If I could list one element that makes or breaks marital communication, it's our tone. I say this based on countless sessions with couples who have tried to work through important marital issues, only to see their efforts fail due to their use of a harsh or disrespectful tone. Additional communications are destined for failure, unless there is a deliberate shift in how they engage one another.
Four Conversation Destroyers
This is one reason married couples need to understand the role that criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling play in causing their communication to break down. These factors naturally lend themselves to a tone that is demeaning, disrespectful and damaging. Bouncing back from them relationally is very hard, and this is why spouses want to avoid them to the greatest degree possible.
Dr. John Gottman defines each of these factors in his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work:
- Criticism: negative statements or comments about your spouse's character or personality.
- Defensiveness: a means of blaming your partner that implies "the problem isn't me, it's you."
- Contempt: a form of sarcasm and cynicism involving name-calling, eye-rolling, mockery and hostile humor that conveys disgust.
- Stonewalling: tuning out of a conversation by turning away, leaving or acting as though one could care less about what someone else is saying.¹
Each of these components are unhealthy in their own right. A combination of them, however, is deadly to spousal communication because it infuses a tone that is not only emotionally painful for the members involved, it breeds frustration, emotional separation and mistrust.
Recognizing the Power of Our Words
There is a much better path to follow, and it involves recognizing the power of our words. What we say, and how we say it, has a vast impact on our spouse. If we're serious about building healthy communication into our marriages, then we'll be willing to consistently work at conversing in a manner which helps our spouse draw closer to us and feel understood. This is particularly necessary when we're frustrated or angry.
Consider the following verses in Scripture:
"A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger."
"The lips of the wise disperse knowledge, but the heart of the fool does not do so."
These passages highlight key aspects of human nature that we would be wise to consider. Moreover, they actually make a difference when applied. I can recall various sessions where spouses were angry and going nowhere in their conversation until the moment one person chose to shift their approach and begin using a soft and understanding tone.
That single act changed the nature of the conversation to one of calm, connection and understanding. I'm not exaggerating these examples to simply make a point. The truth is that when we engage our spouse in a loving, calm and tender manner it improves our ability to understand one another, to heal from prior negative interactions, and to make needed compromises for the health of our marriage.
Maturity vs. Emotionality
This discussion about tone filters down to whether or not we will remain loving with our spouse when we feel like doing the complete opposite. Let me be the first to say that doing so isn't easy, yet as Christians still bear the responsibility of applying the wisdom, knowledge and understanding found in God's Word in spite of our emotions. Furthermore, it is by practicing this type of self-control that we progress in our maturity believers.
The Christian walk has never been, and never will be defined by our emotions. It is founded upon a firm commitment to love the Lord our God with all our heart, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. These principles will stand the test of time, and if we will hold them close to our heart, they will guide us in building a loving, vibrant and healthy marriage.
1. Gottman, J., & Silver, N. (1999). The seven principles for making marriage work: A practical guide from the country's foremost relationship expert. Harmony.
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Eric Gomez, MS LMFT MHP
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
Fulfilled Christian Counseling