Drifting Into Conflict
About the Guest
Many couples drift into marital miscommunication, yet nearly as many find themselves surprised both by the arrival and the intensity of the storm. What happened? Counselor Jim Keller reveals a simple yet profound truth about communication; How you listen has a lot more to do with communication than how you speak. Jim Keller explores the art of listening.
Jim KellerJim Keller has a bachelor's degree from the University of Toledo and two graduate degrees in Marriage and Family Therapy from Springfield College in Springfield, MA. He worked in college ministry, primarily in the Northeastern United States, for more than 25 years before he founded Charis Counseling Center in Orlando, FL. Jim was a nationally known speaker with FamilyLife. Jim and his wife Renee have been married for 35 years; they have two grown children, and four grandchildren.
Many couples find themselves surprised both by the arrival and the intensity of the storm.
Drifting Into Conflict
Bob: Has your spouse ever said to you, “I don’t feel like you’re listening to me. I don’t feel like you’re really hearing what I’m saying.” Author and speaker, Jim Keller, says, “You may have heard the words, but may not have been listening the way you ought to be listening.”
Jim: There are two things that I’d like to say when it comes to listening. You have to listen like you like them, and you have to listen with compassion. Listen like this is your friend, even if you are in conflict. This isn’t an enemy. This isn’t someone that you’re trying to win an argument or fight a battle to win the battle. This is someone that you want to embrace. Compassion means that you are going to put yourself in their shoes and really understand how they feel and make a good faith effort to do that.
You’re really trying to focus on, not just the words, but how it’s being said and what are the underlying messages to them. You want to be in a place where there are few, if any, distractions. You’ve got to give it the time that’s appropriate. Five minutes is not enough time to really have a great meet. Now, you can communicate well in five minutes; but you only get five minutes’ worth out of it.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, December 20th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. We’re going to talk about communication, and listening, and improving your marriage. So, I hope you’ll pay attention and really listen. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. You are out of your mind! First of all—just, I’m telling you—first of all—
Dennis: That’s a great way to start the broadcast.
Bob: Well, I’m stunned!
Dennis: We’re sitting here with a counselor, and you are announcing to him and to our listeners—
Bob: Oh, he knew. He knew!
Dennis: —our listening audience—
Bob: Here’s why! Our guest writes a book; and you say, “We should have him on.” I go, “Okay, I trust you.” I mean, after 20 years, I should trust you; right?
Dennis: Then, you read the—
Bob: Then, I read the “Table of Contents”.
Dennis: —the “Table of Contents”.
Bob: “Fight More”, “Have Less Sex”, “Go to Church Less”, “Accept the Fact that You’re Average”—
Dennis: —“Be Worse Parents”, “Embrace Poverty”.
Bob: And then, “Forward by Dennis Rainey”. I’m going, “What in the—what were you thinking?!”
Dennis: I was thinking it was a good book because I knew the guy who wrote it. He’s a good man, Jim Keller. Jim, welcome to the broadcast.
Jim: Well, thank you very much.
Dennis: There’s always a unique—
Jim: That’s a great intro.
Dennis: It is a great intro; isn’t it?
Bob: Well, come on? We’re supposed to read this “Table of Contents” and think, “This is going to help people in their marriage”?!
Dennis: Well, let me just tell our listeners who Jim is. Jim is the founder and the President of Charis Counseling Center is Orlando, Florida.
Jim: That’s right.
Dennis: Did I get that right?
Jim: You did.
Dennis: And he and his wife, Renee, have been married for 35 years—have two children and only four grandkids. [Laughter]
Jim: That’s it, but that’s enough for us. [Laughter] They were all just together, and that’s enough for us.
Dennis: I had to get that in. I had to get that in, Jim. Jim is a good friend. He and his wife, Renee, used to speak at our Weekend to Remember® marriage getaways for a number of years. We do go way back.
I was honored that he asked me to write the “Forward” to this book. I went to the Board of Directors of FamilyLife and asked their permission to do it because I get a few requests like this—
Dennis: a—and they said, “Yes,” because of Jim’s caliber and character. Now, Jim would you like to explain a book—
Bob: —[With a drawl] You’ve got a lot of explainin’ to do here!
Jim: Well, the first thing that I want to explain is—the reason—the impetus for this book was you, Dennis. During a conversation we had, during a brunch two years ago, you asked, “Okay, when are you going to write your book?” I had been resisting this for most of my life; but my wife happened to be there. She said, “Well, you wrote down those chapter titles.” I sent you an outline of those titles; and you said, “Let’s give it a whirl.”
