Jane and Charles Perryman continue their series about Marriage
When Pope Francis discusses the next aspect of love that St Paul highlights, “Love is not rude or arrogant” (1 Cor 13:5), he writes about the importance of gentleness, thoughtfulness and courtesy. Quoting the Mexican Nobel Prize winning poet, Octavio Paz he says that courtesy “is a school of sensitivity and disinterestedness” which requires a person “to develop his or her mind and feelings, learning how to listen, to speak and, at certain times, to keep quiet” (AL 99).
The key here is listening. Over the years that we have been working with married and engaged couples we have come to believe that listening is probably the most important virtue that married couples must practise constantly.
Married couples are called to intimacy. In the second chapter of Genesis God says, “it is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen 2:18). Man here should be understood as human beings. This is why God creates Eve, so that each will have a companion. They will be able to grow together. This is the meaning of the comment, “for this reason a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife and they become one body” (Gen 2:24). We are created to be connected to others and it is in our marriages that we are called to be most closely connected. This is one of the greatest gifts of marriage – to be securely emotionally bonded to our spouse. It is through listening to our spouse that we build that deep intimacy.
Listening, actively listening, goes far beyond the words we exchange. Indeed psychologists tell us that only 7% of the messages we communicate are conveyed by the words. The rest comes through facial expression, eye contact, body language and tone of voice. Active listening means looking out for all of the emotional reactions behind the words – the anxiety, disappointment, frustration or excitement. It means being on the alert for those things not said but only hinted at, but which are causing concern. Above all it means being prepared to be influenced by what we hear. It is no good understanding all that our spouse has to convey and then making no response.
Of course not all conversation takes place at this deeper level. Ordinary everyday chit-chat is just that, chit-chat, small talk. Small talk is necessary and helps to keep in touch with each other. When, however, there is a serious matter to talk about then we need to be aware of what can get in the way of real listening. Firstly, there is timing. All couples who have raised a family know that when there are small children around you cannot have any serious conversation between tea time and bed time. We all have good times for serious conversation and times to avoid. We also need to avoid distractions. It is impossible to listen to someone with the television on in the same room – even if the sound is switched off!
The biggest obstacle to real listening, however, is our own disposition. If we don’t want to listen, if we are not open to listening, then we won’t. Mostly what gets in the way of listening is fear; fear that we may hear something that we won’t like; fear that if we really listened to our spouse we would be called to change. Putting aside our own fears in order to really understand our spouse is very challenging.
How do we know if we are good as a listener? The key here is that we cannot be certain for ourselves. The only person who can say that that we are a good listener is the person that we are listening to. Only they can say if they have the experience of being listened to. For example, if Charles thinks that he listens well to Jane but Jane does not have the experience of being heard and understood, real listening is not happening. We need to be courageous enough to ask our spouse how well they think we do as a listener and to ask about the areas where we do not listen well.
Quoting St Thomas Aquinas, Pope Francis says that an essential requirement of love is that, “every human being is bound to live agreeably with those around him. Every day, entering into the life of another, even when that person already has a part to play in our life, demands the sensitivity and restraint which can renew trust and respect.” (AL 99).
We don’t think that Francis expects that couples will agree all the time about everything. Indeed, John Gottman, the founder of the Relationship Research Institute at the University of Washington, says that 85% of happily married couples have irreconcilable differences. What Francis does call for is that couples live agreeably with their differences and manage them together.
That degree of peaceable living is only achieved by deep understanding of one another, through attentive listening to each other.