The first time I met Sarah and Tom, I thought that they were a special couple. They were attending a new preparing-for- marriage class I was teaching. They stood out not just because they were sitting in the front row but because they just seemed to get it. They saw the bigger picture. They understood that a good marriage would take a lot of work, and they already knew God had to come first.
Almost seven years later, I got a call one day at my office from Sarah. She asked me if I remembered her and Tom, and when I said yes, she broke down in tears and said they were about ready to give up on their marriage.
I have been counseling people for a long time and nothing much surprises me, but this call from Sarah did. What in the world had happened to this couple who at the start seemed on the right track to build a successful marriage?
As we talked and unpacked the past seven years, they’d had no major marriage-altering event. No affair. No pornography. No abuse. No addictions. Instead, I saw a series of baby steps that took them away from each other over a long period of time.
Tom and Sarah’s story was one I hear often from couples. Life happens, and because they quit communicating in the day to day, they lose connection.
Connecting Versus Coexisting
If you’ve had any exposure whatsoever to marriage resources, you know what experts say is essential over and over again: communication.
But in all this hype about communication, here’s what is often missed: communication does not simply mean the talking kind. It means connection in a special way. Most couples communicate pretty well before marriage. I have seen surveys that usually put that number at around three hours a day. On the other hand, surveys say a few years into marriage, those same couples will spend an average of five minutes a day communicating.
What happens? The reasons may vary from couple to couple, but the bottom line is that we quit making it a priority. We lose sight of God’s design.
Three Keys to Connecting Well
The foundation of successful communication is first and foremost found in looking in the mirror. How does your spouse view you? What are the qualities you possess as a spouse? All of this informs how your spouse will frame you in his or her mind, and it’s to your own advantage to keep this in mind when you’re not connecting.
As we take this hard, close look in the mirror to see what our spouse sees in us, I’ve found three qualities are particularly worth paying attention to:
Compassion is accomplished through acceptance. It is the acceptance of another’s thoughts, feelings and actions. It is letting them be who God created them to be and not trying to change them into who we want them to be.
It took my wife Nancy and me a long time to get this. Nancy wanted to be able to tell me everything and have no fear of judgment. She wanted me to be able to love her as she was and let God make the changes in her that He wanted to make. I did not do that at first.
Today, I am better at it. She is better at it, and do you know what we discovered? That was God’s plan all along. God will never make me into anyone who is not perfect for Nancy or her into anyone not perfect for me. He values marriage too much. He wants our marriage to succeed and to be fulfilling. Whatever He does to bring about change in my life or hers will help accomplish that purpose.
So accept each other. Accept your differences, because you have them. You are different so you can grow and challenge each other and be able to say after 50 years of marriage that your life was so much better because you were married to that person.
It is not just what we say; authenticity is about how we say it. It is building a relationship over time that lets your spouse know that what you say is real and sincere. It is a combination of integrity, honesty and a desire to honor God with your life. It is an incredible foundation that is rock solid.
We are all going to mess this up at one time or another. When it happens, be quick to acknowledge your mistake, and then learn from it.
Marriage is a time of learning and growing and figuring out how to honor God with our lives. At times, the going is tough. I used to acknowledge wrongs quickly but had trouble taking full responsibility for my actions. That needed to change. Then, I asked God what He wanted me to do differently and what I needed to learn out of the experience. That put things in a different perspective. My accountability was now to God. That made a difference in me and in my marriage. That built a foundation of genuineness.
In the Bible, Jesus talks to us about being servants. My impression is that this is both in our actions and in our attitudes. For me, it means putting my selfish desires aside and putting Nancy before myself.
For me, empathy involves asking myself two questions. I ask myself, “Exactly what is her perspective?” Then the game-changing question for me: “How is her perspective different from mine?”
When I take the time to ask those two questions, I connect better with Nancy. She knows I care, and she knows I have taken the time and made the effort to understand her.
When was the last time you tried to put yourself in your spouse’s shoes? There are opportunities every day to do this. Start today. Ask God to show you an opportunity to be empathetic. Then do it. You will be amazed at the results.
Compassion, authenticity and empathy work together to lay the foundation of how your spouse views you. No matter where your marriage is today, take time to look in the mirror. Ask yourself these questions. What does your spouse see? How are they interpreting your words and actions? What needs to change?
Dr. Kim has been a professional counselor for over 30 years. He holds a Ph.D. and a Doctor of Ministry in Christian Counseling and is the author of 7 Secrets to an Awesome Marriage. Find him online at iwantanawesomemarriage.com and on Twitter @kimkimberling.