Happily Even After
Three Golden Guidelines
by Stacey Noem
Next week I get to give a talk on community to some students. Joshua and I have given many such talks over the last several years. Often, I find that the very suggestions that I am preparing to deliver with conviction in a talk get challenged in the days leading up to it in my personal life. This time is no different.
When Joshua and I speak about “good community” or “good marriage” we always try to convey that. Good community (marriage) comes down to good communication. Then we share what we think are three golden rules (more like guidelines, really) for good communication.
First: Assume goodwill. This guideline basically encourages thinking the best of another person’s words, actions, or intentions. It invites stepping out of our own shoes and into another’s — something I think is far more easily said than done. Said alternatively, it requires actively working against the assumption that others are trying to sabotage your happiness. Most often our spouses or family members likely just aren’t thinking of their impact on us at all.
Here is an example of assuming goodwill: if Joshua was late getting home for supper, instead of getting annoyed, bemoaning his absence and the fact that the meal I prepared is getting cold — assuming goodwill might ask me to consider his perspective. He might have had someone catch him as he was walking out of the office, had car trouble, or even be hurt! If I were assuming goodwill, when he walked through the door I would be in a much kinder mindset. Then when he showed up with flowers (perhaps he was late because he stopped to buy them), I would be prepared to receive them with grace and gratitude instead of chagrin and embarrassment.
Next: Go gently. Going gently means just what it sounds like: in word and deed communicate with gentleness and care.
I find myself saying this to our children all the time. When one of them uses harsh words or a much harsher tone than a situation may merit, I often ask them to speak more gently or to think of a more gentle way to communicate what they are feeling. Of course that also means identifying what we are feeling and working to master it. This guideline requires that we “respond” rather than “react.”
This is where I confess that I am least good at this guideline. The school of family life is constantly showing me how I fail at gentleness, and constantly teaching me new ways to work on it. Especially convicting are the moments when I have been reprimanding our eldest and he has turned to me hurt, and has said (quite reasonably and calmly), “when you speak to me like that it hurts my feelings.” It is both heartbreaking (I don’t want to hurt my baby!) and a moment of pride (my son is so mature and has the capacity to be such a good communicator!).
Finally: Be your own best advocate. It is our responsibility to speak our own truth. In community and family life if we don’t say what we are thinking or feeling, there is no way for others to know it. No matter how intimately we know another person, no one can read our mind. Even if they could, it is not their job to do so. If we don’t choose to give voice to our thoughts or preferences, others are not responsible for taking them into account. This can be challenging for those unused to freely expressing their preferences or opinions. But there is no better place to practice than in the loving safety of family.
Functionally, what is most useful about these guidelines is how general they are, I think. One or another of them can cover any of a variety of situations. Yet, at the same time, on a deeper level, they highlight and preserve our inherent dignity—both our dignity and that of those around us.
It is embarrassing how often I find myself falling short of some aspect of these guidelines. But when I don’t fail, when I really try to embody the loving spirit behind them, they help me live in right relationship with others around me, especially my family.
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