Editor's Note: Do you need sound, Biblically-based advice on an issue in your marriage or family? Dr. David Hawkins, director of the Marriage Recovery Center, will address questions from Crosswalk readers in his weekly column. Submit your question to TheRelationshipDoctor@gmail.com.
Have you ever considered the fact that every word you say—every word—has the power to either hurt or heal?
You may think I exaggerate the power of words. A misspoken word here, a sarcastic quip there can hardly hurt a marriage, you think. When your mate makes a snide comment about the burnt toast at breakfast, it can't be held against you if you snipe back that he never seems to notice when his toast is made to perfection. Tit for tat can't do harm. Right? Think again.
Before you click to another, more comfortable page, hear me out.
Imagine gathering at your favorite coffee shop for a latte. It is filled with your favorite people, your best friends.
The room is filled with laughter and chatting. You join in, telling a joke or tow. While you don't take yourself or them too seriously, you also understand a very important truth: every word spoken has the power to hurt or heal, and can never be taken back. Knowing this, you're prepared with your best behavior.
Walking, biking or jogging with your friends, and later sitting over your hot drink, you never think of chiding your friends for their behavior. You never think of ridiculing them. You think twice, or even three times, before offering unsolicited advice. You're never sarcastic. You don't shoot passive-aggressive barbs. You know this thoughtless action destroys prized friendships.
You leave your friends feeling energized, excited and ready to face your day. Somewhere between this enlivening encounter and home to your mate, something changes. The rules change. Whereas with your friends you know you must follow certain protocol—practicing manners and gentle respect-- or be forever banned from The Circle, something changes on your way into your driveway.
Somewhere between the car and the door to your home, you become lax. You let down your guard. You slip into a lazy, disrespectful attitude, and a close inspection of the words you speak shows it.
If you're like millions of others, you hardly greet your mate when you enter the house. You throw your coat on the couch and grab something to soothe your jagged nerves. Maybe it's a drink, the evening paper, the controls to a computer game—anything. But, because of the great divide between you and your mate, you don't look to him/ her to offer soothing, understanding words.
Fairly quickly your mate says something that is slightly offensive, and the war of words begins. Not nice words. Not encouraging words. Not words that build up or build a bridge between the two of you. No, these are hurtful words.
"Why didn't you pick up something for dinner?"
"Can't you help with the kids?"
"You don't have to play on the computer again, do you?"
"You never accept anything I say?"
"Why are you always so critical of me?"
One stinging, critical phrase leads to a defensive, stinging retort. The fight is on. The fight actually never stopped. There was simply a break in the action. Going to work can sometimes feel like a reprieve from the verbal violence that occurs regularly in the home.
If this sounds familiar, don't feel alone. As I said, millions of other couples slip into this kind of derogatory, disrespectful language. Christian couples, praying couples, Bible-reading couples fall into this terrible pattern of interacting.
Just the other day I met with a couple who shared their utter despair with me.
"We've been married for ten years," Debbie said. "We have two wonderful children who have heard us fighting their entire lives. I feel terrible for them."
She paused to wipe tears from her eyes.
"We've gone to counseling a couple of times, but have never stuck with it. An hour a week seems like a drop in the bucket for what we need. And Jerry (her husband) never seems very excited about going. So we settle back into bickering."
I listened as Jerry tearfully nodded and confirmed what Debbie was saying was true. Devout Christians, they still couldn't seem to live out Ephesians 4:29: "Let no unwholesome word proceed out of your mouth…." Feeling like a failure, Jerry wondered why, as a Christian, he slipped into name-calling, sarcasm, ridiculing and all the behaviors he knew were so destructive.
I sat quietly and listened as Jerry and Debbie shared their despair. I then offered hope by sharing my experience with them.
First, take responsibility for your words. Understand that every word you say to your mate either builds them up, or tears them down. Every attitude you bring in the door of your home either is uplifting, or degrading. Watch how you communicate and be open to feedback about what kind of language you use in your marriage.
Second, every couple has communication challenges. You're not alone. Even the most well-adjusted couple on the planet must work at healthy communication. We often portray our best front to friends and family, but behind the scenes we become lax and relate in destructive ways.
Third, marriage has unique challenges. It never comes naturally. We can never completely relax, especially in our marriage. Marriage is where the real challenge of healthy relating takes place. Marriage contains challenges not found with friends or the workplace.
Fourth, it takes significant effort, and practice, to learn healthy communication skills. They usually cannot be fully mastered by reading a book or attending a few counseling sessions. Many need Depth Marriage Counseling, where you sit with a coach/ counselor who watches your interactions closely and helps you understand where you are making mistakes.
Fifth, even after learning communication and conflict resolution skills, you need to practice, practice and practice them some more. Don't get discouraged as you struggle to discover a new way of relating. Like learning a foreign language, or any new skill, it won't necessarily come easy. Don't give up.
Sixth, one person, changing their response, can alter the pattern of communication. You can decide not to engage in a verbal battle. You can refuse to offer a defensive retort. You can choose to offer encouraging words that build your mate up. You can insist on ongoing couples counseling.
Finally, pray for God's guidance. The Holy Spirit is our greatest counselor, and will guide us into truth. Be prepared for conviction as the Counselor reveals areas needing change. "But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth." (John 16:13) Pray that the Holy Spirit reveals words that must be changed.
I'd love to hear from you. Please feel free to contact me about Depth Marriage Counseling, or for further information or advice on Marriage Intensives or consultations on what may be needed to assist you in your marriage. Please see more about my work at www.MarriageRecoveryCenter.com and www.YourRelationshipDoctor.com.
Originally posted September 2, 2009.
Dr. Hawkins is the director of the Marriage Recover Center where he counsels couples in distress. He is the author of over 30 books, including When Pleasing Others Is Hurting You, Love Lost: Living Beyond a Broken Marriage, and Saying It So He'll Listen. His newest books are titled The Relationship Doctor's Prescription for Healing a Hurting Relationship and The Relationship Doctor's Prescription for Living Beyond Guilt. Dr. Hawkins grew up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and lives with his wife on the South Puget Sound where he enjoys sailing, biking, and skiing. He has active practices in two Washington cities.