My job on staff at Watermark Community Church allows me to daily see the rewards of good communication and the downfall of negative communication in marriage. I’ve been a part of marriage conferences, led break-out sessions, participated in re|engage (Watermark’s biblical marriage ministry), helped counsel couples in crisis, and paid attention to how great marriages function.
What has become abundantly clear to me is that if you can’t communicate and handle conflict in your marriage, it doesn’t matter how good your skills are at financial planning, physical intimacy, the roles of husband and wife, or whatever other fill-in-the blank marital topic you can name. Behind our relationship with Christ, healthy communication is the primary means by which we become one spiritually, physically and emotionally.
A study by Dr. John Gottman shows that certain negative communication styles are the number one predictor of divorce. So 100% of couples who divorce have communication and conflict problems. But let’s be real, 100% of couples who are happily married also have communication and conflict problems. Because, as it turns out, communication is really challenging in the context of marriage. Why is that? Well, we come from different backgrounds and norms, we’re made differently, and we’re different genders. When the stakes are so high, we’re selfish, we’re fearful of getting hurt, we run toward self-protection and away from vulnerability.
My wife and I were married almost 19 years ago. We have a great marriage, but one of the biggest challenges we’ve faced is in the ways we communicate and deal with conflict. My wife comes from a military family where things were very by the book. My father died when I was six, and I come from a step-family situation where our communication included a lot of yelling and speaking loudly. As you can guess, our two styles of communication and conflict resolution were not a match made in heaven. We’ve had to work very hard and walk through some failures to get to a place where we honor each other well in these areas.
Fortunately for all of us, communication and conflict abilities tend to be skills based, and the Bible is very clear and practical about how to do them well. Unfortunately, since we are all fallen and sinful, there are several ways we miss biblical wisdom and drive our marriage communication into a ditch. If you can recognize these 10 pitfalls and learn the ways to avoid them, you’ll be better prepared to meet them when they inevitably show up. Trust me, I’ve lived through them all.
If all you care about is making sure your voice is heard, then you are missing the point. In marriage, your primary goal is to pursue oneness. Proverbs 18:2 says, “Fools find no pleasure in understanding, but delight in airing their own opinions.” If you find yourself speaking quickly, speaking loudly, or formulating a rebuttal in your head, you’ve probably missed most of what your spouse is trying to communicate. When you seek mutual understanding, you’re not necessarily going to agree, but recognize the other’s point of view.
We all have negative communication patterns, whether they come from our family or origin or personality or sin patterns. We don’t consciously learn them, but grow in them over time. Whether or not they are conscious, we have to recognize and combat the ways we block paths of clear communication. My favorite way to look at these patterns was explained by Scott Stanely in A Lasting Promise.
Avoidance looks like an unwillingness to get in or stay in a hard conversation. If you find yourself faking it, walking away, switching topics, or keeping opinions to yourself (while you internally feel your blood pressure going up) just to keep the peace, you are withdrawing and avoiding.
My wife falls into this category, and for years, she didn’t engage me about the unhealthy ways I turned to food for comfort. But I needed her to help me get out of a place that was destructive for my health and dishonoring to God. When she began to engage—I’m not going to lie, it wasn’t fun—she helped me begin to break some deep-rooted sin patterns. It wasn’t easy for her to step into conflict instead of away from it, but the fruit that has come in our marriage has been priceless.
If you keep upping the ante in volume, language, depth of sarcasm or insults, you escalate. It typically takes two to escalate, but generally one spouse is the main instigator. Proverbs 15:1 says “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”
This is my pattern, and probably some of the reason my wife avoided hard conversations with me was because I hadn’t created a safe place for her to pursue me. I come from a family where volume increases with emotion, and I certainly gave into that habit. In one of my earliest, most memorable marriage communication fails, I remember banging my fists over and over on a kitchen counter shouting at the top of my lungs “MY LIFE IS OVER, MY LIFE IS OVER!” As you can guess, it didn’t create an atmosphere of understanding that led toward oneness.
We’ve now come to a place where James 1:19 is my guiding verse: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” If you escalate, memorize this. Put it up in front of you everywhere you go. It can save you a lot of damage and consequences.
When you believe your spouse’s motive is more negative than is really the case, you tend toward negative interpretation. Frankly, this problem can creep in wherever we are insecure. For instance, your spouse asks you when dinner is going to be ready and you think, “What? Am I not getting it on the table fast enough?” Or you hear, “You work too many hours and are neglecting your family” when your spouse just asked when you’d be home from work. When something hits our insecurities, we respond with a knee-jerk woundedness or anger.
In marriage, our spouse should be for us, so begin by believing the best. If you still feel a little twinge or that there’s more to the story, ask for clarification. It can lead to a great conversation and a chance to practice the way love “always hopes” (1 Cor.13:7). Be honest with each other about areas of insecurity and use that knowledge to make your speech careful, not as ammunition.
Invalidation is when you subtly undermine the thoughts, actions or character of another. Instead of seeking to understand a fear, it’s “You’re overreacting.” Or, when approached with your spouse’s frustration, you reply, “There’s no reason to be angry about this.” When you seek to understand, you validate your spouse’s feelings and open lines of communication. When you brush off what they are trying to communicate and tell them what they should feel, you shut them down and make it clear that their point of view has little value to you.
Our goal should always be Ephesians 4:29, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” Pay attention to your words, your body language, and tone of voice. Are they building up or tearing down your spouse?
