An old Texan who had managed to live 99 years was asked by a new neighbor to what he attributed both his and his wife’s longevity and how the relationship had lasted almost 75 years. “Well,” the old man drawled, “Before the wife and me were married, we made an agreement that we’ve kept faithfully. Any time I started to nag at her or pick a fuss with her, she’d take up knitting and go out to the kitchen and knit until the nagging stopped. On the other hand, any time she would pick a fuss with me, I’d put on my hat, go outdoors, and stay there until the atmosphere was once again serene.”
“But what does that have to do with you living so long?”
“Why,” said the nonagenarian, “I’ve spent most of my life in the open air!” And then his wife, who had been listening to this now familiar story, chimed in and yelled: “And he’s had plenty of sweaters to keep him warm!”
Sometimes when we get angry with our significant other that we don’t even speak to each other. A person and significant other were having some problems at home and were giving each other the silent treatment. The next week, the person realized that the significant other would have to wake the person at 5:00 AM for an early morning business flight to Chicago. Not wanting to be the first to break the silence (AND LOSE), the person wrote on a piece of paper and put in on the bed, “Please wake me at 5:00 AM.’ The next morning the person woke up, only to discover it was 8:00 AM and that the flight had been missed. Furious, the person was about to go and see why the significant other hadn’t woken the person when a piece of paper on the bed was noticed. It said, “It is 5:00 AM. Wake up.”
How we communicate with each other is important, not just in our relationship with our significant other, not just in premarital or marital counseling, but also in church! In every church meeting, we have the opportunity to deepen relationships or to be driven crazy by that one difficult person! Assuming of course, that it is not us doing the driving! Remember that that person may represent someone else in your life that you had the same problem with, a mother or father, etc. I will even argue, of course that religious relationship is about us learning to communicate more lovingly.
One of the popular psychologies of the 70’s, which I still find useful, is ‘TA’ or Transactional Analysis, where language and even tone of voice is heard or spoken by one of the three ego states in all of us-Child, Parent, or Adult which must be balanced. Some people seem to speak with an authoritarian voice and when I hear them I might react like a child being scolded or even told what to do by a parent. It would not be a pleasant exchange for me. Notice I said, ‘seem to speak with an authoritarian voice. As a minister, of course, I may sound that way to some of y’all. Indeed, my daughter Katie once told me that the reason she didn’t come to hear me preach because I sounded too much like when I lectured her (and surely, I never did that!). Yet my older daughter comes and enjoys the service without hearing an authoritarian voice.
In a playful mood with one another we might communicate child to child, or to impart information would be adult to adult, and parent to parent when we’re in our support group talking about common problems with our kids (certainly not our kids!). But if we talk like a parent to our significant other, instead of like another adult or parent, our other might feel defensive. Also if we always talk like a child, our other might feel that we should grow up because our other wants an equal, not a child- unless we are both being child-like together, both wanting an ice cream cone with chocolate sprinkles. Effective and relationship building communication comes from both partners being and talking the same level-whether it be playful child to playful child, or adult to adult, and so on. Problems develop when there is a one up-one down communication. To build a good loving relationship, whether religious or interpersonal, one must be aware of one’s words, even tone of voice. An old Jewish saying says, ‘If three people tell you are drunk, lie down!’ Whatever our significant other might accuse us of in our use of insensitive or even hateful language, there is a grain of truth in that, and we must look for that grain.
In the 90’s came two other books about how males and females communicate differently. (We might want to call that an understatement!) The first was linguist professor, Deborah Tannen, and her best-selling book, You Just Don’t Understand; the second, therapist John Gray’s also best seller, Men are From Mars; Women Are from Venus, and perhaps you are recognizing my sermon title, but the additional part that I find quite clever, if I do say so myself, is that it was a Unitarian scientist who actually discovered the planet Pluto. I preached on both of them, and it was interesting to watch couples kind of elbow each other when they recognized a problem that their partner had! What I have also discovered in the past ten to fifteen years is that I am performing more Sacred Unions for two men or two women. In doing premarital counseling with them, it is not so easy to just assign gender. Perhaps we could describe gender as a continuum and not just male and just female. It is not my responsibility to assign that continuum, I just use the terms male and females the way Tannen and Gray do, and invite them to decide which style fits them. None of these designations are 100% anyway. So I will continue to use male and female and invite you to interpret that as you will. That’s also why I say Unitarians are from Pluto, because we have a wide variety of sexual orientations and welcome that.
In the chapter, “Asymmetries: Women and Men Talking at Cross-purposes”; Tannen says that when women share feelings they usually want understanding, not what men most frequently offer-advice. I have found this many times when talking with my wife Cathy. If she shares with me how she’s feeling-tired, depressed, unhappy, etc., I often try to find a solution and give her advice about how she can stop those feelings: she’s frustrated because she feels I haven’t listened and I feel frustrated because I thought I gave her great advice. Being a minister, of course, I am only too happy to offer up a mini-sermon to all who ask. The problem is that she wants comfort and understanding, intimacy, while I have not comforted her at all even with all my wise advice.
