Margie and Bill faced each other in two living room chairs. Four couples observed as this husband and wife demonstrated a process they share with each other every Saturday morning.
This particular evening was part of a six-week lesson and discussion with our church home fellowship group on building intimacy in marriage.
I glanced at the three-by-five card in my hand. Bill had passed out one to each person. "This is a personal exercise," he announced. "Each partner is responsible for his or her part." The headline read: "Three Questions to Ask Each Other Every Week."
- Is there anything that I need to apologize for? (i.e. Did I do anything that hurt you?)
- Is there anything you need from me that you're not getting?
- How can I be a better spouse?
I noticed my heart rate increase. There might be more here than I bargained for. Sure, I was open to a few tips. Charles and I had just celebrated 26 years of marriage and we could always use a refresher. Even so, a feeling of dread came over me. My husband and I were not the best at communicating about our own relationship. We were much better at evaluating other people's marriages!
I squirmed in my seat as I listened to Margie question Bill and then Bill ask the same of Margie. They were so honest. Not that I expected them to lie. Of course not. But could we do the same?
To Ask or Not to Ask
On the way home I asked Charles what he thought of the evening. "I don't think we need this process," he said. "We're talkers. We pretty much cover everything on a day-to-day basis."
I nodded, relieved not to wade in any deeper than we were already. And yet, I wanted to try—to see what would come up. My husband has a quick temper and I have a tendency to back off when things get hot so I couldn't predict how these questions would work for us.
And so we let it go, week after week after week. Then one day on a drive to the city, I suggested we test the process. We were in a good place emotionally and it seemed we could "practice" without the risk of a meltdown. He agreed. I started. "Is there anything that I need to apologize for?" I asked.
Charles paused. "I get frustrated by our lack of understanding each other, but it's not usually anything specific you've done."
Whew! I got by easy on that one.
Next question. "Is there anything you need from me that you're not getting?" I sensed the answer before it came.
"I'd like more sexual intimacy. I know it's not like it used to be between us (before his prostate cancer), but I'd like to at least be playful with each other."
"That would be nice, but I'm scared," I replied. "I'm older now and I'm not as interested as I was. I like cuddling in bed and a massage is nice, but …"
"Okay, we can start there."
Relief. We'd gotten past the first two questions and we were still talking. Yeah!
"How can I be a better spouse?" I asked.
"I don't know. You work hard. You're good to me. I'm happy."
Nice to hear—all of it—even the part that had scared me. Now I worried that I might not be able to answer Charles' questions as easily as he answered mine.
My Turn in the Hot Seat
He started with question number one and I was quick to respond that his temper is an ongoing challenge and I need him to apologize when he takes out his anger with others on me. "I want us to talk about that habit and make some changes."
Question number two raised the hair on my arms. "Is there anything you need from me that you're not getting?"
I had a ready answer. "I need simple kindness," I said in a quiet voice. "I'm grateful for all your help, the gardening, ironing, painting, financial management, and your support of my writing but I long for a kind attitude, bits of grace when I'm stressed or worried."
His eyes opened wider. I knew I had picked at a scab. Our viewpoint on kindness differs. He seems to see it as practical acts of help. I view it as an understanding disposition and words of comfort.
And finally, the last question about how to be a better spouse. I told Charles he is a good mate, a willing partner in so many ways that matter, and aside from what I'd said before I didn't have anything to add.
Love—and Then Some
We hugged each other, said, "I love you," and agreed that even though the questions prickle, they also release pent-up anxiety about each other that festers if it's not expressed.
Have we repeated this process every week since? No. But we do talk more often now about the "state of our union" and we ask these and other questions that cover the same terrain. We're moving closer together. In fact, just this morning, I was able to ask Charles for mercy when he spouted his impatience over something trite. He apologized. I accepted it and then he left for a meeting. I don't know how it will be when he returns. But however it is, we'll have a conversation about that.
A marriage partnership, at least for us, is not 24/7 harmony. It's about telling and living in the truth of the moment. The three questions included here can help. They've helped us. But don't stop there. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you to the questions and answers that work for you. "Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding" (Proverbs 3:5, NIV). I can't imagine better advice than that.
Karen O'Connor is a freelance writer and writing mentor from Watsonville, California. Visit Karen at www.karenoconnor.com.
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