As couples, we have to communicate about a million little things a day—from who’s dropping the kids at soccer practice and picking up the grocery order, to who’s making dinner and who’s washing the dishes. Most of the time in our crazy-busy lives, we’re communicating these things on the go.
So it’s no wonder that in the middle of all these rushed discussions, we get a bit sloppy in how we communicate. We even forget to communicate about the bigger picture issues, ideas, and dreams that brought us together in the first place.
But how we communicate in marriage matters!
Reckless, rushed, or thoughtless communication allows criticism, defensiveness, and even contempt to creep into your heart and slowly steals the closeness you and your spouse had at the beginning of your marriage.
That’s what happened to me and Mark. Careless communication led to the slow fades that nearly ended our marriage. One day, we looked up, and instead of dreaming and planning our life together,
Mark and I were having endless disagreements over the same old things, over and over again, without resolution. Our dysfunctional communication caused us to drift apart inch by inch, year by year, without either of us realizing it—until it nearly destroyed our marriage.
If we would have recognized the wrong ways we were communicating with each other before our marriage was falling apart, we could have saved ourselves a lot of pain. But our pain wasn’t wasted. God brought us out of our dark days equipped with the skills we needed to repair our marriage and make it stronger.
Through our struggle, we learned to communicate with kindness and compassion instead of defensiveness and judgment.
Once we began to be intentional about how we communicated, we saw our relationship take a wonderful turn for the better. We didn’t do it perfectly, of course. But over time, as we began to recognize what our bad communication patterns looked like, we were able to turn them around. Now we understand what it takes to have constructive, honest conversations without wounding one another.
And you can use what we’ve learned to stop hurtful conversations and communicate better with your spouse, too. Here are the bad communication habits at the root of hurtful conversations and the skills you can use to turn them around.
Minimizing is when you make something seem less important than it really is.
There are two sides to minimizing: external and internal. External minimizing is when you dismiss your spouse’s feelings as unimportant, ridiculous, or “less than” yours. Internal minimizing is when you minimize the importance of an issue, thought, or feeling that matters to you. You believe your thoughts aren’t important, so you don’t bring them up. Or you don’t think they are worth the conflict they might cause.
I was an external minimizer. As someone who valued facts over feelings, I often dismissed Mark’s emotions. For example, when he expressed feelings of frustration over how different we were, I would shrug him off and say things like, “That’s just part of marriage.” Our differences were no big deal to me, so I didn’t think they should be a big deal to Mark, either.
The problem with this way of communicating was that I minimized Mark’s feelings and made him feel unheard and undervalued.
Mark was an internal minimizer. So my external minimizing actually worsened his tendency to minimize his own feelings. Every time I invalidated his frustrations, it made him feel like it was useless to share his own thoughts, emotions, and opinions.
So he stuffed them down and buried them. He thought he was doing the right thing by “letting things slide.” In reality, while he was pushing down his emotions, he was also building up walls of bitterness and resentment in his heart.
Both forms of minimizing make it impossible to have healthy, constructive conversations. External minimizing destroys the safety that allows you and your spouse to speak up and be honest with each other. Internal minimizing shuts down constructive conversations before they have the chance to start.
Here’s what to do instead:
Instead of minimizing your spouse’s feelings, validate them and offer compassion.
Learn to listen to your spouse with compassion and empathy. Instead of shrugging off how they feel, try to understand where they’re coming from and respond with statements that show you empathize with their pain. You can say things like, “That must have been painful for you,” or “I can see how that’s frustrating,” or “I’m sorry you feel so let down.”
Don’t worry about fixing the problem—that can come later. And resist the urge to react defensively (we’ll dive deeper into this in the next section). Instead, just step into your spouse’s shoes for a second and validate the emotions they’re feeling, whether you feel the same way or not.
Offering validation shows your spouse that you care. It makes them feel heard and valued. Showing empathy and compassion builds a bridge between you and your spouse instead of building barriers between you.
Instead of minimizing internally, get important issues and feelings out in the open.
There may be times that letting things slide makes sense. Giving your spouse permission to be different from you and not nitpicking each tiny misstep they make are good examples of when to let things go. But when you start minimizing important issues and burying deep hurts, you’re inviting trouble. When real hurts go unaddressed, they never heal.
And your spouse never really knows there’s a problem. This explains why so many people are blindsided when they hear their spouse say, “I don’t love you anymore; I want a divorce.” For them, it’s coming out of the blue because their spouse has stayed silent and suffered alone.
Don’t stay silent and suffer. As important issues come up, share them with your spouse and ask them to help you find a solution.
In Ecclesiastes 4:9-10, the Bible says, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up.”
But your spouse can’t help you up if they don’t know you’ve fallen.
