It’s wedding season! For engaged LGBTQ couples, it’s a time of immense joy that is often paired with a fair amount of grief. This summer we’ve been exploring challenges specific to the months leading up to marriage. For our fourth and last installment of the series, we’re talking about "Listening"—one of the habits a couple can learn during their engagement that will help them in marriage.
It’s easy to look back on our engagement season with rose-colored glasses. It was, truly, a beautiful time. We grew closer to each other than either of us had ever been to anyone. We started this blog. We were celebrated by loving friends, and experienced for the first time what it means to be fully embraced by a church community. But the full truth, of course, is that they weren’t all halcyon days. We’ve mostly filtered out of our memories the bickering and headbutting leading up to that day, perhaps because during that time we developed tools to manage and mitigate it. Learning how to listen became one of our most important methods in learning how to love.
Most of the friction we experienced during that time stemmed from the different priorities we had when it came to wedding planning. We were on the same page regarding all the basics: We both wanted a small wedding, neither wanted to spend too much money, and we wanted the day to capture both our individual personalities and the values we’ve embraced as a couple. That made making all the big decisions pretty easy.
We had no trouble choosing a location—Cathedral Park in Portland, underneath the beautiful St. John’s Bridge. Picking a caterer was no problem—a Middle Eastern food truck serving gyros, hummus, and plenty of yogurt sauce. Dessert? Piece of cake! Or, actually, no cake at all—just donuts, served out of boxes we picked up that morning. We didn’t want a photographer, a DJ, and definitely not a wedding planner. And most of all, we both wanted to avoid the spotlight as much as one can on one’s wedding day. Scroll through the gallery below for some pictures of that day.
So what was the problem? Well, the fact that we agreed on so much blinded us to the fact that we had different thoughts on what was the most important aspect of the day. I believed the most important part of the day was the ceremony. I spent hours reading through wedding liturgies from various traditions, borrowing from each to carefully assemble a ritual that captured our theology of covenant—the understanding of marriage David and I share and which we had discussed at length as we discerned whether this was the path we were called to follow. He thought the most important parts were the greeting and reception as a way to show hospitality and love to those in attendance—values we had also discussed and agreed to espouse as part of our family culture. He spent hours thinking through what would be best flow for the day: about the logistics of helping people get to the ceremony and feel comfortable, and the little details that would make the day memorable for those who came to celebrate with us.
I trusted that David was planning the details for our small reception well, but at some level I think I saw all that he was doing as just busywork—superficial and not entirely necessary. I failed to appreciate the effort he was putting into making the day beautiful not only for our guests, but for us. When we were looking at reining in costs, I even told him I was fine if we didn’t have a reception at all—just a ceremony followed by everyone grabbing a drink at a bar somewhere, on their own dime. When he asked for my opinion on something, I conveyed disinterest, and worst of all, I never offered to help. He designed everything, from our invitations to the table decorations, and even picked out the outfits we wore. It was all perfect, and so very “us”—but truthfully, it was all thanks to him.
For his part, David didn’t show much interest in the liturgy or the prayers we were to use during the ceremony. He saw it as just coming up with a script—lines we would recite and cues we were to follow as some sort of performance. This was also the one part of the day when all eyes would be on us (which is to say, the most uncomfortable part for us), so I think part of him saw this as a perfunctory ritual to get through as quickly as possible. I was hoping to get his input on the word choices, the phrasing of the prayers and blessings we were to receive, and on what we could do to make the ceremony feel both solemn and celebratory.
We spent weeks getting into arguments whenever one of us felt like the other “just didn’t care” about the wedding. We were talking past each other, both hearing that one of us cared about this thing or the other, but not really listening to why he cared about it. Around that time, my in-laws introduced us to one of the most important practices for a successful marriage: The Airing of Grievances. The way it works is, you set aside a time when you each grab a glass of wine (or whiskey), sit down, and proceed to tell each other, all at once, but taking turns, all the big and small things that have annoyed you since the last Airing. When one person talks the other may not interrupt; they may only listen. The frequency of the Airings will vary according to the season of life you’re in—during times of high stress you might need them to be weekly, but when things are generally calm you might just have them quarterly.
It was during our first official Airing that we finally started hearing each other out. I learned why the reception was to David more than just frivolous party planning. He learned why the exchanging of vows was so much more than a hackneyed script. Listening, we’ve learned, is much more than hearing. It’s a deliberate effort to understand motivations and reasoning.
More than two years into marriage, we’re still learning to be better listeners, but I’m glad we started the habit before we were married. What we discovered then has continued to prove true in marriage: By getting to know each other well and building love maps that help us understand where each is coming from at any given time, we’ve become better able to reach agreements. Often, our disagreements become moot as we dig deep into the reasons behind them because, it turns out, our visions and concerns tend to be similar even when our approach is different.
The time leading up to a wedding is stressful. If you’re engaged and find yourself constantly bickering with your betrothed over seemingly trivial things, take this as a learning opportunity. First, offer each other some grace during this tense season and give each other permission to be more antsy than normal. When you argue, seek not to win the debate or get your way; rather, work toward understanding the motivations of your betrothed, to grasp the dreams and fears behind their position. You may still not agree, but you’ll develop better empathy for each other. Good listening isn’t always a natural skill, but it can be cultivated. The habits you develop now will strengthen the foundation of your marriage.
Constantino Khalaf is a writer living in Portland. He and his husband, David, are the authors of Modern Kinship: A Queer Guide to Christian Marriage, forthcoming from Westminster John Knox Press, January 2019.
Photo by The Naked Ape, used with permission through Flickr Creative Commons.
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