Bob: Now, obviously, when you’re talking about the upside down marriage, you’re saying there are some things that we need to re-examine that—
Bob: —have kind of become commonplace.
Jim: Yes. There are natural responses to relationships. There are things that we think, “Okay, this is what I need to do here. This is what I need to do here.” Many times, we fall into patterns that really aren’t helpful at all; and many times, they’re destructive—like the chapter title, “Fight More”. Many people think that having conflict in a relationship is not a good thing, but conflict is inevitable in relationships.
Couples who avoid conflict tend to have greater conflicts, down the road. If you could begin to develop a pattern of—when you have an issue—to learn how to resolve conflict and enter into conflict with a plan, you can do a better job of resolving it.
Dennis: Let’s illustrate with Chapter 1: “Don’t Talk So Much”. You tell the story of a couple who’d been married—what? Thirty years?
Jim: Yes. Yes. They have been in agony. They came in together. The wife talked about how her husband had been insensitive for years and how they just had a difficult time of it.
Dennis: Now, we need to say at this point, “You’re a counselor.”
Jim: I’m a counselor.
Dennis: That’s why they’ve come in to see you.
Jim: They’ve come in to see me, and this is when I was just starting out. I’m a brand- new counselor. This is—I think this is probably one of the first couples I’ve ever counseled. I’m just so excited to be in the process. I’m watching the wife. She talked for 30 minutes straight because I—you know, you time your sessions. You want to make sure you’re—
Bob: —being fair with them.
Jim: After 30 minutes of this long, long diatribe, this man, all of a sudden, speaks. He goes, “I don’t know what her problem is!”—just out of the blue. Now, she’s been, 30 minutes, specifying—
Bob: —explaining what her problem is.
Jim: —in detail, what his problem is; [Laughter] but he hasn’t heard a thing, of course. Then, he basically says, “You know, I work real hard. I’ve been faithful to her, and I don’t physically abuse her.” That’s all he said. Then, she just kept on, right from there, and began talking the rest of the session.
Bob: So, you write a chapter and use them as a lead illustration—saying, “Don’t Talk So Much”. What were you really trying to say?
Jim: I’m saying that you’ve got to be in a place where you listen to what your spouse is saying. Both of those people—they’re in a 30-plus-year marriage, where they just don’t listen to each other. Listening is the key to communication. It’s not the words you use that are important or what you say—as much as how you’re able to listen. The listener who listens well is a person who communicates well.
Bob: You know, I see the surveys that come out from time to time, “What are the issues couples are dealing with in marriage?” Communication is always on the list. I think it is money, sex, kids, and communication. You’re talking to couples every day. Is that list fairly accurate?
Jim: It is, but it goes—it’s so layered. It’s very deep, in terms of where you go down. Yes, communication is the key essence to every marriage. It just is.
Bob: Why do you say that?
Jim: Because if you don’t have an understanding of your spouse, you really don’t have a relationship with your spouse—you have a living arrangement with your spouse. So, I think it’s important to say, “Okay, how—” not just, “Do we talk?” —but, “Do we really communicate? Do we really understand each other, and are we able to be intimate?”
Dennis: And a counselor is never above making a mistake himself. That’s one of the things that I appreciated as I read the manuscript of your book. Right off the bat, you told a story of Renee, [Laughter] your wife—and this is after you’ve been married—what three decades?
Dennis: She comes in and she says, “We haven’t talked recently.”
Jim: Yes. And those are dangerous words, coming from my wife. Those are words that always get my attention. I always tend to be defensive. I was in a place—at the time, I was going through some classes; and I had a lot of things I needed to do. I had a very small window of opportunity. She comes in and she says, “We haven’t talked lately.” My response was just so poor. I said, “Well, we talked this morning.” Well, we didn’t talk at all. [Laughter] We said, “Hi. How are you? What are you doing today?”
Dennis: Typical man.
Jim: What she was saying to me is, “Look, we have not connected. We are not listening to each other. We haven’t taken the time to really hear from each other.” So, the rest of the day, that’s what I did. You know, my work got done; but it was important for me to listen to my wife. I had to listen to what she had to say.
Bob: Mary Ann—the other day—we had sat down and had a prolonged conversation—kind of worked out some details—get some planning done. She had the calendar out, and we were making some plans. Then, something happened; and we had to—we had to stop. I remember, as I was getting up to go do something else, she said, “We still have a lot to talk about.” [Laughter]
Jim: And you thought you were done.
