Orthodoxy Today
Good Marriage XIV. The Anti-Negotiation Stumbling Block

We have discussed before how the love between husband and wife in a marriage is to be modeled on and enlivened by the love of the persons of the Holy Trinity for each other. God is Unity in Trinity (this is a great mystery), but we can at least say, given the limitation of our human understanding, that the Persons of the Holy Trinity relate to one another in perfect understanding. "Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God …" (Jn 13:3).

Jesus' Ministry of Communication

We could consider the ministry of Jesus to be one of communication. He came to reveal to us the truths he wanted us to know. Once revealed, it is now our responsibility to carry them out. Remember Jesus' words as recorded by St. John: "If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin" (Jn 15: 22). He wanted to tell his message and what he wanted in return to His apostles, disciples and all of who would be His followers in ages to come. This could easily be interpreted that without communication, there is attenuated responsibility. But Jesus did speak. He told them what he wanted them to know. Now the listeners have the responsibility to respond.

The Anti-Negotiation Problem

Unfortunately some married couples do not follow the example of Jesus in communicating with each other. They feel their spouse should spontaneously know and sense what they want and/or need. They may feel that to have to communicate is a sign of a lack of love. In fact it is quite the opposite — not communicating broadcasts a lack of love. Once again, in the example of Our Lord, early in his ministry he spoke in parables to those who were "hard of heart." St. Luke comments on the reason why Jesus did not speak, that is, communicate clearly: "But they did not understand this saying, and it was concealed from them, that they should not perceive it…" (Lk 9: 45). But for those whom He loves, because they love Him Jesus says: "…the hour is coming when I shall no longer speak to you in figures but tell you plainly of the Father" (Jn 16: 25).

Godly Christian Marriage

A couple in a blessed marriage are now of "one flesh." Spiritually, in the marital relationship a male and female become "one flesh" in the Holy Mystery of Matrimony by the grace of God sealed by the Holy Spirit. Recall Our Lord's words: "Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh?" (Mt 19: 4-5). To be "one flesh" implies that the two individuals work in concert to become one mind and heart in Christ. They are joined together in love in a way that replicates the way the Three Persons of the Trinity relate in love to one another. They are to relate to one another as in the love Jesus had for those who loved Him. They are thus to communicate, not in figures, but plainly. Of course they are to never assume their spouse will know what they want them to know or somehow as if by magic 'sense' their feelings. Jesus told his apostles how to speak. Consider His words: "…ask in my name…for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from the Father…" His disciples said, "Ah, now you are speaking plainly, not in any figure!" (Jn 16: 26-27,29). Husbands and wives (and children) speak plainly to one another.

It can be seen that Jesus' counsel and the apostles impression of "speaking plainly," fits with the necessity of behavioral pinpointing which I have discussed in other articles (Morelli, 2006). The definition of "pinpointing" is easy enough to comprehend: to be concrete in describing behavior; in this case to be concrete in describing what you want from your spouse. Indicate what you would like your spouse to do or say, and where and when you would like this to happen. Use concrete terms to describe the asked for behavior.

The Abstraction Trap

A wife may tell her husband, "I want you to be a better husband." Or she may say, "I want you to pay more attention to me." Alternatively, a husband may say to his wife: "I wish you would be more caring," or "I sure wish you would be a better housekeeper." These are abstract, meaningless requests (similar to how Jesus spoke "in figures" to those who did not love Him). Abstraction is the mother of ambiguity, which in turn is the mother of multiple interpretations, which in turn is the mother of discord. They keep hurling the abstract words back and forth at each other. Couples who find themselves in "abstract" (or no) communication often come to perceive the other as selfish and even evil. The misunderstood spouse tends to feel angry, deprived, depressed and or frustrated. Sometimes labeling, or name-calling arguments follow. Alternatively stonewalling, shutting the other out, a veritable marital cold war ensues.

Example of Behavioral Pinpointing

In the above example, in place of the abstract communication, the wife might say to her husband, "Charlie, I would like to spend at least a half hour before bedtime with you each evening alone together, and just talk and hold each other. This would allow us to share what happened during our day. I would feel much closer to you." "Joe, you are off every other Saturday and sometimes just tinker around the house, I would love to have a Saturday lunch with you for a couple hours and do something together." A pinpointed statement the husband may say to his wife: "Sally, I'll empty the dishwasher and put away the dishes every evening, I really don't like dishes piling up in the sink. I would really appreciate if you would rinse them and put them in the dishwasher right after dinner. Unwashed dishes breed germs and that is a real turnoff."

