I overheard a conversation a woman was having with her friend over lunch. Her friend asked if there were any problems in the marriage and if communicating with each other was difficult, after all, she knew of a great marriage counselor. The woman explained that she and her husband did not need marriage counseling. “My husband and I have a great relationship. He was a communications major in college and I majored in theater arts. He communicates real well and I just act like I’m listening.” Even if that was said in jest, it underscores the importance of two-way communication.
A humanistic existential psychologist by the name of Rollo May was a bit closer than that woman when it came to understanding the importance of good communication. He said, “Communication leads to community, that is, to understanding, intimacy, and mutual valuing.” Good communication helps to unite people through the development of understanding…which leads to a deeper emotional intimacy between people…which leads to a mutual valuing of each other, which is one of the characteristics of true Biblical love, that it is unconditional.
There are many times during the day that we communicate with our spouse. Many times and many days it’s just superficial fluff like, “How cold is it outside?” “I don’t know, the thermometer reads 20 degrees.” Other times the art of communicating is tragically missed and a circular discussion ensues with no answers at the end of it all. “What do you want for dinner?” “I don’t know…what are you making?” She’s not making anything, bozo, until you tell her what you want. That’s if we even speak in words at all. Like when the alarm goes off in the morning and it’s your turn to get up early to bring the kids to school and you don’t shut the alarm off immediately. Somehow a less than gentle shove in the small of your back is supposed to be the equivalent of her saying, “Get up! Shut the alarm! Get the kids ready for school! I’m sleeping in today!”
Communicating in proper fashion is essential to maintaining a healthy marriage. Now, the aforementioned examples of communication are real, and certainly a part of every relationship everyday, but there is another need and use for good solid communication, and that is when there are problems arising within the marital relationship itself or with the family, which will inevitably create marital tension. It’s the healthy and happy families that learn to communicate effectively through problems. The healthy families aren’t void of trouble, they just handle them better through good communication skills. I’ll try to highlight several components to healthy communication and show you how they were applied in the Bible.
First of all, the individuals involved look at the issues and prioritize them based on the risk/reward ratio to bringing them up in the first place. For example, there’s a particular behavior your spouse does and it drives you up a wall. If they’re involved in illegal, unhealthy, or immoral behaviors, then the risk of losing them by bringing it to their attention is reduced because the likelihood of losing them to death or jail is high. So it’s a no-brainer to bring it to the attention of the offending spouse. Now how about if the behavior your spouse does that irks you happens when the house is quiet, and you’re both sitting down to eat together, and you can hear your spouse chew…and it grates you like nails down a chalkboard. What are the options? Is it worth bringing up? Is there even a constructive way to bring up something that is seemingly so silly?
One way to communicate in a healthy manner when it involves the other spouse is to request change in their behavior by first explaining what it does to you as opposed to blurting out, “Can you stop chewing like a cow!” That’s NOT effective communication, of course. My wife and I have, over the years, created our own segues that allow for each of us to prepare ourselves to discuss issues that may be difficult to talk about when it involves something the other one does. I begin with an opener like, “Honey, is there anything I do that irritates you?” She knows this is both an opportunity for her to express something that may weigh on her mind, but she also knows I’ve got to tell her something she does bothers me. As for my wife, she’ll use the phrase, “Take this in the spirit with which it’s intended…” and I know that will be followed by constructive criticism of something I do that needs fixing, or something I’ve done that need not be done again.
Another way of communicating effectively is to use a method developed by a researcher in 1999 by the name of John Gottman. He suggests that there should be a healthy ratio of positives and negatives when discussing issues between husbands and wives. Here’s essentially how it works. Look at your relationship today and decide if there is conflict and peace existing together during the day. Most couples with healthy marriages will believe they have a ratio of good to bad in their marriage of, let’s say, 10 to 1. In other words, the good times far outweigh the occasional bad times. When all the plusses and minuses are cancelled, they’re left with plenty of good. That’s how the ratio should go when you are discussing issues related to the actions of one spouse to the other. In practice, it goes like this, “Honey, dinner is great. The house looks fantastic. You’re my best friend. You work so hard with the kids. You’re beautiful. I love you very much but there’s something that’s been bothering me for a while.”
In that example I did a literal 5:1 ratio of positives before I broached the subject of the negative. Now, a word of caution, that the building up with positives should not be to put the other spouse on a pedestal only to knock it out from under them causing them to go on the defensive after being blindsided. Look at Christ’s example when dealing with the churches in Revelation 2. To the church at Ephesus He praises them (vs. 2,3) then deals with them regarding what is concerning Him (vs. 4,5) but ends by telling them where they pleased Him (vs. 6). Look at the church at Pergamos. He praises them in verse 13 and follows it up with “But I have a few things against thee…,” in verse 14. He did the same with the church at Thyatira (vs. 19, 20). In Revelation 3:2-4 we see Christ dealing with the church at Sardis and exhorting them in a positive and negative way simultaneoulsy. He praised the solidly grounded remnant while dealing with those that disappointed Him. Also, one commentary on the writings of Paul says that many of the epistles are written with tones of instruction, correction, rebuke, and edification.
