In Secrets to Lasting Love, you say that honoring our spouses should take precedence over our own opinions. How can a spouse sacrifice an opinion without feeling like they have forsaken their own values?
One of the keys in marriage is found in Ephesians Chapter 5. It says that the wife submits to the husband and the husband lays down his life, like Christ did for the Church. So they’re actually both leaning towards each other — basically submitting to each other.
The practical way I do that is when my wife says something to me. I value what she says even more than my own opinion and expectations. When I value her, I lean towards her with honor. I listen carefully in order to understand so that I can probe and ask questions and follow up questions when she’s talking. The more understanding I can get, the better.
I always know that when I’m listening to her opinion, she feels understood. I ask her that question from time to time, “Do you think I understand you?” When she says “Yes”, then it is my turn to share what I feel, what my opinions and needs are. She repeats them back to me for the purpose of understanding me. When we do this I know that I’m always going to be understood. Therefore it’s easy for me to value her while I’m listening even more than myself because I know that I’m going to have my turn.
I understand that your wife, Norma, and you often write down what each of you understands the other to be saying during serious discussions. Can you tell us how that process works and how you might see that used by other couples?
Sure. It’s a communication method that we call “L.U.V.-talk”: Listen, Understand (by repeating back) and Validating. When you disagree with your mate, you learn a new method of negotiating your differences until you get to a win-win solution. The way it works is, I listen to my wife’s feelings and needs and I keep going back to needs and feelings. I say, “How do you feel about this?” “What about that?” “What do you need here?” Then I repeat back what she says for the express purpose of understanding her. The beauty of repeating it back is that it increases my understanding because I don’t use the exact words that she gave me. I try to change the words so that she knows I understand her and I’m endeavoring to understand her. Then we just simply switch and she does the exact same thing for me. The solutions come after both understand each other. That way both people are validated, both people are honored and the solutions are just like miracles — which I love to watch in a marriage. It takes a little while. That method is in the books, Secrets to Lasting Love and One Flame; Either one of those sources explains this communication method, “L.U.V.-talk”.
You’ve written that most conflicts occur when we share our concerns, expectations and opinions with our spouse in conversation. Can you tell us more about this and how those conflicts may escalate?
Dr. Gary Oliver — one of my mentors — is the head of marriage and family at John Brown University. Several years ago he gave me the five levels of communication in marriage. They go from the least satisfying levels to the most satisfying. The least satisfying is when you use cliches with one another like, “How’s your day?” “Fine.” It’s just meaningless chatter.
Second, but still not very meaningful, is sharing facts with one another. There are not a lot of conflicts that happen there. Couples like to stay at those first two levels because there’s not a lot of disagreement or potential conflict. We’ve found through research that men, in general, dislike conflict even more than women do.
The third level of intimacy — or — communication is when you bump up against your mate’s different opinion than yours about something. One time, my wife and I were in Chicago visiting my son and daughter in law. We were at dinner with them and my wife said something that offended me. I didn’t say anything even though I had a totally different opinion and concern than she did. I was very concerned. We have a marriage rule that we both abide by: we don’t argue and bring up junk on fun activities and vacations and things like that. We wait until we get home. So when we got home, I brought it up and we “L.U.V.-talked” it. So the third level of intimacy — when you have a disagreement with your mate — is a great thing to have, because that’s how you become “one” in marriage — to disagree initially at the third stage, the third level.
The fourth level is when you feel safe and validated to share your feelings. The deepest level (level five) is when you feel safe and validated to share your needs. The fourth and fifth levels are what bring “one-ness” and satisfaction in marriage. The way you get one-ness is, in the midst of disagreement, you share your feelings and needs about whatever you’re disagreeing about. You come up with a win-win solution — at the third level — and you then move into the deepest levels where your resolution combines your feelings and your needs so you are both happy with the resolution. We did that very thing with that Chicago trip. We came to a resolution that we both liked. Therefore we stay in one-ness, harmony, and get there through disagreements or negotiating disagreements.
You’ve written about “drive through listening” and how that can automatically eliminate our four main causes of divorce. Can you tell us a little more about that?
Sure. We currently use the word, L.U.V.-talk. That’s the way we teach it today. Five years ago, we were teaching it as “drive-through talking”. The reason we called it “drive-through talking” is that when you go to a fast food restaurant — McDonalds, Wendy’s, Burger King, any one of them — you go to the little box outside the restaurant and they’ll say, “Welcome to this fast-food restaurant, can I take your order?” The employee inside that fast food restaurant is not allowed to give you their opinion. They’re not allowed to evaluate what you’re saying. They can’t say, “We’re looking in that big, round mirror. See sir, we can see you. You look a little overweight. Why don’t you forget the double cheeseburger and think about a salad?” If she or he did share an opinion about what you’re eating, you probably would “divorce” that company.
This happens in communication between a husband and wife. She or he will say something, there will be a disagreement, and then they jump on each other with statements like, “I can’t believe you believe that”, or “I can’t believe you have that opinion”. They’re really evaluating their mate in a negative way instead of understanding the reality of their spouse’s feelings or needs. So, we have the tendency to “want to divorce that person” or at least put some distance between us when they start evaluating. McDonalds, for example, spent millions of dollars figuring out that you don’t want to evaluate your customers.
