I don’t know if anyone really masters marriage. At best, we become experts in our own experience, and earn wisdom at a high price. Good marriages employ this experience and wisdom, and recently I found a word that describes how: salience.
Salience has some formal definitions like “the relative importance or prominence of something,” or “the state or quality of an item that stands out relative to neighboring items.” I would most simply describe it as that well-trained gut feeling that helps us accurately recognize and navigate situations. It is a particularly useful trait in marriage and family life.
For example, a mother walks into a room and sees one child who refuses to make eye contact and turns away from her, while another child holds their face tightly. What are the possible explanations for this situation? It is not difficult to tell that someone got hit and someone else is afraid of getting in trouble—at least on the surface.
Look a little deeper, though, and there is more to the story. In our family, this situation means that likely the person who got hit had been verbally antagonizing the hitter, who felt completely ignored or disregarded. Salience is recognizing not only the surface presenting issues, but having a fairly good guess at their underlying causes, thanks to previous similar experiences.
Another example: spouses are concerned about an issue of some kind and begin discussing it. At some point it becomes clear that one spouse is directing a strong line of questioning at the other, who begins to withdraw a bit from the conversation and uses increasingly monosyllabic responses. Stereotypically, in this kind of exchange, it is the wife who is the pursuer and the husband is withdrawing. Joshua and I see this pattern of communication in our discussions from time to time, and I regularly fall into the role of pursuer and he into that of withdrawer.
Salience allows us to identify the pattern—pursue and withdraw—not only when we fall into these traditional roles, but also when the tables somehow turn. A month ago Joshua and I were having a discussion that really just was not getting anywhere. The more Joshua pushed to figure it out, the quieter and briefer my responses became. Then the light bulb came on: we had seen this before; it was just that this time the tables were turned. Joshua was pursuing and I was the one withdrawing! Recognizing that dynamic and naming it was key to resolving our conversation comfortably.
For as often as I use it, I don’t think I am very aware of my “well-trained gut.” I don’t realize just how often something — now automatic to me — would have been a more stressful situation at an earlier point in our family’s life, a more drawn out conflict, or just plain emotionally hard and confusing.
For instance, in the past when we were hustling out the door, I might have simply commanded all of the children to hurry and not waste time while I fretted over all the chaos and escalated emotionally. Now, I know to put the dog outside so he won’t get in their way, make sure Simon has what he needs, sit with Lucy to assist with hard shoe laces or zippers, and NOT say an additional word to Oscar (because he gets tense if he is rushed too much).
Similarly, at an earlier stage in our marriage, when Joshua or I would get tense with one another, we would step into all kinds of communication minefields. Now, we have some amazing shorthand conversation skills that put those dangers well out of reach. Sometimes it is as simple as asking one another for a brief check-in, which lets the other know that we care about how they are doing, and gives them space to define the situation for themselves.
When I am aware of it, it feels good to have a well-trained gut for my relationship with Joshua and the children. I feel like I am becoming more fully the person I was created to be when I can effectively honor and uphold the full dignity of those entrusted to my care. It all feels somewhat effortless, although I know it has taken a significant amount of training, failure, hurt, and practice to get to this point.
Such is the nature of Christian community. At their best, family life and intimate relationships are a participation in the communal and relational nature of our Triune God. These relationships are opportunities to participate in God’s love; they are opportunities to be trained in love.
On our journey to perfect our love for one another, we try, we fail, we learn, we try again. One day we look back and see how far we have come and thank God that now some of it feels effortless.