By Wendy L. Watson, ’75
The scriptures provide clues on how spouses can foster their relationships through loving communication.
For a marriage to be strong, it needs to be infused with and immersed in love. True love. Pure love. The kind of love Elder Howard W. Hunter spoke of when he said, “The pure love of Christ is the highest pinnacle the human soul can reach and the deepest expression of the human heart” (That We Might Have Joy [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1997], p. 170). It is the kind of love respected theologian Truman G. Madsen, ’57, distinguished from that of the world, which is love at first sight. “More accurately,” said Madsen, “there is sight at first love,” and while some may say that “‘falling in love is sudden’ . . . [,] rising in love . . . is a lot more exciting. . . . But the rise is a slow, aching, anything-but-sudden process” (Four Essays on Love [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1971], p. 30).
“Love is the very essence of life,” President Gordon B. Hinckley said. “I am one who believes that love, like faith, is a gift of God” (“And the Greatest of These Is Love,” Ensign, March 1984, p. 3). Are we praying for this gift from God? Are we praying for love and to love? Are we heeding the marvelous words of Mormon to “pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love” (Moro. 7:48)? Are we praying to love as the Savior loves?
What happens when a wife fervently prays, “Please help me to love my husband as the Savior loves him. Help me to see all that is good about him”? What occurs when a husband pleads with his Heavenly Father, “Help me to see my wife as Thou seest her. Help me to love her as Thou lovest her”? And perhaps there are times when the most effectual prayer of each spouse needs to be, “Please help me to see this situation from my spouse’s point of view.” Eyes that see things through a lens of love can see so much more clearly.
Because love is a gift of the Spirit, we need to do more than work for it; we need to pray for it. And because love is a gift from God, it follows that love will not be present in places where the Spirit of the Lord would not and cannot be. If we are breaking commandments within relationships and yet telling ourselves that we are “in love” or being loved or loving, we are being misled. However, when the Spirit is present, love is present. And reciprocally, when true love is present, the Spirit is present. They coexist.
Mormon teaches us that true love, pure love, “suffereth long, and is kind, and envieth not, and is not puffed up, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil, and rejoiceth not in iniquity but rejoiceth in the truth, beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things” (Moro. 7:45). What a litmus test for how loving we really are!
What can this kind of love do—this love that is kind, doesn’t envy, isn’t easily provoked, doesn’t think evil, rejoices in truth, believes, hopes, and endures? What difference does real love make? When love is present, it changes everything. Eyes change, hearts change, attitudes and feelings change, souls change in the presence of love. One of our hymns speaks of love’s influence: “There is beauty all around when there’s love at home” (Hymns of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints [Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1985], no. 294). The operative word is when. When love is not at home, it is difficult to recognize beauty anywhere, in anything, or in anyone, including ourselves.
How, then, can we increase love in our marriages and families? The best-selling books are “how-to” books. And the scriptures are the best of the “how-to” books, especially when it comes to love.
When the Nephites who had survived the tumult following Christ’s death first heard the voice from heaven, “it was not a harsh voice, neither was it a loud voice. . . . [It was] a small voice [and] it did pierce them that did hear to the center” (3 Ne. 11:3). One principle operating in marriages where love is felt is that small voices penetrate in positive ways. Spouses need to be careful not only about what they say but also about how they say it, meaning the tone and volume of their voices. Harsh, loud voices are emotionally and spiritually violent because they are usually fueled by a command, a demand, a position of “I’m right and you’re wrong.” Harsh, loud voices grieve life, they grieve the Spirit, and they shrink spouses’ spirits. President Hinckley has counseled us, “Let us lower our voices in our homes” (“An Humble and Contrite Heart,” Ensign, November 2000, p. 89).
When a spouse says, “I am so sorry,” “I forgive you,” “I love you,” “I need you in my life,” “I want to help you,” “I’m scared,” or “I’ve never been happier,” the effect seems to be intensified when a small voice is used. Often the heart speaks most clearly in soft, low tones. The old saying is true: “If you want to catch someone’s attention, whisper.”
