The Key to Great Communication and a Loving Marriage: Less is More

Why do people get married? Because we find someone who wants to be a student of us.

And why do people get unmarried? Because over time the students become teachers and everyone’s teaching but no one’s learning, and we forget how to attend to each other.

I don’t know how I learned anything in my first semester of graduate school.

The program was stellar and my professors were excellent, but I met my wife that autumn, and I quickly became a student of her first, and psychology second. I fell in love and it made every red-turning leaf radiant with the slanting sun and every dry-brown leaf crackle underfoot like a ballad.

In my graduate school, the classes were small and usually held at a round table, with students facing each other. I would spend hours of class time sneaking glances at her, noticing the way her jaw flexed when she was thinking and the constellation of freckles on her cheek. I listened to her laugh, and I felt like I found a home inside of it.

I became a student of her before all other things.

The years have piled up, though. Many autumns have come and gone. Time numbs and life distracts, doesn’t it? Kids and work and bills to pay and errands to run and television to watch and friends and pride and lingering hurt and unfinished fights.

We trade in attentive gazes for critical comments. We trade an available ear for a quick fix. We trade an open mind for close-ended questions.

As another autumn approaches, I have to wonder, “Have I ceased to be a student of my wife?”

The Hidden Simplicity of Marriage

Most couples arrive in my marital therapy office prepared for a complicated experience—they want a new arsenal of tools for solving conflict, insights into their partners’ neuroses, and answers to the intricate problems of married life. Yet, over the years, I’ve discovered:

Most couples don’t need an addition of ideas—they need a subtraction of distractions. Instead of learning new things to do, they must rediscover how to simply be. Because when you strip away all the fixing and doing and perfecting, you are left with only your partner and their messiness and their beauty, and your fragile ability to attend to them.

Most couples don’t need to become students of marriage—they need to become students of each other again. They need to learn to hold their partner in awareness, without fixing or changing or criticizing or commenting. They need to simply behold their partner—all the quiet beauty, the lovely vulnerability, the fears and the tears, the hurt and the frustration and all the desperate attempts to feel worthy.

Most couples don’t need to learn the science of communication—they need to learn the art of attention. Because, in the end, good communication is far less about implementing a new skill, and far more about the willingness to be still. It’s the art of gazing upon the person we love, and allowing them to teach us about who they are.

Marriage Like a Meditation

Last month, my wife and I flew to Hawaii for a conference. A nine-hour flight through the night. As we floated over the Pacific and my wife slept like she was staying in a five star Hilton, I slowly ran out of things to keep me occupied. Eventually, I put away all of my screens and distractions and I turned to look at her. Her curls gathered around her ears. Her shoulders rising and falling with each breath.

I just watched.

And I felt like a student again.

Jon Kabat-Zin writes, “Anything and everything can become our teacher of the moment, reminding us of the possibility of being fully present: the gentle caress of air on our skin, the play of light, the look on someone’s face, a passing contraction in the body, a fleeting thought in the mind. Anything. Everything. If it is met in awareness.”

He’s talking about mindfulness and meditation—the act of attending to one thing in such a way that our awareness of the thing expands and we become fully anchored in the present moment and fully available to the object of our attention.

What if we met our partners in awareness again? What if, once again, we became students of the ones we love? What if our lovers became the meditation of our lives?

Partners Becoming Students Again

Marriage can grow stale and stuck. Perhaps that’s just the way life goes and the way love ages.

But maybe, just maybe, we’re all dancing on the precipice of a deep, enduring love and we simply don’t know how to fall back into the chasm. Maybe we fall into love again by learning how to pay attention again—by giving up all of our judgment and assessment and critique and meeting our partners in the field of awareness, instead of upon the field of battle.

I think we find ourselves in love again when we choose to be in school again. When we choose to become students of the ones we love:

Fully attentive.

Ready to learn their every nuance.

Cherishing what they are, rather than what we would make them into.

Becoming more fully aware of the beautiful, rocky, and messy depths of the person to whom we have given our lives.

Maybe, in marriage, the fixing is in this kind joining: two lovers made students once again.


Comments: What keys have you discovered to listening well and attending deeply to your partner? You can share your thoughts or reactions at the bottom of this post.                

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Preview: Next Wednesday’s post is tentatively entitled, “What a Poopy Standoff Taught Me About True Contentedness.”

Disclaimer: This post is not professional advice. It should be read as you would read a “self-help” book. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor, who can become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. Counselors can be located through your insurance network or through your state psychological association.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

31 thoughts on “The Key to Great Communication and a Loving Marriage: Less is More

  1. Coming up on our 30th anniversary, I can truly attest to the erosion of love due to worldly distraction and keeping up with today’s competitive culture. In fact, I’ll admitI I can be the principal who feels like I know best or like the custodian who doesn’t get the kudos she deserves. Power and Pity Party. These things happen slowly, and it’s a slippery slope that takes us to a place where we feel there’s no climbing back. I’ve been there, but God miraculously restored our marriage because I became the student again and He was my teacher. Nothing has surprised me more. That was 13 years ago, and we’ve lost our study of each other now and then, but this past weekend we made an intentional date, in the midst of “shoulds” and “to do’s” to float on rafts together in our little pool. We connected, were playful, smoked a cigar while floating and wondered why we hadn’t done it before – it was a time of intimacy that good marriages require to sustain tenderness, empathy, and solid commitment. It was the best day we’ve had in months. We were students of each other. We were equals, I felt connected and loved. We intend to visit that classroom again.

    • Thanks for this story, Jen. The image of simply floating and enjoying, while all the “to dos” continue to swirl around you, is a great way to envision this idea of simplicity and stillness in beholding each other.

