Breath – The Pause for Connection

In marriage therapy work, one of the listening and connection skills we practice is sharing our feelings/experiences and validating our partner’s experiences. This is a fundamental building block of relationships, and it can lead to significant communication complications when it breaks down. Let me give you some examples of how it can break down. 

Husband (H): I am upset and angry that you spent so much time on the phone with your mother when we had plans to go out with friends. It made us late. I hate being late. I guess you care about your mother more than me. 

Wife (W): I hear that you are angry. You just don’t get it. My mom needed me. You have never liked her anyway. 

H: Now you are just turning this on me. Always blaming me and never apologizing. 

W: I might try to apologize if you were nicer to my mother and me. Don’t you remember how you treated her last Christmas?

(The conflict escalates here as the couple no longer discusses the original problem). 


Here is a second example.

Wife (W): I felt alone and rejected last Tuesday when you got home so late. I had no idea that you planned to watch the game with friends. I had supper ready for us, and honestly, I was planning to watch the game with you after we ate. 

Husband (H): I can see being lonely. But what do you mean rejected? I am home with you every night. I have not been out with friends for over two months. It was Steve’s birthday. Maybe I should have texted you to remind you, but I told you about these plans on Sunday. It makes me angry that you are accusing me of rejecting you.

W: You never told me about these plans on Sunday. I was out with the kids most of the day, so we were never really together on Sunday. You think you communicate, but you don’t. 

H: You never listen to me. We were standing right there in the kitchen. You even told me to have a good time. Honestly, your accusations make me not want to spend any time with you because I can never get it right. 

(You can also imagine how this little exchange only gets worse). 


I want to present a model for how to have these conversations calmly, improve your connections, and reduce the intensity of conflict. In the example above, the couples do an excellent job of starting with sharing their feelings. These are good “I” statements. And the response of their spouses begins well. You might even say they were validating because they at least “parroted” back what their partner said. “I can see being lonely,” or “I hear that you are angry.” 

But each partner quickly switches into a defensive mode of blaming or playing the victim. These words of accusation and victimhood undo any sense of validation between the couple, and it severs their connections. At this point, it becomes a tit-for-tat explosion. 

Validation requires two components:

  1. Make sure your partner feels heard. Use your own words.
  2. Taking ownership of the problem or offense. Admit what you did that caused the offense. 

Let me show you a better validation from each of the examples above. In the first example, it could have sounded like this:

W: I know it made you mad for me to spend so much time on the phone with my mom. Being late has never been your favorite thing and it probably made you embarrassed that all our friends were there waiting on us when we arrived. (The wife has been on the phone for a long time, and she summarizes her partner’s feelings in her own words.)

In the second example, the husband could have started here:

H: I regret that you were lonely and even felt unimportant when I didn’t come home. I want to spend time together, too. I thought I had told you it was Steve’s birthday, but somehow, I failed to make sure you knew about these plans. It might have helped for me to text you during the day to make sure we were on the same page.  (Again, he used his own words but also offers a bit of what he wished he had done differently).

So these modifications are suitable, but often, in any problem, there are two perspectives. The partner who offers validation can end up asking in their mind, “Well, what about me? When does my partner understand me?” 

This is where the often missed step of “Taking a Breath” is omitted. If you look back to the original examples, the spouse who got defensive was using their failed validation as an attempt to present their viewpoint/feelings/perspective. This is a “cart before the horse” scenario. Breathing is the secret to reaching a point where both partners are heard. 

Here is how it works. Imagine that each partner in the examples above gives the improved “edited” validations I offered. After saying those validations, they want to get confirmation from their partner that they feel understood. They might say something like, “Yes, thank you.” Or “I appreciate your understanding.” There might be some nonverbal confirmation of a smile or relaxing sigh. If you are unsure if your partner feels you “get it,” you can always ask, “Do you think I understand?” If you receive confirmation, you can take a breath and offer your feelings/perspective.

Feelings – Breath Cycle

So, let’s rework the above conversations with the Validation-Breathe cycle and see how they improve and how both partners feel heard and respected. 


Example 1

Husband (H): I am upset and angry that you spent so much time on the phone with your mother when we had plans to go out with friends. It made us late. I hate being late. I guess you care about your mother more than me. (This last statement is a criticism and not appropriate. But if the spouse does the validation, it will help settle any anger).

Wife (W): I know it made you mad for me to spend so much time on the phone with my mom. Being late has never been your favorite thing and it probably made you embarrassed that all our friends were there waiting on us when we arrived. (The wife owns being on the phone for so long, and she summarizes her partner’s feelings in her own words).