A second concern regarding effective communication is that it is established out of a proper understanding of marriage. In a binding contract, each partner can leave or dissolve the contract if the other party fails to live up to the stated demands of the contract. But marriage is a covenant between husband and wife and we should no more be ready to break the covenant of marriage than for God to break His covenant with us. Imagine if we are saved, but backslidden, and God opts out of welcoming us into Heaven when we die. It’s absurd. But just as freely as God tells us what He wants, needs, expects, so too should we feel free to express our needs to our spouses because of the safety and security of both spouses believing in the lasting covenant of marriage.
In other words, if a spouse brought up the fact that excessively loud chewing was a problem, the other spouse may feel hurt, but shouldn’t be worried that the other would walk out on them. Also along those lines, the person who is offended by the loud chewing shouldn’t be worried that just by bringing up such an item, it would cause the other spouse to leave the marriage. No, it’s because each spouse is committed to the marriage that makes it a safe environment to openly speak of issues that arise.
Which brings me to a few final points. First, according to Ephesians 4:14-15, we should speak the truth in love. Now this is actually a different context but the principle speaks to the need for good and proper communication in a marriage. Ephesians 4:14-15 deals with doctrine and how a Christian can grow from teaching sound doctrine. In this sense, it would seem that communicating with our spouses effectively won’t only benefit them, but we can grow from it emotionally as well and maybe even our relationships themselves. The second point is that in Romans 10:14 the context is again different but the principle applies. In Romans 10:14 Paul asks the question of how shall one believe if one hasn’t heard (the Gospel). God designed the interaction between human beings to be both verbal and nonverbal communication patterns enabling the transfer of important information for both personal growth and interpersonal growth.
The last point to make about communication patterns in general is that, like anything else, the patterns tend to become habit over time. Go back to the couple at the breakfast table. The husband says, “Stop chewing like a cow!” and the wife immediately yells back, “Stop leaving your clothes in piles on the floor!” A negative statement begets a negative response in many cases and these defensive postures are instant and can become so ingrained that they reach the point where they are done without even realizing. So how do we train ourselves to get out of these habits of bad communicating?
Read James 3:1-12 to understand that the tongue, in no way, is able to be controlled simply by human will and desire (vs. 8). It has the ability to say the most wonderful words one minute and the next can say the most hurtful things (vs. 10-12). And let’s face it, once you know your spouse for any length of time, you know just what to say that can hurt them the most. We all know our spouse’s insecurities, and that can become the focus of our attack in poor, negative, and immature communicating as in the above example.
Proverbs 15:4 says, “A wholesome tongue is a tree of life: but perverseness therein is a breach in the spirit.” In other words, our words can help to heal or they can break our spouse’s spirit. Proverbs 21:22 reveals to us that, “Whoso keepeth his mouth and his tongue keepeth his soul from trouble.” Imagine learning the art of communicating and working through problems in the marital relationship constructively and without contentions being present. How do I know effective Holy Spirit led communicating can bring about positive results in a marriage? Because Proverbs 25:15 promises this: “By long forbearing is a prince persuaded, and a soft (gentle) tongue breaketh the bone.” A gentle word will get a desired response.
James tells us in Chapter three that the tongue is evil and no one can harness the power it has to wreak havoc with the one’s we love. Proverbs tells us what kind words will do for us if we learn to break from the knee-jerk hurtful ways of communicating. So how do we go from the sinister tongue in James to the pleasing tongue in Proverbs? The answer is in James 1:19, “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.” Whether we’re bringing something to our spouse or whether we are responding to something they said to us, we must be slow to speak. The reason is very simple. In that time preceding our bringing a matter before our spouse, we can do the risk/reward exercise to see if it’s worth bringing up in the first place. Then, if we decide it is worth bringing to their attention, we need to take time to present it in such a fashion that we can bring a healing tone rather than a tone that can break our spouse’s spirit (Proverbs 15:4). Remember, Proverbs 25:15 reminds us that it’s all in the approach. It’s all in how you ask.
God is very big on communication. He, after all, divinely inspired several men to pen the sixty-six different books of the Bible to teach us about Himself. He gave us the ability to learn spoken and written words and to use them to communicate with each other. I leave you with two quotes that sum up the importance of healthy communication. First: “The way we communicate with others and with ourselves ultimately determines the quality of our lives” (Anthony Robbins). That’s quality in our marriages, in our relationship with God, our church family, our extended family, and so on. Second: “Communication works for those who work at it” (John Powell). Effective communication is an acquired skill. Are you an expert…or a novice…?