Fire is one of those elements that can either be our friend, keeping us warm and dry, or our foe, creating incomparable damage. Likewise, the tongue can either encourage or destroy. As the Apostle James said, "With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness." (James 3: 9) James goes on to say the tongue is like a spark that can set a mighty forest ablaze.
Fire creates searing heat. Perhaps more destructively, however, is the fact that fire consumes the oxygen needed to survive. Fire robs us of life just as the tongue can set a mortal blaze in our marriages, stealing vitality from our life.
For any fire to continue it needs fuel. Thankfully, fire cannot burn on its own. I received a vivid lesson about fire and fuel one warm summer day when I was about ten years old. I was lying in the tall grass behind my house with a couple of buddies. With stalks of dried grass hanging out of our mouths we were telling stories and enjoying ourselves. Life couldn’t have been sweeter.
To ten-year olds, those stalks of grass were temptingly similar to a forbidden cigarette and one of us wondered what it would be like to "smoke" a few of those blades of grass. It all seemed innocent enough. We gathered our "cigarettes" and proceeded to light up. Suddenly, without warning, a spark caught in a bundle of dried grass, and then another, until we were faced with an inferno beyond our control. Realizing the potential danger of the fire, we ran for the help of my dad. Three screaming boys immediately caught his attention. We formed a "bucket brigade" and were able to douse the fire and get on to the next important issue—explaining all of this to my very angry father.
An innocent outing, an impulsive act, a furious outburst of potential danger. We contained the problem quickly and limited the damage.
Like that field, a marriage can become tinder dry at times, ready for a spark to ignite things. A season of dryness, or ongoing conflict, can set the stage for an angry outburst of deadly proportions.
"But, I just can’t help it," twenty-seven year old Karen said recently. "I just get so mad that I say what’s on the top of my mind. I know I can be extremely hurtful. We have called each other the most horrible names, and are embarrassed about it. We both have biting tongues, and know it."
Karen and Doug, clients of mine, were newly married and already having problems. I watched as Doug nodded his head to Karen’s rendition of the problem. I asked them to explain more about their problem.
"My husband and I can’t seem to agree on anything. I mention to him that I want more help around the house, and somehow we end up in World War III. I hate it."
"It’s true," Doug said soberly. "We don’t know how it happens, but when we fight, which is not all the time, it gets bad. We say things we would never say at other times, and we’ve nearly called it quits because of it."
"Well," I said slowly. "I have a saying—‘If it’s predictable, it’s preventable."
"It certainly is predictable," Karen said wryly. "The preventable part is questionable."
I could clearly see the pain Karen and Doug were in. They had hurt each other deeply with, impetuous, ill-spoken words.
"It takes a lot of self-control to slow things down enough to see what you two are doing so you can change the pattern."
"Doug is just as tired of my biting tongue as I am," Karen said.
"I can get pretty sarcastic and angry, too," Doug replied, "and we’re both tired of our bickering."
"Good," I said. "Being tired of how things are going is a great place for God to work in our lives. We have to get to the point where we are at our wits end—then God can step in."
We spent the rest of our session exploring the roots of their anger and biting tongues. We discussed how their anger and sharp words had caused tremendous pain in their marriage, to the point where they had nearly separated several times. It had scared both of them, and they wanted to learn new tools.
One of the tools I shared was "speaking from your most vulnerable self." This requires slowing down the process and exploring what other feelings could be shared rather than anger—which so often is hurtful. We discussed how anger is a secondary emotion, and how we need to look beneath the surface and learn to share other more vulnerable emotions that lay below the surface.
We discussed common underlying feelings known as GIFT:
• Guilt: anger often covers feelings of unexpressed guilt.
• Inferiority: anger often covers feelings of insecurity or inferiority.
• Fear: this is often an emotion that is difficult to express, but can be powerful when expressed appropriately.
• Trauma: conflicts often reawaken previous trauma in your life, creating hypersensitivity to an issue.
Karen and Doug seemed relieved to hear that their problems were normal and could be remedied. They agreed to slow things down when they became defensive, to guard their tongues and to look deeply to see if there were other, more vulnerable emotions needing expression. They agreed to take time outs when needed. It would take work, but they agreed to take these new insights home to practice.
Are you using an untamed tongue in your marriage? Have you said things you regret later? Consider taming your tongue. Recognize and own your primary feelings, practice some of the tools in this article, and allow God to heal problems without anger and harsh words. You’ll be glad you did.
Editor's note: Do you need sound, Biblically-based advice on an issue in your marriage or family? Dr. David will address questions from Crosswalk readers in his weekly column. Submit your question to him at [email protected].
This article was adapted from Nine Critical Mistakes Most Couples Make (Harvest House Publishers, 2005).
Dr. David B. Hawkins is a Visiting Professor at International Christian University and specializes in interpersonal relationship counseling as well as domestic violence and emotional abuse in relationships. He has been a frequent guest on Moody Radio Mid-day Connection, Focus on the Family, and At Home Live. You can visit his website at www.YourRelationshipDoctor.com.