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Father Knows Best: Best Relationship Advice

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By Martin Elfert

Hey Rev!

What’s the best relationship advice you ever received?

Ray

House-ad_SPO_FKB_new_0429139Dear Ray:

I have several contenders for the title of best relationship advice. For instance, Yogi Berra’s observation (and like a lot of alleged Berra quotes, there is some question as to whether or not Yogi ever really spoke these words) You can hear a lot by listening is actually pretty solid wisdom. When I sit with couples who are struggling, it often strikes me that they are talking at or past one another rather than with one another.

Then there is my friend and old boss, Bill Ellis, who counsels soon-to-be married couples to learn how to fight well and fight fair. Fighting isn’t necessarily evidence that a marriage is in trouble. To the contrary, when a couple fights in a loving and a respectful way, it is evidence that they are deeply invested in their marriage, that they are willing to do the hard work of telling and hearing one another’s hopes and hurts.

However, the advice that I am going to choose to share with you today, Ray, is the advice that our pre-marital counselor gave to Mrs. FKB just before our wedding. It goes something like this:

Be on guard against the expectation that your partner is a mind reader.

The expectation that your partner will magically know what you want or what you need, that she or he will read your mind, has at least two big dangers. The first is perhaps obvious: it sets you up for resentment. Now to clear, there are times, especially several decades into a marriage, when a couple can and will do a lot of communicating non-verbally, when they have figured out one another’s “tells,” when they have learned how to pick up on the subtlest of clues and signals. That’s a special thing when it happens.

But it’s not something that happens all the time. It’s not something that you can count on.

No matter how many years have gone by since your wedding day, hoping that your partner will, somehow, “just know” that you want to go out for dinner or want to have sex or don’t want to go on a particular vacation pretty much never works. Indeed, hoping for marital clairvoyance is almost guaranteed formula for you ending up pissed off and your partner ending up mystified.

The second problem with holding out for mind reading is that it deprives a couple of the connective gift of mutual vulnerability. Marriage, at its best, allows you and your partner to take off your masks, to name out loud your longings and anxieties, your great joys and great fears. Such a marriage is a place in which it is possible to find deep rest in the presence of another human being: there is no need to keep up the exhausting work of pretending or of self-censoring, no need to feign stoicism when you are feeling lost, no need to feign indifference when you are feeling jubilant. But you forfeit that deep rest when you try to keep your mask on and stay safe, when you try to maintain a cautious distance and yet expect your partner to know what’s happening inside of you.

When we let go of the expectation of mind reading, when we risk telling the truth to our partners, and when our partners respond to our truth with love, marriage becomes a place of deep and generative vulnerability. I suspect that this holy vulnerability is one of the things the authors of Genesis were getting at when they wrote that the man and the woman “were both naked, and were not ashamed.” Shame-free nakedness is a wondrous and an uncommon gift. It is a fleeting foretaste of heaven.

So, Ray, if you’re married – if you’re thinking about getting married – take my old marriage-counselor’s advice and ditch mind-reading as a goal. Tell your partner the truth. Listen to truth. Be joyously, vulnerably, delightfully naked together. Do not be ashamed.

About Martin Elfert

The Rev. Martin Elfert is an immigrant to the Christian faith. After the birth of his first child, he began to wonder about the ways in which God was at work in his life and in the world. In response to this wondering, he joined Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he and his new son were baptized at the Easter Vigil in 2005 and where the community encouraged him to seek ordination. Martin served on the staff of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Spokane, Wash. from 2011-2015. He is now the rector of Grace Memorial Episcopal Church in Portland, Oreg.

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One comment

  1. Wow! Excellent insight, verbal communication, the most essential part of any relationship, especially in marriage. Without it, there is no marriage. Thanx…

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