their conversations ever get if they never lead to conflict. These couples must surely walk on eggshells from time to time.
You see, the goal of marriage is not to avoid conflict. Not by far. Conflict—if handled correctly—can help build a stronger marriage. We have said it at least a hundred times: Conflict is the price smart couples pay for a deepening sense of intimacy. Without conflict it is difficult to peel away the superficial layers of a relationship and discover who we really are. When Ruth Graham was asked if she and her famous husband Billy ever fight, she said, "I hope so. Otherwise we would have no differences, and life would be pretty boring."
Consider the reasons for marital spats. First of all, people are not perfect and neither is the world we live in. And while it makes logical sense that there are no perfect marriages, many of us still expect our marriage to be different. This expectation alone is enough to set off countless conflicts. Another factor that adds fuel to the fire of marital fights is the human tendency to resist compromise. Every day couples run up against desires, big and small, that collide with each other. For example, a husband wants to work overtime to acquire enough money to make a down payment on a house while the wife would rather sacrifice the savings and spend more time together at home. There is no real right or wrong side in this scenario. But a compromise is needed if they are ever going to resolve it. Yet for most people, compromise is difficult and conflict is thus inevitable.
No matter how deeply a man and woman love each other, they will encounter conflict. It is a natural component of every healthy marriage. So don't bury your differences. Instead, view them as a potential source for cultivating a deeper sense of intimacy.
What Does Good Communication Look Like?
Q. Nearly everyone we talk to says that communication is the key to a successful marriage. But when we ask these same people what "good communication" is, we get a lot of foggy answers. What exactly is good communication?
A. You're not alone in your curiosity. We've been asked, "If you were to boil down good communication skills to their bare essence, what would you have?" With so many thick books on communication, it is sometimes difficult to cut through the clutter and sum it all up. The following is our attempt.
- Send clear and accurate messages. Precise and unambiguous statements facilitate good communication, while imprecise and ambiguous statements hinder it. Consider the difference between these two statements: "You hurt me tonight at the party" versus "I was hurt when you spent almost all of your time at the party watching television instead of talking with our friends."
- Avoid incongruent messages. Do not send simultaneous messages with different meanings. How many messages are contained in the following statements? "There is nothing wrong! And I don't want to talk about it!" Most often, incongruent messages come from a statement that is not in sync with the person's facial expression or tone of voice. When a husband says "I'm happy to wait for you," but his tone and posture indicate that he is definitely not happy to do so, he is sending an incongruent message that is destined to cause a communication breakdown.
- Be empathic. Empathy can be defined as listening with your head as well as your heart to understand what your spouse is thinking, feeling, and experiencing. Empathy involves putting yourself in your partner's shoes and imagining what that would be like from his or her perspective. When your partner tells you about feeling rejected by someone at work, for example, put yourself in his or her position. Use your heart to imagine how you would feel if rejected. Then use your head to imagine if what you would be feeling is the same as what your partner is feeling. Every time you empathize, you better understand what your spouse is saying.
- Provide feedback. Communication involves an exchange of information. The response to the message the other person has sent indicates the message was (or was not) received and was (or was not) understood. Providing statements as simple as, "Yes, go on, I'm listening" or "Sorry, I don't understand that," as well as being attentive with your eyes and body posture, lets your spouse know he or she is being understood.
- Be generous with supportive and positive statements. Accuracy, empathy, and feedback are all important. But we all like to feel good about ourselves. When we give recognition to our spouses, compliment their accomplishments, and reassure them of how important they are to us, we not only make them feel better, we build a stronger foundation for communication. When we feel supported and are supportive, many of the other basic communication skills fall more naturally into place.
While there are plenty of additional elements to good communication, these five qualities are some that we view as being most important.
He's Consumed by Work—and I'm Jealous
Q. My husband eats, drinks, and breathes work. He is constantly thinking and talking about it, even on vacations. I'm glad he is dedicated to his job, but sometimes, I feel a little jealous of his work. I know I am more important to him than his career, but it doesn't always feel that way. Can his job really mean that much to him?
A. More time and energy are spent at work than any other waking activity. Sixty-eight percent of us spend more than nine hours each day on the job, including getting to and from work. More than one in five of all employed adults bring work home at least twice a week.
Work is consuming. We complain about work. We try to avoid work. We call in sick to get out of work. But the truth is that we need purposeful work—not for the money alone, but for a sense of personal worth.
Work provides more than financial rewards. It provides spiritual, psychological, and emotional support as well. Sigmund Freud said that to live well we must learn to love well and to work well. Kahlil Gibran said, "Work is love made visible."
For most of us, work, whether paid or unpaid, gives us a sense of our identity. Work brings personal fulfillment. Leigh Hunt said, "Occupation is the necessary basis of all enjoyment."
We love to hate work while we hate to admit we love it. Cartoonists and story tellers have assumed that most people who toil for their daily bread fantasize about winning the lottery, telling the boss what he can do with his old job, kicking the Xerox machine, packing up their Rolodex, and hitting the road. But this is a false picture. In a national survey, more than three-fourths of the respondents said they would choose to remain in their same jobs even though they had, by good fortune, received enough money to live comfortably for the rest of their lives.
Perhaps you are thinking people need to say that to feel good about their jobs. Maybe you are wondering what they would really do if it actually happened. The Institute for Socio-Economic Studies in White Plains, New York, wondered the same thing. They looked up more than 1,000 people who had won a million dollars or more in a lottery. Only sixteen percent actually retired from work altogether. And four out of ten kept working at the same job they had even though they had no need for the income.
What then draws people like your husband so strongly to work? An important part of the answer is found in relationships. Marsha Sinetar, author of Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow, writes, "Through work and relationships the individual finds a place in the world, belongs to it, and takes responsibility for himself and for others. Work becomes his way of giving of himself. His work or vocation provides him with a way of dedicating himself to live."
It is only natural to see your husband's obsession with work as a kind of threat to your marriage. But if you remind yourself of how strongly his career is linked to his sense of identity and self-worth, it may help you put it in perspective. At the same time, you should feel free to call his consuming tendencies into question when they are interfering with times you are relaxing together (such as while on vacation).
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.
2001 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.