One of the most common problem areas in troubled marriages is a lack of communication. This situation is partly a product of our society, for many children grow up in homes where little constructive communication ever takes place. Family togetherness has degenerated to a joint television viewing; anyone who dares to say anything is told to keep quiet because the others cannot hear! The latest trend is for each family member to have his own TV, so that he can watch what he wants without distractions or interruptions. All inter-family communication is thus destroyed.
Another factor which contributes to the absence of family communication is our tendency to prevent our children from expressing their true feelings. We usually consider it more important to act and speak in a socially acceptable manner than to express our actual thoughts. Thus, after a child has made an especially embarrassing remark we may expect to hear his mother reply, “Junior, don’t ever say that again! What will people think?” We should certainly consider the feelings of others, but our undue concern about other people’s opinions encourages Junior to keep his innermost thoughts and feelings to himself, thereby avoiding the pain of being misunderstood and rejected. He thus learns to suppress communication.
Soon he enters the competitive world of school, and later of employment. Few people care about his thoughts or feelings; his performance is all that counts. He is accepted by his superiors only as long as be conforms to certain standards and produces a specific quality of work. His job security might be threatened if people could see inside and discover what he really thinks. So he learns to conceal what is there, to present a self-image which impresses people, one which hides his faults and weaknesses. Behind his facade he feels as impersonal as a computer card. He wants to be accepted as he is, but no one will do it, for no one has found out who he really is.
Then the inevitable happens—he finds himself attracted to a person of the opposite sex. He begins to open up, to share his inner feelings. His companion does the same, and it becomes a thrilling experience. At last they have each found someone who really understands, who accepts the other party for what he actually is. They find that they have much in common, that they were “made for each other.” When the marrying pastor asks if they are able to communicate with each other, they confidently assert that this is one of their greatest assets.
As the marriage wears on, however, they have less and less to talk about. What they once thought was a deep understanding of each other turns out to have been merely the first exciting attempt to explore the mystery of each other’s personality. But now the novelty is gone. As the pressures of the marital routine mount, communicating becomes an unpleasant experience. Tensions increase, misunderstandings occur, unkind words are spoken, and feelings are hurt. The disenchantment becomes unbearable. The more each expresses his opinion the more unpleasant the atmosphere becomes, until they revert to concealing their inner thoughts. Instead of growing in their knowledge and understanding of each other, with more and more of their lives shared in the oneness which God planned for them, they drift farther and farther apart.
So the complaints come: “He never talks to me anymore.” “He won’t tell me anything about his work.” “I don’t know what she really thinks.” “She won’t stop running. off at the mouth long enough to hear my side of it.” On and on they go. Did you know that the Bible has a great deal to say about communications problems?
First of all, it explains why we let communications break down. Inside each of us is an old, sinful nature. In addition to being weak and frail, it is unbelievably selfish and corrupt. “The heart is the most deceitful thing there is, and desperately wicked, No one can really know how bad it is!”105 It is embarrassing to expose our deceitful hearts, so we wear a mask of respectability rather than reveal our true natures. Jesus said that men love darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil.106 We prefer to keep our innermost thoughts and motives concealed in the darkness of our hearts, lest they be illuminated for all to see! Since the thoughts of our hearts have a tendency to come out of our mouths,107 we often guard our mouths carefully. We avoid getting too close to anyone, lest we be tempted to divulge our weaknesses, and people see us as we really are!
This is not to suggest that we tell our mates all our past sins. It is possible that God may want us to do this, but it might also be the most ruthless thing we could ever do to them. We should, however, stop putting on airs while our hearts are corrupted with lust, pride, hatred, and jealousy or riddled with doubts and anxieties.
The greatest thing that could ever happen to some marriages would be for the high and mighty husband or the holier-than-thou wife to step down off his pedestal of self-righteousness and confess his weakness and need. Such humility could dissolve growing resentments, rekindle waning love, and reestablish broken lines of communication. To pretend to be something which we are not is the essence of hypocrisy, and no group ever drew a more scathing denunciation from the lips of the Lord Jesus than the hypocrites.108
Again, I am not suggesting that we blurt out everything that comes into our minds. That becomes an offense to others, and God is not honored in this either. “Give no offense, neither to the Jews, nor to the Greeks, nor to the church of God.”109 The first step toward letting Christ transform our lives is to admit that we are not what we should be, that we need to be changed. There are few situations in life more miserable than being married to an unbending, self-sufficient individual, someone who thinks his opinions are infallible and his actions impeccable.
