A great marriage, like a great relationship of any kind, starts with communication.
Communication, contrary to what most of us believe, starts with listening–not with talking.
And listening, really listening with the intent to understand, starts with courage.
Listening is a selfless act; it requires us to let go of our ego, stop planning what we mean to say in the next pause, forget about our response to whatever our partner is saying now. Listening means not just hearing what our partner says, but understanding what he or she means.
And in order to understand, in order to put away our ego and listen for what the person we love needs, we have to make ourselves vulnerable.
It’s something I struggle with–after years of practice, after training, after falling short again and again, I still find my mind wandering when my wife talks to me. I still find myself focusing not on what she’s trying to communicate to me–but on what I’m going to say when she gives me an opportunity. Unless I remind myself to listen, I focus on my needs, not on hers.
Focusing on someone else’s needs requires courage. Our lizard brains–the central brain structure we share with all vertebrates–react with alarm when we do that. They say what are you thinking? How are you going to meet your needs if you’re focused on theirs?
But what the lizard brain doesn’t know is that we are no longer alone when we’re married, when we’re committed to spending the rest of our lives with our partner. The lizard brain doesn’t understand that just as I work to make sure my partner’s needs are met, she does the same for me. The lizard brain doesn’t understand trust.
Trust is what great communication builds in a relationship. We can’t create great relationships without it. Long ones, yes–but not great ones.
There are plenty of other ways to show courage in a relationship: a husband stands ready to sacrifice his life for his wife, and she for him; one partner might sacrifice a certain lifestyle for the other; both sacrifice the freedom of infinite, selfish choice for what (eventually) turns out to be the greater freedom of binding to each other.
And of course, for communication to be complete, it can’t all be about yielding to each other’s needs. Each partner must be able to step forward and state his or her own needs–otherwise, one or both of them will eventually run out of needs to listen to.
But it all starts with having the courage to listen.