Q: Aside from waiting an average of six years before seeking professional help, what’s the number one mistake most people make when going to marriage therapy?
A: Telling themselves, and the counselor, that all their relationship needs is “better communication.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a bad answer. Research has shown that couples who do not communicate well, perform poorly in marriage and get divorced 65% of time. And virtually everyone knows this truth, not only because observation and experience validate it, but also because this is the message they have heard ever since they could utter the word “Oprah.”
But it is a poor starting place.
Addressing communication issues to heal a relationship is a lot like taking an aspirin to fix the flu. It may make you feel better for a while, but it does not kill the virus that is making the body sick.
If I’m going to be straight with you, you don’t want to be a better communicator.
And do you know why?
Because being a great communicator requires more than a great vocabulary and a knack for eloquence. It requires more than intelligence. It requires more than an education or a willingness to listen to other people. No, being a great communicator is not about being any of these things.
But you already knew this, didn’t you?
You’ve known this truth ever since you were young. You’ve known it since that first time you stayed up late to help a friend through a problem. Or allowed another person to speak truth into your life. You’ve known this truth from that first best friend in elementary school until now. You’ve known all along that being a great communicator is not about crafting literature or performing amateur psychology. It is about taking risk.
It is about seeing your life through the lens of hope and persevering towards the type of relationship that everyone, including your personal experience, tells you is impossible to have. It requires slamming your fists against the prison you created for your heart a long time ago until the walls crack, the windows shatter, and the mortar that has held your hard-heartedness together crumbles around your feet. Being a great communicator requires doing the one thing that most people are unwilling to do: being vulnerable.
But being vulnerable does not begin with the other person.
It begins with you.
Before you learn how to be a great communicator, you must be willing to sit amongst the muck and mire of your own feelings. To learn about yourself. To understand your inner motivations. And to take the risk of sharing your deepest self with another human being. If you do not know yourself and are unwilling to explore what is deep inside of you, if your fears have become so overwhelming that you see only darkness and tragedy ahead, then you will never be able to receive the feelings of another person and to minister to them in a way that brings light and hope and safety into their lives.
Yes, relationships are hard work. But not because the other person is difficult to live with. They are hard work because you find it hard to live with yourself. Your anger slices into your spouse or kids with scalding words, just like your father used to do to you. You tell your wife to go to bed without you; that you have some work left to do on the computer because since you were 10 years old, you’ve never known how to stop the secret habit of watching pornography. You sit at home, six months after being laid off, trying to drink your way out of self-pity and find the happiness your job used to provide. Or maybe you do none of these things. Maybe you just worry all the time, telling yourself that life is hard, that it takes superhuman strength to accomplish your goals, and wondering if you will ever have what it takes to succeed.
Regardless of what holds you back, you cannot give up. You must claw. You must fight. You must dig your toes into the dirt and push yourself upward towards the apex of your dreams. For if you give in to the shame, if you let the fear engulf you, if you choose to stop the treatment before the wounds of your past are healed, you will never know the future God has designed for you and the joy that comes with victory. It is hard, exhausting work to look into the face of those feelings, to be truly vulnerable with ourselves, and to step into the awkward, fearful places of our heart. But the demons of your past can be vanquished. The horrors of your imagination can end. You must only be willing to do the hard work of vulnerability.
If you want to be a great communicator, the only way to prepare yourself for the day when your spouse will need you to sit with them in the muck and mire of their fears or shame or sadness is to be vulnerable with yourself today and learn how to manage your feelings.
In Matthew 22:39 Jesus Christ said, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” teaching us that, on a human level, love for another person can only be understood through the lens of how strongly we fight for our survival, how deeply we protect our opinions, how vehemently we guard our heart, and how ferociously we strive to exalt ourselves. It is impossible, therefore, for us to understand how to lovingly comfort or confront the negative feelings in another person if we have avoided learning how to love and challenge ourselves through our own emotions.
God does not want us to be poor communicators.
Our spouses do not want us to be distant and disconnected.
