In our marriage seminars, we often say ‘Marriage is a contact sport’. But unlike other sports, in this game, the contestants are on the same team, or at least should be.
Building a fulfilling marriage requires a strong sense of connection between us, a union that pervades all areas of our life: emotional, intellectual, spiritual, social, physical.
One of the most common ways we develop this sense of union is through verbal communication. It ranges from shallow cliché conversations to intimate sharing of our inner life. It is this intimate sharing that is especially important for us to develop a deep knowledge of each other so that a bond of understanding and acceptance can be established.
Intimate emotional connection between a couple requires a preparedness to be both honest and vulnerable. Sound easy? Well perhaps for some of us, but for most of us it’s actually quite tricky. The good news is, it’s a learned skill with great rewards for making the effort.
In intimate verbal communication, both the ‘speaker’ and the ‘listener’ have distinctly different roles. When either of us fail in our role, our discussions become, at best miscommunication and, at worst hurtful exchanges that all to quickly escalate from disagreements to full-blown arguments; without either of us intending to go there.
It’s no wonder we often sit there caught between not wanting to rock the boat, but at the same time hungering for the richness that great conversations between us can engender.
This is why we think it’s sometimes helpful to think of marriage like a contact sport. High contact sports only work when there are clear and well understood rules of engagement; without this, they descend into chaos. The rules of engagement don’t guarantee no one will get hurt, but they allow the game to be a net positive outcome for all involved and to reduce the risk of hurt. Sound a bit like a good marriage? It does to us.
Our marriage is more like a State of Origin* than badminton game… and we wouldn’t have it any other way even when at times we feel slightly concussed. We play pretty hard but it’s also exciting and it pushes us to be a real team together.
So, if marriage is a bit like a contact sport, it follows that there are ‘rules of engagement, a code by which the game is defined: the objective, the permitted moves, the prohibited behaviours and the penalties. The rules make the game safe for the players as well as purposeful and thus more satisfying.
In applying this analogy to marital communication where the objective (the try-line) is couple unity, we’ve devised some Rules of Engagement to provide a structure to make our communication effective and safe. These rules help us to avoid the two most common disruptions to intimate conversation: the failure to express ourselves clearly and sensitively (a rule for ‘speakers’), and the failure to listen for understanding and communion (a rule for ‘listeners’).
In this column, we’ll focus on those that apply to the ‘speaker’ role and in the next we’ll feature the rules of engagement for the ‘listener’.
Three Rules for the Speaker
The most helpful thing to remember as the Speaker, is to be ‘I’ focussed. By this, we’re not referring to being self-centred, but to the letter ‘I’ to remember three important rules.
Firstly, we need to focus on sharing our Inner life, namely our emotions and needs, rather than opinions and judgments. Our emotions are a window into our unique interior life. This is where self-awareness is crucial – for we cannot share what we do not know. The most effective way for us to undertake this is via the process of private, individual reflection, preferably in writing.
Self-awareness is based in understanding my aspirations, vulnerabilities, motivations, desires, and fears. The best way to deepen my self-awareness is by reflecting on and naming my feelings and emotions as they are symptomatic reflections of deep spiritual needs and desires.
The second rule of engagement is to use ‘I’ sentencing, that is, sentences that start with “I feel/felt…” or “I am/was…” Relying on ‘I’ sentences reorientates us on sharing our emotions and needs and away from judgements (‘you’ sentences) and opinions (‘I think’ sentences). Judgements about the other cause defensiveness and opinions are not really helpful in achieving an intimate emotional connection.
Here’s an example of how much difference this simple idea can have. Instead of writing or saying, “You let me down” (a judgement), this could be rephrased as “I felt hurt and unimportant when that happened” (emotion-focussed).
Another habit to avoid is ‘I feel that’ sentences which are really ‘I think’ sentences in disguise. If you can substitute the word ‘feel’ with ‘think’, it’s a sign that it’s a judgement. Listen to the difference between these two sentences: “I feel that you don’t care about me” (a judgement) and “I feel lonely and uncared for” (emotion-focussed). Being on the receiving end of ‘I feel that’ sentences, makes us defensive rather than inspiring empathy.
The third rule of engagement is to embellish my description of my emotions with details of Intensity, Images and Impact. This brings my experience to life for the other.
Being scientists, we like to use a number scale from 1-10, but we can also use words, to describe the intensity of our emotion. For example, “It’s a moderately strong emotion, about 5 or 6 on the scale”.
The second embellishment is through the use of Images, that is, by using adjectives, similes and imagined scenes to build up an emotional word picture. For example, “I feel energetic and busy, like bumble bees in summer” is so much richer than simply saying, “I feel energised”.
The final embellishment is the Impact of my emotion which describes any physical sensations associated with the emotion and how it affects my perception and influences my reactions. Here are a couple of examples. “I felt so nervous my hands were sweaty and shaking” or “I was so despondent, I just let everything go including my appearance.”
So, there you have it, three simple rules for the ‘speaker’: Inner life self-revelation, use I sentences, and embellish with Intensity, Image & Impact. It’s easy to remember if you keep it ‘I’ focused.
Sound too simple? Or maybe too hard? Well before you dismiss it take a moment to look at a real example of this in action from our own marriage
For the first few years of our marriage, whenever Byron was late home from work, Francine would communicate her upset with a frosty greeting. He knew she was upset but she never detailed how his actions impacted on her emotionally. Consequently, he felt unfairly judged and defensive, while she felt frustrated and grew increasingly irritated.
We really weren’t communicating well at all. We were obviously both upset but instead of resolving the issue, it became a recurring issue of deep hurt.
The breakthrough came when Francine used the rules of play to reflect on her experience. Here’s what she wrote: “When you phoned to say you’d be late getting home, I immediately felt annoyed. I had been planning a relaxed evening together, so when you called, I felt cranky and flustered. It’s a feeling like having a fly buzzing around my face or when I set out to do a list of jobs, and at the end of the day, I’ve done practically nothing. I guess I was disappointed – my plans for an evening together were now gone – but all I felt was an anger rising to the surface. All of a sudden, the kids were driving me mad and I lost my patience with them. I knew that I shouldn’t let it get to me, but every time this situation occurs, I have the same reaction – annoyance! I think it’s because I feel irrelevant and less important than your job, like the kid who’s always waiting for Dad to finish so he can kick the ball with him. In a crazy way, I feel sort of jealous that your work colleagues have more time with you than I do, and the best time with you, when you’re fresh and alert. And that hurts. I understand that your job is unpredictable and that sometimes it’s beyond your control to be able to leave on time – I don’t want you to feel unsupported or unappreciated. Even so, it still stings when you are late, and it hurts when my hopes for time together are lost. I guess my annoyance is really a cover for feeling hurt and insignificant to you. I find it really hard, then, to welcome you home with the same enthusiasm, because I’m still hurting, and I’m not even thinking about what kind of day you’ve had, or how you may be feeling.”
When Byron was presented with this written explanation instead of the usual grumpy greeting, his defensiveness immediately dissipated. All he had ever experienced of Francine’s perspective was an angry reactivity and he simply had no idea that being late triggered so much pain in her.
Because she took the time to process her experience and document it in writing, she was able to get in touch with the softer emotions beneath the anger – jealousy, hurt, feeling insignificant. By including the images of buzzing fly and the kid waiting for Dad, he could immediately relate to her experience. And by noting the impact on behaviour (lost patience with the kids, welcome home is cold, lost her focus on him), she provided motivation to do things differently while still taking ownership of her reactions.
Importantly, there was no hint of judgement or blame. She didn’t say – “you make me feel irrelevant” or “I feel that you care more about your colleagues than me.” She’s taken full responsibility for her emotions, and she’s not making a judgement about his motives or intentions.
This was a breakthrough moment for us. It enabled us to more deeply understand what the other was experiencing in this all-too-frequent exchange. It opened up the conversation for us to both explore the tensions and pressures that made this situation such a hot topic for us. And most importantly, it enabled us to find a better way to manage what has been an ongoing reality of work-family balance.
The State of Origin*, or indeed any great sport, would never work without clear rules to enable the game to flow and the players to minimise injury. The rules make the game exciting for the players and thrilling for the spectators. Our Rules of Engagement have done the same for our marriage; they’ve made it a thrilling encounter where we can safely play hard.
*State of Origin – for the benefit of our international readers is a three game competition of rugby league football between Queensland and New South Wales.