(Although it was a short-time ago, and I don’t remember how we got onto the topic, or which meeting at the church I was participating in) I was recently asked if I do pre-marital counseling before I officiate a wedding. I answered “yes,” but then reflected this sorrow. “Couples are usually so starry-eyed and thoughtlessly optimistic, that I have a difficult time getting them to face the reality that their marriage will be tough.” When I try to prepare them with communication strategies and warnings, I usually encounter two faces of blank stares, telling me, “But we are different. We don’t really need this…”
Dear reader, perhaps I have caught you in a more “teachable moment.” Hopefully through this blog, containing the advice that I try to give about speaking the truth in marital conflict, will be better evaluated, and maybe even adopted. I thought that it would be worth a try.
NEVER SPEAK TO ONE ANOTHER IN ABSOLUTES. Do not say things like: “You always give your best to your job and never have anything left for me;” “You always want your own way and never consider my desires;” “You only care about your own comfort.”
When we use words like “always,” “never,” and “only” in expressing a complaint (or a concern) it will not help to resolve the issue. Why not? Because these words exaggerate and overgeneralize in a way that triggers defensiveness. The primary focus of the accused person becomes an all-out effort to prove why they are not always guilty of this infraction.
I might be able to get you to see the wisdom in steering away from such language. But we need to be honest. It’s not easy to actually restrain our word choices, is it? When emotions run high, when we are convinced that we have just the right point to make to gain the upper hand in the argument, when we are boiling over with anger, all of us are prone to run to overgeneralizations to describe our spouse. “There! Take that!”
But somehow, we must remember the heart of the offense. Truly, it is this: our usage of absolutes does not take into account that the Holy Spirit is at work in this area of our spouse’s life. It presumptuously assumes that God is NOT at work. We are essentially declaring that there could not possibly be any progress in this area and that we have no hope for progress to occur. “God, I am an atheist, in what I believe about my marriage.”
And even more of the impact from this? To be sure, the use of absolutes will shame your spouse. It makes a claim about who they are: “This is what you always (or never) do.” Your message is: “This (behavior) is who you are.”
But imagine if your spouse really has been seeking to grow in this area. Your spouse will feel deeply discouraged. They will be vulnerable to hopelessness: What’s the point of trying to grow if my partner doesn’t see that I’m trying?
So here is crux of my advice. Holding back from saying always, never, and only isn’t just an exercise in self-control. It’s also an occasion for you to wrestle with what you believe.
- Do you really believe that God is committed to helping your marriage partner grow?
- Do you trust that the One who has initiated His good work in your spouse continues to attend to their growth, even amid your marital struggles and your partner’s obvious shortcomings?
- Are you willing, even when you’re discouraged, to ask God to help you see ways that He is working in your spouse? Even if they’re small, baby steps, will you see them? And will you let yourself be encouraged by them?
One last point (while I have you.) God ALONE is worthy of describing with absolutes. Only God can be portrayed with certain and unchangeable terms.
May the One Who is always transforming His people into the image of Christ… the One Who never ends His commitment to us… the One Who only works in our lives for good… enable you to speak with grace – even in the midst of marital conflict.
Let Him work in YOU and your spouse,
- Pastor Jim