Even the best of marriages are beset by communication difficulties. What we mean to say, what we actually say, and what our spouse hears us saying are usually quite different things. Add to this toxic mix the tumult of a fallen heart, and you have the recipe for some relational TNT.
Part of our problem is that we leave so much unsaid in our communication. We vent our frustration without calmly communicating the thoughts, assumptions, and rationale feeding it.
It’s a bit like a child’s math problem. You know how careful our offspring are at detailing all their math workings on the answer sheet? How careful they are not just to write down the final answer. I mean, that would be stupid— If the answer was wrong, they ought to get some credit for at least attempting to answer it correctly? I am proud to say, none of my children have ever written down the wrong answer, naked and alone on a math text page. They alway list their workings out (Yeah, right!)!
Well isn’t it just like that in our arguments at home. Behind every relational eruption there is an event— something has happened to spark off the conflict— a shot fired heard around the kitchen! What happens next happens very quickly. We observe the offensive event. We judge it (and the person behind it), and we come to some conclusion. This conclusion inevitably effects us emotionally—we feel good or bad about what we think happened. This emotional energy in turn pipes down to our will, that faculty of choice that drives our desire to see things change. It’s normally round about this juncture that we completely forget James’ wise counsel—you know, the one about being quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger! Then the “escalator words” start flowing out of our mouths—the ones that take the argument to a whole new level.
Let’s role play a situation. John comes home from work every day, briefly greets his wife (or almost ignores her altogether) and then switches on the TV to watch the news, or nips off into his study to send some important email. This happens often. His wife, Janice feels neglected.
What normally happens next in most of our homes: Janice says nothing for several weeks. The pressure builds. Then on one particularly bad day, she can take it no more. Most of the time, this is not the only problem that’s been vexing Janice about John (or John about Janice). Usually there are a number of other toxic streams of bitterness flowing into Lake Frustration. Anyway, when the tipping point arrives, she lets John have it. Both barrels. Double-aught buckshot. Right in His face. She means to hurt him and she does. John returns fire with some ammunition of his own, and things go pear shaped fairly quickly.
What to do?
- Pray: talk to God about your spouse before your talk to your spouse about your spouse!
- Deal with your frustration early; it will not get better with time. “Honey, later, when the children are in bed, can I talk to you about something that’s been bothering me?” When Catherine speaks to me like this, the stupid part of my brain (which is, frankly, by far the largest part of my squishy grey organ), wants to deal with it right there and then. Don’t. Resist this urge. Honor her request, and pray with your wife, thanking God for her frankness, and humbly calling for grace to hear her concerns later.
- When the time is right, take the lead and ask your wife, “What’s been bothering you? Tell me what happened?” The next step is crucial, simple, but not easy. Listen and let her finish.
- Wives (or the spouse doing the talking), stick to the facts and discuss them in a non accusatory tone. “Can I tell you about a pattern I have noticed in our relationship that is beginning to bother me? I know things have been really busy at work recently, but I have noticed that when you come home you greet me fairly briefly, and then head off into the study to do more work email/sit down in front of the TV to watch the evening news.”
- Husbands, don’t argue with her, don’t correct her. Again this is not easy. You will probably have a thousand justifications for your behavior. Now is not the time. Ask her, “What thoughts go through your mind when I behave this way?” These thoughts will not be easy to hear. I imagine she will say something like, “I think you don’t love me. Work matters to you more than I and the children do.”
- Next, ask her, how do these thoughts make you feel? Again, resist the urge to speak, respond with negative body language, etc. Just listen. She will probably say, “I feel sad. Unloved. Unlovely. Neglected. Ignored. Bitter...., etc.”
- Last of all, ask her, how would you like things to change in the future? She might say, “I wish you would arrive in the house with a smile, give me a hug, and ask me about my day?”
What next? Honestly, just letting your wife talk out her feelings, letting her know that you hear her will very often diffuse what could have been an extremely tense discussion. If you do address her concerns, work back in reverse order. Honor desires. Acknowledge her feelings. Express regret that your behavior had this effect upon her. Confess your sins. Ask for forgiveness.
Following this procedure is like putting all your math workings out on the page. It protects you from wrong conclusion and the venting “=“ sign. When someone vents emotion in your direction, it’s impossible to respond. You can’t command emotions to go away, “Stop being Angry!” “You are wrong to be bitter!” “Quit being so frustrated and anxious, you’ll become neurotic!” To deal effectively with wayward emotions, you have to get down to the thoughts feeding them. Uncover those, and then you’ll have something to deal with rationally!