Over the past few weeks I have been thinking a lot about personal communication. In this world of fast, compact technology and instant information, we can share lots of facts and quick messages. This is certainly a boon to society in many ways. Social networking, Twitter, email, cell phones—communication is so easy, you'd think no one would have a problem with it.
But are we sometimes using all of these tools to create a sort of facsimile of communication—as a substitute for the real thing, especially in our most important personal relationships?
Our experiences presenting Marriage Encounter weekends suggest the question is a good one. For the most part, the participating couples have—as far as we can tell—pretty good marriages. They are coming in for a "tune-up," so to speak. And this tune-up is largely about communication.
On a recent weekend, one of the wives asked the other couples in the group if they knew all these things about each other. The response ran from "some of it," to "not everything."
Her question struck me—how often do we think we're communicating, when we are really just relating facts?
Don't get me wrong: I think technology and all of the new tools for sharing information are incredible. Learning to use the Jaws program for the blind has opened up my whole world, allowing me to stay in close touch with friends and family members across the country. But technology—as wonderful as it is—can be used poorly if we allow our instrumentation to become a distraction, or a means of keeping people "close" but at a distance, which is so easy to do.
Sometimes it is necessary to get away from everything that can distract us to make time for each other. We live in an extremely busy 24/7 world. That isn't going to change, so we need to make the relationships in our lives a priority by giving each other the gift of time, and of ourselves.
As a team couple, Ed and I demonstrate for those on the Marriage Encounter weekend a tool for communication that we learned ourselves on our own weekend. It is called Personal Reflection and Couple Dialog. In an Encounter weekend, in order to make it very safe and comfortable for all attending, the team couples are the only people who "share" in the group. We give short examples of different moments in our own marriages, just to start the thought processes flowing. Then we send the couples off to think about a couple of questions, and to write in their personal notebook what they thought about, relating to their own relationship. After the couples have written to their spouse, they get together again and exchange notebooks. Finally, they privately discuss what each has written.
Sometimes, when there is an emotional or touchy subject that needs addressing, it is helpful to spend time first thinking and then writing about it, rather than to just start talking. Often we have a tendency to talk to each other, rather than with each other, and we get busy thinking about what we are going to say next, instead of really listening to the other person.
Some people are gifted at personal communication, but it is more difficult for others. That is why we encourage couples to write first; it becomes easier to express feelings, and to be honest yet considerate in what one wants to say. Then we suggest ways to listen—in such a way that one really comes to understand—as the other talks.
Ed and I knew each other as friends first, and our dating relationship grew out of the fact that we could talk so easily, as good friends. After a few years of marriage, we found that there were some issues we had a harder time discussing. That was when we went on our Marriage Encounter. Even though we thought we knew one another, on that weekend—using this method of communication—we were able to share ourselves in a deeper way, and were surprised to learn new things about each other that brought us closer.
My expectation before we went was that our team leaders were going to be peppy, perfect couples who had it all together. We were surprised, and encouraged, to find they were just ordinary couples—with the same issues that all relationships have—who had simply learned communications skills. Their honesty was what helped us to open up with each other in deeper ways.
This isn't for every couple. Marriage Encounter is not for those with more serious problems that need more intense professional counseling. It is excellent, though, for a couple that needs a little help reconnecting. It helps teach them how to unplug from the distractions, and prioritize the relationship, and work at real communication. This is a wonderful gift.