See if you can relate to this scenario.
Jackson and Anisha were in the middle of a disagreement.
With arms crossed and tears in her eyes, Anisha said, ‘You are hurting our relationship! You keep telling me you’ll cut back on work, but it never seems to happen. At least not for long.’
Jackson shot back, ‘You don’t understand all the pressure I’m under. Everyone else there works even more than I do. I’m trying, but it’s not that easy…’
Anisha interrupted him. ‘I’m sure it isn’t, but you didn’t marry your job. You married me. I don’t feel like I even know you anymore.’
‘Look, I told you, I’m trying’, Jackson said, rolling his eyes then staring blankly out the window. ‘I took you out for dinner just last week. I didn’t do any work last weekend. But it’s never enough for you.’
And on and on it went.
If you were trying to help this couple, where would you start?
Maybe you would begin by challenging Jackson on setting – and keeping – boundaries at work. Or maybe you would try to help Anisha acknowledge the efforts Jackson was making.
You wouldn’t be wrong.
So many of the challenges couples experience in communication revolve around the content of their communication. What is actually being said.
The content of Jackson and Anisha’s argument centered around Jackson’s work life, and how that was impacting their marriage.
But if I were trying to help them, I wouldn’t start there.
While they do need to resolve this issue, the way Jackson and Anisha go about it is far more important to the long-term success of their marriage.
The process of communication involves body language, gestures, attitudes and everything besides what is actually said. This is just as – if not more so – important for couples than what they actually say.
And yet, in the midst of tension or disagreements, we can focus on content and using it to prove we are right. We can win the argument and lose the war – and slowly lose the love and allegiance of the person we love the most.
When Anisha interrupts Jackson, and when he rolls his eyes at her, they are communicating powerfully. Without words. And damaging their relationship further.
It’s important for them to recognize this, to explore what’s underneath this harmful pattern, and to seek God’s help in developing new, constructive patterns that are both honest and loving.
In other words, content and process are both important, and scripture encourages us to pay attention to both.
Look at 1 Peter 3:15, for example:
‘In your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense [that’s content] to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect [process].
Jesus, of course, was full of grace and truth. (John 1:14) He said true things in kind, loving ways.
While process and content both matter, though, process is often unseen and forgotten.
When couples learn to build healthy communication processes, the content of what they’re working through often (nearly) resolves itself.
Think about your relationship for a second.
- Pick an area of disagreement with your boy/girlfriend, fiance(e) or spouse. What is the content of your disagreement? What’s the disagreement about?
- Now think about the way (the process) you, as a couple, are communicating about that disagreement. What’s Christ-like and… not so Christ-like about it? (Think about both you and the other person.)
- Ask God for forgiveness for your role in any unhealthy communication patterns, and for a soft heart toward your spouse. If at all possible, seek your spouse’s forgiveness for your part, and see if you can open up a conversation about the way (process) you two are communicating. Let him/her know you’d like to start changing the way you have conversations like this, starting with you.
That may allow you to address the issue (content) itself, but that’s not the main point for now. If you can humbly acknowledge your role in conflicts, and let your spouse know you’d like to start changing the way (process) you communicate, you will be on a trajectory toward much healthier communication.
This is a lifelong journey, and I’m still working on it. But as my wife and I work on the way we communicate, we’ve seen some real victories that are allowing us to move forward in places we’ve been stuck.
I hope this insight will encourage and help you, too.
PS I’d like to give counselor Winston Smith, and psychiatrist Irvin Yalom, credit for putting me onto the need to pay attention to both content and process both in our relationships, and as we try to help others.