The Mind-Reading Error

In fact, to consider that the other, even a husband and wife, would know what the other is thinking and feeling without behavioral communication pinpointing, is to make the cognitive error of mind-reading (Burns, 1980, Morelli 2006a,b). Mind reading is the unrealistic cognition that one's partner should be able to know what the one is thinking, feeling or desiring. (All individuals perceive the world differently; it is the individual's responsibility to communicate to their spouse what their wants and needs are. It is also the responsibility of the spouses who mind-read to confront and oppos their own irrational assumptions). The mind-reading error has to be challenged. The three challenging questions for individuals given to this error to ask themselves are: Where is the evidence for what my spouse is thinking, or not thinking? Answer: I am assuming; I have no hard evidence. Is there any other way of looking at it? Answer: I have no evidence; I can ask my spouse directly what he or she wants. Is it as bad as it seems? I have no evidence, no direct knowledge, my feelings are baseless.

The Negotiation Alternative

Overcoming "speaking in figures," that is, employing pinpointed behavioral communication, thereby avoiding the abstraction trap and by overcoming the mind-reading error, sets the couple up to overcome the anti-negotiation stumbling block. Anti-negotiation is the cognitive set which indicates husbands and wives should not have to confer and discuss with their spouse what they want from the other. Conferencing and discussing each other's wants and needs is viewed as a lack of love in the relationship. Some consider negotiation as trivializing and cheapening the marriage and by making it businesslike. This attitude likens a husband and wife in a negotiation process to a stock or commodity market trade transaction.

Proper Understanding of the Scripture

The anti-negotiation attitude broadcasts a lack of understanding of the scriptures and church fathers concerning marriage. St. Paul tells us in the often quoted text on marriage: "Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it…" (Eph 5: 28-29). The key to understanding this passage is to see that if a husband loves his wife as his own body, nourishing it and cherishing it, the husband would know the wants and needs of his loved one. This takes conferral, discussion, in other words: communication and negotiation.

The often quoted beginning of this section of St. Paul's epistle is frequently used to justify an authoritarian, obsequious misogyny: "Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior" (Eph 5: 22-23). Such an interpretation fails to take into account the high regard that Jesus had for Mary, His mother. It was in discerning her want and desire that He would perform His first public miracle. The events recorded by St. John are so subtle they almost could go unnoticed. But the Miracle of Cana becomes an event in the context of Divine love that generated concern and thus 'conferencing' becomes a model for relating to one another and certainly between husband and wife. Mary tell Jesus, "They have no wine." And Jesus said to her, "O woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come." His mother said to the servants, "Do whatever he tells you" (Jn 2: 3-5).

Patristic Commentary

Very enlightening to the meaning of the often misunderstood words of St. Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians is the commentary on this passage by the great Church Father, St. John Chrysostom (2003): "Paul begins this passage by saying "Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ." It means the respect is basically without limits. The saint goes on: "If your spouse doesn't obey God's law, you are not excused. A wife should respect her husband even when he shows her no love, and a husband should love his wife even when she shows him no respect." This mutuality extended to what we have termed conferring. Discussion and negotiation can be seen in the example the Golden Mouthed Saint cites as an example: "Consider Abraham and Sarah…That household was united in harmony and piety, a perfect illustration of the apostolic precept. Sarah respected her husband; listen to her words: "It has not happened to me, and I am old and my lord is old also" (Gen 18:12, LXX). He loved her in return and always did what she asked.

Psychological Effects of Anti-Negotiation

Unfortunately, the psychological effects of anti-negotiation are rather dire. Because of the lack of pinpointed communication, of mind-reading, of not discussing and conferring, the marital partners rarely feel their husbands or wives understand them and provide for their needs. This invokes a cascading framing of the spouse's perceived attitudes and behavior as confirming the uncaring and unloving interpretations he has made. This is similar to the deleterious effects of the abstraction trap but in an anti-negotiation mode, that the relationship is a non- loving business. This attitude begins to color all marital interactions as a commodity exchange, which then widens and deepens the dysfunctional emotions of anger, anxiety, depression and solidifies the stonewalling communication shutdown, thereby increasing psycho-spiritual distancing from one's spouse.

