Communication, negotiation, and collaboration are essential tools that contribute to a stable marriage. They are also complex topics that take more than one essay to discuss. In a previous article I approached the discussion by contrasting the effective employment of these tools against the harshness that results in their absence. Quoting St. John of the Ladder, "Worse however, is to give to harsh words which reveal the upheaval in one's soul" I explained how "rough speech and harsh gestures" drive the splinter of contention even deeper (Morelli, 2007). One simple tool that can avoid contention and harsh feelings is the Preference-Scale that introduces a practical way that couples can communicate and negotiate (Morelli, 2007b).
In this article I will introduce a cognitive guideline or in layman terms a way of thinking, that can also improve communication. Several years ago I counseled a couple that was unhappy, particularly the wife who initiated the counseling. She described the source of the unhappiness in her marriage as her "husband's obsession with golf." She indicated that he played golf every chance he got and that when he got home he was so tired he had no energy for anything else. She "hated" his golf friends and blamed them for her husband's "obsession."
The husband told a different story. He loved golf and saw nothing wrong with the game and reported that his golf friends were good and decent people. Interestingly, he communicated by innuendo that as husband and father he could be involved in activities "much worse" than golf such as engaging in marital infidelity, frequenting nude bars, gambling, etc. He perceived himself as hard working and enjoyed the relaxation golfing gave him. He loved his wife and family and provided for them. He was tired of the complaints and asked me, "What was wrong with the game"?
It became clear almost immediately that golf was not the problem. So I asked his wife, "If your husband was not playing golf or resting, what would you want him to do or say? She responded that she wanted him to spend several hours a weekend doing shared activities they both liked such as going to a movie, concert, shopping, the shore, or hiking a mountain trail. I asked the husband if he liked those activities. He did. The problem was that because they never planned anything in advance, he took the initiative to do what he loved the most: golfing. In fact, he noted that if his wife wanted to do those things and they could plan them out, he would gladly go.
On the surface the resolution appeared straightforward because no nefarious motives, no agenda, corrupted the relationship between the couple. I approached the issue in terms where each spouse tried to understand the view or the other. Once the wife understood that her husband needed relaxation, and the husband understood that his wife wanted to spend more time with him, a compromise was easily reached. Each received a behavioral practice-homework assignment (Morelli, 2006a,b,c). She would communicate to him what activity she would like him to do that specified the day, time, and approximate duration of the activity. He, in turn, would acknowledge the request, agree to it, and participate in the activity.
What seems easy on paper however, is usually harder in practice. Problems arose with the assignment that required some fine-tuning. For example, the wife would wait until the free day to plan an activity. Golf, however, required a two or three day lead-time to reserve a spot on the course. Since the decision about the shared activity was delayed, the husband would go ahead and schedule the tee time. Meanwhile the wife grew more frustrated, thereby starting the cycle of harshness and recrimination all over again.
Refining the behavioral practice-homework assignment
How did we fine-tune the assignment? The couple decided that a period of time would be left open every Saturday afternoon. The husband agreed not to schedule anything, not even golf. The wife agreed not to discuss golf or disparage her husband's golfing partners. Both would do something together in the allotted time. It proved to be a workable compromise. The husband scheduled his golf game earlier in the day, and the wife knew that they would be able to do something together later on.
Within weeks this negotiated strategy worked. At first the couple checked in with me by telephone regarding their plans. Soon they planned and executed their activities on their own. The problem was solved.
Unfortunately not all problems are this straightforward. Since this couple had good marital satisfaction to begin with, solving the problem was relatively easy. Golf seemed to be the only major point of contention. Nevertheless, an important principle was revealed that affects many marriages: often the apparent problem only masks the real problem. Even in this good marriage, golf was derailing their relationship, but focusing on golf would never heal it. What was needed was the targeting of their real problem, in this case was the husband's need for relaxation and the wife's need to be with her husband. Once the real problem emerged, collaboration and negotiation provided the solution, and thus the healing.
In many marriages, the targets of this type of misfocus include, friends, family, work, recreational activities, even church. This is not to say that these areas may not be a problem. For example, if a husband has a friend who influences him to frequent an adult lounge after work, his wife would correctly assess that this is not an appropriate friendship for her husband in terms of strengthening their marital bond. The moral orientation of this friend is a large problem, so much so that the friend would be seriously detrimental to a marriage in Christ. The wife would deal with this problem in terms of the debasing nature of the entertainment, as well as the detrimental influence of the friend on her husband. In situations other than these however, it is important to communicate only her real needs or desires in their relationship.
Working on problems in a marriage, the couple does well if they apply the characteristics Hausherr (1990) used in describing the spiritual father: "Charity and discernment are preeminent qualities." What he means is that one must remain pure and true toward their spouse, and must seek to understand what their spouse thinks and feels.
St. Maximus the Confessor defined discernment this way:
Again he who does not limit his perception of the nature of visible things to what his senses alone may observe, but wisely with his intellect searches after the essence which lies within every creature also finds God ... Discrimination (discernment) is the distinctive characteristic of one who probes (Philokalia II).
In modern terms, to seek discernment means to develop the capacity to recognize and know the truth about things and people. Further, were there is truth, there is God, the scriptures teach us. Thus, couples who get sidetracked by misfocusing are not on the path on which discernment can be exercised and the truth found. Rather, it is far better to focus on the real problem because that is where truth lies and the resolution found.
In this way, the adversity in marriage becomes the means by which great commandment to love the neighbor as oneself is realized. The words of the Apostle Paul are heard and applied:
I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature be thus minded; and if in anything you are otherwise minded, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained (Philippians 3: 14-16).
Further, as the truth is manifested, the sacred character of marriage becomes stronger. A couple may be able to say, when their time on earth is finished, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith" (2 Timothy 4:7).
Hausherr, I. (1990). Spiritual Direction in the Early Christian East. Cistercian Publications, St. Joseph's Abbey: Spencer, MA.
Morelli, G. (2006a, January 27). Understanding Brokenness in Marriage. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliMarriage2.php.
Morelli, G. (2006b, March 6). Asceticism and Psychology in the Modern World. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliMonasticism.php.
Morelli, G (2006c). Healing: Orthodox Christianity and Scientific Psychology. Fairfax VA: Eastern Christian Publications,
Morelli, G. (2007, May 15), Good Marriage III. Nagging: The Ultimate Marriage Over-Control. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles7/MorelliSmartMarriageIII.php.
Morelli, G. (2007b, June 5). Good Marriage IV: The "Preference Scale" - A tool for Communication, Negotiation and Collaboration. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles7/MorelliSmartMarriageIV.php.
Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, P. & Ware, K. (1981). The Philokalia, Volume 2: The Complete Text; Compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain & St. Markarios of Corinth . London: Faber and Faber.