Often, we think we are acting nobly when we are actually being destructive.
Hoping to strengthen their marriage, a wife approaches her husband: “We need to talk.”
Hoping to state the problem, she describes the husband’s faults. “You don’t communicate effectively.”
Feeling overwhelmed, the husband resorts to contempt: “Well at least when I say something I don’t go on and on without getting to the point!”
Feeling attacked, the wife gets defensive: “Well, that’s typical! I’m the only one who cares about our relationship!”
Hoping to restore peace and end contention, the husband walks away from his wife. “I’m not going to fight.” And the wife feels abandoned.
In every case, the person may have a perfectly noble intent. He or she hopes to strengthen the relationship. Yet noble intentions are not enough. The road to marital misery is paved with good intentions. Just like when we try to remove a speck from a person’s eye when our own eyes are filled with sand. My presumption will leave us both blind.
Maybe we shouldn’t judge the nobility of our actions by our own intentions but by its sensitivity to our spouses. God wants us to apply a higher standard than “my good intentions” to our actions.
“Every man seeking the interest of his neighbor, and doing all things with an eye single to the glory of God.” (D&C 82:19)
So, God’s principle is that we not act simply out of our objectives but out of the likely impact on our partners. In every decision, we also ask how our action will advance God’s work of redemption. When we use God’s principles to guide our relationships, we think and act differently.
We might argue: “But I am trying to improve our relationship!” Yes. But the path to a stronger relationship travels through your spouse’s heart. We cannot get to closeness without walking in our spouse’s shoes, thinking and feeling in his or her soul.
Does this mean that we must all be mind-readers? No. It means that we draw on our knowledge of our spouse. It will often mean that we ask questions and invite input rather than push in our preferred direction. It means that we take the long view of relationships.
First, enter their world.
Rather than take our irritation as the ultimate truth and guiding principle, we consider “the interest of [our] neighbor”—our spouse. We try to enter our spouse’s world and understand what he or she may be feeling.
Maybe she has had a terrible day.
I was thoughtless. I need to consider his feelings.
Maybe he is worried that I will put him down.
Maybe she feels lonely and powerless.
Maybe he feels like he is in trouble for everything he does and says.
When we understand how our spouse is feeling, we can be more helpful.
Second, we ask questions.
For example, “I would love your thoughts on our vacation plans [parenting, housing, employment, meals]. Is this a good time to talk about this? How are you feeling about our plans?”
When our spouse responds, we will be tempted to become defensive: “Yeah, but you just don’t understand that . . ..” The key to a good discussion is being a good listener and investigator.
Third, we present our ideas as opportunities for discussion. “I like your ideas about our vacation. My concern is that the kids might be overscheduled this summer. What do you think we can do about that?”
Often, we meet resistance (a partner who sees things differently), we push harder for our own beliefs. A shoving match ensues. If we want both harmony and growth, we will resist the urge to push back. We will open our minds and hearts.
Returning to the examples at the beginning of this article, consider the following:
Hoping to strengthen their marriage, a wife approaches her husband: “I would get your input. Would now be a good time for you?”
Hoping to approach the issue, she describes her needs in a way that invites understanding and input. “I know your communication style is different from mine. Sometimes I wish I knew more about what you are thinking. Is there a way you would be comfortable sharing more of your thoughts with me?”
To avoid feeling overwhelmed, the husband chooses humility. “I’m sure I’m missing important things here. I am accustomed to the way my family did things. Will you tell me more about how you like to communicate?
To avoid feeling attacked, the wife remains patient. “I want to make sure I understand you. Can you tell me more about your needs?”
Hoping to avoid contention, a husband leans into their relationship. “I think I need some time to sort out your request. Could we plan to go to dinner and talk some more one night this week?”
There is a particular difficulty in offering gentle responses: When we feel attacked, we react. We run away. We strike back. We get angry. And, once we are upset, it is natural for the conflict to cascade. If we want discussions to be productive, we should catch ourselves before we become roused. When we see that we are entering the war zone, we can take deep breaths, we can use gentle humor, we can declare a timeout.
One source of mischief in relationships is our expectation that we will magically be synced. If our relationship is a good one, we will naturally understand each other and gladly work together. Nope. God intended that we stretch ourselves. We are more different than we realize. Our job is to learn kindness, compassion, and generosity. God wants us to learn other people’s points of view.
The Lord directs: “succor the weak, lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees” (D&C 81:5). God wants us to learn to lift each other just as He lifts us.
Invitation: Notice your irritation. Challenge it. Check the assumptions that generate your irritation. Try to understand why your spouse does as he or she does. Ask kind questions to help you understand.
Recommendation: The leading scholar on these marital processes is John Gottman. His book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, describes the ways we react to each other and ways to do better. For a gospel perspective on marriage, see my Drawing Heaven into Your Marriage.
Thanks to Barbara Keil for her insightful editing of this article.