President Hinckley has said that “quiet talk is the language of love. It is the language of peace. It is the language of God” (Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1997], pp. 324–25).
A marvelous message about the need for and effect of repetition is offered in 3 Nephi 11:3–6. When the voice out of heaven came to the Nephites the first time, “it did pierce them that did hear it to the center.” The voice affected the people physically and spiritually, causing their frames to quake and their hearts to burn. And yet, they didn’t understand it. Even the second time they heard the voice, “they understood it not.” It was only when they heard the voice the third time that they did “open their ears to hear it” and “they did understand the voice which they heard.”
This is a great model for spouses as they interact with each other. Spouses need to be persistent in offering and showing love to each other. Repetition helps to register truth. Remember, it was not until the third time that the Nephites understood the voice they had heard twice before. If your spouse doesn’t always respond to your offerings of love the first time, don’t take it as a personal affront. Try it a second time. Try it a third time. Repetition of love is good for all involved.
Actually, we may ask if there really is such a thing as repetition. We are always changing. The second time we hear something we have new ears because of what we heard the first time and because of intervening experiences. With each repetition we hear something different because we are changed.
Think about words and deeds. Saying “I love you” in word and in deed never gets old when it is heartfelt. Hearing a sincere “I love you” never gets old. Hearing a genuine “I am so sorry” never gets old. Repetition is good for each person’s soul. And the repetition of real love in word and deed creates a greater intimacy between spouses.
In the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord tells us, “Strengthen your brethren in all your conversation, in all your prayers, in all your exhortations, and in all your doings” (D&C 108:7). One sure way to show love for your spouse is through commendations—positive, heartfelt comments about your loved one and his or her abilities.
The best-kept secret in many marriages is the strengths spouses see in each other. Imagine if they had hidden video cameras and a husband could hear and see his wife speaking about him to her friend, saying that he was more than she had ever hoped for; or picture a wife hearing her husband say to his colleague that he would marry her all over again, just as she is today. What difference do you think that would make in the way they showed their love for each other—and received each other’s love?
Researchers have become very interested in determining the ratio of positive to negative communication between spouses that will keep a marriage on a pathway of improvement and increased happiness. The magic ratio they have found is five-to-one. That is, as long as there is at least five times more affection, humor, smiling, complimenting, agreement, empathy, and active listening than there is criticism and disagreement, your marriage will prosper. (See John Gottman and Nan Silver,Why Marriages Succeed or Fail [New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994].)
An interesting fact about commending your spouse is that the more you do it, the more you see in him or her to commend. Why is this so? Because in order to commend, you really need to study a situation. This is no place for fluffy, superficial comments; it’s time to get up close and personal! You need to look closely, to really notice, in order to commend your spouse’s goodness, competence, courage, tenacity, and patience—perhaps even his or her patience with you! As you work harder at being a “strength detective,” your interactions will change, you’ll uncover even more things to commend in your spouse, and your positive to negative ratio will change.
Commendations seem to naturally decrease condemnations. The tendency to point out your spouse’s flaws and failures begins to wane as you focus on his or her strengths. In this way the five-to-one ratio of positive-to-negative communication also becomes easier to achieve. And over time, the positive-to-negative ratio tends to improve even further.
A popular song asks, “What’s love got to do with it?” In contrast, President Hinckley proclaims that love has everything to do with it. He has stated that “there are good families everywhere, but there are too many who are in trouble. This is a malady with a cure. The prescription is simple and wonderfully effective. The answer is love” (“Look to the Future,” Ensign, November 1997, p. 69).
Wendy L. Watson is a professor of marriage and family therapy in the School of Family Life at BYU.
This article is adapted from Wendy L. Watson, Purity and Passion: Spiritual Truths about Intimacy That Will Strengthen Your Marriage (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2001), pp. 22–33, and is used by permission.