Gustav and Elna have learned valuable relationship lessons over the years—from their own marriage as well as from their experience of counselling thousands of couples. To share their insights about the ingredients of a happy marriage, they wrote several letters to their son Jacques and his wife Shona who live in Ireland. Here are three letters, full of heart-warming advice, that they sent them soon after Jacques and Shona got married
The importance of successful conversation
Dear Jacques & Shona,
You have now been married for a little more than a month. You looked so happy together and I truly believe that you will have a blessed marriage. By now, I imagine that you have sorted through all the wedding photographs and sent out the thank you notes for the lovely wedding gifts you received. I wonder if you had a difference of opinion or perhaps an argument about one of the post-wedding responsibilities or decisions newlyweds need to make. Please remember that it is quite normal to have different views on matters. It is also normal to have arguments every now and then. It is unrealistic to expect that the two of you will always agree on everything. A successful marriage is not one without differences of opinion or arguments but one where two people develop the ability to process their differences and arguments constructively—which brings me to the importance of communication in marriage.
Successful communication and, more specifically, successful conversations are extremely important in a marriage. A successful conversation started your relationship, and continued successful conversations caused your relationship to grow to the point where you wanted to get married. Without successful conversations, a relationship cannot be born or grow, nor can it exist meaningfully. On this relationship journey you need successful conversation after successful conversation to constructively share and process your different opinions or views on all kinds of matters about everyday married life, so that your relationship can grow and flourish. You need to be able to discuss your different opinions successfully but the ability to do this is something that has to be developed.
Unfortunately, you are not born with this ability, just like you were not born with the ability to speak words. It would have been funny though. Can you imagine greeting the doctor while entering this world? The skill to speak words, which is only a small part of successful communication, is something that both of you had to develop during the first few years of your lives. In school you had to develop the skill to write words, which is another small part of successful communication. But the ability to speak and write words does not mean you have the ability to discuss important issues in marriage constructively—especially if you have different views on these issues.
Without successful conversations, a relationship cannot be born or grow, nor can it exist meaningfully
When communication is successful, it will bring life into your relationship and cause it to flourish. But, when your communication is unsuccessful, it will cause your relationship to wither and die.
So always remember that no marital issue, challenge, or difference of opinion has the ability to harm or diminish your relationship. It is the way you process marital issues, challenges, or differences of opinion that will make or break your relationship; which is why communication has been called the lifeblood or heartbeat of a marriage relationship.
Three basic principles—a guideline for successful conversation
Dear Jacques & Shona
When we spoke to you on the phone the other day, you mentioned a movie you had seen together and it reminded me of how much your mom and I enjoy going to the movies. It’s one of those things that strengthen our friendship-bond—except for one day. At the end of the movie we saw that day, your mom declared that the movie was very unsettling. I immediately replied that I thought it was quite a good movie. She responded with a few reasons why it was not a good movie and I in turn defended my point of view. A perfectly wonderful evening got spoiled with an argument about the movie and on our way home you could have cut the atmosphere in the car with a knife. Neither one of us said anything.
The mistake I made that evening was to treat your mom as if I were right and she was wrong. I forgot the very first principle for a successful conversation, namely that we can both be right, or at least that we are both entitled to an opinion. You see, our respective opinions about something are generated by our respective inner worlds and our inner worlds are different. Yes, our inner worlds differ because we have different personalities, backgrounds and upbringings, all of which result in different world views, preferences and needs—and so the two of us look at things from different angles. Your mom and I, because of our different inner worlds, looked at the movie from different inner world angles and we were both right. In fact, we learned early on in our marriage that, no matter what we talk about, if we have different opinions about it, we are often both right [both of us are entitled to an opinion]. It’s a pity that we sometimes forget this valuable principle.
So, if our point of departure is that we could both be right, we can have a successful conversation. If not, our conversation might get very heated as we both try to prove that we are right—which implies that the other person is wrong—and as these passionate exchanges escalate, we might end up fighting.
We learned early on in our marriage that, no matter what we talk about, if we have different opinions about it, we are often both right
The second principle for successful conversation that we discovered is that we have to know when to position ourselves for the right kind of conversation. You see, there two different kinds of conversation of which one works well in certain instances while the other works well in other instances. This principle requires that one develops the ability to discern when to use which kind of conversation. In another letter I will discuss the two different kinds of conversations in more detail and then this principle will make more sense. For now it will be worth your while just to keep this second principle in mind.
The third principle we learned is that we have to allocate time to practise to communicate constructively. This involves setting time aside to discuss an issue, while actively trying to use all the tools that we will tell you about later on. You will remember that we said that having a successful conversation is a skill that needs to be developed—which means that we had to practise for a while until using these tools became second nature.
We discovered that as we took these principles to heart and put them into action, we were able to enjoy each other’s company much, much more.
It’s impossible to stop communicating
Dear Jacques & Shona
You are probably still digesting the three principles that your dad wrote about in his previous letter, but there is one more I would like to add. At the beginning of our marriage, whenever we disagreed on something, we tended to argue in circles. It was so discouraging that I would eventually give up, stop communicating and leave the room. Later on in our marriage I realised that it’s impossible to stop communicating—for even when I stop talking, my body language and facial expressions continue to send out messages. Not even leaving the room can stop communication, because when I leave the room my absence communicates a message. My willingness or unwillingness to talk about something communicates a message. I am constantly sending out messages whether I want to or not.
It gets better. According to research, more than 80 per cent of a message is made up of all these non-verbal bits of information. That’s why experts go so far as to say that nonverbal information speaks louder than verbal information.
Not even leaving the room can stop communication, because when I leave the room my absence communicates a message
You also have to keep in mind that words have the power to enhance or damage a relationship.
Now for the interesting part. Let’s throw everything together. Words can enhance or damage, non-verbal information speaks louder than words and non-verbal communication can never be stopped. When I now look at the overall picture, I realise that my ability to communicate is something much bigger than I could ever have imagined.
So when God entrusted us with the ability to communicate, He entrusted us with something that has enormous power and can never be ‘switched’ off. This inspires me to keep on developing my communication skills, and also to take special care that my communication is positive and life-giving whenever possible. If I do this it will help protect the bond of love between your dad and me, and enable us to keep on enjoying each other’s company.
Before I say goodbye, here is something you can do: make a special date with each other just to talk about what I shared with you in this letter.