MARRIAGE DIFFICULTIES!--By Paul Tournier
THE NEED FOR TOTAL UNDERSTANDING!
There is an important difference between degrees of understanding. Many people live for years together without deep understanding, without even seeking it. This we see in outstanding, cultured, intelligent families, people of the very highest order, learned men. They appear unaware of something that is missing in their life, wonderful as it may be in other ways. Their home life has not remained a living reality. If they feel some vague pangs of conscience about it, they can soothe these by taking the wife out on Friday night.
Every man whose hopes are not fulfilled is naturally inclined toward blaming others for his setback; it's the other fellow's fault! It is much easier than seeking out the inner fault, but is absolutely sterile. This road leads only to spite, bitterness, inner revolt & the mutual recriminations ("It's your fault!") that marital partners continually make. Or else they blame fate. The man thinks that his bad fortune was to "chance" upon such an impossible woman. His wife blames fate for a man who is insufferable.
But above all, marriage is simply what we make of it from day to day. What really counts is the working out together of marital happiness. This is a goal to strive for, not a privilege gained at the outset. And to work it out, the ability to understand each other is essential.
The most frequent fault in marriage seems to me to be the lack of complete frankness, a lack of mutual openness, a loyal & total openness to one another without which there can be no real understanding. A couple who are courageous enough to always say everything will without a doubt go through many upsets, but they will be able to build an ever more successful marriage. On the other hand, all dissimulating (hiding one's true feelings) becomes only the foreshadowing, & the way toward, failure.
Many couples no longer even realise that they are hiding a part of their real feelings from each other, a part of their ideas, convictions & personal reactions. Upon entering my office one husband told me quite sincerely, "I certainly talk everything over with my wife." Afterward, we talked about many things which interest him vitally. Then I asked him, "What does your wife think of that?" "Oh," was the blurted-out reply, "I would never mention these things to her; she wouldn't understand."
"She wouldn't understand."--In other words, she wouldn't share my opinions, & I want to avoid any argument. Thus it is that in order to have peace many couples put aside certain subjects--those that are emotionally charged--often those that are most important for their coming to a true mutual understanding. Thus, bit by bit, the transparent window which the relationship between the man & wife should be, becomes blurred. They are starting to become strangers to one another. They are losing the total oneness which is a divine law for marriage.
When instituting marriage, God declared, "They shall be no longer two, but one." To be one obviously means not to have secrets from each other. As soon as a couple begin to hide matters from one another they compromise the basic oneness of marital life. They start off on the road to failure. This is true even if it is done out of the best intentions. We may try to patch things up, start over again, or attempt a reconciliation. But a real rebirth will always have as its condition a far deeper & more difficult mutual frankness.
MY HUSBAND IS A MYSTERIOUS ISLAND!
For many couples it is almost with pain that they recall the days of courtship. At that time they appeared to understand each other! Why is that?--Because they talked to each other, they opened up to one another, they found great pleasure in understanding & in being understood. The frankness of one evoked the frankness of the other. The man was discovering the real person of his future mate. She felt understood by him, & he by her.
Now they no longer really talk to each other. Oh, they talk about many secondary matters, trivial & external to themselves, but the matters that are really essential, intimate, personal--these they no longer mention. The dialogue has been broken off. There is only a superficial exchange of information.
Some couples no longer talk at all. I have known some who could go for weeks without saying a word. It engenders a horrible atmosphere in the home. Just think how children must grow up where at the meal table one of the parents never speaks, whereas the other, in an attempt to fill the atrocious vacuum, never ceases babbling on!
There are men who are mysterious islands, protecting themselves against any approach. They no longer express themselves, nor do they take a stand on anything. They answer questions without looking up, in a tone impersonal, vague & anonymous, which excludes all argument.
WE NEED TO EXPRESS OURSELVES!
If the first condition for the achievement of understanding is the will to understand, the second condition is that of expressing oneself. Every human being needs to express himself, & if a person is married, it is toward his wife that his need to express himself is the greatest. Of course, in order to express oneself there must be a feeling of warm & kind receptivity & of attentive listening.
