Chapter One: Deeper: The Direction Toward the Ultimate Relationship
Every fully realized relationship is a trip from surface emotions down into the depths, descending through five distinct levels of intimate communication that move from the shallow levels to the fifth and deepest level. At this fifth level, a couple feels absolutely safe and accepted for what they feel and need as unique individuals. Throughout this book I am going to show you how to accelerate your journey through these levels, arriving at the deepest level in the shortest, most effective amount of time. For now, let's discuss the five levels, so you'll understand what your journey is going to entail.
These five levels of intimate communication were first introduced in John Powell's book, Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am? But later, Dr. Gary Oliver, head of the Center for Marriage and Family at John Brown University, helped me understand that my entire life's work could be grouped within these five levels. All couples will move in and out of one or more of these five levels of intimate communication every day. This book will help you understand the five levels of intimate communication and how to use three powerful relationship skills to move in and out of all five levels anytime you wish. These levels are the outline of this book. Now I realize just how powerful they are:
The Five Levels of Intimate Communication
1. Speaking in clichés
2. Sharing facts
3. Sharing opinions
4. Sharing feelings
5. Sharing needs
The first two levels are natural, easy, almost effortless. I've discovered that a majority of couples, sadly, can remain in these levels throughout their relationship.
When you embark on a journey toward intimacy, in a sense you are "diving into" your relationship. Perhaps you and your mate have spent years climbing through the mountains, the ups and downs of your relationship. But now you've reached an awesome sight: the ocean. You don't want to remain stranded on the shore or stay stuck at the surface. You want to dive in deeply, to leave the shallow waters of superficiality and delve into, and revel in, the depths of intimacy. If you've ever experienced scuba diving, you know the feeling: it will be a long and frequently tough dive, but you will be amazed at the wonders you will find under the surface!
As you and your mate communicate with each other in the course of your daily routines, you are unconsciously always moving in and out of one of the five levels. Here is an explanation of each one:
LEVEL ONE: Sharing clichés with each other. This is surface talk, down only just below the water's surface, perhaps four or five feet. You're engaged in almost meaningless chatter. "Hey, how are you, how are you doing?" asks one spouse. "Okay, great, no problem," replies the other.
LEVEL TWO: Sharing facts with each other. You're talking about the weather, the office, what's going on with your friends. You're down deeper, but just barely, perhaps four or seven feet down. It's a safe level, requiring no deep breathing, thinking, or feeling.
LEVEL THREE: Sharing opinions with each other. This includes discussing individual opinions, concerns, and expectations, including personal goals, dreams, and desires. Now you're finally getting into the depths, and your initial reaction, as when scuba diving, is most likely fear. Your oxygen is dissipating and your ears are suffering the pressure. Sharing opinions is like diving to the eight- to fifteen-foot range; you may instinctively want to retreat to the shallower levels.
Most people can learn to dive down ten feet, pick up a seashell or two, and then retreat to the surface. But to reap the treasures in your relationships, you must learn to stay in the depths. As in diving, you must have the skills to give you the confidence to stay at this level -- and also to go deeper. Nobody in his right mind begins a session in scuba diving without training. But couples all over the world begin relationships without even the slightest guidance, which is why they often remain at the shallowest levels of intimacy.
Speaking in clichés and sharing facts are safe harbors from conflict. But opinions are something else entirely. Opinions cause conflict, and conflict is extremely scary to most people. If a couple uses Level 3 -- the sharing of opinions -- as a wrestling ring or a jousting court, if they're forever trying to "get" each other, to prove their respective views, concerns, and needs as superior to the other's, they're headed toward trouble. This type of slowly escalating jousting creates fertile soil for the seeds that can grow into divorce. But if each party attempts to refocus his or her thinking on trying to understand the mate, instead of trying to "convince" the other that a particular opinion is superior, then they can become a team.
That's usually easier said than done, because when couples move from Level 2 to Level 3, from sharing facts to sharing opinions, they hit a barrier: conflict. This conflict can be compared to a doorway that takes tremendous time and work to pass through before the couple can move down to Levels 4 and 5, which, in our scuba diving analogy, are the deepest and safest levels to which a couple can "dive."
But conflict can work two ways: Most often, it breaks couples apart. But it also delivers them to the deeper levels. Yes, conflict is the doorway to intimacy, but for most couples it remains an immovable roadblock. Clichés are a cakewalk and facts are usually benign, but sharing opinions, concerns, and expectations? Opinions are the Pandora's box; they create conflict. So one or both partners will tend to become "infected" with one or more of four main "relational germs" -- withdrawal, escalation, belittling, or developing false beliefs about each other -- and will never get to the deepest, most fulfilling levels. Most couples in conflict can't see that the very force that is battering them is essential to reaching a deeper relationship. They're too busy with the struggle of daily existence to search for the depth beyond the conflict.
