Do you know your spouse's deepest shames and fears? Do they know yours? What do you do with that private knowledge?

We all want to be loved and understood by those aware of our past pains and present insecurities. But going one step further, a deeper bond is created when you and your spouse know how to intimately comfort each other and bring relief to individual or shared tension.

In How We Love, Milan and Kay Yerkovich assure that "learning to become vulnerable, share your feelings, speak truthfully, listen deeply, and bring relief to your mate will revolutionize how you love."

To achieve this level of bonding, you may need to learn to give comfort and understanding. Or you may need to learn to receive. Ultimately, both spouses need to give and receive comfort in order to successfully navigate and heal hurt within a marriage.

That's why the Yerkovichs developed the four steps of the Comfort Circle to help you break out of the destructive cycle you and your spouse repeat time and time again when conflict or pain arises. Read on to learn how these steps will bring peace, trust and effective problem-solving to your relationship.

Why give and receive comfort?

A safe marriage begins with physical safety, but must not end there. To take your relationship to the next level of bonding requires emotional safety with your spouse. Wendy Kittlitz, vice-president of Focus on the Family Canada's counselling ministry, identifies a safe marriage as one marked by openness and authenticity. "There's little or no fear that what one person says is going to damage the relationship," she shares. "Safety leads to openness and openness leads to intimacy, which is what most people say they need and want in marriage. People won't be open if they don't feel safe."

More often than not, one or both spouses try to avoid dealing with emotions, theirs or their spouse's – but why?

Kittlitz says this hesitancy is usually due to fear. "If you can identify what you're afraid of, then you can determine if that fear has a basis or is perhaps rooted in earlier life experiences. If your feelings have been ignored, belittled or ridiculed in the past, either in this relationship or another, the fear is founded."

Moving from a point of fear to one of emotional safety and vulnerability doesn't happen naturally – or easily.

But the Yerkovichs remind couples to look at the challenge this way: "You can work at your relationship now or pay the price of neglect later. Either way, it's going to cost you time and effort."

So while it may take practise and perhaps some awkward attempts to fully learn the Comfort Circle, the results are worth it to have a trusting, supportive marriage. Plus, the Yerkovichs say many couples claim they enjoy better sexual intimacy after mastering this relationship resource!

With that said, you can begin working through the four steps of the Comfort Circle.

Step 1: Seek Awareness

The first step is to seek awareness of your past experiences, identify triggers and label emotions.

To discover how your childhood experiences impact the way you relate to your spouse, you may find it helpful to read "How childhood attachment impacts your marriage". At this point, you could also include reflecting on your past, either alone or by asking parents, friends or siblings about your childhood. Additionally, it would be ideal for you to become aware of your spouse's past as well.

Almost every person concludes at some point that it's too stressful to deal with emotions. But the Yerkovichs remind us that "God created us to have emotions, not get rid of them." What then needs to be learned is how to best identify and deal with the feelings you encounter. You may find it helpful to find a list of "soul words" or "feeling words" online to identify how you feel about things not just how you think about the facts.

For example, instead of saying “I feel mad,” you could say, “I feel displeased/annoyed/angry/irritated.” Instead of “I feel sad,” you could say, “I feel lonely/disappointed/depressed/crushed/defeated.”

To practise labelling your emotions, try picking a topic that's not about your spouse or marriage and that's not too stressful to reflect on. For example, you could talk about movies, vacations, hobbies, etc. Then choose words from the list to label how you feel.

Step 2: Engage

For this step, one spouse decides to initiate the Comfort Circle dialogue to share their newfound awareness. This initiation may be in response to a particular offence that has occurred or to a recurring issue within the marriage. Try to be considerate of the timing of the conversation so neither of you are in a rush and emotions aren't particularly high. You may even want to schedule a time so the two of you can be prepared to talk.

When you experience pain, some spouses may be tempted to hide their hurt or try to deal with their emotions on their own. Within a marriage, however, the Yerkovichs say "a truly bonded person would bring their pain into relationship rather than isolate in pain." After all, "negative or painful feelings do not diminish when we hold them in the dark recesses of our minds."

Another crucial part of this step is to confess your secrets to each other. "A secret can be revealed in one of two ways," explain the Yerkovichs. "It can either be caught (your spouse finds out) or confessed. Obviously, the second is more likely to build trust, and the first will destroy it."

Step 3: Explore

In this third step, one spouse shares while the other actively listens, asking questions for clarification. The couple should determine who is the listener and who is the speaker for this particular conversation about this issue.

The speaker has the floor. But that doesn't mean you should mop it with your spouse's emotions. As you share, carefully choose your words so they're kind. Use "I" statements to keep the focus on sharing your feelings rather than accusing your spouse.

