By Paul Reisser and Teri K. Reisser
Your school days may be long behind you, but you never need to stop learning. Careers, hobbies, parenting — life is full of opportunities to grow and gain new knowledge. Unfortunately, there is one subject that far too many adults stop learning about: the person they married.
During the engagement period, most couples engage in an intoxicating process of "drinking in" the other person. Conversations have the air of "Tell me more; I'm all ears," and "I've got nowhere else to go." Each person feels heard, acknowledged and affirmed, and the result is intimacy — the deeply satisfying sense of knowing and being known by another person.
When a couple gets married and settles into everyday life, however, the responsibilities of work, housekeeping, child care, family finances and other commitments often move those "I'm all ears" conversations to the back burner. There's just no time. Husbands and wives are routinely exhausted, and their conversations become, at best, mere business discussions — "Who's picking up the kids?" or "Hey, we're out of milk." At worst, they're disagreements that can flare up into full-blown fights.
For these and other reasons, the natural drift in a marital relationship is to stop learning about the other person and to lose track of his or her thoughts and feelings.
After a few years (or decades) of this, a husband or wife may experience a very rude awakening:
- One night, in bed, she can't sleep while he snores and an ominous train of thought pulls into her mental station: I don't know this person in my bed anymore, and I'm not sure I want to.
- The wife that he thought was so compatible with his beliefs and future dreams makes a jolting announcement: "I don't believe in God anymore" or "I don’t have feelings for you anymore.”
- The last child leaves the nest, and a couple realizes that they have nothing to talk about.
- The need for these "tell me more" conversations that haven't happened at home for months or years is fulfilled by someone else, and this verbal intimacy leads to physical intimacy.
People who took their wedding vows with the utmost sincerity, who have been staunchly committed to faith and family, fall into trouble when they don't grow and change with their spouse throughout their marriage. We need to continually "update" our knowledge about our spouse.
That is why it is so important that you and your spouse continue to learn about each other throughout your marriage. Lifelong learning about your spouse requires time, communication, persistence, imagination, patience and ... did we mention time? Unless you create some space in your schedules to have these conversations, they won't happen.
Each week, set aside an hour or so to "check in" with your spouse — not for the business of running your home, but to find out what the other person is thinking and feeling. For these conversations to be productive, keep the following in mind:
- Timing is important. You can't share your heart with each other when you're rushed or exhausted.
- Distractions should be minimized. The TV should be off, phones out of reach, computers on sleep mode and kids engaged elsewhere or put to bed.
- Listening to the other person is critical. Rebuttals, watch checking and eye rolling all deliver intimacy-withering messages: "What you're saying is stupid" or "You shouldn't feel that way."
- Open-ended questions keep the communication flowing smoothly. "What do you think about ___?" "What most concerns you about ____?" "Can you help me understand ___?"
- Husbands, don't assume you need to help your wife "fix" something that's bothering her, unless she specifically asks you to. Wives, it's OK to let your husband know whether you're looking for a solution or merely a listening ear and a comforting hug.
- Don't be discouraged by misfires. Your best effort to draw the other person out could be interrupted by a crying child or might unintentionally open a wound or provoke an argument. Nothing works perfectly every time, so regroup and try again later.
The benefits of a regular checking-in routine can't be overestimated. For one thing, you are far less likely to be caught off guard by something that has been brewing in your spouse's mind and heart. Better yet, you have the opportunity to help your spouse sort through concerns that may be difficult to put into words. Walking together through this process creates both trust and closeness. When a couple makes this a regular habit, their bond is virtually unbreakable — and their marriage immensely satisfying.
- What was the best thing that happened to you this week?
- What was the worst thing?
- How did I best meet your needs this week?
- How did I least meet your needs this week? (Be careful: Don't become defensive when you hear the answer. Just listen!)
- What could I have done differently in that situation that would have been more helpful for us?
- What are you most worried about right now? (Note: This is the most important question you can ask.)
- Is there any way I can help you with that concern?
- What are you feeling right now?
Dr. Paul C. and Teri K. Reisser are the authors of Your Spouse Isn't the Person You Married.
From the Focus on the Family website at focusonthefamily.com. © 2010 Paul Reisser and Teri Reisser. All rights reserved. Used with permission.