The fact is that many married people flee from intimacy; they are afraid of opening up in depth. They do not take the time that is necessary for it. Even when on vacation they run about seeking every kind of distraction. A great deal of time must be taken in order to build a true marriage, a great deal more than an occasional Friday or Saturday evening. A deep encounter rarely takes place in a few moments. It must be prepared for by hours of careful drawing together.
TO ACHIEVE UNDERSTANDING, WE NEED COURAGE!
This affirmation will doubtless astonish many readers who imagine that we can open ourselves to others quite easily. Up to a certain point, yes, we can, but not completely. Some jovial & sociable people flatter themselves that they are able easily to open up, but the truth is, it is but a superficial opening up. Actually, beneath their flow of words their deepest thoughts & feelings lie hidden, just as withdrawn people hide theirs by silence.
Wives are often afraid of their husbands, & husbands too are afraid of their wives. Men are more proud than women & have greater difficulty in admitting their being afraid. This is one of the differences between men & women; women often display their fears quite openly while men hide theirs.
What is this fear? I believe there are two parts to it. First, there is the fear of being judged, the fear of criticism. This is a universal fear, & far greater than we generally suppose. Moreover, it is from our wife, or our best friend, from the very people that we admire & love the most, that we fear critical judgement the most. This is precisely because their admiration & love mean so much to us.
Few people really accept the fact that their marital partner behaves in a profoundly different way from themselves. "I cannot understand my wife," a husband says. "She complains of fatigue & yet in the evening she can never decide to go to bed. She runs around doing a thousand useless things. It's useless for me to tell her to go to bed." It would be important to know just why she is so nervously active in the evening.
The "I cannot understand my mate" really means "I cannot understand that she is different from me, that she thinks, feels & acts in a quite different manner than I." So the wife feels judged, condemned, criticised. All of us fear this, for no one is satisfied with himself. We are especially sensitive to blame for shortcomings which we ourselves have never been able to correct in spite of our sincerest efforts.
There is a second fear, that of receiving advice. Let us take the example of a husband who is having trouble at the office. At first he mentions this to his wife, but she, carried away by a zeal to come to his aid, replies too readily, "You absolutely must get rid of that ineffective associate! Stand up for yourself!"--In other words, a shower of inapplicable counsel. This woman does not realise the complexity of the problems which her husband must face up to. And he feels that she holds him responsible for all his problems, & treats him like a little boy.
The husband begins by unveiling his anxieties, but in the face of such ready-made answers, he withdraws. He is crushed in his hope before being able to show his wife all the aspects of a delicate problem. The wife's intention was excellent, but she ruined things by replying too quickly. She should have listened longer & tried to understand.
People are usually much more sensitive than we believe them to be. Often men are just as easily hurt as women, even though they hide it. They are afraid of being hurt by advice just as much as by criticism. A woman for whom everything seems clear cut, who confidently tells her husband how he must act in order to do the right thing, no matter what the problem may be--such a woman gives her husband the impression that she thinks him incompetent. No husband is willing to put up with this very long.
In order to really understand, we need to listen, not to reply. We need to listen long & attentively. In order to help anybody to open his heart, we have to give him time, asking only a few questions, as carefully as possible, in order to help him better explain his experience. Above all, we must not give the impression that we know better than he does what he must do. Otherwise we force him to withdraw. Too much criticism will also achieve the same result.
TO ACHIEVE UNDERSTANDING, WE NEED TO LOVE!
It is quite clear that between love & understanding there is a very close link. It is so close that we never know where the one ends & the other begins, nor which of the two is the cause or the effect. He who loves understands, & he who understands loves. One who feels understood feels loved, & one who feels loved feels sure of being understood. A man needs to feel deeply loved in order to share an intimate secret charged with emotion.
Deep sharing is very overwhelming, & often rare. A thousand fears keep us in check. First of all there is the fear of breaking down, of crying. There is especially the fear that the other person will not sense the tremendous importance with which this memory or feeling is charged. How painful it is when such a difficult sharing falls flat, upon ears either preoccupied or mocking, ears in any case that do not sense the significance of what we're saying.
How beautiful, how grand & liberating it is when couples learn to help each other by listening. It is impossible to over-emphasise the immense need men have to be really listened to, to be understood. No one can develop freely in this World & find a full life without being understood by at least one person. Misunderstood, he loses his self-confidence, his faith in life or even in God. He is blocked & he regresses.
Here is an even greater mystery: No one comes to know himself through introspection, or in the solitude of his personal diary. Rather it is in dialogue, in his meetings with other people. It is only by expressing his convictions to others that he becomes really conscious of them. He who would see himself clearly must open up to a confidant freely chosen & worthy of such trust. It may be a friend, it may be one's mate.
Marriage then becomes a great adventure, a continuous discovery both of oneself & of one's mate. It becomes a daily broadening of one's horizon, an opportunity of learning something new about life, about human existence, about God.
During the early years of marriage we are still in the honeymoon phase, we still have the sense of spontaneous mutual understanding.
Then comes the second phase in marriage, usually found between the 5th & 10th years of marriage. In this stage each one realises that the other is not so similar to himself as he had thought. He discovers faults previously unnoticed or faults which he was sure would disappear quickly under the happy effects of marriage.
We begin by gently warning the other, then by scolding, by imploring, & finally by threatening. Yet none of these takes effect. Then comes the well-known expression, "I cannot understand him..." Then comes the temptation to withdraw into oneself in order to lessen the risk of conflict, the temptation to give up our responsibility to truly help our mate.
This is the beginning of the third phase. It will develop according to the direction which the previous phase has taken. It may be the progressive giving up in the struggle for happiness: "My husband is not the man I believed he was..." "My wife is not at all what I thought her to be..." At this point they may begin to think of divorce. Or else they may live a life of endless disputing, never settled. Or each may withdraw from the other, organising his own life & becoming more & more secretive.
The second direction is that of courage. This means the courageous acceptance of reality--taking one's partner such as he is, divested of the flattering halo which we had put over him. It means a real attempt undertaken to understand our partner. Indeed, he has faults; he has problems which he has not succeeded in solving. He does not understand himself & even reacts most distastefully when his faults are pointed out. He reacts in this way because he does not feel capable of overcoming his faults. But he can be helped in a quite different fashion: Simply by loving him in spite of his problems.
Most couples are greatly relieved to hear us say, "You have problems? That's quite normal, all couples do. As a matter of fact, it is a good thing. Those who make a success of their marriage are those who tackle their problems together & who overcome them. Those who lack the courage to do this are the ones whose marriage is a failure."
TO ACHIEVE UNDERSTANDING,
WE NEED TO ACCEPT OUR DIFFERENCES!
There are basic differences between types of people: Extroverts who love social life, gaiety & movement, & introverts who seek tranquility & serious thought. Opposites often attract, & many times a very rational man will marry a very sentimental woman. Their complementing one another will, at the beginning, elicit an enthusiastic response in him. But later on he will want to make her listen to the objective arguments of reason; he will become annoyed at not being successful at this. He will try to show her that she is not logical in her sentimental explosions. This does not worry her at all. On her part, she will reproach her husband for his ice-cold rational manner which stifles all life. People so very different by manner are nevertheless made to complement each other, that through each other they may discover so much of what they've not known or sensed before. This is one of the purposes of marriage.
DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE SEXES!
To the differences in human types we must add those between the sexes. Man & woman are basically different, far more so than they believe. This is why they both have so much difficulty in understanding one another & have such great need of one another for their growth.
For example, man has a theoretical mind while woman has a more person-centered mind. Sometimes when I am speaking on a general matter with my wife, discussing two conflicting ideas, she will ask me right out, "Who are you talking about?" I was not speaking about anyone. I was developing an idea. Yet my wife felt the need of identifying that idea with something concrete, some person. A woman thinks of people, & in terms of people.
A woman also thinks in detail. Details interest her more than general ideas. She has a need to tell all the day's happenings, once she is with her husband, down to what hat a friend was wearing. Soon the husband is listening very distractedly because he has not understood that his wife is so made that details are of great importance to her. To him, this may appear very small & dull. When the wife senses that her husband is no longer listening to her, that he is reading the paper about the World's great problems, she feels terribly alone. And alone, she will plunge ever more deeply into details which for her gain in importance...gossip, neighborhood news etc.