But if you are going to be a great communicator, if you are going to be the type of husband or wife that you always desired to be, you must take the risk of calling the shameful pieces of yourself out of the shadows and learning how to heal.
But how do you do that? How do you become articulate in the language of your own emotions? How do you become comfortable in the presence of pernicious memories? How do you approach yourself so that conflict does not corrupt communication but enhances growth?
The First Step Is…
Find a mentor. Latch on to someone that can not only hold a confidence but also knows the pathway through the labyrinth of feelings you are about to explore. For some people, their mentor is a wise friend or elder whose life experience has not hardened them but has caused them to blossom. For others, it will be their pastor or priest. But for many people, it will be a professional, such as a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), or a Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor (LCDC) who is trained in navigating the Scylla and Charybdis of one’s self. Such professionals are often compassionate and highly trained and will use their gifts to both help you grow as an individual and disciple you in the art of emotional self-management. However, you will discover that whoever you decide to apprentice under will probably encourage you to take the following steps when confronting the dark sides of yourself:
1) Be a Friend
One of the things that prevents many people from connecting is the lack of compassion. Standing in the presence of uncomfortable emotions causes them to feel threatened, and they often react with blame, fear, or shame. But it doesn’t have to be this way. If you can refuse to take the bait of falling into old, negative patterns, and provide some compassion instead, you will discover that the fear of being hurt can be thwarted. Soothe the negative feelings by refusing to engage in combat and showing that you are their ally, not their enemy. This is especially effective if you work out of an attitude that gives the benefit of the doubt to those scary emotions. You must assume that the end result will be for everyone’s benefit and that they are not here to harm you but to help enlighten and improve yourself and your mental health. Such a compassionate view will create the fertile soil of service that is necessary to produce a ripe and full harvest of love. This does not mean being a doormat to those dark or difficult emotions. Rather, it means looking for ways to stand with the negative emotions in the light of truth while simultaneously providing the safety that they crave. This may be done in small or large ways, but regardless of how you do this, be a friend consistently.
2) A Willingness to accept negative feedback (a.k.a. criticism)
One of the most difficult things to do is to listen to truth that we do not want to hear. But in order to heal, we must be willing to listen. Dark emotions are often like cockroaches and fear the light, but even their fleeting presence can present a harsh reality to our deluded conviction that everything within is pure and clean and right. Because these emotions live in a perpetual state of rawness, always afraid of being stepped upon, they have the ability to speak with undue harshness. Often, they know you better than anyone and can point out the flaws you need to address. Though hurtful, this can be helpful. Everyone has a blind spot. They may be just showing you what yours is.
To manage this effectively, temporarily assume that they’re right. Put your defensiveness aside for a moment, so that you may see the issue objectively. You may discover truths about yourself that you never knew existed. On the other hand, this feedback, once under the microscope of objectivity, may also be seen as false. Either way, you will have learned how to discuss issues in the context of these emotions and how to partner with them so that resolution can be accomplished.
3) Nurture Desire
If there is one thing that negative feelings don’t believe it is that they are acceptable and lovable. Therefore, in order to create an environment of safety, you must continually pursue them. To be honest, this is not an easy thing to do. In fact, it feels counter-intuitive (and a little masochistic) to nurture a desire for the parts of a self that have always been avoided. But this is a necessary practice if you are to find healing from these things. For only with engagement and a continual redirection of your mind towards the positive can you overcome the negative assumptions that you have towards them.
For instance, accept as many opportunities as you can to engage these feelings in a safe environment. If necessary, approach them. “Ask them out.” This will be difficult, because trust may be very low on both sides, but you and the feelings must become intimately acquainted in order to recalibrate and create a unified trajectory for the relationship. For this reason, it is important to state that not all interactions have to be formal. Be creative. Have fun. Try to see old things in new ways. You want to communicate that, above all else, the feelings are not what they fear (unlovable and unacceptable), which means you are not what you fear either. Desire can be expressed in a variety of ways but it should never be expressed in the same way every time. Doing so is as boring and uninteresting as listening to a song with only one note. Just as there are 88 keys on a piano and a multitude of combinations that can create music, so there is an infinite number of ways to express how much you love and desire even the flaws within.
