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A Fix for Marital Communication Problems

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It's no secret that a high percentage of marital conflict involves poor communication.

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.

—James 1:19 (NIV)

I’ve been there. You’ve been there. We've all been there.

Therefore, it’s not surprising that a primary presenting problem couples bring to the counseling office is a breakdown in communication.

The English word communication comes from two Latin words, cum (with) and unitas (unity). When you put them together, you get cum-unitas, or community.

Community describes people living with unity. There is some variable that connects them together.

For example, a residential community includes people living, or residing, in a certain proximity to each other. Their connection is geographic. A university community describes a connection through academics. A local hiking community describes a connection dependent upon a specific recreational activity.

If unity is the goal, effective communication is the means to experiencing unity.

This is true for any community.

It is especially true for marriage.

So how can we work toward experiencing healthy communication that leads to greater marital unity rather than disunity?

Here’s the secret.

Effective communication is not about how well you speak as much as it is how well you listen.

Listening actually is a powerful gift we give to someone else.

Yes, even communication is a gospel issue, because listening (as a gift) is grace.

Typically, when I claim there’s a communication problem, it’s because I do not feel as if the other person is listening to me or desires to understand me.

But what if the key to communication is not first being understood, but trying to understand someone else’s position? Their fears. Their concerns. Their dreams. Their pain.

Consider this scenario.

You and your spouse start talking about going on a summer vacation. You want to go to the mountains, but your spouse wants to go to the beach. The conversation escalates to a confrontation as both sides begin explaining why their destination would be the better use of limited vacation funds.

Notice what happens in your brain as your spouse is detailing the argument for the beach. What are you doing? Listening? No, you are reloading.

What if rather than winning, you could make it your goal simply to understand why it is so important for your spouse to go to the beach, or the mountains, or Disney World?

Pro tip: We gain understanding by asking questions and listening.

The way to know you've understood is to repeat what your spouse has said in a way that expresses how she really feels about an issue.

the sun shines through the water in a cave

This is not easy. The “sin nature” runs deep.

This means that a communication problem, at its root, is a sin problem.

By nature, we want to win. We don’t like to listen. It can feel like death–death to our own desire to be understood.

This nature runs so deep that you may need mediation, someone to be present with you and your spouse as you learn to listen. In case you are reading quickly, that word is mediAtion, not mediCation. 🙂

This mediator may be a professional counselor or a good friend. However, I suggest that it not be a family member, even if that family member is a professional counselor and offers his or her services for free.

This is just my opinion, but I think it's better to pay for counseling and mediation than to involve a family member. Those dynamics easily become sticky and complicate other relationships.

A couple of other suggestions concerning communication involve the timing of hard conversations.

Timing is hugely important!

For obvious reasons, arriving home after a long day at work is not the best time to bring up a conversation about taxes or having kids. Neither is 11:00 p.m.

If you have a sensitive topic you'd like to discuss, it may be wise to schedule a time to talk about it. For instance, you may say, “Honey, I’d like to talk about _______________. Now probably isn’t the best time.

Could we schedule a time in the next few days to discuss it?”

The answer to that question is not merely a "yes," but a "yes" with a specific day, time, and location for the conversation to take place.

The benefit of planning the conversation gives both of you time to prepare thoughts on the topic and to prep your hearts to enter the conversation from a gospel perspective that desires not to win but to listen well (and thus, love well).

white printer paperr

In addition to the timing of sensitive conversations are choice words to avoid.

These words include “always” and “never.”

You know what I’m talking about. When a conversation gets heated and you go to the extremes of always and never.

“You always…” or “You never…”

Neither is true.

We may “often.” But most of us are rarely guilty of “never” or “always.”

And even if we are, using those terms is ungracious and unhelpful. Those are fighting words.

In the pursuit of a healthy marriage, we want to avoid fighting words.

As I discuss in the 7-Day Marriage Reboot, another suggestion for effective communication is to have a weekly marriage/staff meeting. The purpose of this meeting is to sync calendars and discuss things that need to get done around the house.

Rather than nag each other every day about a light that needs to be changed, a carpet that needs to be cleaned, or a bird nest that needs to be removed from the front porch, the staff meeting is the place to bring up the various chores, errands, and duties of home ownership–or renter-ship, whichever applies to you.

For now, let’s remember that the key to communication is not speaking; it's listening, which is just another way we reflect God’s grace to a spouse.

black skeleton keys

Calling Time-Out

There are times when communication simply breaks down. The flesh monster is out of his cage and wounding words are flying in the kitchen like shrapnel.

It may be wise to mutually agree on the power of calling time out.

If you follow sports, you know that each team has a specified number of time-outs it may call during the game. The other team can't object. If a time-out is called, the game is on pause for a designated amount of time.

I think that can really help in marriage. Maybe agreeing on a specific number of time-outs each spouse gets to call per week, and determining how long the time-out will last. An hour? Two hours? Typically, when a time-out is necessary, things have escalated and need to be addressed.

Calling time-out, even to give the boiling pot an hour or two to cool, can give time for the Spirit to convict and calm, disarm, and recalibrate (and tether) the heart to the cross.

Discuss Starters

  1. Why is listening so hard?
  2. How is listening a form of grace and an expression of love?
  3. Describe the benefits of planning potentially conflict-inducing conversations rather than bringing them up on the fly (or at times that are not conducive for constructive conversation).
  4. Do you ever wonder why God gave us two ears and one mouth? 🙂
  5. What time-out policy will you set for your marriage?
  6. Read James 1:19 and discuss this biblical wisdom.
  7. How does abiding in Jesus make this possible?

Interested in more marriage content like this?

You may like my online, read-aloud course for couples, The 7-Day Marriage Reboot.