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You're Not Hearing Me!

Chris's Side:

Say what you think.

Carrie and I acquired very different communication styles from our families. I grew up in a home where we said exactly what was on our minds. When something was bothering us, we confronted the problem by talking about it, at times raising our voices. But we dealt with the problem and were done with it.

When Carrie and I got married two years ago, we knew that our different temperaments would be a challenge, especially living in a one-bedroom apartment and with less time for the discussions we had while dating in college. After our baby was born one year into our marriage, we got even busier and more preoccupied.

We then discovered that our temperaments came with different tones of voice. I have three or four tones, while Carrie's family only had two: really angry or not angry. At times, Carrie interprets more in my tone of voice than what's really there.

We run into problems when we are confronted with a pressure situation; a little chaos easily throws us off course. For instance, if we're cooking and I need to get Carrie's attention quickly, I use a tone of urgency to say, "Quick, stir the pasta." On the other hand, Carrie interprets my tone as condescending.

After an exchange like that I can usually tell that I've said something wrong, because Carrie gets really quiet. When I ask her what's wrong, she tells me that my tone of voice came across differently than what my words said. Before you know it, I'm defensive, she's defensive, and the downward spiral begins.

Carrie's Side:

Think about what you say.

I grew up in a family that understood what you meant by how you said it. We were non-confrontational and rarely raised our voices. If someone's voice elevated above a normal talking level, it was perceived as anger. We were cautious about getting a point across without hurting anyone's feelings in the process, so I got used to looking for the message behind the message. A lot of times my family just swept conflicts under the rug to avoid making waves.

Chris is the opposite. He learned to talk about problems right away, to say whatever was on his mind, even if it hurt a little. I wasn't used to that. I interpret what Chris means by what and how he says or doesn't say something. So when he and I got into a conflict, I felt like I immediately needed to apologize to avoid any hurt. I became more open and direct during our three years of dating in college, but I am still not accustomed to Chris's tones of voice. Rather than confront Chris about my frustrations and ask him what he really means, I usually clam up. When he asks me what's wrong, I get angry and irrational and I bring up anything he's done to irritate me during the past twenty-four hours. That starts a shotgun discussion with both of us aiming defensive comments at the other.

What Chris and Carrie Did:

Chris and Carrie had to agree that improving their communication would be a slow process. They realized that after their shotgun discussions they often could not remember what sparked their frustrations in the first place. By taking time to reflect before arguing, Chris and Carrie are able to think through the situation and see that the other person isn't out to get him or her.

"I think the crux of 90 percent of our problems are communication-based," Chris says. "We both have expectations of how things are supposed to be. It comes down to misconceived notions about the other person or even yourself. You may or may not do or say things the same way your family or spouse does. It's going to take a while to learn each other's nuances and to see what works for us. It won't be easy, but we have time to learn."

Chris and Carrie are also becoming more alert to the danger of making assumptions. To slow the assumption-making process, they simply make it a point to discuss feelings daily. This way, frustrations or assumptions don't get a chance to build up over time. "We let the pressure off a little every day by talking, and we are discovering what it means to give each other the benefit of the doubt," Chris says.

When they run into a problem, they are working on confronting it when it happens. If Chris says something that hurts Carrie, she tells him right away.

"I am learning to trust Chris and his character," Carrie says. "He is not trying to make me feel stupid; he means simply what he says. Also, if I'm looking to Chris to tell me I'm worthwhile and he doesn't come through all the time, I'll get frustrated with him. I'm learning that my identity in Christ is what gives me security and peace."

Chris is also more intentional about being sensitive in pressure situations, guarding against saying something that might make Carrie uneasy. "I need to be sure to affirm Carrie, telling her that I am not intending to send any hidden messages and that I am not angry with her," he says.

Chris and Carrie found that it encourages them to be able to see that they're making progress. Chris says, "After a month or year you think you haven't made it far in communicating better, but then you turn around, see where you've been, and realize how far you've come. If you talk about events from the past, you can use them as markers for change."

They know they will make mistakes, but Chris and Carrie are working to understand and forgive the person they chose to call husband and wife. Chris says, "The foundation of our love is grace. And that makes all the difference in the world."

Chris and Carrie Geiger have been married for two years and live in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, with their daughter, Gabriella.

If you know a couple with a creative solution to a common marriage problem, let us know. We'll pay $50 for each story that is featured in this column. Send the couple's name, phone number, and a short description of their problem and solution to:

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