Few couples are immune to the fast pace of modern life. It is easy to find yourself stuck in a routine with no real quality time together. You might find yourself regularly falling into bed after a long hard day’s work. Sure, you might talk a little bit about your day or the children but when do you get a chance to really talk? When was the last time you sat down and asked the question “how are we doing?”
One of the things that is essential for any successful marriage is emotional intimacy, a sense of really knowing the other person’s hopes fears and dreams. In order to achieve this you have to have vulnerable communication with one another, which is all about revealing who you are to your spouse each and every day. For a lot of us this is something we might find difficult, we are guarded. This is why it is something you have to decide to do as part of your daily life, not just when you feel like it.
The Nazareth Family Institute runs pre-marriage courses and also counsels couples. For years, they have been encouraging couples to learn about vulnerable communication as the lifeblood of any marriage.
This act of vulnerable communication might not come naturally to a lot of us. You have to work on it as a habit and over time it will become a virtue. This is a real sign of mature love: a love that isn’t looking inwards but is selfless. First you need to step back and look at how you are expressing your love. Remember that words can build someone up or tear them down. Not only do your words affect the person you are talking to but they also affect you. When you are listening, are you actively listening? Remember you listen with your eyes as well as your ears.
We know that up to 80% of communication is non-verbal so what is your body language saying when you come in from work, or at the dinner table? Your body language can make it clear if you are not being sincere or truthful.
Frequently we just want to talk out a situation rather than look for a solution. Our reactions and feelings are responses that are unique to us. Therefore, never make a judgment about how your spouse reacts to a particular situation just because you might react differently.
Perhaps you have reached a roadblock in knowing even how to communicate, you don’t even know how exactly to describe how you feel. You need to look at the possible blocks as to why you are struggling to communicate. Sometimes we are afraid to share because we anticipate a negative reaction, or we are afraid that we won’t be understood.
How are you reacting to your spouse when they try to open up to you? A lot of us simply don’t want to be vulnerable, or sometimes we think that we shouldn’t feel the way we do.
In Gary Chapman’s book The Five Love Languages, he describes the five love languages as words of affirmation, physical touch, acts of service, gifts and quality time. He says in all his years of counselling when he asks individuals to list the faults of their spouses that they make long and impressive lists. When asked to write their own faults seldom do people come back with more than four.
Recognising our own faults is a first step in improving communication. (You can figure out your love language on the website www.lovelanguages.com.)
Online there are lots of free resources including a seven-day plan that you can follow to help your communication. I did the test and was surprised with the result I got; if I am unaware of what my needs are how on earth can my spouse be? Often crises of communication aren’t because of something we are doing wrong but of not realising the needs of our partner.
An important note here, watching television together doesn’t constitute quality time, it might give the illusion of spending time together when really you need to dedicate time or effort to the other person. So figure out your love language and then talk about it openly.
Another important area is figuring out your relational needs. Some people need acceptance and appreciation, others comfort and encouragement. Have you actually talked about the things that make you feel loved and cared for in your marriage? For some it could be getting help with a task, for others it could be a surprise date.
During their marriage preparation courses and in counselling couples, the Nazareth Family Institute focuses on understanding and responding to relational needs.
There are 10 primary relational needs which we all have, to one degree or another, which include acceptance, attention, respect, appreciation, approval, admiration, comfort, encouragement, security and support. These needs have several dimensions to them, physical, emotional and spiritual.
For example, we need to feel physically secure in our homes so we have an alarm system, but we also need to feel emotionally secure knowing that we can trust our partner, we need physical security in our faith, having knowledge that we are loved by God.
For a lot of couples, problems are caused not because they are not right for one another or because of any wrongdoing but simply because they don’t know their own and their spouses’ relational needs. So a first step is figuring this out and then responding to the different needs that we have.
We cannot meet our own needs; we need others to do this. Remember though as a spouse that no one person can meet all of our needs, and while we may have different needs we have to accept them and have mutual respect for them.
Knowing and loving your spouse go hand in hand; the more profound your knowledge is of one another the more profound your love will be. If you do not know what your spouse’s needs are, how can you respond to them?
We can often assume our spouse has the same needs as ourselves. For example, if you are a person that needs affirmation and you are constantly, even with a loving intention, giving approval, this can start conflict and miscommunication. So figure out what your relational needs are (there are lots of questionnaires online); this coupled with a better understanding of your ‘love languages’ will really help you on the road to better communication.
None of this is something we will be perfect at or learn overnight. It is an ongoing process that you have to work on together. In Amoris Laetitia Pope Francis writes that learning to communicate effectively is a lifelong apprenticeship.
He highlights the need for self-discipline in cultivating an interior silence that allows us to listen. He goes on to talk about the reality that often we don’t need our problem fixed, we just need someone to listen, to acknowledge our pain. He also says that in order to be able to communicate well we need to have something to say. This means having personal reflection, prayer and interior richness that we need to nourish.
If you are struggling to communicate, seek help. Organisations like Retrouvaille offer relationship counselling via weekend courses that aim to empower couples by helping them to learn, all over again, to communicate with one another while Groups like CANA Ireland offer Marriage Enrichment weeks. Nazareth Family Institute and Accord offer one-to-one relationship counselling.
No matter how bad your relationship might feel, there are countless testimonies from organisations such as these that show there is always hope.
Things to consider:
- For true emotional intimacy couples need to have vulnerable communication
- 80% of communication is non-verbal so body language is important
- Never make a judgment about how your spouse reacts to a particular situation
- Many problems stem from not knowing your own and/or spouse’s relational needs
- Often we don’t need our problem fixed, we just need someone to listen
- If you are struggling to communicate, seek help