From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Everyday Grace: Marriages in step

by Lori Fontana

(From the Sept. 13, 2001 edition of the Inland Register)

It’s the final week of our sabbatical year in Dublin, Ireland. As I walked home from the bus stop yesterday, I saw ahead on the footpath our neighbors, Bill and Birdie. They were walking arm in arm, their feet perfectly in step with each other, moving at a lively pace. There is a picture of love, I thought. Walking together, side by side, in perfect rhythm.

Birdie is 81; Bill is 86. They’ve been at this marriage “thing” for a long, long time. My husband and I enjoy walking together, but often our walking “rhythms” are different, and we end up bouncing and swaying, occasionally bumping into each other. We haven’t quite mastered the smooth glide I observed in Bill and Birdie. But we’re working at it.

What keeps marriages in step for the long haul? What keeps a married couple walking side by side, rather than one partner dragging the other along, running ahead, or moving off on a different path?

Common values are not enough. One couple we know is divorcing. Husband and wife are good people, praying people, each with a strong belief in marriage and family. What’s missing? What more do we need to help our marriages last?

Four elements that I believe are vital to modern married life are negotiation, communication, listening, and self-awareness. All of us are weak in some or all of these areas. But take heart! These are skills that we can learn.

Negotiation is a skill highly prized today in the political and financial realms. But negotiation in personal relationships must have consensus as its goal, rather than domination. When husband and wife are at odds over an issue or decision, how can they work together, “walk together,” to a resolution with which both can live? If the couple’s basic goal is unity, each partner will look for an outcome that is “win-win.” Neither partner will be the “loser.” A couple we know asks each other, “Well, even if this isn’t your first choice, can you live with it?”

Negotiation requires the very basic skill of communication. Can we say exactly what we mean and feel? Can we stick to the issue at hand, without dredging up 10 years of disagreements? Can we speak in a tone that is assertive without being aggressive? Learning these aspects of clear, loving communication helps both partners express their own needs while still regarding the needs of the other.

A key aspect of communication is listening. How well do we listen to our spouse? What blocks our truly hearing what the other is saying? Can we listen with head and heart? The art of listening involves body language, the tilt of our head, the look in our eyes — these things can invite or discourage communication.

One good technique is to repeat back to the speaker what you have heard her say. This shows the speaker that you are hearing her, and prompts you to listen well!

A skill foundational to these other three is self-awareness. When we are aware of our own needs, motives, desires, and blocks to communication, then we can navigate through them as we negotiate, communicate, and listen to our spouse.

Here’s a real-life example of the value of these communication skills. We frequently drove through a neighborhood with unmarked intersections. My husband didn’t slow down at the intersections. On each drive, I would remark sharply, “Slow down! Watch out! You’re going too fast!”

He would respond with, “Who’s driving this car, anyway?”

We were getting nowhere with these remarks flung back and forth. I wasn’t trying to negotiate or accurately communicate with him because I wasn’t really aware of my true feelings. Deep down, I was frightened, afraid of being hit by another car at one of those intersections. Finally , I communicated clearly: “I am afraid when you don’t slow down at the unmarked intersections.”

My husband listened and responded, “I love you. I don’t want you to be afraid. I can slow down at the intersections.”

These four elements were all present: my awareness of my real issue; my communicating this clearly; my husband’s listening; and our negotiating a “win-win” solution.

These are skills which we can learn, and we needn’t be experts at each one, just “good enough.” With patience and hard work, over a lifetime we can be as “in step” with our spouse as was Birdie with Bill.

(Lori Fontana works in evangelization ministry for the Diocese of Yakima.)

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