LEVEL FOUR: Sharing your deepest and truest feelings with each other. At this level, you help each other feel safe to share your deepest emotions. You each know that you will both do your very best to listen and value what the other is sharing. Each of you can accept the other as unique and special, a creation made up of all your history, personality, and family background. It's as if each of you represents a different combination of "colors," and you can both treasure each other's individual "color" combination. What's so exciting is this: as you walk through the door of conflict to reach the deeper levels of intimacy, you are simultaneously eliminating all four of the "divorce germs."
LEVEL FIVE: Sharing your most important relational needs. This is the deepest level of love and marital satisfaction. You've been together long enough and you feel safe enough to share your deepest needs with one another. I have discovered from thousands of couples that seven needs keep surfacing as the most important to both men and women. But the most intimate part of loving communication is when both of you feel safe to reveal your unique needs to one another. This shows that you know you will be accepted and valued by your mate for who you are.
Guess how long it takes for the average individual to begin sharing his or her feelings and needs? Six years. Again, the average time for divorce? Five and a half years. Why? Because once you hit the third level of intimacy -- sharing opinions -- you're at the greatest risk for conflict. Without some training, you could stay conflicted at this level for some time. People have an intuitive sense that danger lurks behind the door of conflict. They don't realize that true love exists there, too. Most people retreat from conflict, from the prospect of deeper levels of intimacy, returning instead to the safer levels of sharing clichés and facts, never breaking through, never becoming fulfilled, only becoming increasingly frustrated. Gradually, these unaware couples creep into these four ineffective, destructive patterns, or "relational germs," leading to divorce.
They begin the "dance of conflict," the dance of disharmony, traveling among the three elementary levels, back and forth, back and forth, until their years of marriage take them no deeper -- merely back to the superficial levels where they've already been. Fearing conflict, they play out the same year of marriage over and over again. They never get to the levels of fulfillment, Levels 4 and 5, because they're too busy doing the dance of conflict. I've known couples married for years, couples celebrating their twentieth anniversary. Each year, they do the dance of conflict all over again. Only the issues change -- finances, vacations, retirement -- the dance is always the same. They don't have twenty years of marriage, they have one year of marriage twenty times. Their relationship never deepens; it merely stretches forward in a straight, unemotional line.
Maybe you recognize yourself presently engaged in this dance of conflict. If not, you've certainly watched couples doing the dance -- and it's not a pretty sight. Several years ago, my wife and I went on a vacation with a friend who absolutely will not allow his wife to discuss her feelings, much less her needs. That type of discussion is much too deep, too dangerous, especially for a vacation! He's in such control, in such denial, that he's even instituted a rule against discussions of these basic aspects of any relationship. His wife, forbidden to express her needs and feelings, has become a walking time bomb. The couple remains locked in what I call the rut of roles -- a rut being a grave with both ends kicked out -- each partner playing a designated part, acting out his or her life instead of truly experiencing it. She is eventually going to blow, taking whatever remains of that relationship. Remember the movie Ordinary People? Mary Tyler Moore played a character whose oldest son had died; she had one hard-and-fast unspoken rule: she spoke only in facts, never opinions, until eventually she imploded. Unable to share facts or opinions, she simply walked out on her family. Her fear of opening the door to reach the deeper levels was just too painful.
Avoiding conflict is far more dangerous than confronting it. Arguing, is like starting a fire. You have to learn how to harness it properly, or it can tear you and your mate apart. Reaching these deepest levels of intimacy takes more than hard work and a willingness to delve deep; it takes a set of three simple, yet highly effective, skills that every successful relationship employs. These three skills represent my years of study, experience, and counseling and have revolutionized infinite relationships. If properly and consistently practiced, these skills have the ability to take your relationship to the deepest levels of intimacy.
Let's examine each of the three skills:
The Skill of Honoring
This is the lighthouse, the beacon, the mighty rock on which every fulfilling relationship is built and without which every shaky relationship is destroyed. When honor is present in a relationship, a couple can withstand the roughest storms. When honor has been destroyed in a relationship, the couple is destined for disaster. The best definition of honor that I've found is as any time we "confer distinction" upon someone. When a college bestows upon someone an honorary doctorate degree, the school is conferring distinction. When an audience applauds or an individual bows before someone, distinction is being conferred. Honor is not judgmental. Honor does not involve the belief that your opinions, concerns, and desires are somehow superior to your partner's. Honor does not involve getting your mate to see things your way.