That’s incredible. I just hope that the speaker system in the “drive through listening” program is better than what we might find in a “Jack in the Box” or some of the places we go through.
That’s true (laughter). Dr. Scott Stanley is another one of my mentors. He’s from Denver University and he’s a world famous marriage and family psychologist. He did empirical research for years and found that there are four main communication problems in marriage. Over ninety percent of the couples who divorce are caught in one, or all four, of those traps. He has found that this communication method eliminates all four of those traps. We call them, “Relationship Germs”.
The first germ is that one or both of you withdraws. This happens because you don’t like disagreement, so you walk away. Most of the time it’s the man. That causes problems in your marriage, leading to divorce.
Second, you escalate. You start accusing each other saying, “I can’t believe you’re the way you are” et cetera, et cetera. You escalate out of control.
Third — which is the number one cause of divorce, according to Dr. John Gottman at the University of Washington — you belittle your mate’s opinion or concern as if somehow yours is superior to theirs. This is exactly the opposite of Philippians, the second chapter, where it says we’re to consider others as even more valuable than we consider ourselves.
Fourth — if you don’t talk it through, if you don’t know how to negotiate with L.U.V.-talk — you’ll tend to start developing negative beliefs about your mate, like “She’s trying to bankrupt us, I know she is”. Or, “He’s trying to drive me crazy by the way he drives”. And so we start with these negative beliefs. Those four things put together account for over ninety percent of the cause of divorce in America today.
In your latest book, One Flame, you discuss the five destructive winds that can blow out the “unity candle” of our marriages. Which do you feel is most destructive and why?
I just mentioned the four relational germs. Well, I took those and added one more. Any time you have a major crisis, like loss of a child, an affair, a hurricane, tornado, about eighty percent of couples divorce after that.
If you look at the unity candle display that you have in a marriage ceremony, you have the two outside candles and the one in the middle is your unity candle. The bride and groom come to the wedding with the two outside lit. Those signify that the person is single. After they say their vows and pray and are pronounced husband and wife, the couple gets up, take their outside lit candles and they light that center candle. Then they blow the outside candles out. The reason they blow them out is, they’re not single any more. The only time you ever have to really worry about being infected with those relationship germs, is when you re-light your blown out “single” candle and want to be single again. The way that happens is when you’re arguing as a single and you want your way and you’re trying to get evidence to get your way instead of using L.U.V.-talk.
So keep your “single” candles blown out during your marriage. Become one — that’s why we call it, “One Flame” — through negotiating your disagreements, concerns, expectations or opinions.
How would you react to the notion that many couples say that they very rarely argue or have any differences that cause conflict in their marriage?
I would say that they are lying. Or somebody — or both — feel very unsafe. I have never met a man, married to a woman, where they don’t have major disagreements in just about everything. If I asked a question, “Raise your hand if you married somebody that has their own opinion.” Everybody is going to raise his or her hand. So if you don’t negotiate, somebody’s being controlled, somebody feels dominated. I’ve never met a couple that doesn’t have problems that aren’t negotiating things. Theoretically, I guess it would be possible if they just quietly negotiated their differences. But that’s very rare.
You indicated that by offering one’s self to their spouse, they’re more likely to enjoy a healthy, long lasting and loving bond. But what if someone is married to a spouse who doesn’t want to offer himself or herself in return?
The scripture is very clear that, as a husband, I can lay down my life for my wife regardless of whether she responds or not. If they don’t want to offer themselves back in return, usually they just feel unsafe or they’re blocked by anger or guilt or something internally. What I tend to do in a counseling situation is teach L.U.V.-talk to the spouse that wants one-ness. You can do it on your own with your spouse, without your spouse knowing it. You already know what your opinions and feelings and needs are, so you simply interview your spouse. You ask them, “Honey, how do you feel about that?” or “What do you need? From zero to ten, with zero not being very important, but ten is really, really important, what would be a ten to you”. If they’ll even open up that much, you can help come to a solution because you’re hearing their ideas — and you already know your ideas. I’ve watched that work a number of times. I’ve even done it with my wife before, just practicing to see if it works. And it sure does.
As we close, Dr. Smalley, is there anything else that you’d like to share with our viewers and listeners?
What I have discovered through various experts’ research today, like Dr. David Olson’s material and Dr. Scott Stanley’s material, is that if a couple gets training before they marry — significant training on skills, minimal skills — it cuts the divorce rate in half. That means that if everybody today had training, we’d only have a 25% divorce rate. If they have a mentor for one year, then it’s down to about 12% to 15%.
According to George Barna’s research, if they pray together every day and use methods similar to L.U.V.-talk, the divorce rate is close to 1%. So I just think that a couple needs to know the research today and kick into gear in doing the very things that keep us together for the rest of our lives — and happily married.
Copyright © 2002 Marriagetrac
Dr. Gary Smalley, founder of the Smalley Relationship Center, has been counseling families and teaching about relationships for more than thirty years. He is the author and co-author of more than twenty books. In his thirty years of ministry, Gary has spoken to more than two million people in conferences and has appeared on several national television and radio programs.