One of the most frustrating counseling situations I have ever faced involved just such a person. Fred suffered an acute hearing deficiency which he had never fully accepted or learned to live with. It made him excessively intolerant and unreasonable with his wife and children. What he said was law; it was never to be doubted or questioned. He made rash decisions without knowing all the facts and tolerated no appeal. He could do no wrong in his own eyes, and would not admit to being at fault about anything. Twenty-five years of his domineering dogmatism and stubbornness had totally alienated his grown children from him and had made his wife the most bitter person I ever met. The only communication which took place between them was shouting and screaming, some of which I heard during a visit to their home.
In a private session I tactfully explained to Fred that some of the conflicts in his life might have been intensified by his personal attitudes. He rose from his chair and paced the floor of my study restlessly. “It is possible, I suppose,” he finally observed, “but I never really thought about it that way.” His subsequent actions revealed that he decided never to think about it that way again. A simple acknowledgment of some part of the blame might have begun to melt away the resentment which the years had built, thereby initiating the healing process that was so desperately needed. But his pride would not let him step down. He chose to seal the doom of his marriage rather than acknowledge any fault. Meaningful communication was cut off at its source.
The Bible hints at another reason we refuse to communicate: we fear our spouse’s reaction. Some people simply fall to pieces when they are told of their shortcomings. There may be a volcanic outburst, an angry tirade, gushing tears, or a long period of sullen silence. Once we learn what evokes this kind of response in our mates, we fear to produce this type of situation again. We see no point in subjecting ourselves to unnecessary anguish, so we draw into a silent shell of self-protection. The next time we ask why our spouses will not talk to us, let us first ask ourselves how we reacted to previous disclosures! We may discover that the blame lies with us.
The biblical corrective for this kind of a communications crisis is, “Stop being mean, bad-tempered and angry. Quarreling, harsh words, and dislike of others should have no place in your lives. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God has forgiven you because you belong to Christ.”110 When your mate opens his heart and you are tempted to respond with condemnation, pray before you open your mouth! “Lord, keep me from anger; keep me from saying anything unkind. Help me to listen carefully and sympathetically to my mate, to try to understand his feelings, to see this matter from his point of view.” Then communicate intelligently and meaningfully, unimpaired by emotional outbursts.
Make it a rule never to raise your voice. Loud voices are unpleasant, and few people enjoy unpleasantness. Loud, bitter, angry, sarcastic words will only drive your mate deeper into his shell. Listen to King Solomon: “A soft answer turns away wrath, but harsh words cause quarrels.”111 Memorize this verse. “Soft” refers not only to the volume level, but also to the empathy level. Kind and gentle words pour cold water on the burning coals of a stirred-up spirit. Harsh words only add fuel to the fire. How should you react when your mate opens his heart? With kindness, calmness, graciousness, and gentleness. That keeps the lines of communication open.
Still another obstacle to sharing may be fear that our mates will use the information against us at some future time. When differences of opinion occur, some people love to drag skeletons out of closets and rehash old weaknesses, mistakes, and failures. We really cannot expect our mates to unburden their souls to us if they know they are going to hear a replay next month or next year. A person who brings up old issues is more interested in being right and winning arguments than in building an intimate personal relationship with his marriage partner.
The words “forgiving one another, just as God has forgiven you because you belong to Christ”112 are also pertinent to this problem. Some people protest, “But I have forgiven. It’s just that I can’t forget.” How does God forgive? “I will forgive and forget their sins.”113 “He has removed our sins as far away from us as the east is from the west.”114 If our mates could trust us never to use their confidential disclosures as a future arsenal against them, they would be more open with us. There is only one way to gain this trust: by asking God to help us forgive and forget. He may not exterminate the memory from our minds, but he will extract the sting from it, thereby removing any reason for ever mentioning it again!
A beautifully happy marriage is only possible when each partner knows how the other feels about most of the situations and issues that face them both. This kind of empathy demands open lines of communication. We sometimes develop the erroneous idea that the best alternative to an angry argument is complete silence. We feel that we deserve a special reward if we bite our tongues in stony silence while our mates rant and rave. But this kind of silence buys us a ticket to the hospital with any of several stress-related diseases, and it further infuriates our mates as well. There is another alternative to angry argument. It is sharing in love what is on our hearts! The Bible reveals not only the roadblocks to communication, but the pathways to communication as well! One short phrase in Ephesians 4:15 holds the key to effective communication in the home: “speaking the truth in love.”