If you take all these unhealthy communications styles and make an acronym, you’ll see WENI (we like to pronounce it “weenie”). You can share a common language with your spouse, and maybe bring a little laughter into the process if you remind them that they’re acting like a WENI when you notice these bad patterns slipping into your communication.
This is a common misconception that has dangerous consequences. No marriage is immune from conflict or frustrations. With two people living together in close proximity, right up next to each other’s foibles and failings, it’s inevitable that frustrations are under the surface. If you’re not fighting, it might just mean that you’re not sharing your real feelings. When you see biblical conflict resolution as an opportunity to glorify God and grow closer to your spouse, it flips the dynamic from peace-faking to true peace-making.
A quick “I’m sorry” dashed off and and forgotten doesn’t lead to real resolution. My wife and I have worked to train our children in how to truly reconcile. Instead of, “I’m sorry for whatever I did” and running into another room, we walk them through admitting their wrongdoing and saying, “I’m sorry, will you forgive me?’ There are a lot of adults who continue to do the grown-up version of “I’m sorry for whatever I did” with all the consequences that brings. Learning to ask for forgiveness requires humility as you admit you’ve fallen short, you’ve messed up, or you’ve hurt someone.
On the other side of that, there’s also humility in offering forgiveness when wronged. If we look at our spouse and say, “I just can’t forgive you,” we’re missing the Gospel. If a perfect God can forgive an imperfect people, then imperfect people can forgive each other. That’s not to say that forgiveness is easy. It isn’t. But since we are forgiven people, the only right response is to forgive. Read Matthew 18:21-35, the parable of the unmerciful servant. Read it learn it, and know who you are in the story. It will give you great insight about where you stand with forgiveness. And remember, if you have a forgiveness problem, you have a Gospel problem.
Following the call to forgiveness is the understanding of what it doesn’t mean. Forgive and forget isn’t godliness, it’s a sign of brain damage. God doesn’t forget what we did wrong, but he paid the price for our sin. When you sin and hurt your spouse, there are consequences. Sometimes those consequences are ongoing and active and require daily changes. Dealing with the consequences and moving forward into oneness means remembering our pitfalls and avoiding them the next time.
You are selfish and you want your own way. It is not the circumstances, it’s not your spouse. It’s you. You are the biggest problem. I’m not sure I can put it any clearer than James 4:1-2, “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God.” The real work is done when you draw a circle around yourself and work on the person inside the circle.
If you just let it all hang out, it’s easy to slip into the negative communication patterns we looked at earlier. And resisting communication structure because it might be awkward (spoiler alert: it will definitely be a little awkward at first) is a short term gain, long term loss. This brings us back to James 1:19, which gives us a great template for how to communicate in conflict. Quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to become angry. Or as Philippians 2:3-4 says, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.”
One of the best techniques my wife and I have used is the Speaker/Listener technique. One spouse speaks, the other listens. The speaker only speaks for themselves, in short phrases. The listener can’t rebut, stays focused on what the speaker says, and then rephrases what the speaker said. The speaker has the floor until they’ve finished, then you swap roles.
We don’t have to agree, just seek to mutually understand. You’ll find that structure helps you move toward one another.
“Don’t let the sun go down on your anger” doesn’t mean you have to hash it out until all hours of the night. It means being intentional about pursuing conflict resolution. If you realize that you’ve waded in and things are getting out of hand, then one of you needs to be wise and call a time out. “I feel like we need to have this conversation at a different time.” Then agree on when you’re going to reconvene, so it doesn’t become a chance to withdraw and avoid. A time out is a chance to go be with the Lord, spend time in Scripture, pray, and listen to good music. It’s not a chance to grab your burn book and list all the reasons your spouse is wrong and you’re right. This is a chance to say, “I love you and I promise we will work this out. We love each other, we want to serve each other and come under control of the Holy Spirit.”
There are good and bad times to have hard conversations. Telling the truth isn’t optional, but timing and presentation matter. You should probably avoid starting hard conversations when you’re hungry, angry, late, lost, or tired. The right time is not as your spouse walks out the door before a big meeting. Or when someone is the middle of fixing dinner and helping kids wrap up homework. Be patient and talk about it at the right time. As Proverbs 25:11 says, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.”
If you’re stuck and find that you’re in the same conflict over and over and you can’t resolve it, bring others in. You won’t make progress going over the same positions endlessly. Widen the circle. Start with godly couples that you trust. If that doesn’t work bring in more trustworthy believing friends. Then go to the church if necessary. This is the pattern set out in Matthew 18. As you can guess, at Watermark Community Church, we value the power of community groups in these situations. We understand that community does not equal God or the Holy Spirit, but it is a path through which He can speak to us through His people.
If you don’t have a group of believers that you can bring into the situation, seek out other places that can help. Re|engage is a safe place for couples in all stages and places, from those seeking to grow closer to those actively in crisis. Whether you feel like you’re an 8 out of 10 in your marriage or 1 out of 10 is being generous, you’ll find practical, biblical community and a path towards oneness at re|engage. To find out more, check our website for locations around the country. Wherever you are, don’t go it alone. Ask for help.
Proverbs 18:21 says “Words kill, words give life. They’re either poison or fruit, you choose.” There’s substance and significance to what you say and how you say it. The words that so easily spill out of your mouth can be either poison or life in the most significant earthly relationship you enter into. So when you make a choice between growing your communication skills or ignoring them, you are actually making a choice to strengthen your relationship or slowly kill it. Because the truth is, it’s not a matter of if you’ll have conflict, but how you’ll handle it. Choose life, recognize your roadblocks, and reap the benefits of a marriage that continues to grown in oneness.