  2. I’ve been with my partner ten years and for some time I tried to find something deeper and felt stuck. We separated and found our way back to each other after not speaking for a year. I had to learn that just being was great too and caught myself criticizing him and not appreciating him. Very reassuring post and wonderful way of explaining how we are students of one another.

    • Thank you, Lidin. I hope the student imagery takes the two of you even deeper into the being part of the relationship this time around!

  3. I would say life’s busyness, a long list of expectations and the overwhelming need to be right can put a damper on any relationship. My marriage has had its share of ups and downs. But we have learned over the years that you have to make time to be a couple and to separate from the demands of parenting, work life and the work of keeping up with life.

    It is not about expensive dates, although they can be fun. It is not about going away on trips although sometimes even 24 hours away can be helpful. What I would recommend is with little kids, get them in bed by 8:00-8:30 and then turn off the TV and computers and spend time together at home. It is affordable to dance in your living room. When our kids got a little bit older we would go on regular coffee dates, just around the corner for only a little over an hour with only one rule, that we could not talk about the kids. Now that my kids are all teenager and older, I just tell my husband I need a date and he makes it happen. Dating your spouse with the same attentiveness makes all the difference in the world.

    It also doesnt hurt to remind yourself of all the times they got it right. So often when we are upset we focus on the negative and forget all the times our partner was there for us. So dont forget to hold hands, and to be truly present, which means put down and turn off the phone.

    Thanks Kelly…Loved this!

    • And thank YOU for this: “It’s affordable to dance in your own living room.” A simple concept, stated simply, and so right on.

  4. I had forgotten the value of being a student… When society tells you to be in such a rush to grow up and get out of school, I believe you lose sight of the true privilege of education. I know I did! Every moment is a learning opportunity whether it be academic, emotional or spiritual. This is, after all, Earth School right?! Thanks Dr. K!

  5. Such an inspiring post! I am reading this post for the 3rd time in 2 weeks and I can see the simplicity in making our marriages work. My mind has flashbacks of my husband and I developing our friendship whilst I was in England and he was in Singapore. Nothing mattered but learning about it each other and flying out to catch up Now being married for 3 years and with a toddler, things have changed and thanks to your insight Dr Flanagan, we try to make our relationship better each day.
    Totally enjoy reading your work! Great stuff 🙂

    • Preejay, I’m glad this spoke to you where you are at in life, and thanks for taking the time out to share such kind words! Blessings to you and your growing family!

  6. I have read and re-read this post and one thing is certain…..ITS EASY TO FALL IN LOVE BUT ITS SPECIAL TO STAY IN LOVE….This post reminded me of John and Ann Betar of Connecticut who have been named the longest married couple in the U.S.! He’s 101 and she’s 97, and have been married 80 years . NOW THAT IS SPECIAL…Shows they are still in the School of life and they do not mind being students at all because it is worth it….

    • Jaber, Thank you for sharing this couple with us, what a beautiful example of what I was trying to describe in this post. And, Jaber, thanks for diving into the discussion in the comments section of “A Daddy’s Letter.” I read all of your comments and really appreciate your perspective. So glad you found us here and please continue to add your voice!

      • Hello Doc,
        Thank you for starting this blog gosh you have given me the confidence to voice my writings and opinions. I love your posts they challenge me to be my best I hope you don’t mind but I have turned them to my daily devotions because in this life we need a sound voice of reason…Once again thank you for allowing me to be a part of your blog.

  7. I’m a single guy, and I always appreciate thoughtful, inspiring posts on relationships like this. Thank you for your optimism, for your focus on _attention_, and also for your respectful interactions in comments here and in your Google+ stream 🙂

  8. This may be considered an odd word, but the message of this article I found to be quite beautiful. And, resinating to be sure. I could totally imagine the scene in the airplane and feel its power as I was reading it. Reminds me somewhat of the practice of love languages, as this requires us in relationships to be knowledgeable of our lover, and put that into practice.

    Thanks so much for the message.

  9. I have been dating my boyfriend for a year now. It is the healthiest relationship either of us have had. We have been more about serving the other more than ourselves and it seems to be along the same theme you are talking about here. The best way to serve him is by me knowing him as best I am able. The other thing that has really helped us is being for the relationship. I know that sounds odd … but I mean when arguments happen instead of proving who is right or blame shifting or holding onto whatever has made us mad we remember we aren’t for our individual selves, we are for the relationship we have. It’s amazing and we want to cherish and protect it, so the argument then becomes trying to figure out where the breakdown happened, how the other person felt in it and how we can prevent it in the future. Sometimes I am so mad I don’t want to be around him until I have cooled off; I now I am mad and feeling mean and I know that I love him more than what I am feeling in that moment. Those times are rare. Most of the time I am mad about whatever the thing is, but I will still reach over to hold his hand as a way of stating, “I am mad, but this relationship still means so much to me and I love you.” It helps break down the entitlement feelings I get when issues come up.

  10. This is an incredibly beautiful and insightful piece. I love the analogy of becoming a student of our loved one again, as we once were and as we’ve too often forgotten. So simple and yet so true. I think everyone in a relationship should read this piece and make it a manual. Hardcore advice poetically conveyed… wonderful.

  11. That is a fabulous article. So well written & so insightful. I appreciate the wisdom you’ve shared here. Apparently, I’m prepared to read this & have it be meaningful at this time. After 41 years of marriage & self discovery I find myself at a point that I’m deciding (consciously) what I want in my life & what I want to care about. My marriage & husband, these are the biggest parts of this deciding process (Those & religion/spirituality) Thank you for your article. I think I’ll print it out & read it again soon.

  12. It was one of the best things I’ve ever read in my entire life. I broke up with my bf twice, but he accepted me back even though I know he shouldn’t. Now I’m excited to be a learner again. Thanks for that.

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