When Listening Saves Marriages and Love Brings Healing

he friend sitting across from me in Starbucks had just told me her husband was having an affair. He thought he wanted to be with the other woman, but he wasn’t 100 percent sure. He needed time and space to decide.

“I love him and don’t want to let him go,” my friend said. “I want to save our marriage.”

My advice was, “Boot his ass out. He’s not worth it.”

Or at least, that’s what my advice would have been if I had been giving advice. But telling her what to do went against the guidelines and parameters of our relationship, which was part of a program called Stephen Ministry. The purpose of the program, which requires 50 hours of training, is to help people through a crisis period by connecting them with someone who can be there for them and listen to them. Giving advice and providing solutions aren’t part of the Stephen Minister’s job description.

The idea of merely listening seemed strange to me at first. How could I possibly help a person through a crisis if I was unable to offer advice? All my good ideas and wisdom going to waste!

But that’s exactly the point. Malcolm Gladwell, author of Outliers, said humility’s core is the ability to listen to others. The Stephen Minister doesn’t offer platitudes or solutions. He/she offers time, confidentiality, and the belief that we provide the care but not the cure. Those on the receiving end of the caring relationship are called care receivers, and trained Stephen Ministers are called care givers.

Genuine, nonjudgmental acceptance is an integral part of Stephen Ministry.

A care receiver suffering through job loss and depression said, “Complete acceptance spoke to me the most. I see how much I needed regular encouragement without judgment as I rode a roller coaster of emotions during this period of instability in my life.”

Nonjudgmental listening seems to be a lost art as more and more people clamor to be heard, and civil discourse vanishes when every voice is a strident, shrill, opinionated one. We see this in religion, politics, social media and across college campuses as people convinced of the rightness of their own convictions erect invincible barriers to open dialogue.

The idea of listening without providing solutions is more radical than it sounds. We have a natural desire to contribute our two cents worth to the quick fix. But think of all the times you’ve wanted to vent; to have your raw, unvarnished emotions recognized and your right to express them affirmed. People are not always ready for the quick solution. Sometimes they need emotional support that allows them room to process and work through a situation. They need to discover their own strength, their own faith and their own pathway to healing.

I wondered at first what I could learn in 50 hours of training centered around how to listen, but it turns out I learned a lot. I learned how hard it is not to judge, how intentional we have to be to really hear what someone else is saying, and how quick we are to offer solutions.

Most of us don’t set out to be judgmental. We aren’t aware that preconceived notions and assumptions lead us to form opinions based not on what we know, but on what we think. It takes practice to refocus our thoughts, directing them from what we believe to what another person is trying to tell us.

Focusing on somebody else is harder than it seems. Ego leads us to concentrate on what we’re going to say next, formulating our own response at the expense of listening. Ego also encourages us to dig in our heels, holding tight to our opinions instead of allowing for other possibilities.

We tend to interrupt. We’re uncomfortable, especially in American culture, with silence, believing we need to fill every conversational pause with chatter.

In Stephen Ministry training, we’re discouraged from spouting platitudes. We avoid statements like:

I know what you’re going through. (We don’t)

God wouldn’t put you through this if he didn’t think you could handle it. (That’s a terrible response)

God’s trying to teach you a lesson. (Even worse)

It will all be fine if you’ll just trust. (Maybe it won’t be)

We’re discouraged from telling someone what to do. We don’t say:

You ought to find a job.

You should see a divorce lawyer.

You need to change doctors, learn how to shake off your depression, eat less if you want to lose weight.

The job of a Stephen Minister is to listen, provide encouragement, and offer appropriate resources when needed (such as information about Grief Share and other support groups, job opportunities, or referral to a mental health professional). Every relationship is confidential and care givers meet regularly in highly-structured supervision groups that provide support and guidance while maintaining confidentiality.

Some of the most common situations care givers and care receivers deal with are divorce, death of a loved one, serious and sometimes terminal illness, depression, and unemployment. A Stephen Minister isn’t supposed to replace a therapist or psychiatrist, but can work in conjunction with a trained professional if the counselor or doctor approves of the Stephen Ministry relationship.

