Check any list of topics you must discuss before marriage, and you’ll find spirituality in the top ten – probably top five. We did discuss spirituality, and faith, and religion, and … well, virtually every other topic related to God, humanity, and their interaction. And we came to basically the same conclusion: it’s important to us.
Perhaps that’s exactly why we found ourselves fighting over it: it is important to us, and therefore in any conversation about faith where we express divergent views, we immediately find the situation loaded with an extra layer of emotion.
The Scene: Every Sunday at 1 p.m., for about five consecutive months. We’d been married for a year or two, and things were going smoothly, mostly. But it was clear that one thing in our life needed a change: we needed to find a church to attend (happily) together. And so we started visiting a wide range of congregations including evangelical, Catholic, and Greek Orthodox.
And we also started fighting: he liked systematic theology. I liked a fresher take on faith. He couldn’t find music he liked; I could tolerate virtually any music as long as the pastor or priest didn’t make disparaging comments about women or Democrats.
What it was really about: I said earlier that most big fights aren’t really about what we think they’re about (see The Battle of the Ceramic Snowman as an example). In this case, it was actually about religion and our practice of it, which is what made the conversation so charged with emotion. But beyond this, the fight was really about how we think, talk and fight, and how we hurt each other in the process. This became obvious when we realized our fights were repeating the same pattern, regardless of the topic.
I tend to think things over. Afraid to misspeak, I weigh my words carefully and stay silent until I’m ready to commit myself to a course of action. It can appear to be (and maybe is) stone-walling (a communications term that means you delay or block an action by refusing to respond in conversation). Cliff, on the other hand, thinks out loud. Loudly. He makes his points – regardless of how firmly he believes them – with a convincing amount of vigor.
When we talked about where we’d spend our Sunday mornings, he expressed clear and decisive opinions. In reality he was thinking deeply about the topics and sharing his wide-ranging thoughts rather than actual conclusions – but he never expressed uncertainty or appeared to be testing ideas.
My own thoughts were unformed, and so as not to be perceived as less intelligent I let him talk and kept my mouth shut. Then I’d feel frustrated when it seemed as if he’d made a final decision when I wasn’t even yet sure of my choices. I felt helpless to fight his certainty – especially since I was so uncertain of my own opinions – and so I’d stop trying and start crying into my Pad Thai noodles.
The cycle repeated itself nearly every Sunday, and perhaps would have gone on indefinitely if we hadn’t left the country for two years. Sometime during that time away – when we were spending roughly 23 hours a day with each other – we learned to recognize our mutual communication styles. Cliff learned to admit when he was playing devil’s advocate. He became aware of the times when he was six minutes into a monologue and tried to pause to ask a question.
For my part, I realized I can’t blame Cliff for his communication style if I’m not willing to face my own: I learned it was okay to share my thoughts even if they were unformed. He loves me enough to listen to me blather. I learned to push back at his arguments by asking questions and sometimes even interrupting him.
We both stopped believing we needed to find The Answer and started just looking for the next step forward.
Cliff and I have three degrees in communications between the two of us, and yet it took months of fighting and several years of marriage to come to these basic realizations about how we think, talk and fight. Some fights are worth having for what they teach us about ourselves.