Marriage Predictors pt. 6 – Common Vocabulary

When Jeff and I we were engaged we read a book together called His Needs Her Needs – How to Build An Affair Proof Marriage by W. Harley. It is a good marriage book, one that we have recommended and given to many others through the years. In it, the author describes a concept called a love bank. We each have one and our significant other is either putting in deposits or making withdrawals all the time by either meeting or ignoring each other’s most basic relational needs. The challenge of course, is that men and women have different needs we expect and want our spouse to meet. For example, a woman’s greatest need is for affection. A man’s greatest need is for…how shall we say, a very specific kind of affection. And over the years, if you or your spouse make more withdrawals than deposits, the both of you can become vulnerable to looking for someone else to meet your needs.

My purpose today is not to write a book review and I am not saying you should rush out and read this particular one. It only covers a specific perspective on what is an incredibly complex and multi-layered thing. It may speak to you at this point in your relationship or it may not. But

Here is Dr. Oehring, my East German dentist. She let me take this photo right before she started drilling. Can I just say that this is one of those moments you want to make sure you've been clearly understood!

the experience of reading a book together did something very powerful for Jeff and I that has strongly benefitted our marriage over the years – and this is what I want to write about here. Early on, it gave us a common vocabulary with which to talk about and begin building our marriage.

Let me illustrate how important vocabulary can be. While living in Germany I developed a cavity that needed immediate attention, which meant a trip to my East German dentist. (The story is one of my favorites from my time overseas) The problem for me was that they don’t cover dental vocabulary in most language courses. So rather quickly, I had to learn how to say things like, “drill, cavity, root canal, ‘it hurts here’ and ‘Novocaine, please'”. Trust me, not having the right vocabulary at the dentist can be a very, very painful experience. Not having the right relational vocabulary for your marriage can be too. 

One thing couples must do in order to not just survive but thrive in their marriage is to be able to talk. To be able to talk about and correctly name their problems. To be able to talk about their problems in such a way that both are able to find solutions. To be able to find solutions to their problems so that both come away from the conflict feeling more invested in and not wounded by their relationship. To be able to talk with one another about truly deep, important and potentially very intimate things and know the other person has heard and understood exactly what they said and meant.

Because marriage inevitably brings relational conflict. Sooner or later, people who live together are going to have to solve problems together. And the ability of a couple to safely and articulately work through whatever their issues are is a powerful predictor of marriage success. This means couples have got to learn to talk to each other. And it can be so much harder than you would think. Ask any couple married more than a few years and I’m sure they will confirm this.

One of the things I’ve seen over the years is how woefully ill-equipped many of us are with a good, mature-relationship vocabulary. Couples that can’t state clearly what they want and need from the other are heading for trouble sooner or later.

After 17 years of being together, Jeff and I are still figuring this out. In fact, we have a whole new set of things to talk about in this season of marriage that we didn’t early on, thus constantly stretching our relational vocabulary and communication skills. Improving a relationship is a never-ending process for those who want to do it well. But we do know what phrases and words ring in each other’s hearts, that communicate something clearly. We’ve got a common vocabulary. A common set of relational concepts. And we are able to recognize when we’ve been heard. Our ability to do this started with us reading a book together and talking about it.

So a recommendation to couples today would be to read good, well-written relationship books together. Ask your successfully married friends for recommendations. Don’t just read the latest book, but read a few that have passed the test of time. And use those books to introduce new ideas into your conversations; to increase relational and emotional vocabulary so that you have more things to talk about and more ways to do it.

Marriage book recommendations are now being accepted in the comments section!

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Marriage Predictors pt. 5 – Touch

“I don’t know what your marriage normally looks like and I don’t claim to know what it should look like, but I think maybe y’all need to have more sex.”

(Quotes like this might explain why my experiences as a counselor/mentor have been so, um , quotable…)

I don’t know where stuff like this comes from,  but as soon as I said it to my younger, “not-married-as-long” friend, I recognized it as true. Something was lacking in how they related to each other. Physically. And if I could see it from the outside, I was sure they were feeling it on the inside. (For the record, she agreed with my assessment.)

The point I was trying to make with my young friend is that the sexual/physical component of her marriage is much more important than she thought it was. It isn’t just a fringe benefit, but an intricate component of how two married people relate to each other. And if this area is suffering, it is pretty much a given that the rest of the marriage is suffering too. And that means the husband and wife are suffering as well.

I’ve often said to the young married wives in my relational circles,  “Sex should be what happens when our bodies get to do what our hearts already have.”  So the bedroom is more than just the playroom. What is going on there can provide a glimpse of what is happening, or will happen, in the rest of the relationship. Where the heart goes, the body follows.

While, the sexual relationship between husband and wife is a most private one and not open for all to see,  how a couple interact physically in public is. And here lies my point. How a couple touches in public, how they look at each other, how they relate to each other in front of others – this can be a predictor.

A young single friend of mine once went to meet a married couple who were friends of his for an evening out. He met them at the end of their dance lesson where they were learning a new step together. His response to watching how they touched each other, how they interacted physically?

“Ah. They make me want to be married.”

