|Marriage and the Family - 13 - Communication|
Probably no other area of married life contains so much potential for weal and woe as does the area of communication. The quality and character of communication between spouses reveals the honor, respect, care, sympathy, thoughtfulness of each for the other. It holds the key to true intimacy and oneness. But it also can be a weapon of mass destruction - leveling all within its path and undoing the fabric of a marriage woven over many years.
Communication is more than merely a transmission of information. The Perfect Servant knew “How to speak a word in season to him that is weary” (Isa 50:4). So communication involves knowing what to say, how to say it, when to say it, and to whom to say it. This involves sensitivity, wisdom, care, and discernment.
Perhaps the fundamental problem with communication between spouses is the difference each attaches to the concept of communication. Males view it simply as facts, information transfer, stripped of emotion and context in which the information was received or experienced. A woman is made differently. It is not that facts and information do not interest her, but she has a deeper appreciation for the context, the emotion linked with it. As we shall see, communication has the potential to be a wall behind which we can hide or a means of revealing us to another at our deepest level. Thus, our security or insecurity will determine many times how much of ourselves we reveal in communication to another.
It is obvious that we communicate at different levels to different people. This is appropriate. We do not engage in a deep personal conversation with the person at the checkout counter of the supermarket, revealing the most cherished wishes of our heart. Each relationship which we have with others has an appropriate level at which we communicate. There are perhaps five different levels of communication. Some may be able to find variations on this, but the following list is helpful:
The Informal - Superficial
The Informative - Statements of facts
Ideals - Standards
Impressions - Sentiments
Intimate - Sincere openness
Look at the book of Ruth to see these illustrated. In Ruth 2:4, there is a typical greeting between Boaz and the reapers. Though couched in typical Jewish language, it would be equivalent to our “Hello, how are you?” or “Good morning.” Nothing very deep and meaningful but conveying an expression of respect and acknowledgment of another. It is all very normal and proper.
But look then at verses 6,7. Now it is the transfer of information. Statements of fact are being mentioned but there is no sense of whether the foreman approves or disapproves of what Ruth is doing. All you know about the reaper is that he has powers of observation, some knowledge of the background of Ruth, and an awareness of her activity. You know very little else about the foreman. It is “just the facts!” Once again, certain relationships and responsibilities demand this level of communication. It is right and proper.
More however is seen in his next interchange with Ruth in vs 11-14. No longer is it merely facts and approval, but his feelings begin to be expressed in a deeper way. You begin to feel that you know this man and know much more about him. He is sensitive, appreciative, warm, kind, caring, generous, and displays many other virtues. Each deepening level of communication has revealed something deeper of the person himself.
One final encounter will serve to reveal Boaz even more fully to Ruth. The scene is the threshing floor. Here there is total disclosure of all that is in his heart. He shares with Ruth his deep feelings for her and his love. She knows his heart and all that really concerns him, his hopes and plans, and his thoughts of her. This communication is the essence of intimacy, even in the absence of a physical relationship. In truth, it is this intimacy in a marriage which enhances the physical intimacy.
Adam and Eve, in their pristine innocency, were both naked and they were not ashamed. There were no barriers; there was nothing to hide. Total and absolute transparency existed. This is what God intended in their relationship. But with the introduction of sin, Adam and Eve immediately introduced a barrier: they clothed themselves. Linked with this was the fact that Adam blamed Eve for the problem, and Eve in turn blamed the serpent. Communication took a decided turn for the worse. Since that fateful day, communication has suffered. Our natural instinct, as was Adam’s, is self protection and self-promotion. Words become a means of protection, not of revelation. We hide behind words, covering the real person with a coat of fig leaves lest we be revealed for who we really are.
It is this fear of self-revelation which creates most of the problems in communication. We bring to a relationship our insecurities and fears. Disclosure may mean rejection or, at a minimum, lessened respect and esteem. As a result, we opt for distance and deception. We weave our own apron of fig leaves.
James said, “Be swift to hear, slow to speak ... “ (James 1:19). Active listening is perhaps the single most vital ingredient in the communication process. Most would think that clear expression, eloquence, logical thinking and arguing would garner that position. But it is actually listening, listening with an intent to really hear and understand, which is the most important element in the process.
Listening well involves actually listening to what another is saying. What a novel idea! It involves respecting the individual enough to value what they have to say. It may not agree with your view, but because you value the person, you are willing to hear their words. It means trying to understand what the person is actually saying - striving to understand, not to be understood. It means not only devoting ears and time, but mind and intellect. There are many techniques which can be used profitably to improve this skill: summarizing, reflecting, probing, questioning etc, are all ways you can communicate that you are listening and striving to understand.
