In communicating with our wives, if we are not conscious of our motive, we will not be clear in our message. Let’s say that for date night with my wife I say, “Honey, let’s just order out Chinese and have a nice, quiet evening at home.” My message is disguising my motivation because the fuller story is that I’m worried about some recent unexpected bills. Unfortunately, what my wife will probably hear and think is, “I don’t think I’m valued by him” or “He must not like my hair right now and doesn’t want to be seen with me in public.” My disguised motive has resulted in a distorted message.
The research of Dr. Noelle Wiersma analyzed the communication patterns between victims of CSA and their partners and identified four domains in which the threatening nature of the communication was manifested: (a) expressive ability, (b) expressive motivation, (c) responsive ability, and (d) responsive motivation. In this blog, I’m addressing Expressive Motivation.
While Expressive Ability refers to our capability in expressing our thoughts and feelings, Expressive Motivation refers to the motivating reason for saying what we say.
Avoiding Disguised Motivations in Communication
Here are three tips for eliminating disguised motivations in communication.
- Do some smokescreen detection.
Wendy Maltz, in The Sexual Healing Journey, called for partner self awareness in observing the role of hidden motivations in communication (p. 214). As an example, she stated that feelings of anger might only be “smokescreens for feelings of sadness and powerlessness.
It’s difficult for a man to admit a sense of powerlessness. For example, the sexual struggles faced by couples affected by CSA can result in feelings of emasculation in the husband. Sadly, rather than admitting those feelings, many guys resort to pornography fooling themselves with a misguided sense of manhood and power. If they do communicate with their wives about the infrequency of sexual intimacy, the tone is often one of frustration (i.e. anger). The tone of anger disguises their powerlessness and sadness. The communication becomes messy because it is difficult for our wives, as with anyone, to respond to anger.
Here are a six suggestions for detecting smokescreen motives.
- Go to a place where you do your best thinking.
- Prayerfully acknowledge that our hearts are deceitful (Jeremiah 17:9).
- Ask God to guide your thought process and show you truth.
- Identify a situation or behavior to which your reaction is anger (or frustration if you prefer that word).
- Think through not only what you are feeling and thinking, but also why you are thinking and feeling as you to.
- What deeper motive comes to your mind as you consider the why question in step “e”?
The second tip for eliminating disguised motivations in communication is to:
- Think in terms of cultivating safety through communication.
Let’s go back to the opening illustration of ordering Chinese food for the date night. The motive and message would be more congruent if we were to say,
Honey, I want to have a less expensive night together without compromising our enjoyment of each other. Here’s why. I forgot about a couple medical bills that are due. Our cash flow is tight right now and will be for a few weeks. I can assure you that I am taking responsibility for it. So for tonight, I’d like to order Chinese, eat and talk out on our deck, and then pop popcorn and watch a movie together at home.
If her response is that she must not have value or thinks that I don’t want to be with her in public, then that is her problem to work through. My responsibility is to be as clear about the intent of my message as I am about the content of the message.
Obviously, the plan needs to be altered if you have children living at home and you want a date night. But hopefully the example gives you an idea of expressing motivation rather than disguising it.
Let’s consider the example of infrequent sexual intimacy; when anger is the smokescreen for the more painful feeling of powerlessness and emasculation. In this case, the message and motive converge more if a husband were to say,
I know my angry response has not helped resolve the difficulty in our sexual relationship. So I’ve thought about it and I realize that my deeper issue is the sense of powerlessness. The best way I can put it is that it’s like a piece of me is dying inside by not being able to be fully open and available to you. In the same way, I long for you to be fully open and available to me. If nothing else, I ask you to agree with me that we will find someone who can help us through the hindrances and barriers.
- Be direct without being derogatory
Do not blame, complain, or demand. Blaming is communicated through both statements and questions. We blame when we say, “You always . . .” We also blame through questions like, “Why don’t you ever . . .”
Furthermore, Expressive Motivation is not about complaining. “We never . . .” comes across as a complaint. Instead, it is better to express your need.
Undisguised Expressive Motivation increases as I am willing to be honest, direct, and vulnerable. For example, I might say, “I want you to feel safe. But your safety is compromised if I am not honest. So I want to be honest and I am willing to be vulnerable in letting you know my needs. One of those needs is . . . and I’d like to talk together about how we can agree how that this need could be met.”
Vulnerability is taking the risk of exposing our true motives and desires. We may be turned away. If so, the issue is not within us for we’ve laid bare our motives before our wives. At the same time, we can know that the more vulnerable we are, the safer our wives can feel, for nothing in us is disguised and hidden.
Maltz, W. (1991). The sexual healing journey: A guide for survivors of sexual abuse (3rd ed.). New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers. Available for purchase at: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=The+sexual+healing+journey
Wiersma, N. S. (2003), Partner Awareness Regarding the Adult Sequelae of Childhood Sexual Abuse for Primary and Secondary Survivors. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 29: 151–164. doi: 10.1111/j.1752-0606.2003.tb01197.x. Available for purchase at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1752-0606.2003.tb01197.x/abstract
Noelle S. Giffin Wiersma, PhD, is a professor of psychology and dean of the college of arts and sciences at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington,