In their fourth article on the subject of Marriage, Charles and Jane Perryman, who run the Marriage Preparation Courses in our Diocese, consider the very real value of listening.
Listening – the key to intimacy
Perched on a rocky outcrop high above the harbour of Funchal, the main town, on the island of Madeira there is a tiny church at which the English expatriate community arranges a Mass in English each Sunday. It is a very welcoming community and if you are visiting Funchal it is well worth seeking out the church. When we were there in 2010 Fr Domenico Andrade, in the course of his homily, said, “Most people think that Christianity is about love, but actually it is really about intimacy.” For both of us, it was like a light had come on. It’s as if something that we had vaguely known suddenly came into sharp focus. We know that it is entirely possible to love someone without needing to know them at any depth. We only have to think about the Good Samaritan. His act of love towards the man who had been beaten up did not stem from any knowledge of him. Loving, therefore, can mean simply acting in a loving way towards another. That does not mean that the loving act may not be a profound act of kindness.
The second question in the old penny catechism asks, “Why did God make you?” The answer begins, “God made me to know Him….” We are called then, to ponder the mystery of God and allow God to reveal each one of us to ourselves. Psalm 139 tells us in detail how God knows each one of us through and through; every detail of our lives and thoughts. We enter into the mystery of God by listening to the Word of God, in scripture, spiritual reading, in the Eucharist and in prayer. In that way we become more intimate with the God who knows us and loves us at greater depth than we could ever imagine.
In our marriage relationship we, too, are called to greater and greater intimacy. In St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians Paul likens marriage to the way Christ loves the Church. In the course of our work with married and engaged couples over the years we have come to believe that listening is the most important marital virtue; one that we need to practise constantly. It is through listening that we come to know each other and to enter more fully into each other’s world.
Listening, actively listening, goes far beyond the words we exchange. Indeed psychologists tell us that only 7% of the messages we communicate are conveyed by the words. The rest comes through facial expression, eye contact, body language and tone of voice. Active listening means looking out for all of the emotional reactions behind the words – the anxiety, disappointment, frustration or excitement. It means being on the alert for those things not said but only hinted at, but which are causing concern. Above all it means being prepared to be influenced by what we hear. It is no good understanding all that our spouse has to convey and then making no response.
Of course not all conversation takes place at this deeper level. Ordinary everyday chit-chat is just that, chit-chat. When there is a serious matter to talk about then we need to be aware of what can get in the way of real listening. Firstly, there is timing. All couples who have raised a family know that when there are small children around you cannot have any serious conversation between tea time and bed time. We all have good times for serious conversation and times to avoid. We also need to avoid distractions. It is impossible to listen to someone with the television on in the same room – even if the sound is switched off!
The biggest obstacle to real listening, however, is our own disposition. If we don’t want to listen, if we are not open to listening then we won’t. Mostly what gets in the way of listening is fear; fear that we may hear something that we won’t like; fear that if we really listened to our spouse we would be called to change. Putting aside our own fears in order to really understand our spouse is very challenging.
How do we know if we are good as a listener? The key here is that we cannot be certain for ourselves. The only person who can say that that we are a good listener is the person that we are listening to. Only they can say if they have the experience of being listened to. For example, if Charles thinks that he listens well to Jane but Jane does not have the experience of being heard and understood, real listening is not happening. We need to be courageous enough to ask our spouse how well they think we do as a listener and to ask about the areas where we do not listen well.