In addition to the problems of conflict, hostility, and blame, three other barriers can get in between you and him and mess up your efforts to communicate. According to psychologist Val Farmer, communication falls apart in a marriage with too much criticism, defensiveness, or belligerent verbal attacks.
Just the other day I was standing in a kitchen making potato salad with a woman who has been married nearly 50 years to a man she characterized as “never lifting a finger to help”. Then she tasked someone to yell at him to come help her, which he did. Then she went on to criticize his huge family and how much work it was to cook for all of them. “And he wonders why we never have them all over. Maybe if he would help …”
We all know couples who adopt a critical tone with one another. Sometimes it just goes one direction. Seems more culturally acceptable for a wife to be critical with her husband. Either way, I really wouldn’t want to spend 50 years being criticized. I don’t like 50 seconds of it—or even five. For sure my husband would not thrive in that environment. His second highest love language is Words of Affirmation. (That’s from The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman.) That means words build him up and make him feel loved. It also means that critical words break him down and make him feel unloved. Thirdly, this language for him means that he builds me up with words, too. He is my encourager—even when my own self-talk is critical—especially then.
I Thessalonians 5 calls for believers in Jesus to encourage one another. So wives and husbands who share this faith should remember that, “Jesus died for us so that we can live together with him. … So comfort each other and give each other strength.”
Saying encouraging words to my husband does not come naturally to me. I have to think about it and be intentional with it. However, I cannot imagine living in a marriage that didn’t buoy me up as I floated along in the cesspool of life; that is to say—I can’t imagine my life without the encouragement my husband brings me. So I’m happy to try to do the same for him. Trying is the point with encouragement, too. I mean, if you’re a Debbie Downer, or you’re critical with him, chances are you’re not that encouraging. So that’s a starting point—cut out the criticism. If he’s the critical one, a good talk about what that does to you could go a long way to changing the tone of your marriage.
It’s scary to be wrong. Especially when you don’t think much of yourself to begin with, criticism on anything feels like the end of you. So we curl up in a fetal position and emotionally withdraw, or we fight—that’s defensiveness.
We make our problem the other person’s problem. The easiest solution is to take the call. When he calls you out on something, simply acknowledging the problem and apologizing takes all the wind out of the conflict. In fact, it makes the person who brought it up soften quickly because they see that you are sorry.
I lost my husband’s keys while he was traveling out of the country. When he came home he asked me where his keys were. It was a fair question. But I felt defensive, because I felt guilty and it’s scary to be wrong. However, instead of saying that he should have a better key chain, or he should be more organized, or whatever other excuse, I just said I was so sorry because I had misplaced them but that I hoped they would turn up. (They did.)
I get more defensive with innocent questions that, in my mind, question my housekeeping skills. An innocent ask like: “Are we out of dish soap?” Can send me into defensive overdrive. I will lecture on the basics of how to use dish soap and what not to use it for, etc. I realize the questioner does not usually intend to criticize. They just need some soap. If I can realize this a second before I launch into full-scale defense I can respond more appropriately. Turns out, not everything is about me. That realization is quite a life changer in a lot of ways.
Belligerent Verbal Attacks –
Stop. If you’re a loud mouth, or an argumentative person, or you married one, you may not be creating the most peaceful marriage on the planet. It’s hard to communicate when one person is dominating the conversation and when that conversation is actually an angry argument.
You don’t always have to be right. Not everything should make you want to punch a wall or cry. Take a breath. Before you launch into your attack, just breathe. Consider whether it’s really worth fighting over. Is there another way to communicate and problem solve? Give yourself a time out if you’re working on temper issues.
Throwing things, breaking things, swearing and yelling don’t even really help harness your anger. Figuring out how to calm down helps much more. Figuring out why you’re so angry ultimately helps, too, since probably the broken sink, or the time getting away from someone, the parking ticket, etc., is not the core problem.
A great piece of advice on living with someone who is loud and angry is to respond softly. Proverbs 15:1 says, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” In other words, your response can turn the volume down and de-escalate the furor. Likewise if you argue back, you stir up more trouble. How difficult is it to give a gentle response to a belligerent verbal attack? It’s much more difficult than fighting back with your own words.
Words are important. They fuel our conflict, but they also make our communication possible. And communication without all these other hurdles becomes much more about making sure you’ve synced your calendars; you both talk through your day as needed, and your feelings as they come up; you discuss your dreams and goals when you think of them, and you say whatever else you can to one another so you stay close.
Rebecca Barnes is the director of curriculum for Summit Kids Ministry at Flatirons. She’s been married to Ron Barnes almost 25 years and has three daughters. Her oldest daughter will be getting married this year, so she’s been thinking a lot about marriage lately.