Speech itself has a different meaning for men than it has for women. Through speech men express ideas & communicate information. Women speak in order to express feelings & emotions. This explains why a wife will relate an experience she has had ten times. It is not to inform her husband, who will probably try to cut her off by saying, "You already told me about that!" But she needs to tell it again to discharge the emotional tension which the experience has built up in her heart. Many men never express their feelings, to say the "I love you" that the wife would like to hear 100 times. She asks, "Do you love me?" He replies, "You know that I do." It is not that she does not know it. Rather, she would like to hear it expressed once more. This need is even greater since her husband never says it to her. He expresses his feelings in other ways: A caress, a look, or even a grunt.
In order to understand each other, man & wife must take an interest in what interests the other, & try to understand why it interests the other. A man will talk of his interest only when he senses genuine interest in another, & it is only when he talks of it that the other can understand the character of that interest. In this way the horizon broadens for both partners, instead of steadily narrowing. Real understanding always brings with it a going beyond one's self, & the conflict from which many couples suffer can be solved.
DIFFERENCES IN LOVE!
Once a psychologist, in comparing married life to theatre, made the following remark: "Love, for the woman, is itself the drama. For the man, it is the intermission." I think the comparison is fair. For the man, love is a very powerful impulse, greatly sexual in character, with speed & desire, & yet quickly over with. Afterwards his thoughts are drawn to other matters & his wife feels that she has been forsaken.
A woman does her work around the house for the sake of love of the husband, to care for him. A man, on the other hand, takes an interest in his work for the work itself, for the technical problems which have to be solved in it & for the attainment of success. Love, well, he will think about that when he is with his wife back home. Even then there will be a difference: The wife has an emotional need which often the husband fails to recognise. She needs to hear tender words, to go out with her husband, to share excitement as they do something, to experience deep oneness with him as they do things together. For her, love means a permanent, high level of affection.
Often the wife cannot experience full sexual pleasure unless the sexual experience is but a part of the larger experience of mutual harmony, understanding & a continuing communion in affection for one another. The erotic curve in the man takes the appearance of a rapid rise to its peak followed by an equally rapid decline. This is why at times a wife may say, "You don't love me, you only want me!" All of which means that it is difficult for her to accept or understand this masculine form of love. She would like her husband to love as she does, tenderly & continually. Such lack of understanding can lead the wife so far as to complete disgust for the sexual experience. That her husband should wish to make love with her, while they have hardly cooled off from a heated argument, this she finds quite impossible to understand.
WE NEED TO UNDERSTAND IN ORDER
TO HELP EACH OTHER!
We need to see that universal sickness, that innumerable throng of men & women laden down with their secrets, their fears, their sufferings, their sorrows, their disappointments & their guilt. We need to understand how tragically alone they find themselves. They may take part in social life, may even play a leading role there. Yet what eats away at them from within is that they may live years without finding anyone in whom they have enough confidence to unburden themselves.
Listening is such an essential part of this, long & passionate listening, with love & respect & a real effort at understanding. There should be a complete exchange. Each gives to the other the most precious dimension of his personality, & each gives the other that which was most missing. Finally there is a sense of oneness which is not realised until they are sure they no longer have anything hidden from each other.
THE IMPORTANCE OF JESUS!
Neither marriage courses nor counselling will ever suffice in the face of the present widespread breakdown in marriage. We need more than good counsel. We need a new spirit, one which brings about a change in deep-seated attitudes. We need a breath of fresh air, the breath of God's Spirit! No other force in the World can touch a man more deeply in his heart & help him, at last, in understanding others. He then sees his responsibilities. He understands that he was hurting the person whom he did not understand. He realises that failure to understand & unwillingness to seek understanding are what caused his withdrawal into blind self-centeredness.
Perhaps you know that beautiful prayer of St. Francis of Assisi: "Lord, grant that I may seek more to understand than to be understood!" It is this new desire which the Holy Spirit awakens in couples & transforms their marriage. As long as a man is preoccupied primarily with being understood by his wife, he is miserable, overcome with self-pity, the spirit of demanding & bitter withdrawal. As soon as he becomes preoccupied with understanding her, then the direction taken by events begins to change as each seeks to give more than to receive.
With such wonderful moments we come to experience more than a wonderful marriage. We come, through each other, to experience God Himself.