Her third chapter is called “‘Put Down That Paper and Talk to Me!’: Rapport-talk and Report-talk”. Generally women talk to establish rapport and men talk to give reports. In public, men tend to talk much more than they do in private. If women are talking to establish rapport, they often talk about whatever they’re thinking. Men often feel that what they’re thinking is unimportant until they come to a conclusion and then they must get to the point. Men can go absolutely crazy listening to a woman tell a story because she puts in details about weather, time, dress, colors, etc., when what the man wants to do in story telling is get to the point. Details, no matter how minute we men feel that they might be, establish rapport for women, where men feel they just drag out the story unless they are crucial to the point or the message of the story.
One of the keys to understanding the difference is to look at how men and women view intimacy and independence; “Intimacy,” Tannen writes, “is key in a world of connection where individuals negotiate complex networks of friendship, minimize differences, try to reach consensus, and avoid the appearance of superiority, which would highlight differences. In a world of status, independence is key, because a primary means of establishing status is to tell others what to do, and taking orders is a mark of low status. Though all humans need both intimacy and independence, women tend to focus on the first and men on the second. It is as if their lifeblood ran in different directions…Communication is a continual balancing act, juggling the conflicting needs for intimacy and independence.’
For a woman, talk is interaction, for a man its gathering or sharing information. For many women talking together is a sign of intimacy, it shows the other person cares; to men, intimacy if the feeling that you don’t have to talk but can just relax and enjoy each others silent company. It is not difficult to see, then, how mixed messages are received by the continuum of genders. Even whether or not we talk is sending a message and even when we don’t realize that!
‘Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus’ is a manual for loving relationships in the 1990s. Writes Gray in the introduction, ‘It reveals how men and women differ in all areas of their lives. Not only do men and women communicate differently, but they think, feel, perceive, react, respond, love, need, and appreciate differently. They almost seem to be from different planets, speaking different languages and needing different nourishment.’ What does he mean almost? Haven’t most of us felt frustrated with the other sex that often sure feels like the opposite if not the opposing sex? Or do you suppose it’s just because I live in a house and relationships with four female humans and two female pets? After reading this book, and naturally sharing the information with my family as men like to do, my daughter Cristina recently got frustrated with me when I couldn’t understand what she was talking about, and she said, ‘Oh, you Martians don’t understand anything: I’m gonna talk to Mom!’
Chapter 3. ‘Men Go to Their Caves and Women Talk’ Martians don’t talk about what’s bothering them, they withdraw into their private cave and mull it over until they come up with a solution. Barring a solution, they might engage in an activity that will take their mind off their problem, like reading the newspaper or watching a football game. This is normal behavior for Martians, but not for Venusians. Gray says: ‘To feel better Martians go their caves to solve problems alone. To feel better Venusians get together and openly talk about their problems.’
‘A woman under stress is not immediately concerned with finding solutions to her problems but rather seeks relief by expressing herself and being understood.’ A woman tends to talk her problems through with someone to listen and empathize while a man tends to think his problems through, waiting to talk until the solution has been found by him. It is important to note that there is not a judgment here of which is right or better, or superior, only an admission that the two sexes act and react differently. No, it is not this clear cut, either; there are generalizations, not prejudicial stereotypes, being made, and there will be many exceptions.’
To have a good relationship takes a lot of hard work, takes give and take, and a willingness to change; not everyone can handle that. Love is never easy, even friendships take work. One does not have to be married to know that there are also work and/or church or even same sex relationships to which this could be applied. ‘Men are motivated and empowered when they feel needed,’ Gray writes:…Women are motivated and empowered when they feel cherished….it is difficult for a man to listen to a woman when she is unhappy or disappointed because he feels like a failure.’ I always suggest that premarital couples read either Tannen’s, You Just Don’t Understand or Gray’s, Men Are from Mars, Women Are From Venus, and see what applies to them.
And according to a Time magazine, getting along with each other is even healthier. A recent medical study of American newlyweds have found that arguing can be dangerous to your health. ‘Reasoned disputes are OK, but sarcasm and putdowns can result in elevated blood pressure and weakened immune systems.’
Oh we must watch our words carefully, as if they were loaded weapons. Even more when we are in religious relationship in a beloved community. It is why the fellowship has a behavior covenant for meetings and interactions, but it can only work when we are intentional and truly care about our language and how we are heard by other people. Every preacher has been accused by someone of saying things in his/her sermon that are just not in the manuscript, but was heard and then interpreted by someone with their own agenda or hurt.
