Growing in emotional maturity is largely about being able to comfortably go to deeper levels of communication.
So many readers write to me saying that they find it so hard to connect with their spouse. One reader recently, for instance, said this:
We have been married for almost a decade and have a bunch of kids. I just feel like I’m just tired and at the end of my rope and I want to give up, but I know there’s no option of divorce. I don’t even know which problem to address first. I guess first. We don’t talk. Yes he’s a quiet guy but I feel like we
never have a conversation, like I usually feel like I’m talking to a wall. Which leads me into I am so lonely. I don’t know how many times I have cried and pleaded to just talk to me and told him I am just so lonely. And nothing ever changes, it’s like he just doesn’t care. I feel like we are roommates. Which leads me into our sex life. He’s nice and attentive when he wants to have sex and then the next day he’s right back to being uncaring and rude. He never comes out and says he wants sex, if I initiate it then he will, he just always wants sex. Communication is basically nonexistent because he doesn’t talk to me. How can I have sex when there is zero emotional connection? How do I want to have sex with someone who doesn’t take my feelings into consideration?
There are a whole lot of issues going on in this marriage (and she describes many more in the rest of her email), but one of the most common things I hear, that’s at the root of so many problems, is that the couple just doesn’t talk. Or, when they do talk, it’s because he’s changing his attitude because he wants sex, and then once sex is done, he goes back to being distant again.
Now, every couple will inevitably go through seasons of distance–seasons when you don’t feel as close because of work schedules, the pressure of illness, busy-ness that can’t be avoided, etc.
It is NOT inevitable, though, that you will fall out of love, lose your libido, or feel disconnected. If we learn the skills of emotional maturity, as Keith talked about yesterday, and actually practice them–then we can avoid much of the distance in our marriage and stay close.
A large part of emotional maturity is feeling comfortable enough with your emotions that you’re able to share with someone on an emotional level.
Gary Smalley, in his book The Secrets of Lasting Love, says that there are five levels of communication:
The 5 Levels of Communication
Intimacy increases with each level.
When you hold the door open for someone, you tend to talk in CLICHES: “nice day, isn’t it?”
Many couples spend most of their time communicating at the level of FACTS: “Johnny has band practice tomorrow at 3 and someone has to pick him up at 4:30. Can you do that on the way home from work?”
OPINIONS isn’t that scary, either: “I just think that my new supervisor is out to get me. She never smiles and nothing I do is right!”
But it’s really in the FEELINGS and NEEDS that we become vulnerable.
“I’m scared that my boss is going to think that the supervisor is right. What if no one recognizes what I’m doing? I just feel so drained when I go to work now, and I’m not sure how much longer I can take this.”
“I want to feel like what I’m doing makes a difference. Lately it’s been so hard to get out of bed because I don’t know if anyone even notices my contributions. What if God is disappointed in me, too? I need to know that someone smiles over me.”
Now, think about how a marriage will be if all of the communication is at the FACTS level. The couple may talk a lot–but they don’t really know each other any better.
And sometimes we think that by sharing opinions we’re really opening up. But we’re not. Opinions are safe–it’s feelings that are vulnerable. It’s feelings that reveal what’s really going on inside of you.
The problem is that many couples never really learned how to live comfortably at levels 4 and 5. Often the level of emotional intimacy we’ve reached when we start to become sexually involved tends to be the level we’re stuck at–unless we take specific steps to overcome that. So couples who have sex early in their relationship can end up substituting physical intimacy for emotional intimacy, and have a hard time progressing now into emotional vulnerability because they’ve done things backwards. Or couples who never really developed emotional intimacy before marriage may feel stuck and never progress either.
(That’s one of the reasons that God wants us to wait for marriage to make love! Going to deeper levels of communication also shows us whether this is a good person to marry or not. But even if you had been sexually active before marriage, your marriage can be strong and healthy now!)
So some couples may never reach levels 4 and 5 to begin with, and others may have been there, but then seasons of busy-ness come and they start staying at facts and opinions. They don’t have time to become vulnerable, or there’s so much that’s happened in the relationship that they don’t feel safe becoming vulnerable.
It’s that sharing of vulnerability, though, that will help you feel close, and here’s why: there are very few people that we actually get down to communication levels 4 and 5 with.
And we tend to bond with those individuals. So you want to make sure that one of those people is your spouse! If you’re not sharing at these levels with your spouse, then it’s all too easy to get caught up in an emotional affair with someone else. Being vulnerable makes us feel close and increases intimacy–whether within marriage or outside of it. So make sure it’s within marriage!
I know, though, that many of you struggle with this.
You’d like to get to deeper levels of communication, but how do you just begin the conversation?
And often many men think that what their wives need is to talk, and so if a guy listens, he’s done enough. But emotional intimacy is a two-way street. You can’t have one person becoming vulnerable while the other never does. Women don’t just want their husbands to hear their hearts; they want to hear their husbands’ hearts, too.
Sometimes we just don’t ask the right questions, and we just don’t know our spouses as well as we could.
I really believe that if we were more intentional about communicating at some of these deeper levels that even when the inevitable seasons of distance come, our marriages could withstand them. We’d still feel intimate and vulnerable with each other. But if all we’re doing is communicating facts and opinions–well, you can do that with anyone. And then what is going to make you want to be with your husband especially? What makes him stand out? Nothing.
Yet it’s difficult to go to deeper levels of communication when you’re not used to it. Sometimes having a ritual that you do that helps you share, or having outside prompts that helps you share, makes talking at these deeper levels easier than just expecting those conversations to spontaneously happen on their own.
Here are some ideas to help:
- Try the High-Low Exercise, where everyday you share with each other the time you felt the most energized and in the groove today, and the time you felt the most defeated. Try to do this ritual at the same time everyday–getting into bed; while you’re making dinner; sitting over a cup of tea after dinner.
- Use our 50 Conversation Starters for Couples! They’re really fun, and they’ll help you reveal things about yourself you may even have forgotten. Pick 2 or 3 a night and ask them while you’re out walking, while you’re sharing a bath together, or over dessert.
3. Check out the Intimately Us app! It’s an app specifically for the sexual side of your relationship, but the app also stresses that sex flows from an intimate relationship–it doesn’t produce intimacy on its own. So it has conversation starters and games you can play together too to get to know each other better!
You can grow your emotional intimacy by getting to deeper levels of communication
Yes, it may feel awkward at first. Yes, it will take the willingness of both parties. But instead of saying to your spouse, “we never talk!” or “you never talk to me!” or “I feel like we don’t even know each other”, try suggesting one of these hands-on ideas. For guys especially for whom emotional vulnerability is a skill that they have yet to learn, practising in a way that’s easier with a few more parameters can seem less intimidating.
And you never know what you’ll learn about each other when you start using some conversation starters!
What do you think? Do you find getting to levels 4 and 5 a challenge? Are you stuck at 3? Or have you had a breakthrough? Let’s talk in the comments!
Posts in the Emotional Maturity Series:
- Four Markers of Emotional Maturity
- Do We Use God Language to Avoid Maturity?
- 2 Keys to Handling Stonewalling Behavior
- 6 Ways to Grow in Emotional Maturity
- A Book List to Help with Emotional Maturity
- What Does Emotional Maturity Look Like (Podcast)
- When Christian Resources Perpetuate Your Spouse’s Immaturity
- What if Emotional Maturity is a Skill Guys Can Learn?
- How Anger is Like an Iceberg
- What is Real Masculinity?
And check out 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage–my book that covers emotional maturity. Plus there’s a FREE group study you can take with it!
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Founder of Bare Marriage
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This very thing is exactly why the long distance relationship my now husband and I had definitely had lasting bonuses! In the year between our meeting and our marriage we spent less than 30 days together in person, so all we had was conversation. Not that activities are a bad thing, but it’s easy to get into just having fun and forget to discuss important things. Our 2 calls a week made us really work on communicating well and it’s been a help in our marriage!
I know so many who would say the same thing! Long distance can end up being a blessing in disguise! It may not feel that way at the time, but you can develop great habits.
Yes, we were long distance for much of our dating and engagement, and it meant we had to focus on talking. One thing that made things work was that he worked to make conversation happen. Our first Skype call was super awkward, and I was surprised when he wanted to Skype a second time. The next Skype call he had a list of questions for us to talk about. He also bought a book called 2000 questions about me, and we began discussing those. We still haven’t made it through the whole book, so sometimes, we pull that book out and discuss a few questions.
This hit deep. Specially the sex before marriage thing. Our relationship turned sexual too early. There wasn’t any real depths.
I struggle so much with 4-5 communication. I mean we do get there some times but it’s not often. It mostly feels like we don’t have anything to talk about more than facts and opinions. Maybe because our life’s are pretty boring and mostly consist of work and kids.
But also because we missed the initial deeper connection. We don’t really have anything to bond about. I often feel like something is missing. To be honest like I am not with the right person. And that sucks. And how I should I be open about that with her?
You mentioned in yesterday’s post about therapy. It scares me. As you say, a person has to be comfortable with their own emotions to share. How does one do that? I am not comfortable with my own emotions. How do I then talk about them? This is tough.
I think the key thing is that you can’t talk about emotions unless you are in a safe place. You can only get as vulnerable as you feel safe. So if you don’t feel safe, then it’s hard to talk about emotions.
But it could be that she isn’t safe, either. You’re saying quite often in the comments that you think she’s the wrong person, which, if she’s picking up on, also can make her feel insecure.
So perhaps what both of you need is a deep and honest conversation about what both of you want from the marriage. Do you want to just do life together and parent children together, but remain distant? Or do you want to grow intimacy? And growing intimacy takes work. It means that you have to each be vulnerable and allow the other to be honest. Honesty is hard. But it is the only route to the other side.
I don’t think sharing that you think she’s the wrong person is helpful, though. But sharing that you feel disconnected, that you don’t feel like she knows you or that you know her and that this is a burden to you–that’s worth talking about, and perhaps going to therapy about. And then you have to ask, “am I prepared to fight for this? Am I prepared to do the work?” And part of the problem may be that you’re scared that she isn’t prepared for that.
But I think the question is worth asking: Are you prepared to do the work? And it may start with just one simple little exercise. Spend a week doing the high/low exercise everyday. Just that. Nothing else. See how that may change things, because for many it can!
Mind blown! In our first 4 years of marriage, we talked about everything and got good at deeper levels of communication. Once we had our first baby, it quickly became harder to have those deeper conversations due to being so busy and we regressed to talking about facts and opinions. After 16 months, we are realizing we need to get back to those deeper levels and it has done wonders for us. It’s not just talk about home remodeling and baby stuff anymore!
Thank you for putting into words what we are currently going through.