The listener's job according to James 1:19 is to be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger. And according to the Yerkovichs, the listener's role during this step is to "try to understand the mind, heart, and emotions of your spouse, not to correct, disagree, problem solve, or react." For now, instead of thinking of a solution to the issue, spend your energy asking thoughtful questions about your spouse and their experiences that will help both of you gain new levels of awareness. The more understanding you gain in this step, the better the resolution will be in the final step of the Comfort Circle.

Here are some suggestions to help the listener get comfortable asking questions that will deepen the conversation:

How do you express these emotions that you've told me about?

Have you felt this way before, perhaps in your childhood? What happened in that situation?

Can you give me an example of what you just stated?

The listener should validate the other's feelings, which the Yerkovichs remind is "telling someone we understand his or her feelings [but] doesn't necessarily mean we agree with that person's thoughts or point of view."

As the couple is ready to bring this step to a close, the listener should recap to see if they understood the heart behind the speaker's words, not just the facts.

Finally, the listener asks, "What do you need?"

Step 4: Resolve

"Resolution brings relief," assure the Yerkovichs. This final step completes the circle with an action or attitude that relieves the speaker (and listener) of the original tension. At this time, the speaker suggests the closure in answer to the question, "What do I need right now?"

The speaker may ask for one of these example resolution options:

Ownership - "I need you to admit that you've wronged me."

Apology - "I need you to offer a thoughtful statement explaining what you've learned about my feelings,      how you've hurt them, and asking for forgiveness."

Negotiation - "We should try to find some middle ground on this issue."

Problem solving - "Please help me analyze the problem and figure out a solution."

Comfort and nurture - "Just be here for me right now, holding me and comforting me while I'm upset."

Agree to disagree - "I realize we still don't agree about this, but at least we understand each other and our differences."

Reassurance - "Please tell me things will be okay and that you love me."

Little or nothing - "I feel enough relief in sharing my concerns and being understood."

The Yerkovichs suggest the listener then summarize the circle with a statement similar to this:

"I hear you saying that you feel ___ and you need ___. Here's what I can do: ___."

Comfort Circle example:

To help you begin applying the Comfort Circle, you may wish to read an example of a couple working through the four steps. Here's an overview of Rebecca and Steve's* process:

Example of Step 1: Seek Awareness

Rebecca's self-reflection: When we go to large gatherings Steve tends to ditch me and goes to socialize with everyone else. This makes me feel insecure, as if he would rather hang out with other people than with me. He's an extrovert and it seems like he's itching to get to each social situation to that he can have fun without me.

My attachment style tends to lean toward Vacillator so I'm aware that I may idealize what our social situations look like and that I want to be the primary person Steve wants to spend time with. I also tend to think my husband should be able to know me well enough to anticipate my needs, but I suppose I may be expecting too much.

Example of Step 2: Engage

Rebecca to Steve: "Steve, I'm beginning to dread going to parties or having groups of friends over, and I find it hard to have fun in these settings. I realize you're an extrovert, and I appreciate that about you. But to me it seems that you socialize with everyone at the gathering but me, and have more fun with others than with me. It's like you're ignoring me."

Example of Step 3: Explore

Steve: "Can you label three or so emotions that you feel at parties when I'm talking with others?"

Rebecca: "Overlooked, disconnected and insecure, and then I get angry."

Steve: "I can see how you would feel that way. Is this the same at every social gathering?"

Rebecca: "No, it's more when it's with new people or people I'm not comfortable with."

Steve: "How long have you felt like this?"

Rebecca: "I've never been a super social person with people I don't know, but I enjoy social settings with people I do know. It's been like this since childhood, and I can think of several times in dating and marriage that I've felt this way."

Steve: "So it sounds like even before we got married that new social settings weren't enjoyable."

Rebecca: "But usually if there's someone I know there, I'm okay. It's not so much the new setting that makes me feel overlooked or disconnected. It's that when I come up to you at parties, I feel like you don't even acknowledge that I'm there. It seems like you're not predictable because usually you're happy to see me, but then at parties you're not aware of my presence."

Steve: "I could see how that would make you feel disconnected and overlooked. I'm not trying to ignore you. I've had years of being independent socially and now I need to remember to include you, which I want to do. I love spending time with you. Thank you for sharing that my love for you isn't coming across in social settings. What do you need right now?"

Example of Step 4: Resolve

Rebecca: "Since you've already taken ownership, I think problem solving would be helpful. Could you help me figure out a solution?"

Steve: "I know I get distracted and I want to be more aware of your feelings and actively engage with you. Can you please remind me before gatherings to be more attentive? And for the first couple times can you try to come sit beside me and hold my hand as a signal? I want you to feel connected. I'll need to practise to rewrite my social habits, which I want to do because you're worth it."

Further reading:

How We Love by Milan and Kay Yerkovich

“Exploring Your Love Styles” broadcast with Milan and Kay Yerkovich

“How childhood attachment impacts your marriage” article by Cara Plett

“Engaging your quiet spouse in deeper conversations” article by Amy Van Veen


*Names changed to protect privacy

Cara Plett is an in-house writer for Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2018 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.  

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