Bob: I said to her, “Of course, we do. Of course, we do.”
Dennis: There you go! That’s a wise statement.
Bob: But I—it was just really interesting because, yes, as a guy, you can kind of feel like, “Okay, we called the play. We’re ready to break and go to—the huddles’ over and let’s get in the game.”
Bob: And our wives are saying, “No, no, no, no, no.” Here’s the thing I’ve found—if I have processed something in my mind, I figure Mary Ann has, too. “Why do we need to talk that much about it?”
Jim: Of course.
Bob: She needs the interaction in order for there to be real oneness in our marriage.
Jim: Yes, I agree. My son was just visiting from Seattle. I had a conversation with him, one-on-one. My wife comes to me and says, “Well, what did you and Chris talk about?” I said, “Oh, you know, just essential stuff.” I sort of, “How’s he doing—” “Well, how is he doing? What did he say?” I’m just like, “Oh, man!” —you know?
Bob: “I’ve got to do this all over again?”
Jim: “I’ve got to do this all over.”
Dennis: You were giving her the news report.
Jim: I was.
Dennis: The two-minute news report, and she wanted the Gone with the Wind version.
Jim: Yes. “Can I text you? Can I just send it to you in little dribbles and drabbles?” That’s—you’re right. That’s exactly what’s important.
Bob: The reason that is so important is because that’s—relationships are built that way.
Jim: They are.
Bob: Without communication, what do you have?
Jim: You don’t have anything—not a relationship.
Dennis: Well, if you think about it, listening to another person is, or can be, the greatest show of respect. If you are truly listening, not only to what is said—what’s not said, how it’s said—
Dennis: —and the context from which it’s being said.
Dennis: If you’re really listening, that is the ultimate way to show respect for another person, especially your spouse.
Dennis: Give us some tips on listening—how we can do a better job on it.
Jim: Well, first of all, the point is excellent. I call it, “If you’re really listening, you’re listening between the lines.” You’re really trying to focus on what’s—not just the words—but how it’s being said. What are the underlying messages to that? People pay me money to listen to them. My job, primarily, is not so much to solve problems; but it’s first and foremost to listen. I am as good as my ability to listen, as a counselor. Well, you are as good as your ability to listen, as a spouse.
So, some of the things that I like to say and encourage couples to do: Environment is important—where you have your talks, your communication. You want to be in a place where there are few, if any, distractions. You want to be in a place where it’s conducive to be able to talk. You’ve got to give it the time that’s appropriate. The most frustrating thing to one or both spouses is if there is not enough time to communicate what they really want to communicate. Five minutes is not enough time to really have a great meet. Now, you can communicate well in five minutes; but you only get five minutes’ worth out of it. So, it does take time.
Dennis: Well, and to that point, for young families, who’ve got a bunch of kids around their ankles and legs—kind of nipping at their heels—it’s tough to have—
Jim: Oh, yes.
Dennis: —a conversation. You’ve got to reschedule. Sometimes, a disagreement has to be rescheduled after the kids are in bed.
Dennis: And it’s not going to turn out well—
Dennis: —if you don’t.
Jim: Yes, I agree. Focus is important. It is amazing to me how, when couples come into my office, they don’t look at each other when they talk. I, at least, several times a week, honestly, as I do couples’ therapy, I will say, “Would you look her in the eye when you say that? Would you look at each other?” Because they will be looking down, they’ll be looking at me, they’ll be looking at the wall; but the eyes are the window to the soul. So, it takes focus to do that.
I also encourage them to watch their body language when they talk—their defensive postures. In Psych 101—any kind of communication course—your arms are crossed—you’re giving non-verbals. I remember I had a couple—he would just purse his lips and just shake his head every time she talked. She would roll her eyes every time he talked. I mean, this is just what they did as I had them share back-and-forth. So, I just basically got to a point where, every time he talked, I’d purse my lips and shook my head. Every time she talked, I rolled my eyes. Finally, they are looking at me like, “What’s wrong with what I’m saying?” I said, “All I’m doing is—I’m doing to you what you’re doing to your spouse. Do you see how it feels?” See—when you finally have someone, from the outside, pointing it out and saying, “Hey, watch your body language.” It’s important to have body language—it’s conducive to listening and communication.
Dennis: That kind of body language shows contempt for another person.
Dennis: That’s the opposite of respect.