Conveying a superior attitude is the biggest killer of marriage and produces the most frustration, hurt, and fear within a marriage. Honor is a "lifting up," a holding up of your mate with reverence. It's the selfless process of proclamation: in honoring you are telling your mate that he or she is paramount in your life and his or her status in your hierarchy of values is above all petty arguments, disagreements, and opinions. Honor is permanent, unmovable, forever. Therefore, the first act in cultivating honor in your relationship is to decide that your mate is worthy of honor; you must confer distinction upon that individual. This is the most important skill you can master; the others can't and won't work without honor. One marriage expert says that without honor, all the other marriage skills won't work; another expert, Dr. Scott Stanley, has said that honor is the fuel that keeps the lifelong marriage loving and functioning. If honor is nonexistent in one partner, there is a high probability that the marriage is over. But if even only a spark of respect or adoration remains, that spark can be turned into a flame in a short time. I'll show you how to build honor in your relationship, erecting a firewall to protect you and your spouse from the flames that will certainly come.
Honor is the key that unlocks the door of conflict that leads to deeper intimacy. It's also the physical act of grabbing the knob and opening that door.
The Skill of Drive-Through Listening
This is the almighty skill of communication, an ingredient in every fulfilling relationship. This skill allows you to take the first few steps through the doorway of conflict down to the two deepest levels of intimacy. I'm talking about the most powerful communications skill known to mankind: drive-through listening. The method will allow you and your mate to feel listened to, understood, and validated, especially in times of conflict. You've probably already practiced drive-through listening, whether you realized it or not. Every time you use a drive-through window at McDonald's or Burger King, you've engaged in drive-through listening. You place your order, then the drive-through attendant repeats your order back to you.
Like the fast-food clerk who repeats the customer's order, a mate usingdrive-through listening repeats what his or her mate has said. This communication method not only clarifies the conversation and prevents misunderstanding, it allows the couple to discover the deeper meanings behind their words. Just imagine how many millions of dollars these fast-foodrestaurants have spent to find the best communication method to stay "married" to their customers. We can use the same method for free to stay married to our mates.
Constantly Recharging Your Mate's "Needs Battery" through Love
Human beings have an internal "needs battery," and our actions produce either positive or negative "charges" to our mate's battery. Loving attention given to each other's needs undoubtedly has a positive effect, while selfish, draining charges have a negative effect. It's been determined that couples literally throw hundreds of positive and negative charges at each other in a typical day of interaction. In Chapter 7, I'll share the top seven relationship needs with you and show you how to discover your own needs, as well as your mate's needs, so you can begin the process of meeting those needs and regularly recharging each other. The great thing about discovering the top needs of your mate is that it can help you understand conflict, as most arguments come from perceived unmet needs. That's right. Most arguments can be avoided if you care for the top needs of your mate. That's because surface arguments usually come from deeper unmet relational needs.
Dr. John Gottman, the father of many recent relationship breakthroughs, has shown that couples who divorce experience about ten minutes per day less "positive charge time" than couples who stay together but are unhappy. Gottman discovered that couples who stay together and are happy experience about ten more minutes of "turning towards each other" in positive ways each day than do the couples who remain married but are unhappy. In a similar way, I've discovered that if a couple spends a few minutes each day listening and understanding each other's feelings, it's like they are checking the state of each other's "needs" battery. Feelings are a gauge of how well needs are being met. Some feelings indicate a low battery, and include hurt, frustration, and fear; conversely, indications of a fully charged battery include joy, happiness, and ecstasy. The human needs battery should have daily recharging. How do you do it? First you have to discover what your mate's needs are.
These three skills may seem simple, but do not be deceived! The process of daily living tends to grind us down, pushing us to compromise, to accept instead of to choose what's best for our relationships. But there is always time for reevaluation and reawakening. And when you're talking about the most important union in your life, could there be any time but now?
Let me illustrate the power of these three intimate communication skills and the amazing changes they can bring about in your marriage by showing you how one couple used them. Jeff and Sarah came to my seminar in trouble. Their problems were nothing unusual -- money, kids, minor sexual incompatibilities -- but they could not work through them because they couldn't communicate with one another. When they came to my seminar, I asked Jeff to verbally give Sarah a questionnaire that would help them get past their communication barrier and allow their real problems to come to the surface.
The first question Jeff asked Sarah was, "What is one of the most important areas of our marriage that, if it were improved, would make our marriage much more satisfying?"
"Communication," Sarah answered firmly
"What exactly do you mean by that?" he asked.
