Over the last several years I have had the privilege of uniting couples in the bond of holy matrimony. Along with that privilege, are the pre-marital counseling sessions, which are attached to the previous months before they tie the knot—these sessions are imperative, and I won’t perform a wedding without them. There are numerous reasons as to why I demand pre-marital counseling, and you may name some of them; covenant, vows, unity of souls, respect, money, children, etc., etc. But there is one aspect of every marriage that must be addressed to help sustain a long-lasting and healthy bond—that is communication.
I’ve witnessed couples that are blissfully engaged. They’re beaming with joy to sit in the pastor’s office and discuss marriage, dates, and ceremony possibilities. OK, some are not so joyful—some are actually nervous. But my job is to not only make sure that the two are not unevenly yoked (2 Cor 6:14) and understand the noble and big step they are taking, but my desire is to make sure that they can understand one another. Let’s be honest, it seems that women speak a different language than men. This can be a fatal flaw for the marriage—and it’s not that men don’t understand women, it’s that neither party understands, knows how to listen, or how to communicate. I’m going to share a few pieces of advice and one of the best exercises that I invented for helping two individuals communicate as one.
Married couples must pick up on the non-verbals; otherwise known as body language. I had one couple in the office regarding their conflict—this was years after marriage (btw, I did not marry them). When I brought up to the husband how the wife was crying out for his affection and attention, the husband denied my claim and declared, “But that’s just it pastor, she doesn’t want to get intimate, she just rolls over in the bed with her back to me.” I said, “No, that IS it—she’s screaming out to you—don’t touch me—there is a huge problem—but you’re not picking up on her body language.”
Body language is so important, and anyone who uses texting or social media understands this all too well—there is no tone, inflection, or gesture to display the real message. I’m the type of guy (sort of typical), that when I get annoyed, I clam up and my wife has to “pry” my emotions open. But I have learned over the years that she knows me so well—she sees the warning flags and I the same with her. When I observe a couple coming into counseling and they sit in separate chairs; one leaning towards the left and the other leans towards the right, with both crossing their arms, I think, “Oh boy, I have my work cut out for me now—Holy Spirit I need your help.” Why? Because they have already told me they’re not going to listen, are butting heads, and have no intention of going forward in humility—all they want is a pastor’s approval for their behavior. Crossed arms usually mean the person is guarding their heart or putting up a defensive wall. Watch for body language—learn what the other is saying or not saying. Observation goes a long way in love.
OK, I hate to divulge this information, as it is my favorite part of the pre-marital counseling, and those who I counsel may be reading this article. But I invented this game for the sole purpose of helping couples better understand one another. Plus, marriage counseling can be boring, didactic, and cold—I’m a people person and I want the couple to love one another and also to have fun. What I came to realize is not that guys communicate one specific way and that women only speak in one manner, but that each person is very unique (although there are some generalities).
At the end of the first session, I assign homework. I ask each person to go shopping and find three specific items (or use items from home). The three items are as follows: find one item that you believe represents you, one item that you believe represent the other, and one item that you believe represents the way people perceive you. Each person must keep the items hidden until the second session, when they will be revealed (this means you shop alone).
This game is a great exercise in teaching each person how he or she communicates. For instance, I had one man bring in a teddy bear to represent himself—loveable, dependable, never too harsh, and always willing to give a hug and snuggle—one of the “Oh, how cute,” moments. His spouse-to-be laughed, because she went to his home days before the exercise and hunted for the same teddy bear that he used! This was a good thing—in that both saw the person in the same manner. She, on the other hand, when choosing an item for herself, chose a diamond ring. I turned and looked at the gentleman and said, “Oh boy, you know you’re in trouble, right?” I advised him that she was a complex person, many-faceted (which she gladly agreed), a person who has been crushed previously in her first marriage, but wants you to know that she’s beautiful and has any sides to her personality. All of this from a diamond ring? Yes.
This exercise helped the groom to see that his bride was not going to always want the hugs and snuggles, or to talk things out, or be left alone—this was a complex person and we discussed what communication would like between the two. While I was excited to see them choose the same things for him, I was more excited that we were able to “cut, the problems of guessing, off at the pass.” Each item will inevitably tell the other person how they communicate. A teddy bear shows, “I’m not going to argue and will be passive as much as I can.” I had one woman bring in a chocolate chip cookie to represent her husband-to-be; “He’s hard and crusty on the exterior, but sometimes there’s a morsel of sweetness to be found.” I also had one guy bring in a rubber chicken for the bride—this was not going to go over well, I thought, but she loved it—because she’s a jokester. He knows not to take her sarcasm literally—but then we addressed why sarcasm can hurt. You see, all of these things are just exercises, but married couples must learn to communicate, whether non-verbally, or verbally. Learn how each person says, “I love you.”
Remember the movie, The Princess Bride, as Farm-boy said, “As you wish,” and this meant that he loved her and she understood that. Likewise, your spouse has a language that is to be loved and listened to—take the time to invest in your spouse—in grey areas of your relationship, expose them, develop them, and engage them.