Mark and I have learned that reasons should NEVER trump relationship. When we’re defending our actions instead of trying to understand our spouse’s perspective, that’s exactly what’s happening. We’re choosing to argue instead of listening objectively to our spouse.
In fact, I once heard someone describe defensiveness as reacting with a warlike mentality to a non-war issue. When you think of defensiveness in that light, it makes it easier to see why it’s so destructive.
The cure for defensiveness is listening to understand. So the next time you feel yourself wanting to react and defend, do this instead:
Set aside your ego and practice reflective listening.
In reflective listening, you set aside your ego and determine to hear your spouse out without giving your own opinions, sharing advice, or telling your side of the story. You listen to understand, not to defend yourself or win an argument. In fact, reflective listening changes a debate into a discussion.
So how does reflective listening work?
Instead of arguing your point, you simply reflect back to your spouse what they have said to you in an effort to better understand what they’re saying. Here’s an example: After listening to your spouse, you would say, “What I hear you saying is….” Then ask them, “Did I understand that correctly?” Then, “Is there more?”
Reflective listening doesn’t come naturally for most of us. It takes effort and practice. It’s hard not to take what your spouse says personally, and argue back—especially if the discussion involves how they feel about something you’ve said or done. But when you stop trying to defend yourself and really listen to understand, you’ll be surprised at how much easier it is to find a resolution to your conflict.
So often, in the midst of frustration or conflict, we give into our emotions and take the cliche, the truth hurts, much too far. We use the truth (at least the truth as we see it) as a weapon, an excuse to be disrespectful. We say mean things and use bad delivery methods to get our point across. We may huff, sigh, roll our eyes, or even yell.
We might use biting tones, sarcasm, or hateful language. Each of these types of communication is a form of contempt and only results in tearing each other down. In fact, you could classify these forms of communication as “unwholesome.” Ephesians 4:29 says, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouth, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”
Communicate with kindness and grace.
Instead of being disrespectful, learn to communicate honestly with kindness and grace. When you’re tempted to talk down to your spouse or be sarcastic, bite your lip. Eliminate any “You always …,” or “You never …,” statements. And don’t yell or raise your voice.
Just speaking in a steady tone will show your spouse that you care about their heart, even if you disagree with something they’ve done or said. As you learn to temper honesty with kindness, compassion, and grace, your conflicts can begin to turn into healthy, productive conversations.
Viewing Your Spouse as the Enemy
If you’re finding it difficult to treat your spouse with respect, kindness, and grace, it’s likely that you’re viewing your spouse as your enemy. It’s easy to do this when there’s a history of unresolved issues in your marriage. Unresolved conflict breeds contempt. But your spouse is not your enemy. Your spouse is an imperfect human being. They will make mistakes. They will let you down sometimes, and it hurts.
The true enemy is the enemy of our souls who comes to steal and destroy. Satan wants us to focus so much on our spouse’s shortcomings that we lose sight of the good things about them. The things that made us love them in the first place. He wants you to view your spouse as your enemy.
Mark and I experienced this during our dark season of seemingly never-ending disagreements. The enemy whispered lies to try and pit us against each other. You may be battling similar lies. Do you recognize any of these thoughts?
My spouse never understands me. It’s pointless to try and talk.
My spouse never does anything right. If I want something done, I will have to do it myself!
This is too hard. Marriage should be easier than this.
If you’re having thoughts like these, it’s time to take your thoughts captive and remember who the real enemy is.
Remember that you and your spouse are on the same team.
When the enemy whispers lies to divide you, remember that you and your spouse are on the same team. Stop focusing on all their flaws and faults, and refocus your attention on the things they do well. Maybe they didn’t dry the dishes and put them up. But, instead of focusing on what they didn’t do, why not focus on the fact that they washed the dishes?
If you start to appreciate the things your spouse does right, it can help you take your eyes off of their imperfections. And don’t stop there. Sit down and make a list of all the strengths they bring into your marriage. As you realign your focus to the things you love about your spouse, it’s easier to see that they’re truly on your side. Then you can resolve to fight the true enemy of your marriage alongside your spouse.
Not Using Conversation to Connect
It’s easy to get into a rut of talking about schedules and chores without talking about much else. But if you never talk to each other about what’s going on in your daily lives, then you will rob yourselves of intimacy.
Mark and I like to say that, “In marriage, if you aren’t rowing, you’re drifting.” So be intentional about having daily conversations to check in and connect with one another.
Schedule daily check-ins.
Taking time daily to chat and listen to one another creates safety and acceptance in your marriage in ways nothing else can. Meaningful conversations can be deep, but they don’t have to be. Sharing your dreams, hopes, frustrations, or even talking about what you had for lunch that day can build the kind of intimacy that will keep your hearts knitted together no matter what storms of life come your way.
If starting conversations isn’t your strong suit, don’t let that stop you. Use these 25 Conversation Starters and start connecting with your spouse today.
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