Psychological Intervention

Husbands and wives in a blessed marriage who are not bound by the pernicious stumbling block of anti-negotiation are willing to get into the arena of negotiation. Those with the anti-negotiation attitude will have to first change their unfavorable perception of negotiation. They will first 'challenge' the assumption that discussion of 'wants and feelings' is a commodity. As said before, the three challenging questions can be asked. Where is the evidence? A spouse who gets angry at the thought of negotiation can re-evaluate the 'awfulness' and 'terribleness' of discussing and conferring on issues that the couple disagrees about. The use of the mental ruler technique is a useful tool in bringing about more realistic evaluations (cf. Morelli, 2005),

Did not Our Lord Himself sit with those who opposed Him and dialogue with them? Our Lord Himself could be the couple's psycho-spiritual model. Recall St. Matthew's description of Our Lord's action: "And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" (Mt 9:11). They will work toward a rational, sensible, understanding of their views until a mutual agreement can be reached. They will work at overcoming preconceptions that husbands and wives in love will have the same views or that they will automatically meet each others' needs without communication. They will accept the individuality of the other: that their spouse may have different yearnings and behavioral wants (Morelli, 2006d). They will learn to be assertive. Assertiveness is an honest and true communication of real feeling in a socially acceptable way. For the committed Orthodox Christian husband and wife (or any other Christian) an important corollary applies: All assertive pragmatics must be done in the love of Christ which includes patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control - what is known in scriptural terminology as the "fruit of the Spirit" (Gal 5: 22-23) (Morelli, 2006e).

Compromise will always be the outcome of these "negotiations." When this cannot be reached knowing their spouses' view will be appreciated and respected. Negotiation will be viewed as a marital tool to enhance the relationship.i

Spiritual Intervention

Consider St. Matthew's record of Jesus' teaching:

But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, 'You fool!' shall be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

Make friends quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison…" (Mt 5: 22-25). The usual interpretation on this gospel passage focuses on reconciliation. That is: our own reconciliation with God is dependent on reconciliation with our neighbor. This interpretation is obviously correct. St. John Chrysostom in his commentary on this gospel passage tells us (Manley 1984): "'Let my service' He says, 'be interrupted, that your love may continue, since this also is a sacrifice, your being reconciled with your brother' …His wish is to point out that He highly values charity, and considers it to be the greatest sacrifice …."

What is unspoken, but implied, is that in seeking reconciliation, the disagreeing individuals have to 'discuss and confer' with one another. It is just these processes of discussion and conferencing that are involved in the negotiation action. This interpersonal interaction is brought out even more directly in St. Paul's instruction to the Galatians (6:1) when he tells them: "Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness."

St. Gregory the Great in his Book of Pastoral Rule (2007) is quite explicit that those who are married are to be given different spiritual direction than those unmarried. Once again, the theme of communicating with each other 'conferencing', as it were, is emphasized. The good saint states:

The married should be advised that they endure with mutual patience those things that bring displeasure and that they exhort [negotiate] one another to salvation. For it is written" "Mutually bear one another's burdens and you will fulfill the law of Christ." [Gal 6:2]. For the law of Christ is charity…Therefore, by imitation, we complete the law of Christ when we kindly confer good things to others and sustain the evil actions of others. For the married should be advised, then, they not worry themselves so much on what they must endure from their spouse but consider what their spouse must endure on account of them.

Another advisement of St. Gregory is particularly apt to the husband and wife in blessed marriage. In fact this counsel of our Holy father Gregory should set the spiritual (and cognitive behavioral psychological) basis of spousal negotiation. "Those who live in discord and those who are peaceful should be advised differently. Those who live in discord…will not become spiritual if they are unable to be united to their neighbor (spouse). For it is written: The fruit of the Spirit is charity, joy and peace" (Gal 5:22). Therefore the one who does not care to keep the peace refuses to bear the fruit of the spirit." My words above to use the fruits of the Holy Spirit as the spiritual theme of assertiveness is quite consistent with St. Gregory's own words as quoted here. Quoting St. Paul's letter to the Ephesians (4:3-4), St. Gregory goes on: "And again, he admonishes them, saying: "Strive to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace: one body and one spirit, even as you are called in one hope of your calling." The saint does warn not to let "peace" bring about failure to "reprove the evil conduct of others." He warns against condoning such behavior, but again, St. Gregory emphasizes the peace we must have in our own hearts. The saint tells us: "...if it [peace] is extinguished by those who are corrected, it should nevertheless remain in the mind of you who offered the reproof."