H: You are right; I was embarrassed. Thank you for understanding.

W: BREATHE

W: I felt trapped that night. I knew we needed to be leaving, but my mom was really struggling with a serious problem. I know my mom is difficult, and I don’t even like dealing with her all the time, but she is my mom, and I am the only support she has right now. 

H: Trapped. Like you were feeling pressure from both me and your mom? 

W: Yes.

H: I can see that. I am not sure how we could have solved that situation better, but from now on I can try to be more understanding of how hard it might be to have to be the only source of support for you mom.

W: Thank you. 


Example 2

Wife (W): Last Tuesday, I felt alone and rejected when you got home so late. I had no idea that you planned to go watch the game with friends. I had supper ready for us, and honestly, I was making plans to watch the game with you after we ate. 

H: I regret that you were lonely and even felt unimportant when I didn’t come home. I want to spend time together, too. I thought I had told you that it was Steve’s birthday, but somehow, I failed to make sure you knew about these plans. It might have helped for me to text you during the day to make sure we were on the same page.

H: (a bit unsure of what his wife is feeling) Do you think I understand what you are trying to say?

W: Yes. I am sorry. I appreciate you hearing me. 

H: BREATHE

H: I was a bit confused today when you brought this up since I thought I had communicated with you. Again, I may have not give you the message clearly. I appreciate that you wanted to spend time together because I want the same thing. Can we try again and find a time to schedule?

W: I agree we somehow missed each other in communicating plans. Can we just plan for this next game night to be our time to watch the game together?

H: Yes, I cannot wait. 

Pausing and taking a breath are a couple of small ways to enhance validation and connection in your marriage. Those “little things” create a space of safety between the two of you. Pause and breathe, slow down the process, and keep you from rushing into sharing your feelings/experiences. Intimacy requires both partners to feel understood. Love chooses not to rush the process – “It [Love] does not insist on its own way.” (I Corinthians 13:5, NRSV) 

Being a Gift for Your Spouse

Gifts are the language of the holiday season. Meaningful gifts are often unexpected, meet a particular need, and communicate a message of value or importance. We love giving and receiving gifts because they are founded on love and sacrifice. The Christmas season celebrates God, offering himself as a gift in the incarnated Christ. In this gift-giving time, I am reminded of the marital union being bonded through the giving of self. I want to explore that idea in this blog and suggest ways you can be a meaningful gift for your spouse.

Marriage takes hard work. Many modern myths attempt to convince us that if we find the “right one,” marriage should work. But these myths make us lazy about the real work of marriage. Bono, the lead singer of U2, published a memoir titled Surrender in 2022. He reflects on his 41-year marriage to his high school sweetheart, Ali. 

“I’m sure that oneness is the direction of travel for all great loves, but I also accept that it does not happen on cue, at a ceremony, for example, like a wedding. It can happen in all kinds of different circumstances in the middle of the night or the middle of the day, when two lovers decide they want to be part of each other’s lives more than they desire their own independence, and in continuum they pledge their lives to each other…The universe may marvel at such perfectly imperfect love and the stars light your way, but back on earth, if you heed the statistics, it’s as if the world stands in the way of love. I’m sure the essence of romance is defiance, and what is more defiant than two young hearts, twenty-two and twenty-one, deciding to take on the odds, to challenge the dull-thud facts around an ancient ceremony in a modern world…Ali and I were moving in together, and now we were beginning to move together. On paper our marriage started that honeymoon week, but in truth it didn’t feel like that. We’d honored each other, made sacred vows, but the biggest moments in life may not be those we notice at the time. No fireworks, no explosions, no falling even more deeply in love now that we had time together. We were the playwrights and the play, the actors and the critics. Excited and nervous to begin our adventure together. No idea where we’d be in ten years. Twenty. Thirty. I raise you again. Forty years. We’ll eventually figure out what was going on in that moment.Rather than falling in love, we were climbing up toward it. We still are.”

In the memoir, each chapter is represented by one song selected from the U2 library. In this chapter about his wedding and marriage to Ali, the song chosen is “Two Hearts Beat as One.” In this song, Bono sings the lyric, “I said don’t stop the dance, maybe this is our last chance.” All marriages face “last chance” moments; survival depends on each partner staying in the dance, giving and receiving. In those moments, the power of “oneness” can save us if we do the work. The work requires communion between partners where each sacrifices to give themselves as a gift to the other consistently. 

