By Joe Beam, Founder and Chairman, LovePath International, Inc.
Maybe it would sound better in a Cockney accent, a la the Geico Gecko. Fifteen minutes could add fifteen or more years to your marriage.
However, there is a catch.
Ask a typical group of couples what they feel would help their marriages and the usual response is communication. Pry further as to what communication means to them and answers vary:
"Having any communication would be a nice change."
"Really listening to each other." (Usually this translates, "That jerk doesn't hear a word I say."
"A conversation that doesn't turn into a fight."
"Not having to listen to the same stuff about the past over and over again."
"Being able to share your heart without being either ignored, ridiculed, or corrected."
The list goes on. Feel free mentally to insert your own description here, if you wish. What these people refer to as communication actually means something deeper. According to Miriam-Webster communication is, "a process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs, or behavior." Two people thrashing each other with angry and bitter words are communicating. However, that communication probably damages the relationship rather than making it better. When most people say that they need better communication, what they really mean is that they need a way to understand and to be understood without fear, rejection, or conflict.
Core of the Issue
In The Marriage Clinic, John Gottman, PhD, examines various research about why people divorce. He concludes, ""In summarizing these research projects, â feeling unloved' was the most commonly cited reason for wanting a divorce (67% of women)…and sensitivity to being belittled (59% men and women)…We must conclude that most marriages end…[as] the result of people…not feeling liked, loved, and respected."
Of course, the symptoms may range from financial difficulties to problems in the bedroom and more, but the foundation remains the same. Men or women who feel unloved, disrespected, or disliked often find themselves wishing they were out of that relationship. If one partner spends money foolishly while the other tries to get the couple out of debt, money certainly matters, but it is the underlying feeling of being disrespected that lies at the core of the conflict.
It is not usual, for example, for a spouse to refer to their overweight partner, "If there were a medical reason, I would understand. But there isn't. If s/he cared about me, there would be exercise, cutting back, and taking care of self. S/he would want to look good and be desirable. I feel disrespected!" Often the overweight person replies, "If you loved me as I am, I'd lose the weight. I will not meet some condition, like losing weight, for you to love me. I feel disrespected!" Though their fight is about weight, the underlying issue in the minds of each is feeling unloved, disrespected, disliked, or a combination of the three.
How to Talk Without Fighting
Sometimes the best way to learn to communicate in a positive, bonding manner is to start with something other than the issue causing the current problem. This is not to say that things get better when a couple avoids conflict. It is to say that understanding and being understood makes a better foundation for dealing with problems.
The way one person learns to understand another is to, in some fashion, see the world through that person's eyes. While that cannot be done perfectly, there are ways to do it well enough to establish genuine connection and communication on an honest rather than defensive level.
The simplest, and often the most effective, way to do that is to hear each other's stories.
We are the sum of our experiences. Learning takes place at the deepest levels when we experience something. We may experience it ourselves by what we do or witness personally, or we may experience it through the vividly imagined experience of someone else. For example, if one sits on a hot stove, he learns not to do that again. If he witnesses someone sitting on a hot stove, he learns never to do it. If someone who sat on a hot stove when he was not present vividly describes the experience to him, his vicarious witnessing of the event through mentally living it will be enough for him to know that he does not want to sit on a hot stove.
For one person's experience to have impact on another, the one telling the story has tell it with enough description of both fact and feeling that the hearer may "live" the event without actually having lived the event. Saying, "I once sat on a hot stove. It was not pleasant," does not nearly the power of describing the event vibrantly, including the physical, mental, and emotional aspects.
So what does this have to do with adding fifteen years to your marriage?
If a couple spends as little as fifteen minutes a day sharing their stories with each other, in a short period they each will begin to understand the other.
For example, one wife told her husband about how she never felt "good enough" to please her father. Over the course of a few weeks, she shared story after story of things she did, his reactions, how she felt at the time, and how it still affects her today. He listened. Sometimes he asked questions, but they were always for clarification. He did not tell her what she should have done, how she should or should not feel about those events, or how she should just get over them. He realized his role was to understand and to try to see things from her perspective. As he did so, he began to understand the way she thought about certain things, why she did certain behaviors, and how his actions sometimes triggered responses that in reality were not to him but to the pain she continued to feel about her father.
Stories could be about anything. A husband telling his wife the stories of his sexual abuse by a male teacher when he was young. A wife sharing her stories about her mother's harshness. But they do not have to be just stories of pain or sadness. A man might tell stories of how his father spent so much time with him. A woman might share how she loved the trips to her grandmother's.
When both facts and feelings are shared, life is shared. Deeper comprehension occurs. Bonding takes place. Communication begins to go deeper than words.
Couples who share their stories gradually move from childhood to adolescence to what happened at work today. They develop a habit of sharing their stories – and, therefore, their hearts – with each other.
Then, when there are difficulties (as there always are in life), their discussions can be based in mutual understanding and respect rather than hostility and pain. Life does not become perfect, but they face it together rather than separately.
Those fifteen minutes a day could add fifteen or more years to your marriage.
However, you have to make the time to do it, and then follow through.
Joe Beam founded LovePath International, an organization that provides marriage help to hurting couples. For more information on their workshop to rescue your marriage, click here. You may also follow Joe on Facebook and Twitter.