4) STOP TRYING TO MAKE THEM HAPPY!
One of the most frequent mistakes we make when dealing with negative emotions is we try to make them happy. Unfortunately, they are ravenous little orcs and no amount of appeasement today will assuage the wounds from yesterday. They will always feed on our attempts at pleasing them but will never be wholly satisfied. Therefore, we cannot measure our success on their mood. If you do this, you’ll always be chasing your tail. You will feel powerless in the presence of these emotions because you are. You cannot rewrite the mistakes of the past by covering them with a tarp of pleasures.
You must accept your role in what happened. And you must forgive, as necessary. Sometimes hurts refuse to go away because we refuse to take responsibility for our contribution to the problem. But when we look the feelings in the eye and own what we did, we can stop trying to appease the past and can begin writing future chapters that are filled with sound choices and a shared goal of mutual well-being.
5) Operate from an attitude of equality
It is human nature, I believe, to want to feel like #1. To be King of the Hill. To feel as if you are beholden to none. But shared roles and shared power in a relationship create a powerful partnership. It is no different when dealing with negative emotions. The one who minimizes, denies, blames, isolates, intimidates, or coerces the other is operating out of a power/control mindset. Unfortunately, this is the behavior that often leads to repeating the failures of the past. If we want to change the way we interact with the negative emotions, we must approach them with honesty, accountability, shared responsibility, partnership, fairness, and (as much as possible) respect.
We should approach the negative emotions with requests, not demands, asking ourselves (and at times them), “How can I help?” Such willingness to listen and to operate out of an understanding that both parties bring something valuable to the table that can increase healing and resolution will demonstrate to the inner self that you are doing everything in your power to make them as successful as possible. This will open the door to work with those negative feelings. To help them fully express themselves and to be known in an intimate and loving way.
6) Don’t take advantage of the kindnesses
Negative feelings by definition are negative. But they’re not all bad. They play a necessary and vital role to one’s psyche. Teasing out what that role is for them is important to understanding where they are coming from. Contrary to what you may believe, negative feelings do not want to be hidden. They want to be found. To be understood and to be whole. For this reason, they will occasionally offer us small kindnesses that we did not expect. Some insight, for example, or helping to heal another feeling we didn’t know existed. However, be forewarned. If you assume that they have an ulterior motive in doing these things, it will only make things worse. They will reinforce the walls that previously existed because their kindnesses will be viewed as having been rejected. It is always harder to work from a defensive posture because when you do, you show your ulterior motives as well. This establishes the two of you as opponents, not teammates. To find healing, you must accept these kindnesses as they randomly come and work, as best as you can, to protect their heart more than your own. If you will do this, you will have a powerful ally in these feelings and will discover that they are not so frightening after all.
If all of this sounds exceedingly abstract…
Imagine yourself in a relationship. You’ve been married for 5 years, and you dated 2 years prior to marrying. At first, things were great. But over the years life has thrown a series of curveballs your way, and now you’re finding the arguments increasing, the intimacy decreasing, and the questions of “Is this the right person for me” piling up.
You want a way out.
You still love your spouse. You just hate the chaos you are in.
Every day you are on edge, hoping you don’t have another blow-up, and hoping that this time you won’t be the one to threaten divorce.
What do you do?
Well, what if you stopped trying to fix the situations you argue about and replaced it with trying to fix the negative emotions between you and your spouse?
How can you do that?
1) Be a friend
2) Be willing to accept negative feedback
3) Nurture desire
4) Stop trying to make them happy
5) Operate from an attitude of equality
6) Don’t take advantage of their kindnesses
You see? You can’t love them in this way until you love yourself in this way.
But you can do this. You can find the courage to look into yourself. To challenge yourself. To wrestle with things you chained up in the trunk of forgotten memories. You can learn how to stare down the pain, the remorse, the fear, and the shame. How to comfort your broken heart. How to receive forgiveness. And how to let go of the habits that have long dominated your soul.
You can take these lessons, turn to your spouse, and become the great communicator God has designed for you to be.