Jim: Yes. That’s an excellent point because there are two final things that I’d like to say when it comes to listening. You have to listen like you like them, and you have to listen with compassion. Listen like this is your friend, even if you are in conflict. This is your friend. This isn’t an enemy. This isn’t someone that you’re trying to win an argument or fight a battle to win the battle. This is someone you want to embrace. Compassion means that you are going to put yourself in their shoes and really understand how they feel and make a good faith effort to do that.
Bob: One of the things Mary Ann and I have talked about in our communication—and, really, in communication in general—is the need to give another person—and the phrase I learned years ago was—“the judgment of charity”. It is really the benefit of the doubt—it is, really, believing the best about another person. That is, if somebody says something to you and there are a number of ways it could be understood, your responsibility is to understand it and to interpret it in the best possible light—
Bob: —rather than immediately going to the worst possible light—and give that person that “judgment of charity”. If we do that, we may want to probe a little deeper: “Is this what you were trying to say? Did you mean it this way?” That’s fair to do. It doesn’t mean to be Pollyanna and be naïve; but, boy, it’s a whole different mindset when you are starting off with, “I’m going to believe the best about you.”
Jim: Absolutely. I think that’s vital, long-term—and any kind of growing relationship—that you really believe that the other person has your best interest in mind—and that you really can come alongside them and say, “I want to be assuming that that’s the case. I want to be helpful to encourage that.”
Dennis: Again, being the trained counselor that you are, when your wife was stricken with some neck pain, you showed compassion in exemplary fashion to Renee; right? [Laughter]
Jim: Yes. Yes. My response to any kind of physical pain is: “Rub some dirt on it. Get over it. Let’s go.” [Laughter]
Bob: “Suck it up;” huh?
Jim: Yes, that’s what—
Dennis: Even to your wife?!
Jim: That’s what I—well—I’m a little bit more diplomatic than that; but in essence, I’m saying, “Yes, Dear, that’s tough. That’s tough. That’s tough.” It is interesting—this neck pain situation—this was a couple years ago. “Oh, my neck hurts!” “Yes, yes, yes;” and I’m trying to be nice.
Dennis: “Yes, yes, yes;” that’s good! [Laughter]
Jim: Internally, I’m doing that. I have some decorum. One day, she just told me about it; and I really was dismissive. I got in my car, turned my head to back out of my garage, and just twisted and tweaked my neck. I got to a place, outside, where I just turned back. All of a sudden—this excruciating neck pain. It lasted for a couple of days. I remember coming home that night, and walking up to her, and saying to her, “I’m sorry. I had zero compassion on you, and I’ve been stricken by God because of it.” [Laughter]
Bob: Opportunity for empathy—that God gave you, right there.
Jim: Yes, isn’t it interesting—once you experience the pain of other people, all of a sudden, you’re going, “Okay, I get it”? Yes.
Dennis: Yes. Well, to further illustrate how much out of my mind I was when I did the “Forward” for your book, the first chapter was, “Don’t Talk So Much”. The next chapter is, “Stop Spending So Much Time Together”. [Laughter] What did you have in mind on that one?
Jim: Well, couples, when they first meet—they just love spending time together. When you first meet your future spouse, it’s just—you just can’t spend enough time together. Of course, when you get married, you’re stuck spending time together. I mean, you’re sleeping together, you’re doing life together. There are a lot of times when you are together with someone—and you can lose perspective if you are with them all the time. I think there are times when you need to separate—not a separation—but separate so you can gain perspective on who your spouse is, who you are, and how you’re doing.
Dennis: Give me an illustration of that.
Jim: Well, an illustration of that would be—me, getting away for a weekend. Sometimes, I take weekends away, just individually, by myself. I’ll just use it to plan, personally. I’ll tell Renee about it. We’ll plan it. We’ll put it in the schedule. She’ll have some things she does; but I want to get away to let her experience some time without me around and, also, me—just to sort of evaluate where I am. I try to do an assessment of how I’m doing and how our marriage is doing. It also gives me a chance to miss her a little bit, too. It gives me a chance to say, “Okay, this is what life is like alone.”
I remember when I did the first three chapters of this book—I went away for a week in North Carolina—just on my own. I was going to be company to nobody. All I was going to do was write—and that’s what I did—but I remember, at the end of that time, just having such a clear perspective on how valuable my wife is to my life and how much I wanted to get back to her.
There are times when you do need to be apart so you can appreciate what it means to be together. That’s another story. There are some times when marriages get troubled, too. If a marriage has a lot of conflict, where being separate sometimes can help clarify what the issues are. Those times can also be very instructive, as well.
