Learning to communicate is a lot like learning to dance. Start slow, learn your paces, respond to your partner's movements, pay attention, trust, and enjoy.
Most dating relationships have a crisis point at which the relationship falls apart or grows stronger through the test. Our first major crisis came when my girlfriend and I were driving home at the end of one of those storybook days — a honey-soaked autumn afternoon complete with a corn maze, cider and pumpkins. We were listening to Thistle & Shamrock on the radio, and I was eager to share my heart. But I stayed silent because I almost always initiated our conversations. I wanted to see what she would talk about without my prompting.
I waited …
and waited …
and waited. I don't know how long the drive was, but it felt like hours with nary a peep from my beloved. I was crushed and confused. If we had nothing to talk about apart from what I brought to the relationship, I feared we would soon be like all those couples who just stare at the TV.
That was too much to bear, so I did what I thought was best. I made plans to break up with her. Never one to miss an opportunity, I also chose to do it at Wings Night at the local pub. I mean, the wings were only a dollar!
That night as buffalo sauce dripped from our chins, I said, "I think we should stop seeing each other." She just reached for a napkin and wiped her face. "Why?"
"Because when we drove home on Sunday you had nothing at all to say. I waited for you to start a conversation, and you had nothing. I don't want a relationship like that. I need someone who can talk and converse, someone to share dreams with."
"Oh," she said, picking up another wing. "I know how much you love that radio show, and I didn't want to interrupt it. Now that you've told me how important conversation is to you, I will make more of an effort at it."
Barbeque drip. Long silence. "Um, OK." And that was it. We finished our wings and got engaged a month later.
Yes, back then I really was this shallow and cheap, and I was also very serious about finding the right person with whom to share my life. Perhaps too serious. With the stakes for finding "the one" so high, I had created a situation where any deficiency — real or imagined — meant I had to keep looking. I was ready to move on without even working through the difficulty.
Our "crisis" (if you can call it that) was minor compared to many relationship difficulties, but we both learned a key lesson from that incident that has served us well in marriage: Open and honest communication is essential to a deeply loving relationship.
Nothing But Noise
Good communication is one of those things that everyone acknowledges but few people do well. We're drowning in communication techniques taught in self-help books like Women are from Venus, Men are Like Waffles, His Needs Her Soaps, and The Five Love Languages of J Alfred Prufrock. So why is it so hard?
Perhaps we focus too much on tips and techniques. I believe all communication begins with who we are (or who we are becoming) and only then moves into the specific ways we speak and interact with one another. If our hearts are ill or fearful, so too will be our interactions with one another. Am I the kind of person who is willing to trust another? Will I share all of myself or hold back for fear? Can I accept what my loved one shares with me, no matter how hard it is to hear?
The truth is that many of us struggle with secrets and the dark places of the heart that we dare not share with another. We find it extremely difficult to trust others because we don't see this modeled well in real life. Instead, we witness (and many of us have experienced) what happens when we reveal too much of ourselves. Our partner flees. Isn't this our deepest relationship fear?
I feared making a bad decision when choosing a spouse. I needed everything to be perfect. When she wasn't (and she isn't, but, for that matter, neither am I) I felt like I needed to jet. Confrontation is hard. So is admitting you are impulsive and have overreacted.
Of all the obstacles to open and honest communication, fear may be the most crippling. We fear not measuring up to society's or our loved one's standards. We fear being revealed as a fraud. We fear rejection and loneliness. So we hide those parts of our lives that we believe would threaten the relationship. We set aside true intimacy, which is to be known and loved, in favor of the cold, shallow comfort of our delusions of safety. We forget that mature love comes not after years of being together, but when we release our fears of rejection, failure, loss, heartache. In the moment of our impending breakup, my future wife's calm, caring demeanor impressed me greatly. I felt at once that she was safe to share things with, even things that could hurt her personally. She became a person of great interest to me in that moment.
In the book Hannah Coulter, Wendell Berry's title character reflects on a lifetime of intimate relationships: "You can't give yourself over to love for somebody without giving yourself over to suffering."
Yet, giving ourselves over to suffering is not what any of us would describe as relational bliss. In fact, many of us get married precisely to end our suffering and loneliness. Henri Nouwen tells us:
Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to the place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely and broken. But this is not our spontaneous response to suffering. What we desire most is to do away with suffering by fleeing from it or finding a quick cure for it. And so we ignore our greatest gift, which is our ability to enter into solidarity with those who suffer.
Nouwen's vision of compassion is precisely the picture of love portrayed in the Bible. Rather than wooing a perfect bride, God chose an unfaithful people to call His own. Jesus surrounded himself with people who had utterly — and publicly — failed and called them to be His bride, His body on earth. These and so many other stories in the Bible teach us that God's love accepts us as the broken people we are and transforms us into what we are meant to be.
The great hymn of love in Paul's letter to the Corinthian church grows clearer: "[Love] always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails" (1 Corinthians 13:7).
While we may find this beautiful, many of us also find it difficult to accept and live in this love. Thankfully the Apostle John reminds us that perfect love casts out this fear, and perfect love comes from God (1 John 4:18). We will never perfectly model this love (this side of heaven), but through practice and patience we can grow into it and become the kind of safe person necessary for full and meaningful communication to happen.
When You've Got a Friend
It is worth noting that people communicate differently. Some are vocal, some shy, some trusting, some reserved, some blurting and some slow to open. Your style doesn't have to be "right" according to a diagram, but it does have to be right for you. Learning to communicate is a lot like learning to dance. Start slow, learn your paces, respond to your partner's movements, pay attention, trust, and enjoy.
Another thing that helps us communicate deeply with our loved one is to remember that apart from our romance, we are spiritually attached to one another as brother and sister in the Lord. It may be that young men and women would rather not confuse erotic and sibling love, but in a far deeper sense than our frail family relationships this is exactly the kind of connection we have with others. Before they were the subjects of our affection, they were our family members.
A third thing to remember is that friendship in dating and marriage cannot be over appreciated. A close friend has your back even when you make mistakes, even when you lash out at him in your pain, even with repeated failures. Friends stick.
My wife and I were close friends for two-and-a-half years before we got engaged. Most of that time was spent apart from each other, and at that distance we nourished our friendship apart from romantic attractions. Even so, the romance crept in here and there until we were both praying that it would just resolve one way or another. Long before we were a couple, we were a team. As friends, we felt at ease to share a great deal of our lives without fear.
That freedom felt wonderful then and continues to do so now. We know that even when we need to say hard things to each other that love is always there. Sometimes you must hurt the one you love to prevent, correct or heal a deeper wound. And contrary to that '70s era sap Love Story, love does not mean never having to say you're sorry. It means saying sorry and extending forgiveness as often as is necessary. This is a love grounded in Christ.
Starting and Finishing Well
If you think our marriage is easy because our first crisis was so minor, let me assure you we have had our share of challenges. In the months after we were married, I lost my job, my father-in-law was killed, we moved across the country to start a new job that was very different from what was advertised, and we bought our first house, a fixer-upper. Within our first year, we had experienced nearly every difficulty that pulls marriages apart. By the grace of God and because we trusted one another and had committed to open and honest communication, we survived these and many other serious life challenges.
Life is not perfect and neither is your spouse (no matter how glorious he or she may seem). There will be challenges that test your patience and charity toward your spouse. Sooner or later you will discover whether you have the capacity to work through these tests or if you will withdraw and pull away from each other. You can find that out before you get married or long after you say "I do," when the stakes are much higher.
I suggest you find a time, perhaps over wings, and say to your beloved, "Let's talk."
Copyright 2012 Christopher Riordan. All rights reserved.