Assuming: assuming that you know what another person is going to say enables you to “tune them out” and to plan your attack. Certain words at the beginning of a conversation trigger a reflex response that an argument is being repeated or a problem revisited. Your mind becomes preoccupied with marshaling its arguments or defenses and does not really listen to what is being said.
Presuming: an equal danger is presuming what the person is saying because you are able to “read between the lines” and know what they really mean. As a result, you hear selectively. You know what they “really want to say,” despite what they are saying. So your attack is against what you presume they have really said rather than what they have said. We are all guilty of this since it caters to our pride and sense of superior knowledge and insight. Peter and the disciples “presumed” they knew what the Lord was saying when He said concerning John, “If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?” (John 21:22). In some ways, presuming is the opposite of assuming. In presuming, we are attributing words to the speaker that have not been spoken. In assuming, we tend to not hear what is being said.
Exhuming: resurrection men! While a spouse is giving her side of the story, we are exhuming the past. As one someone has said, we don’t become hysterical; we become historical. The litany of years of archived grievances and past wrongs are suddenly resurrected to be brought out front and center as witnesses to our righteousness and aggrieved position. This is often the result of issues never being resolved. Problems are brought to a crisis and then left unresolved, swept under a table or buried in the closets of our minds. An uneasy truce pervades until the next skirmish.
Fuming: This hardly needs any explanation. Anger and resentment build and torpedo any attempt at meaningful discussion. Anger will blind the mind to reason and justice. It will obsess on a desire for “getting back” and negate any meaningful dialogue.
Different Languages: We use similar words to convey totally different thoughts. Language is a function of our culture, experiences, and self-made definitions. Common words, words which are critical to marital relationships, such as love, communication, kindness, thoughtfulness, and appreciation, all have differing meanings for the different genders. Add to that words such as shopping, “I have nothing to wear,” entertaining, etc, and you have the vortex which can sink any marriage.
Deceptive Language: But sadly we not only use different languages in our communications, we also use deceptive language. At times we do not say what we mean but assume the other will get the “hint” and be able to read between the lines. Even worse, at times we tell ourselves that, “If she/he really loves me, he/she will understand without my needing to tell.” If the spouse fails to understand, then we raise the bar and put them to another test. Each failure on the part of the spouse is attributed to a lack of love on his part. We never consider that perhaps we are not communicating properly or clearly.
Defensive Language: We are all, at ground level, insecure to some degree. As a result, any negative communication is viewed as an attack which must be defended against and beat back. So when a conversation may turn to an area in which we need to improve, our native reaction is to defend ourselves. We have different ways in which we become defensive. The goal is to shut the other person down. This can be accomplished in varying ways:
Assertive language - we assert who we are. “Do you know who you are talking to?” This is certainly self-protecting as we seek to cow the spouse into silent submission.
Apologetic Language - This is that rapid, “I’m sorry. Let’s just forget it.” This serves to cut off any further discussion and bury what should be resolved. Look at how Abimelech dealt with Abraham in Genesis 21.26.
Attacking Language - The best defense is a good offense! “Ad hominem” is the debater’s tactic. If you can’t abolish the argument, attack the man! If you can’t disprove the message, then destroy the messenger! Joseph’s brethren could not speak “peaceably unto him” (Genesis 27.8).
Advising Language - This displays our superior knowledge as we condescend to correct the misunderstanding of the one correcting us. The problem is really theirs, not ours! Even Joseph displayed this when he corrected his father in Genesis 48.18.
All of these languages, and others, serve to end any meaningful interchange between individuals. Communication is killed and self-image is preserved, but at the cost of a relationship.
God is the ultimate communicator. The Lord Jesus is introduced to us in John 1:1 as “The Word.” This means that God has always meant to communicate, to reveal His mind. He has done this in a way that all men can grasp that revelation. He speaks the “language” of all men. His communication to us has been timely, with consideration for our ability to comprehend, with sensitivity to our need, and insight into our defenses. Ultimately, God’s methods of communication were revealed by the perfect Servant who knew “how to speak a word in season to him that was weary.” His mouth was “like a sharp sword,” and like a “polished shaft” (Isa 49.2). These similes do not imply destructiveness, but accuracy and skill. His words were bathed in “grace” (Ps 45.2) but always balanced and containing in equal measure, the vital element of truth (John 1.17).
His words were ever calculated for the good of the recipient. Even when challenged and accosted by their words, arguments, and traps, His words were not mere “put-downs” or displays of clever “one-upmanship,” but words which would have brought blessing to others had they received them. His Words were always “that which is good to the use of edifying ... minster grace to the hearers” (Eph 4.29).
As we serve one another, He, as always, should be the standard for our relationships: whether in marriage, family, or the assembly.
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