Once when I was assigned to work with a care receiver who dealt with numerous personal and relational issues, I soon realized her irrational behavior exceeded the scope of my training. Her growing paranoia led her to schedule our meetings in different places further and further away from where we both lived, and she was constantly bothered by the feeling that she was being pursued.

She moved in and out of various homes and apartments, initially praising friends who offered her room and board but eventually growing disillusioned and moving on. No place was perfect enough, and she fell into a predictable pattern of disenchantment, paranoia and change.

She began to suffer what I would describe as psychotic delusions. She told me that as she stared at herself in the mirror one breast grew visibly longer, which she perceived to be punishment for some past sin.

I described her growing delusional and antisocial behavior to my supervision group. One member of the group who had completed clinical training in psychological disorders mentioned that her symptoms were characteristic of schizophrenia and in his opinion my care receiver should be referred to a psychiatrist.

The next time I met with her (we always met in public since I was growing increasingly uneasy about the relationship), I recommended that she seek psychiatric help. She had already seen numerous counselors, but she abandoned any counselor who began to suspect the scope and severity of her problems. She resented my recommendation, suddenly viewing me as another enemy on her growing list of supposed enemies. A mask of hostility and suspicion transformed her features.

We didn’t meet again.

Fortunately this sort of outcome isn’t the norm. The woman I mentioned in the first paragraph, the one seeking to reconcile with her unfaithful husband, went through many emotional ups and downs in the months we met. I affirmed to her that she was a woman of value who deserved to be treated with respect. I also encouraged her to develop hobbies and interests apart from her husband and to pursue financial independence even as she sought to save her marriage.

She ended up getting a job, which greatly enhanced her sense of self-esteem, and she began taking yoga and cooking classes in her spare time. The marriage ultimately survived and now, after several years, her relationship with her husband is stronger than ever. She told me some time later, “You saved my marriage.”

But I didn’t. All I did was listen, encourage her to be the best she could be, and refrain from voicing my opinion. She saved her own marriage.

Although we’re primarily listeners and encouragers, in one instance I couldn’t resist dispensing advice. My care receiver was going through a bitter divorce. She complained that her husband allowed the children to stay up late on school nights when he had custody, which meant the kids were too exhausted for school the next day.

Later in the conversation, she mentioned that she had given in to the children’s pleas for gerbils. “Now we have two gerbils and they stink up the whole house. You can smell them as soon as you walk in the door, but what can I do? The kids would be devastated if I gave their pets away.”

“Tell your ex you’ll let him keep the gerbils at his house if he’ll put the kids to bed earlier on school nights,” I suggested.

The next time we met, she said, “It worked! He has the gerbils now!”

Stephen Ministry is ecumenical and nondenominational, with people both within and outside the church seeking help. Based on Galatians 6:2 that we are to “Bear one another’s burdens and in this way fulfill the law of Christ,” we seek to provide Christian care and fulfill Jesus’ mandate to love one another. The premise that we’re the care givers and God is the cure giver defines our role.

Once when a candidate for Stephen Ministry wanted to enter our training program, he issued this caveat: he would not become part of our caring ministry unless we asked our gay care givers to leave the program. This was not a condition any of us would consider, and this person chose not to participate.

Stephen Ministry isn’t about debating theology, adhering to church doctrine or converting unbelievers. It’s a powerful way to respond to Christ’s commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). Nonjudgmental, unconditional friendship provides a conduit through which God’s love can flow.

My current care receiver suffered tremendous loss through death of a family member and now deals with a serious and possibly incurable illness. I am inadequate as a care giver. I pray with her, drive her to the doctor and sit with her in her yard. Sometimes our roles are reversed. We gaze at spring flowers beginning to color the beige landscape of a winter yard, and she reaches across the divide of silence to tell me she loves me.

This is how we feel and express God’s love. We realize we are inadequate, and this realization reinforces the truth that we aren’t cure givers. By opening ourselves to the flow of God’s love through caring and listening, we reach across the divide of inadequacy and bring that rarest of qualities, unconditional, nonjudgmental love, into a relationship. This is where real healing begins.

Writer, editor, publisher, journalist, author, columnist, believer in enjoying my journey and helping other people enjoy theirs. bknicholson@att.net

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