"I mean actually listening, not just nodding at me and saying, 'Uh huh, uh huh,'" she explained. Pain crept into her eyes. I knew, and I think Jeff did too, that he had immediately hit upon something important in Sarah's mind. It was the first skill, the skill of Honoring.
"What does 'listening' mean to you?" he asked.
"Well, I can see it in your eyes if you are actually paying attention and understanding what I am saying," Sarah said, and then I know for certain that your walls haven't gone up." Jeff paused for a moment. "So you're more concerned that I'm paying attention than that I'm listening?" he asked, trying to rephrase what she had said.
Sarah nodded. "So you're trying to read my body's language to see if I am paying attention and understanding you, correct?" he queried further.
"Yes," she nodded again.
"Okay, then, what's in my body language that I need to improve to have you see that I understand you?" he asked, looking for a better alternative.
Sarah surprised her husband by having a very defined and immediate answer ready. "Stop smirking!" she exclaimed. "You laugh at everything. Everything is a big joke to you. Even when I'm being serious, you face me with this big grin on your face and I want to smack you!"
Wow. Underneath a placid, controlled exterior, Sarah was obviously harboring some big-time resentment. Here's a couple who, on the surface, seems fine, but once you delve below the surface -- behind the mask or the smirk -- they're actually in trouble. Behind the smirk and humor are pain and emotion. And that's where Jeff and Sarah had to begin their journey toward intimacy: to get behind what the smirk is masking and go deeper from there.
"I guess you don't understand that my smirking is a control mechanism; it's my way of saying let's not fight," Jeff said, as if thinking to himself out loud.
"That's true, I don't understand that," Sarah replied.
"What would it take to understand my smirking?" he asked her calmly.
"I don't know. You do it all the time. It's a continual thing for you. You do it at work, you do it at church, you do it at home, you do it with your kids." Sarah was trying to control her anger, but it was clear that this was a serious problem in their communications.
Jeff looked his wife right in the eye and, although he didn't realize it, began practicing the second skill: drive-through listening: "So, you're saying that one of your most important needs in our marriage is for me to act more seriously. My smirking is causing a communication problem?"
"Yes," Sarah confirmed. "I just don't think you take my concerns seriously enough."
"But I do take you and your concerns seriously," Jeff said, employing the third skill, recharging. "So what do I need to do to prove I'm more concerned?"
"Don't smirk! Don't laugh!" Sarah replied, and both of them began to laugh, in spite of themselves.
Jeff and Sarah had a huge hurdle to jump in their communications: misinterpreted behavior and a lack of mutual understanding. They eventually learned how to employ three powerful relationship skills that have the ability to take relationships deeper toward intimacy. They used the first skill -- honoring -- by showing their mutual interest in keeping the conversation going, instead of abandoning it as soon as things got rough. The second skill -- a communications process called "drivethrough listening" -- was employed every time Jeff listened and repeated back to Sarah what he thought he was hearing, thereby clarifying and deepening the conversation. Jeff employed the third skill -- recharging -- by finding out what Sarah needed from him (being more connected through talking seriously, instead of facetiously). They immediately began to see the light at the end of their tunnel. They were able to explore intimate communication, and it led them back to each other's hearts.
These three skills are very powerful, yet I've discovered that most couples need only these three to propel themselves to the deeper levels. There are more skills in the relationship arena, but like most couples, you may find that you need only these to maintain a happy and fulfilling relationship. They are the foundation for ultimate relationships and your best defense against divorce.
Your Most Precious Possession
Now, maybe you're saying to yourself, "Intimacy? Who needs to go deeper? I'm happy where I am." But how would you feel if your spouse walked out? Think about this for a moment. It happens to people every day! If you're stuck in the shallow levels of intimacy -- speaking in clichés or facts -- you are also likely stuck in denial. If so, your partner may eventually hold up a mirror on your relationship, and you might not like what you see.
How important is your relationship? What would you give up to keep your mate?
Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat for Humanity, gave up everything -- an opulent house in the nicest part of town, the Lincoln Continental in the driveway, the maid who cleaned the house and took care of his two children, two power boats, a vacation cabin, a huge farm stocked with cattle and horses, fishing lakes, and a substantial bank account -- to win back his most precious possession: his wife's heart.
Fuller, a self-described "all-American, Alabama church-going boy," had spent his entire life trying to make money. "I was ambitious," he writes in his book A Simple, Decent Place to Live. "I wanted to make something of my life. And I knew the way to do it was to make money and lots of it to be successful in the classic sense of the word."
As a developer and an entrepreneur, Fuller quickly amassed a fortune after his graduation from law school. He was soon worth millions. But along the way to wealth, he grew more and more distant from his wife, Linda, and their two children.
By age twenty-nine, he remembers, he was "totally consumed, totally focused; I had no concept of balance, and I certainly couldn't see past my lifelong goal. Linda, though, saw what I could not see -- that our marriage also [suffered] from my incessant drive to make money."
They had been happy once -- when they were just starting out, when they had nothing but each other -- but that was ancient history. Because one day, his wife walked into his office and said a single sentence that made everything he'd accomplished seem petty and worthless.
"I don't think I love you anymore," Linda announced.
Fuller could barely believe his ears. After everything he had given his wife, he couldn't believe she could say such a thing.
"She told me that what I wasn't giving her was myself," he says. "She said she never saw me. She complained that the business was taking all of me." Fuller promised his wife he would change, and he meant to. But after another year, nothing had changed at all; Fuller still worked all the time and rarely saw his wife or their children.
Linda had finally had enough. She told her husband she was leaving him. She was considering a divorce and she wanted time to think. She flew to New York and began counseling with a pastor there, leaving her shell -- shocked husband alone to ponder where their relationship had gone wrong.
"Ever since I was a teenager, I had always been in control of things. Whatever I was involved in, I was the head of it," he says. "It was the biggest shock of my life to realize that a decision was going to be made about our marriage -- and it wasn't going to be made by me."
Fuller had to do a lot of soul searching after Linda left. I realized I was about to lose that which was very, very precious to me, which I had taken for granted. It was out of that crisis that I had to start reevaluating what was happening in my life. I realized I didn't want to lose my wife. I didn't want to lose my family."
Fuller had to take care of the children by himself in Linda's absence. "One evening as I was pulling the blanket over my son, he looked up at me and said, 'Daddy, I'm glad you're home.'...A chill traveled down my spine as I realized that Linda was right. I had indeed become a virtual stranger in my own house."
Millard Fuller is a persistent man. Aware of the mistakes he had made, he kept phoning his wife until she agreed to see him again. Linda's pastor had encouraged her to keep an open mind, to remember that people can change, to give her husband the benefit of a chance. So she agreed to meet him -- and this is where the story gets interesting.
"I went to New York and I remember when I saw her: she was staying at the Wellington Hotel and she looked so beautiful it just melted my heart," he remembers. "We talked and ended up going to Radio City Music Hall. There was a funny movie on called Never Too Late."
During the movie's intermission, Linda began crying. The two decided to walk back to their hotel. "Somewhere off Fifth Avenue, we opened up to each other," Fuller says. "Linda spilled out all of the hurt and secrets that had built up as our lives had grown apart. She cried as I had never seen her cry before."
"We realized that we didn't want our marriage to end," Fuller said. "We got in a taxi and started back to the hotel, and there was a real sensation of light in the taxi. It was not a spooky or mysterious type of thing. The only way I can describe it is a sensation of light. And in that moment, it just came to me that we should give away our money, that we should make ourselves poor again, the way we were when we first got married. I turned to her and said, 'I think we should leave the company, we should get rid of the Lincolns, get rid of the house, get rid of the cabin on the lake, get rid of everything. Give it all away and just start over.' She started crying. She was so happy. She felt like she was going to get her husband back."
The next morning, when they came out of the hotel and headed toward the airport, a new taxi glided up to the curb and the driver just sat there,beaming.
"Congratulations," said the taxi driver.
"For what?" asked Fuller.
"This is a brand new taxi," said the driver. "You're my first ride."
"We saw it as a sign from heaven that we had made the right decision the night before," said Fuller.
Back home, Fuller sold or gave away everything he owned -- the trappings of success into which he had poured a decade of his life. Then, he and his wife embarked upon a wondrous journey, creating Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit organization that has provided housing for infinite indigent individuals. Millard Fuller discovered something greater than money could buy: the wonders of a woman's heart.
So ask yourself: What price do you put on your relationship? If you are convinced that it is priceless -- worth whatever it takes to nurture, strengthen, or even save -- then you're reading the right book. Like Millard and Linda Fuller, you're about to embark upon a wondrous journey toward a place where you will receive a treasure more precious than gold.
The Journey Begins Now!
You've read what I believe are the bottom-line three basic skills -- honor, drive-through listening and recharging your mate's needs through love -- and you know your destination, the fourth and fifth levels of intimacy, on which both partners share feelings and meet each other's needs.
Now, let me show you how to become adept at each of the three skills, then we'll explore those levels, one by one.
Copyright © 2000 by Gary and Norma Smalley Trust