Peaceful Negotiation not Anti-Negotiation

Instead of viewing negotiation as a betrayal of love and marriage it can be perceived as a psycho-spiritual tool to make their marital bond stronger. The husband or wife can no longer expect their spouse can mind-read their wants and needs. They come to accept that they have to participate in communication, discussion and conferencing in a loving, peaceful way. They can learn to accept the uniqueness of their spouse preferring and not demanding that their wants and needs be automatically met by their spouses. They can put into action the beautiful petitions Divine Liturgy and so many other services of the Eastern Church where we consistently pray for peace.

A Nutshell of "Peace" in the Divine Liturgy

The first petition in the Divine Liturgy after the blessing is: "In peace let us pray to the Lord." The next two petitions also ask for peace. Every Little Ektenia (Litany) starts out with a petition for peace. The Holy Gospel is read only after the blessing "Peace be with you all." The recitation of the Creed is preceded by the proclamation: "Peace be to all." The holiest part of the Divine Liturgy, the Anaphora in which the Bread and Wine becomes the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ by the descent of the Holy Spirit, is preceded by the prayer that "we may offer this Holy Oblation [Sacrifice] in peace." In the Ektenia of Thanksgiving after receiving the very Body and Blood of Christ, we ask that the "whole day may be perfect, holy, peaceful, and sinless let us commend ourselves and each other, and all our life unto Christ our God. All attending the Liturgy are then instructed to "go forth in peace." How spiritually blessed for husband-wife and their children, the Domestic Church to attend the Divine Liturgy and the other services of the Church as a 'family in Christ.'

The Choice of Peace

I am pro-choice. I sincerely believe from the depths of my heart a blessed married, husband and wife can choose to communicate, discuss, conference and negotiate in a "spirit of peace of Christ." The blessed married couple can do so by working as if all depended on them and by praying for and cooperating with the grace of God, that all depends on and is possible with God (cf. Mat 19:26)ii

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God the Father,
and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.


Burns, D. (1980). Feeling good: The New Mood Therapy. NY: The New American Library.

Manley, J. (Ed.) (1984). The Bible and the Holy Fathers for Orthodox. Menlo Park, CA: Monastery Books.

Morelli, G. (2005, October 14). The Beast of Anger. https://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles5/MorelliAnger.php.

Morelli, G. (2006a, January 27). Understanding Brokenness in Marriage. https://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliMarriage2.php.

Morelli, G. (2006b, February 04). Smart Parenting Part II. https://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliParenting2.php.

Morelli, G. (2006c, March 6). Asceticism and Psychology in the Modern World. https://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliMonasticism.php.

Morelli, G. (2007d, June 5). Good Marriage IV: The "Preference Scale" - A Tool for Communication, Negotiation and Collaboration. https://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles7/MorelliSmartMarriageIV.php.

Morelli, G. (2006e, July 02). Assertiveness and Christian Charity. https://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliAssertiveness.php.

St. Gregory the Great. (2007). The Book of Pastoral Rule. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.

St. John Chrysostom. (2003). On Marriage and Family Life. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.

iIn situations which involve for example chronic and unrepentant adultery or physical, sexual, emotional or psychological abuse. Negotiation is not the best option. Adultery or abuse is not negotiated. In most cases involving such egregious behavior, healing will not mean reintegration into the usual pattern of life the spouse previously lived. Acknowledging responsibility, and acceptance of the consequences must occur and this, if the marriage is to work at healing, will involve a radical change in the marital lifestyle. In most cases, individuals who have physically or sexually abused others will have to be removed permanently from their social milieu and be subject to the civic legal consequences as well. In all such cases professional help from competent licensed mental heath professionals should be sought and direction from one's spiritual father or mother is a necessity.

ii"With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible."

Fr. George Morelli

V. Rev. Fr. George Morelli Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Marriage and Family Therapist.

Be sure to visit Fr. Morelli's new site Orthodox Healing  for the latest essays and information.

Published: October 8, 2008

Copyright © 2001-2021 OrthodoxyToday.org. All rights reserved. Any reproduction of this article is subject to the policy of the individual copyright holder. Follow copyright link for details.
Text size: A  A  A