All of this reminds me of Pope John Paul’s words in his book, “A Theology of the Body,” in which he explores the marital union. He conducts a rich examination of the Genesis creation accounts of Adam and Eve. He reminds us of the moments when God parades all the animals of creation in front of Adam to explore whether one of them might be a suitable partner. Of course, none suffice, not even the dog. God had, through love, given the gift of life to Adam, and the Pope asks a poignant question as Adam stands alone in his humanity. “…we must ask ourselves whether this first “man” in his original solitude, “lived” the world truly as a gift, with an attitude that conforms to the actual condition of someone who has received a gift…?”

There has to be an “other” to exchange the gift with. This is what God meant when he said it is “not good for the human to be alone. (Gen 2:18)” Humans need relational companionship to realize their makeup as image bearers of God fully. As Pope John Paul says, “He [Adam] realizes it only by existing ‘With someone’—and put even more deeply and completely, by existing ‘for someone.’” It is through this communion with someone that we can experience the reciprocal giving of self as a gift to another. It is at the heart of God’s identity and was fully realized in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. God wants to live in reciprocal communion with each of us, and he created us to do the same with each other. 

The heart of the communion in marriage is being a gift to your spouse. You gave yourself to each other. But this was not a one-time event. It is an ongoing process of giving yourself continually, consistently. I want to tell you about three ways you can offer yourself as a gift to your spouse. You can give Unexpectedly, Meet their Need, and Communicate their Value.

Unexpected

Most everyone loves a surprise gift. Though I recommend the occasional unexpected gift for your spouse, being an unexpected “gift” for your spouse is much deeper and will require more work. 

The work involves your ongoing decision to offer unearned grace and forgiveness. I speak about this in the chapter called “Safe Marriage” in my book. Marriage is to be a safe place when couples consistently forgive. Forgiveness is the decision not to make your spouse pay for the injuries they cause. This makes marriage safe because it clears the battleground of retaliation. Many of us know when our choices hurt our partner. As humans, we expect punishment or retribution. But the unexpected response of pardon reconciles and restores. 

If you are still thinking that flowers, candy, or a dinner out at the right time is the formula for providing an unexpected gift, then you are missing out. These things are nice, but your partner needs more. They need your unexpected gift of grace. In those moments of peace, restoration, and intimacy explode. 

Meet a Need

There have always been jokes about the husband who gets their wife a vacuum cleaner or some other appliance for their birthday or Christmas. It is a joke because, though the gift meets a need, it falls short of meeting a deeper emotional need for connection and understanding. Intimacy is rarely practical. 

What does your spouse need right now? Just think about that. What have you heard them say that is on their heart or they are concerned about? If you could do one thing for them right now, what would help them? If you can answer that question clearly, then stop reading and go do what came to mind. Serve your partner and meet their need. 

If nothing is coming to mind, then you should listen and engage with them a bit more. In my chapter, “Stable Marriage,” I share a concept called “I am Present.” This is the willful act of being available, listening, and understanding my spouse through engagement and empathy. We are a gift for our spouse when we have taken the time to listen and truly hear their needs. Meeting those needs consistently builds stability in your marriage. It is those sacrifices of service (not your pocketbook) that ultimately strengthen your bond.

Communicate Value

Expensive gifts are nice. At their heart, they give a message of value to the recipient. Car companies with commercials of cars with bows on top are abundant in the holiday season. Many car companies would love to sell you a car in December to help their year-end bottom line and help you have a momentary romantic vision of the bow on the car in the snow-covered driveway (though the snow is unlikely in Texas, where I live). 

But again, giving your spouse an expensive gift is not the best way to communicate their true value. The best way to be a gift to your spouse is to see their value and share that value in the ways you speak to them, build them up, encourage and support them. Your words are powerful, and they have the very power of life for your spouse. I share thoughts about this idea in my chapter, “Successful Marriage.” Your marriage has the opportunity to participate in the life-giving resurrection work of God’s kingdom. This is done in the gift of your words to your spouse. 

When you speak kindness, encouragement, or value to your spouse, they are made alive. This world and the life we must live in is full of discouragement and death. Your marriage can be a restorative space. You are a gift when you speak healing to your partner’s hurts. You are a gift when you speak the truth about your spouse’s character. You are a gift when you encourage and support them to use their gift and talents.

These are the ways to be a gift. Unexpected grace, Meeting Needs, and Communicating Value. As you unwrap presents this holiday season, you can offer yourself as a gift in these ways. I pray God blesses your efforts.