The first principle is to be honest: “speaking the truth.” A satisfying marriage relationship will involve openness and honesty about fears, desires, motivations, sex, money, weaknesses, mistakes, resentments, and misunderstandings. Many marital problems could be resolved if husbands and wives were only honest with each other. Are you having problems that you have kept from your mate in order to spare him worry? If so, you are actually shutting him out of your life by implying that he is not emotionally strong enough or spiritually mature enough to help you resolve your problems. That is a backhanded insult that will only pull you farther apart.
Do you have needs which your mate could be fulfilling, but is not? You have been too proud or too ashamed to admit it, so you have tried to be a martyr and keep it to yourself. Soon inner tensions and resentments will build to the point of a major crisis that needs professional counsel. That is a high price to pay for a little dishonesty.
The second principle of effective communication is to be loving, “speaking the truth in love.” The truth can sometimes be cruel. That is why God says it must be spoken in love. This involves a genuine consideration for the other person. Some brutal things have been told in the name of honesty when the real reason was to get out from under the pangs of a guilty conscience. The great goal in marriage is complete openness and total intimacy of soul and spirit. This, however, does not happen overnight. It sometimes takes years to accomplish, and some couples never fully arrive. But God wants us to keep growing, each day exposing a little more of our souls to each other in Christian love and courtesy.
Love also helps us choose the right time to share bad news or to introduce some difficult subject. “Timely advice is as lovely as golden apples in a silver basket.”115 “How wonderful it is to be able to say the right thing at the right time!”116 Both of these verses refer to appropriate words spoken at the right time. It is usually a good policy to wait until after supper to discuss unpleasant or controversial matters. Sometimes it is best to wait until morning, especially if our mates have had a particularly trying day.
If the issue we wish to discuss is some fault in our spouses, love will cause us to talk to the Lord first. He may show us that the problem is really their reaction to some poor trait in us—something which we need to deal with first. Then, if the Lord gives us liberty to bring it up, love will help us preface our remarks with some word of commendation or appreciation, and we will present our thoughts pleasantly, constructively, and positively. We will encourage rather than injure our mates. “Kind words are like honey—enjoyable and healthful.”117
We really cannot even begin to talk about someone else’s faults without heeding this advice of the Apostle Paul: “Dear brothers, if a Christian is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help him back onto the right path, remembering that next time it might be one of you who is in the wrong.”118 It is so easy to sound superior when we talk to others about their shortcomings. It makes us appear a little holier than they! But God says that we are to approach others with meekness, since we are subject to the same weaknesses that they are. True meekness is the fruit of the Spirit’s control in our lives; we therefore cannot properly discuss the faults of our mates unless we ourselves are filled with the Spirit. When he is in control we will sound neither harsh nor unkind, nor will we imply for a moment that we are faultless ourselves.
Love will likewise keep us from using passion-arousing generalizations like “always” or “never.” “You never listen to me.” “You always interrupt me.” Such generalizations are seldom true. Love will also keep us from arguing in front of others, especially the children, and from talking about the frailties of our mates to others. “Love shall cover the multitude of sins.”119
Love will help us learn when to stop talking as well. Solomon said there is a time to speak and a time to be silent.120 Not all talking is meaningful communication. Our mates may want to unveil their souls and share something very important with us if only we will stop talking long enough to let them. Love will also keep us from forcing our mates to share what they do not want to share at the moment. Love always considers the other person. It is the spiritual medicine powerful enough to cure almost all of the communication ills in any Christian home, “Speak the truth in love.”
Communication is the means by which we learn to know and understand our mates. God, however, already understands our mates; He created them. Let us ask Him to open our channels of interpersonal communication and give us the same understanding that He has, that our marriage relationship may grow increasingly precious every day.
105 Jeremiah 17:9, TLB.
106 John 3:19.
107 Matthew 12:34.
108 Cf. Matthew 23.
110 Ephesians 4:31, 32, TLB.
111 Proverbs 15:1, TLB.
112 Ephesians 4:32, TLB.
113 Jeremiah 31:34, TLB.
114 Psalm 103:12, TLB.
115 Proverbs 25:11, TLB.
116 Proverbs 15:23, TLB.
117 Proverbs 16:24, TLB.
118 Galatians 6:1, TLB.
119 1 Peter 4:8, KJV.
120 Ecclesiastes 3:7.