Everybody’s Talking at Me

married-angry

What we perceive in Adam and Eve, we find in ourselves. We see carefully learned and well-rehearsed traits that create distance and distrust in relationships. We see patterns of communicating passed from generation to generation. These destructive patterns destroy trust and damage our ability to communicate effectively. Thankfully, we can learn new skills to create harmony and trust. Before we do that, however, let’s look closer at some unhealthy communication patterns that have entered our lives.

A World of Deception

Scott Peck, in his book People of the Lie, suggests that dishonesty is a major problem in relationships and alienates us from one another. Because vulnerability is frightening, we often choose to live behind disguises. We pretend that we think one thing when in fact we may actually believe something entirely different. We tell little half-truths instead of telling the whole truth. Eventually, this creates chaos in a relationship. Willard Harley Jr., in his book Love Busters, explains:

Couples are not only ignorant of methods that can improve their marriages, they are often ignorant of the problems themselves. They deliberately misinform each other as to their feelings, activities, and plans. This not only leads to a withdrawal of love units, when the deception is discovered, it also makes marital conflicts impossible to resolve. As conflicts build, romantic love slips away.

Harley suggests that couples must get off the easy path of deception. Rather than take the tempting road of dishonesty, he recommends that you “reveal to your spouse as much information about yourself as you know: your thoughts, feelings, habits, likes, dislikes, personal history, daily activities, and plans for the future.” I would like to add one more: Be honest about your part in any problems. Stop the dance of deception.

A World of One-Upmanship

Many of us, especially men, tend to compete with one another, and our communication reflects that. Rather than trying to understand one another, we try to gain an advantage. The deception in this kind of maneuvering is clear. Often we go against deeply held values to serve other motives. In order to win, we compromise what we believe.

Deborah Tannen, author of the bestseller You Just Don’t Understand, says that many men tend to live in either a one-up or one-down world with hierarchical social order. “In this world,” she says, “conversations are negotiations in which people try to achieve the upper hand if they can, and protect themselves from others’ attempts to put them down and push them around. Life, then, is a contest, a struggle to preserve independence and avoid failure.”

In their insightful book, The Art of Possibility, authors Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander share a story of a competitive business relationship. They describe two men who tried to work out a business deal but came to an impasse. On the surface, both wanted to make the deal work, but there was so much ego involved — or what the authors call the “calculating self” — that progress in negotiations came to a standstill. Beneath the surface, each man was hostile, controlling, and seeking a “win” on his own terms. The softer side of their personalities — the “central self” — was stuck. Too much energy was being used to gain supremacy over the other person, so cooperation could not really take place. Passive-aggressive energy ruled the day.

The Zanders note, “Since the calculating self is designed to look out for Number One, we are likely to find it in the driver’s seat when there is an impasse, whether in politics or personal relationships.” They explain that plotting to win always pulls the conversation into a downward spiral.

You may recall the immense popularity of Steven Covey’s books, including The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. He too recognized the manipulative, controlling self as a major culprit in unhealthy relationships. He said that for effective communication to take place, we must first seek to understand, rather than to be understood. Of course, this goes against our natural tendency.

What is it like to be in a relationship with someone who must win each round of conversation? This was the case for Steve and Kim. Each fought to gain control of the conversation, attempting to persuade the other of his or her “right” point of view. In this scenario, both participants believe that one wins and one loses. Of course, we know that both ultimately lose.

A World of Blame

We often refuse to take responsibility for our actions. Instead of speaking the truth to one another and taking personal responsibility, we often dance our way around issues. Instead of having a godly sorrow that leads to repentance see (2 Corinthians 7:10), we shift the blame whenever possible. Needless to say, we rarely settle issues in this environment.

Watching Adam and Eve squirm must have been somewhat humorous for God. Can you picture the scene? He had caught our ancestors in the act. He knew what they had done, and they knew what they had done. There they were, naked and ashamed. Yet when He confronted them, they tried to divert attention from their deceitful act (the first major cover-up in history). The man and the woman pointed their fingers in every direction except back at themselves. They used blame, denial, justification…anything that could possibly dilute their own guilt. It was something akin to catching your three-year-old son with his hand in the cookie jar and him saying he wasn’t to blame; the jar had fallen off the shelf onto his hands. Though pathetic, our efforts to avoid the truth are somewhat amusing.

When blame enters the relational world, however, the humor vanishes. Instead of sitting honestly with his spouse, admitting culpability and then seeking forgiveness and making amends, the artful dodger blames others. Problems are always someone else’s fault. The intricate web of deception continues to grow, and solving the problem becomes increasingly difficult.