How a married couple ‘dances’ in public tells a lot about the quality of their marriage in private. Body language can be an incredibly powerful predictor. Does a couple look at each other with love and affection in their eyes? Is respect evident in how they touch? Do their hands just fit in such a way that their being together and being in each other’s space, feels and looks like the most natural place for them to be? Does a couple’s public interaction with each other stir in others a desire for that type of marriage? Does it point to how God might want to tenderly and affectionately relate to us?

I’ve also learned through the years that how a married couple ‘dances’ in public also teaches single people much about whether they want to be married one day themselves. I meet many young college students and they say something like this, “If what I’ve seen of marriage is what it is, then I don’t want any part of it.” I find it incredibly sad that we have messed up one of God’s most treasured gifts to us so badly, a whole generation is rejecting it.

And sometimes I’ve found that when I intentionally touch Jeff gently, in a way that tells him how I love him, trust him, want to be with and near him, my heart follows. 

So my suggestion today is for couples to give some thought on what their public body language between each other reflects about the quality of their relationship in private. What does it say to your spouse about your feelings towards them? What is it growing in your heart towards them? Greater intimacy or greater distance? What words come to mind when others see you together and how you touch each other? Would you make them want to have the type of relationship you have?

Marriage Predictors pt. 4 – Tour de Marriage

I’ve got this young friend who has not only done ministry with us over the years, but she’s one of those people who comes over and …it’s like time hasn’t passed. She is easily one of the smartest people I’ve met  (working on her doctorate in anthropology) and one of the most missional

Oddly enough, this is a photo of my friend at a "Don't Want To Be" Party - where people came dressed as something they didn't want to be. Obviously, at the time, she didn't want to be married. Funny how God works, isn't it?

(living in an urban neighborhood of Atlanta so she can be a part of incarnating Christ there). She hasn’t lived a charmed life by any stretch of the imagination, yet she loves Jesus. And now she’s getting married to a very fortunate young man. He’s cute too.

They came over recently and introduced us to a concept they created called the Tour de Marriage. Like the Tour de France is a bicycle race around France, in the months preceding their marriage, they are ‘taking a tour’ of all the good marriages in their circle of friends. It is a time to ask questions, to be asked questions, to gain wisdom and input from those who have gone before them.

What a great idea!!! I told them I was totally stealing it (although very much giving credit where it is due) because it was one of the best marriage ideas I’ve heard in a long time. Young people seeking wisdom from older people. Older people offering wisdom to younger people. Experienced married people mentoring engaged and newlywed people. Imagine! The concept is so good in fact, you’d think it was God’s…oh wait… it is. (2 Tim. 2:2, Tit. 2:3-7, 2 Tim. 3:10-11)

The fact is, there is nothing new under the sun. Marriage is as old as people are. And the experiences of those who have done it well are available for those intentional enough to seek it out and brave enough to ask.

I’m sure a very positive predictor of marriage – those character qualities, behavior patterns and practices that lead to healthy, loving marriages – is the presence of marriage mentors in one’s life. And the practice of asking for help, opinions and stories that encourage and teach is an incredibly smart thing to do.

Right after Jeff and I married, we had the chance to sit with a couple who had been married almost 75 years. Yes, I said that right. In true South Georgia style, they were married very young and were now very old, still holding hands as they rocked together on their farm. So Jeff and I tried to seize the moment and asked them what advice they might give a couple who had been married for a few weeks. They said something that has stuck with us since.

With a strong country accent they said emphatically, “No matter what, just keep on talking. When you quit talking to each other, you quit solving problems. So talk a lot.”

Communication. Wisdom. From someone who knew. Priceless. And it was trustworthy because they had so obviously worked this truth out in their 7 decades of marriage.

I would encourage any young couple out there reading this to plan your own Tour de Marriage. Find a few couples in your circles who seem to be doing marriage well. Ask for some of their time. Ask questions. Ask them to ask you questions and to share things you don’t even know to ask. Listen really well. And then take what they say as the basis for intentional conversations between the two of you going forward. And put their advice to practice early in your marriage – building it right the first time instead of having to repair something later.

This practice predicts very good things for married couples.

Here is a link to my friend’s website if you want to read about someone making a difference in a difficult place.  Vine City  http://www.vinecity.blogspot.com/

Not Tying It Up With A Bow (Heart Stuff pt. 12)

Jer. 20:9 But if I say, “I will not mention him or speak any more in his name,” his word is in my heart like afire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.

I am a communicator and I have a story that I want to tell, that I am compelled to share. Some days, like Jeremiah, I feel it will burst out of me if I don’t speak it out loud (or write it down) and know someone heard it. Valued it. I have to know that the things God has placed in my life have a purpose and are being redeemed for something greater.

Yet, sometimes it is difficult for me to communicate. Because I know in my heart what it is I am trying to say. And I think I know how I want it to come out. Really well. Really polished. Using all the right words, telling the story in the right order. Shading my meanings, illustrating my points, painting the meaning of it all into the lives of those who are listening – so that they get it. So that someone gets me. And if I’m honest, I also want it to make me look like a good communicator in the process. Sigh.

