Do you want to improve your communication with your spouse? There are rules of engagement for conflict that work and can save your marriage. Read these three rules and work with your spouse to learn these new ways to communicate. If you are struggling to implement these on your own, seek counseling. It can be very helpful to have a third-party guide you through these and other ways to communicate more effectively.
1. Do: Seek to Understand your Spouse’s Perspective
I forget who said it, but there is a quote that says “Your perception is your reality.” From my experience working with couples, almost every disagreement that is transformed into an argument or fight is caused by one or both partners failing to seek to understand the reality of what the other is experiencing. The temptation is to go into “attack mode” and to defend yourself before you fully understand where your spouse is coming from. This is an ineffective way to communicate, and it will never work. It will wear you down. You will get become distant and flirt with the idea of divorce because you are not being heard, understood, and therefore- loved.
Philippians 2:3 says, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” – this includes your spouse. Seeking to understand your spouse’s perspective is crucial, even if you don’t agree with their perception of reality in the moment. So many fights could be avoided and marriages saved just by remembering to practice this communication strategy. This can be done through affirmation by asking reflective and meaningful questions. For example: “I understand that what you are saying is real for you. I hear you saying that you ______________. Is that right?” Be willing to hear that you are not right in your understanding of their experience and be persistent in seeking to gain full clarity before you share your perspective. This can be challenging. I remember when my wife and I learned this strategy. I often didn’t like her inaccurate or negative restatement of my perception. But you stay… physically and mentally… and push through until both of you are on the same page. The point is not to be correct, it is to know that you are accurately hearing your spouse.
When you feel that you have a good grasp on what your spouse is saying, ask permission to share your thoughts and perspective. Your perspective is valuable and adds to the fullness of the issue at hand. Say something like, “Would it be okay if I share some of my thoughts about this?” This is an honoring and affirming way to communicate effectively and it really does work! One of my clients last week said, “People don’t talk like this, this is so fake… Can’t we just be real?” It was a valid point, people don’t typically communicate like this, but herein lies the problem and the perpetuation of the crazy, frustrating communication that is keeping you from thriving in your marriage. You need to, together, learn a “new language” because the one that your speaking right now, isn’t working.
2. Don’t: “Keep Score”
When you are engaged in conflict, resist the urge to practice “keeping score.” My wife is amazing at this principle. I honestly believe that she has never, in the past 7 years of our relationship, brought up the sins of my past…. and there are a lot of them. This includes the ones from before our relationship as well as the ones I committed yesterday. She is grace-filled and teaches me how to live this discipline out. Love “does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged…” (1 Cor 13:5).
Score-keeping is a behavior that is destructive and will devastate your marriage because it causes your partner to feel like they are in constant competition with you, and reinforces wounds of “rejection” and “lack of self-worth.” It is never helpful to bring up negative events of the past, ever, but especially when engaged in conflict. Watch out for thoughts or statements like this:
“I cooked every day this week and he’s only helped with the dishes twice” or
“That’s the third time she said she would do that and she still hasn’t done it” or
“I always take the garbage out, do you even know where the dumpster is?” or
“You have never once cleaned the bathroom.”
These are statements filled with ugly, score-keeping bitterness and resentment. They are statements of entitlement that show a lack of sacrificial love and a high level of selfishness.
Marriage is not a “50/50 thing”. When we said “I do”- we became ONE. There will be different times throughout our marriage where we both carry greater responsibilities than the other, although this could be a misperception as well. For some reason: Doing the dishes = 5 points, Vacuuming = 10 points, Working for 8 hours = 1 point, and… you get where I’m going with this? We can tend to rank and assign varying degrees of value to different tasks or activities; this is never helpful. Holding onto your partners mistakes or failures, and “grading” your spouse on their household accomplishments ultimately hurts you, no matter how you slice it. You want to prove your point, to defend, and justify your behavior, so you begin keeping score.
I have seen this behavior lead to deep resentment, lack of intimacy, and the perpetuation of the “victim mentality” in marriage. Bringing up past mistakes and ways that your spouse have wronged you is the same as saying, “I never actually forgave you for that, and I want you to know that I do not love you unconditionally.” With the exception of the presence of abuse in a marriage, spouses are called to love one another without condition and to fully forgive one another. Bringing up your spouse’s past failures is called “re-wounding” and it happens to both of you. Your spouse feels the sting of your vengeful lack of true forgiveness which leads to a deeper sense of shame; You end up open yourself to be hurt again by the mistake that was made, leading to emotional distance, bitterness, and deeper pain. The reason we forgive our spouses for their mistakes, and pardon them for a perceived lack of effort in some task, is to release the emotional hold those issues have on us. We should count it JOY to be able to serve our spouse in a way that takes responsibility or work from them. We should seek to love unconditionally and put our spouse first so that they will do the same, and we will both get our needs met.
3. Do: Choose the Proper Timing
The success of navigating a disagreement, and having a healthy conversation can be maximized if the timing of the conversation is carefully chosen. Proverbs 15:23 says, “A man finds joy in giving an apt reply- and how good is a timely word!” Let’s be practical. It doesn’t make sense to bring up a challenging conversation in the car when you are 10 minutes from your destination- or when you are trying to get the kids down for bed and they are running around, being crazy- or when your spouse first walks in the door from a long day at work.
Pay attention to your body, practice self-awareness… this is part of good timing. My wife and I try to shut off phones, TV, or other distractions if we need to have a challenging conversation. Are you giving eye-contact? Are you physically close to each other? Resist the urge to have tough conversations from different rooms or even out of reach of each other physically. Positive physical touch during conflict can be reaffirming and defusing.
One of my wife and I’s mentor couples in our engagement said that they take time every Saturday morning to go out for coffee and breakfast. During this time, they have their “business talks”. They know that this time is reserved to talk about schedules with kids, paying bills, planning for the week ahead, financial decisions, etc… They created at boundary in which to engage in conversations that have the potential to invite conflict and because of this expectation and planned timing… they very rarely argue or fight during difficult conversations.
I love how Rob Flood from “Family Life” ministries puts it: “There are times when a conversation is critical to have at that very moment. In those cases, of course, the football game goes off and we talk. Or, the lights go back on and we’re up until 2 a.m. However, those should be the exceptions rather than the rule. The majority of the time, we should be more strategic in the timing of our conversations.”
Pray. Try it! Success in communication is more likely if you will invite God to be an active participant, counselor, and guide. In order to break through some of these terrible communication patterns, we have to choose Christ-like humility; partners must own up to their part in the perpetuation of the issue that creates conflict, and compromise to seek a solution that will certainly require change in both partner’s behavior. The past is dead, our spouse’s sin are forgiven, and we treat our spouse the way that Jesus treats us. We experience radical transformation in life because we have the gift of Grace that covers a multitude of sins and God’s “Mercies begin afresh each morning” (Lam 3:23) for us; He says that we are fully forgiven! He has given us the ability to extend the same grace and mercy!