This poem by UU poet, John Holmes says:
Arrows and Angry Snakes
Poison and daggers, branding irons, whips,
Arrows and angry snakes, are nothing much.
But casual words that fall from human lips
Terribly wound the friendly names they touch.
Who utters words like these? Myself; and you;
You, too; and not with murderous intent,
Not angry. Merely talking, as we do,
Of who was there, and what they said, and meant.
How can they hurt so much, so lightly said?
An evil angel likes to see our words
Feathered with wit, released, and sharply sped.
This angel somehow changes words we speak
Till news in the telling tears with claws and beak,
And hovers again to strike like hunting-birds.
Psychiatrist and best-selling writer, Scott Peck, wrote in his book, Different Drum, on creating community: “A genuine community . . . is a group whose members have made a commitment to communicate with each other on an ever more deep and authentic level. There are very few true communities.” (276)
Our words can hurt or heal; they can evoke love and empathy, make us laugh, cry, and yes even make us angry. Psychologist and writer, Hugh Prather, writes about watching our words and listening deeply: ‘if there’s a question about whether to say it, don’t say it.’ We would solve 90% of our human relationship problems overnight if we would just learn to shut up. The remaining 10% could then be solved by learning to listen. Be quiet and listen – it’s that simple.’
The world is full misunderstanding, not just because we speak so many different languages, but because even those of us who speak the seemingly same language may not understand what each of us means by certain words. What does the Bible really say? Think of the number of translations in the past 2-3000 years. After all, in current slang something that is good is bad, right? How do we translate that?
The once famous Protestant minister and chaplain of Congress, Peter Marshall, said: ‘Lord, where we are wrong, make us willing to change; where we are right, make us easy to live with.’
We are all of one earth, one sky, one sun, one moon; we are all full of words, yea sometimes too full of words for our own good. We are all full of prejudices, stereotypes, and various ‘isms’ that we must struggle with; we are all battling our egos, wanting our own way and our own ‘kind.’ To create a religious relationship with each other, with the world, with the mysterious beyond name and favorites, with the essence of good, however, we must learn and speak, yea even listen, with tolerance. Oh we are a wordy people, my brothers and sisters; all the more reason to watch them. Our church is unusual because we celebrate religious diversity among us. As the old Universalist Hosea Ballou used to say: ‘If we agree in love, there is no disagreement that can do us any injury, but if we do not, no other agreement can do us any good.’
Sticks and stones may break our bones, but I often think they would be less painful than the names that are sometimes hurled at us like verbal spears. May we remember the verbal golden rule as well as the behavior one. Speak to others like you want to be spoken to. Weigh your words, and like the advice for email etiquette, never reply in anger; wait 24 hours, and you might feel different, grateful that you didn’t say what you really were tempted to say. And also, if your email gets on the church email by mistake, you won’t have to feel so guilty!
One of the most important ways to live our religious lives is to bring love, reason, justice and religious reason to life is speak and act lovingly and reasonably. Let agree in love so no disagreement can do us harm.
Amen, Shalom, (Peace in Hebrew), Assalaamu Alaikum (may Peace be upon you in Arabic).
Reading for ‘Men Are from Mars…’ August 26, 2007
A Wedding Introduction by Rev. Arthur G. Severance
We are here today because two people met, and something special happened, something unexplainable, something mysterious. For some unknown reason, a loving relationship developed. Call it love; call it God; call it chemical reaction; call it the reason for living. It really doesn’t matter what name we assign, when two individuals melt into a new being called a couple, who, if they are willing to work incredibly hard on making their relationship blossom, may enjoy the fruits together.
The Sufi Poet, Rumi, writes:
‘The minute I heard my first love story/ I started looking for you;
not knowing/how blind that was.
Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere. They’re in each other all along.’
REFLECTIONS ON THE 29TH ANNIVERSARY: THANK YOU CATHIE
From Sermon August 25, 2002
A good marriage is not the wedding or the day after
(wait and see after 20 or more years)
It is not even youthful passion (though I admit I miss it!)
I know of wonderful second (or more) marriages…
for sometimes love plays hide and seek (Ollie, ollie, in free)
like waiting for Godot or even God
the danger is in waiting too long,
in missing the bus, the boat, the chance, the dance.
It is not even children (and how beautiful they are)
for some are not so blessed…
It is neither culture nor even good breeding
Nor is it money or good looks
luck or even fate that guarantee happiness.
Only selfless love can do that
and it must be carefully constructed
grown, tended to and stoked.
Making a good marriage is like building a beautiful house,
writing a hit Broadway play
authoring the great American novel
composing a hit country western song
filming an award winning video
starring love come to term,
blazing into bonfire,
into fireworks and OK then fading a bit
to a porch light beacon in the foggy nighttime
a loving lighthouse
welcoming home and warning of the rocks
left on as message
that we are always welcome, always loved
always going home to love. (A. Severance)