What I’m finding is in that moment, when I come to the parts of my story where things radically change, where events converge, where the narrative takes on a cohesive form and things begin to make sense, where the climax is imminent and I can’t wait to connect with another person from my very heart…sometimes words fail. The gap between what I want to say and how it comes out seems huge! And I am heartbroken. 

A friend reminded me of a great truth recently. We were talking about this very problem of communicating big truths from my heart to another’s and she basically said, “Deanna, you don’t have to tie it all up with a bow.” I’m still reeling from the power of this sentence.

Oh, I should give some thought to how I want to express myself. Good communicators meticulously think through how their message will be received and how to make that reception as easy and clear as possible.  But sometimes, such clinical precision takes away from the raw emotion of one heart opening up to another. Sometimes it is ok for my story to be messy. For me to sound inarticulate, because what I’m trying to say is so big, so meaningful, that sometimes it stretches just a bit beyond my words – and all I’m left with is a, “You know what I mean?” And I can only hope they do.

Part of the compulsion for perfection comes from the fear of that moment when I pour my deepest emotions out, hoping they know what I mean, and I see in their eyes they don’t. Or, they do get what I am trying to say, but they reject it.  And by extension, reject me. Here is the communicator’s dilemma – to share and risk misunderstanding, to risk rejection. Or not to share at all and risk blowing up. Sigh.

What I’m learning is that the art of communication is sometimes as messy as the acquisition of things valuable enough to talk about. (FYI – for you teachers out there, that is a very important concept.)

And that is ok. One of the major things communication is about is connection. About the relationship that undergirds the conversation. It is about one heart reaching out to another, to be heard, to be accepted, to be loved. And the stuff of relationship, of connection is really rather messy.

While I am in no way endorsing sloppy communication (and written communication often falls into a different category) what I am saying is it is ok to share your story without it being perfect. Sometimes the presentation isn’t nearly as important as the content or the connection trying to be made.

And I’m left wondering what might happen if in some of our closest relationships, we dropped the need to tie things up with a bow, to wrap the story up with exact words and just concentrated on the content and relational glue that holds it all together?

Marriage Predictors pt. 3 – Making Smart Choices

Another great marriage predictor (those character qualities, behavior patterns and practices that predict relational trajectory) lies in the choices both partners make. I’m not talking about the choice of whom to marry, although that most certainly is important! And I’m not necessarily talking about the more rare, life-changing decisions that tend to worry us most.  I’m talking about the daily choices each makes in the course of their relationship. They are usually small, easy to excuse and easy to miss and dismiss. But their cumulative effect over the years can be astronomical. For example:

Choosing to put the other first in those moments when you know you deserve to go first.

Choosing to spend time together, even when you’ve got other things to do.

Choosing to turn off the electronics completely in a conversation so they know they really do have your undivided attention.

Choosing to engage in conversation when all you really want to do is veg out on the couch with the remote.

Choosing to intentionally nurture the physical side of the relationship, even when you just want to roll over and go to sleep.

Choosing to laugh together. Often. Even when you might rather argue.

Choosing to go to that restaurant, watch that movie, talk about that subject, wear that shirt – just because you know your spouse would like it.

Choosing to hold your tongue in a moment of anger because you recognize intense emotion can lead you to say something you can’t ever take back. And reckless words are among the greatest destructor of marriages. (Pr. 12:18)

Choosing not to correct them publicly when they are telling a story you’ve heard a hundred times and you know they are telling it wrong.

Choosing to speak gently at a moment when they need correction.

Choosing to give up the great opportunity you’ve always wanted to pursue because you know it would hurt your marriage, home life or family.

Choosing to do their chores for a bit, just because you know they are tired. And that it would make them happy.

Choosing to hold their hand, touch their arm or sit closely because you want them to know you are near.

Choosing to ask for help from other older couples when you hit a relational roadblock.

Choosing to invest in your marriage with time, affection, conversation, fun – even in those seasons when it feels like work.

Choosing not to hide your stuff, feelings, issues even when they’ve stayed hidden so successfully for so long.

Choosing to open the door, get a cold drink for them, do the laundry, cuddle in bed, praise the other – just because. For nothing in return. Just because you want to show them you value them.

Choosing to stop talking for a bit and just listen. To ask questions and wait till the full answer emerges – because you not only want to hear the answer, but because you want your partner to feel heard.

Choosing to say you love them in the style they hear it, not in the style you want to say it.

It is here, in the day-to-day choices we make, that hide in the daily grind and are so often overlooked or excused away – it is here where we either gradually build or eventually destroy our relationships. Couples who develop the discipline of making the right choices set themselves on a very healthy relational trajectory, towards love and affection even in their old age.

Let me tell you what I love about this video (in case you missed it – this is an older couple accidentally recording themselves while trying to figure out the video camera)…listen to how sweetly the man talks to his wife. Even when he doesn’t know he’s being recorded, even when they are trying to figure out how in the world this computer thingy works, he nurtures her, compliments her, encourages her. And if I heard it right, at the 1:50 mark, he asks her to drop her dress. They’ve clearly made quite a few right choices over the years.