A World of Confounded Communication

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When rampant blame and protracted explanations interfere with honest communication, chaos reigns. That is why, after a particularly heated fight in your marriage, one of you looks to the other and asks, “What were we arguing about?” The issues become so cloaked in accusation, innuendo, blame, and rationalization that the real issues are forgotten. People get caught up in the fever of the battle. “Win, win, win,” the little voice in our head shouts.

A glance back at the conversation between Steve and Kim shows how handily he deflects her desire to communicate. After a quick jab, pointing out Karen’s manipulations and how Kim favors her daughter, he shifts the topic to dinner reservations. Can you imagine Kim’s confusion when he does this?

Again, I can picture God listening to Adam’s windy explanations and then listening to Eve go on and on about the serpent. It is psychobabble at its best, nothing more than abject nonsense.

A World of Coercive Communication

Communication, in this kind of relationship, is not a way to truly understand one another. Communication is used to outwit others, manipulate them, or make them feel stupid so that they will back down. This pattern fits both sexes, but I think that men are particularly guilty of maneuvering conversation to get what they want. Because of their competitive bent, coercive communication comes easily to them. Have you felt it? Can you recall a time in your marriage when your spouse tried to convince you of how wrong you were when you weren’t even discussing a right-or-wrong issue?

Consider another couple with whom I worked recently.

When Jan and David came to see me, they made it clear from the outset that they expected me to be an arbiter. They had firmly entrenched ideas about how things ought to be, and finding themselves at an impasse, thought they would seek out an “expert” who would declare one of them the victor. I could see that such an arrangement would not help them and would make me a hero to one and a villain to the other. I didn’t want any part of that proposition.

It seemed that David wanted to be able to go back to college to earn a bachelor’s degree. No problem so far. In fact, this seemed like an admirable goal. He said that he wanted to do this for his family so that Jan might be able to cut back on work to stay home with their three young children. Still no problem, at least with his motive. I wondered, Why did Jan oppose this plan? She explained that she did not want to take out a loan for his schooling. She also thought the timing was bad. With a young family, he was already often away from home because of his demanding job as a loan officer at a local bank.

What became interesting as Jan and David talked this out was not the conflict but rather how heated it became and the way that they fought about it. As was the case with Steve and Kim, both people were talking, but nobody was listening. Each had created a tightly woven rationale for why his or her point of view was right and why the other’s was wrong. Then, in step-by-step fashion, they used coercion to try to unravel the other’s decision.

I listened to their verbal volleys. David shared how reasonable it was for him to go back to college now while the children were young. They would be in school while he worked, and he would only be attending classes two nights a week. As for the money, he would receive a low-interest loan from his own bank to pay for it. How could he pass up a deal like that?

Easy, Jan surmised. She believed that David was not going back to school for the family at all but for his own selfish motives. She had repeatedly told him how his actions would adversely affect the family. This was hard to prove or disprove, of course. She reasoned that though he might only be gone two nights a week, his studies would take him away from family activities for much of the week. Good point, I thought. Finally, low interest or not, the loan still meant more debt, and she did not like the idea of taking on more than they already had.

The lines had been drawn, battle plans were in place, and the war was in progress. Now they wanted me to determine the victor, which I would not do. My work with them, and with so many other couples, is to help them see that they need not engage in warfare to win. Their task was much more difficult. They needed to listen to one another and find solutions that would be acceptable to both of them. They needed the tools that will be offered in this book far more than they needed any quick answer I could render.

A World of Prideful, Protective Communication

We are reluctant to communicate in a way that reveals our deepest needs and fears. Even if we are willing to own responsibility for our part in a problem and to speak without overt deception, too often we communicate from the head, not from the heart.

Most of us would readily admit that we read about communication because we want a more intimate relationship with our spouse. But we want closeness without vulnerability. We want the warmth of attachment without the cost of revealing our deepest nature. Cheap love, I call it. It’s not that easy. We cannot have one without the other. We must learn to share from our hearts, not just our heads. We must come to understand our inner emotions, not just what we think about things. Then we can share our entire selves with our partner.

In his mid-century classic The Art of Loving, Erich Fromm shares some insights about love. He says that despite all the talk about love and the deep desire to have love, we are poor lovers. Instead of putting our energies into loving one another, we tend to put our energies into attaining success, prestige, money, and power. His words have the sting of conviction.

Taken from How to Get Your Husband’s Attention.
Copyright © 2008 by David Hawkins. Published by Harvest House Publishers, Eugene, OR. Used by permission.

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About David Hawkins

bio-hawkinsDr. Hawkins is a Christian Clinical Psychologist who is a speaker for the American Association of Christian Counselors and has been writing an Advice Column for Crosswalk.com and CBN.org for several years and is now writing for Believe.com. He is a weekly guest on Moody Radio and Faith Radio and is the author of over thirty books. He is happily married to Christie, an Interior Designer, and lives on Bainbridge Island, outside Seattle.

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