During the holiday break, my daughter Kyrsten and I had our traditional dad-daughter date—which we used to do every month when she was still a teen and living at home. Now, with her living away in college, it’s less frequent but certainly no less enjoyable to spend an evening out with her. So, last week, Kyrsten decided that we should go to an improvisational (improv) comedy show in Philadelphia.
If you are not familiar with improv sets, imagine that you and a partner are given a random trigger word or phrase from which you must keep a conversation going until time expires. This was our first live improv comedy experience.
I must say that I enjoyed the first hour at the improv show as I watch experienced improv actors do their thing. It was fun watching them. When the show ended, they had another session for interested audience members to participate as improv actors. My daughter dared me to do it.
I’ll admit that I was a little nervous before taking the stage with my assigned partner. But, once the action started, I felt the adrenalin coursing through my body. I had to stay in the present. I had to listen carefully to what my partner (who I didn’t know) was saying and doing because once she stopped talking, I had to continue the conversation. The operative word here is “continue”. In improv, the primary objective of improv is to keep the conversation moving in an interesting fashion—not to stymie it.
You cannot succeed at improv without being present. You cannot prepare in advance what you’re going to say. You cannot know exactly what direction your partner will take. You cannot withdraw or shut down.
Improv only works if you stay “on your toes” and engaged.
Improv only works if you own the outcome—taking responsibility to make the most of the time that you have the floor.
Improv works best when you give your partner something to leverage. In other words, you have to work together to create the optimal final product.
In the midst of this reflection on my own improv experience, I realized that these are also the backbone for a God-pleasing marriage.
Too often, however, Christian couples fail to stay engaged in their communication because one or both people are disinterested in the conversation or want to hijack it to advance his or her own agenda rather than serve the end goal. The disengagement is palpable—whether it manifests as verbal, physical, or emotional withdrawal.
Own the Outcome
Too often, one or both parties fail to own the outcome—choosing instead to play a hurtful blame game when the conversation goes “off the rails”. Personally, I used to displace blame in conversation by telling my wife that she was just being too emotional rather than owning the responsibility of behaving in a way that led her to be “too emotional”.
I was quick to tear down her perspective if I saw even the slightest opportunity to discredit what she was saying rather than accepting the spirit of what she wanted to communicate.
Extend the Conversation
Too often, one or both spouses is seeking to shut the conversation down rather than extend it. In improv instruction, one learns to effectively use “Yes, and…” to extend conversation. But, our Christian marriages specialize in “No” because we prefer to avoid or minimize communication around difficult or uncomfortable topics. We employ a variety of manipulative techniques to force the conversation down a selfish path rather than allowing the conversation to take us where God or our spouse might lead it.
Stay in the Present
If all of these selfish tendencies are not enough, most Christian couples absolutely fail to stay in the present. This may be our most foundational failing. We spend 80% of our conversation with our spouse talking about something that happened in the past or something that we think will happen in the future. But, very little effort is made to stay in the present.
As mindfulness literature has shown us, it is liberating to communicate in the present. This means that when you are there with your spouse that you strive to appreciate how God is present in them right at that moment—giving up the right to judge him or her for mistakes they made.
To communicate with your spouse in the present means that you choose to hear who he or she is in the present moment. Granted, you may not like who they are in the present. But, you choose to stay in your present emotions rather than dredging up feelings from the past or expected feelings of the future.
I once heard an adage that there is no fear in the present. The fear only arises when you think about the consequences that you expect will lie ahead five minutes, five hours, five days, or even five years in the future. But, what would happen in your marital communication if you truly stayed in the present?
The lesson here is that improv offers us important guidance for marriage enrichment.
Lesson 1: Stay engaged with your spouse rather than physically or emotionally withdrawing
Lesson 2: Own the outcome rather than distancing yourself from whatever happens because you definitely have contributed to what it becomes
Lesson 3: Look for opportunities to extend (rather than extinguish) the conversation
Lesson 4: Stay in the present rather than in the past or projecting to the future
You and your spouse have the ability to create a beautiful story together if you both can release the fabricated arguments and attitudes that you’ve perfected (often for years). How well have they really served your marriage? If they haven’t served your spouse well, you can rest assured that they haven’t served God well, either.
And, isn’t that the point?