Bob: You know, when our kids were younger, I remember thinking that to get time for myself felt like I was being selfish—
Bob: —or to go do something with a group of guys was—“No, I should be with my wife and with my kids because that should be my first priority.” Then, I remember Mary Ann going out one evening with a group of girlfriends; and she was out late. I mean, Mary Ann likes to go to bed early. It was 10:30 or 11:00, and she still wasn’t home. She was out with the girls having—I guess, having fun because I didn’t know where she was. I kept thinking, “Is she okay?”—started thinking of her like my teenage daughter; right? She got home, and I could tell she’d been refreshed by that evening. Our relationship was better because of the refreshment that she’d had with others.
Bob: We can get into a cycle where we feel like our responsibility is to fill every need the other person has. No human being is capable of doing that.
Jim: No. That’s an excellent point. I think being separate—being away—there are some couples that I counsel—that one or both of them don’t feel that they should do anything that they are not together. I say, “No, I don’t think that’s a good and healthy thing. I think our friendships and relationships—that you need to benefit from as an individual—so you can enrich the relationship, down the road.”
Like I said—remedially—if there is chronic difficulty in the marriage—a lot of times, some time apart for assessment and to work on personal issues is important, as well.
Dennis: The Proverbs say, “In the abundance of counselors, there is victory.” In this case, in the abundance of one counselor [Laughter], Jim Keller, there is victory because—how many years have you been in practice, Jim?
Jim: Twenty years, now.
Dennis: Yes, a lot of experience in talking to people, hearing their issues—and was a part of why I encouraged you. I said, “When are you going to put something in print?” because I’d heard you talk about some of the lessons you were learning, some of the observations you were making. Basically, I think what you’ve done is kind of put your heart between two covers—your love for people—also, your love for Jesus Christ—wanting them to have a good relationship with Him and one another.
This is just great counsel, great advice; and it’s a whole lot cheaper—
Bob: That’s what I’m thinking.
Dennis: —than going to see him!
Bob: People call and say, “I’d like”—
Dennis: I’m sorry, Jim! [Laughter]
Bob: —“to set up an appointment.” You just—buy a copy of the book, and they don’t have to come see you anymore after that; right?
Dennis: I know you’ve got a waiting list anyway.
Jim: If only they were that easy. I would—you know, it’s funny, as I was writing the book, I had four people in mind—my grandchildren. It’s everything I know about marriage is in this book. Now, it’s certainly not the whole story, and I’m limited in my knowledge; but that’s what I wanted to do with it. I wanted them to at least have some kind of written copy of—
Dennis: Well, it’s a great book, and I’d encourage our listeners to get a copy of it.
Bob: Of course, we have copies in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. Listeners can go to FamilyLifeToday.com to request a copy. Again, the website is FamilyLifeToday.com; or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY. The title of the book is The Upside Down Marriage. The phone number, again, is 1-800-358-6329, 1-800-FL-TODAY. Again, our website is FamilyLifeToday.com.
Now, quickly, I wanted to remind you that we’re getting close to the end of 2012—about to turn the calendar to a whole new year, 2013. Of course, we’ve got Christmas between now and then; and then, we head into the New Year. Here, at FamilyLife, this time of year is always significant—first and foremost because of what it represents—because of the celebration of the birth of Christ and how families engage around that celebration—but it’s also significant, as we head to a new year, because for ministries like ours—the end of the year is a critical time period. The donations that come in between now and the end of December will really determine for us what we are able to do in 2013.
That’s why we’re asking all of our friends to consider making as generous a yearend contribution to FamilyLife Today as you can possibly make. The good news is that donation is going to be matched. We’ve had some friends who have come forward and put together a matching-gift fund that is currently at $3.6 million. It’s possible that matching-gift fund will grow in the next week, as well. So, would you consider making a donation, here at yearend, to support FamilyLife Today? Whatever you’re able to do will be significant; and it will be matched, dollar-for-dollar, up to that total of $3.6 million.
You can donate online at FamilyLifeToday.com; or you can donate by calling 1-800-FL-TODAY. Make your donation over the phone. We appreciate whatever you are able to do. We look forward to hearing from you, and we hope this is a great season for you and your family. Hope you’re celebration of Christmas next week is a meaningful time; and we hope that 2013 is going to be a great year for your family, as well.
And we hope you can be back with us again tomorrow. Jim Keller is going to be here again. We’re going to continue to look at what happens when you turn a marriage upside down. And I hope you can tune in for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.
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