Welcome Home: The Language of Marriage (Part II)

Last week we talked about the key principles of edifying language and speaking the truth in love. Today we’ll look at four practical applications of these principles for everyday conversation.   

  1.  Listen to understand.  This might seem like an odd first choice as this whole post has been about our words!  But when we listen to understand rather than respond, emotional safety increases.  And while yes, we need to close our mouths to listen well, our words can also be used in a way to help us truly understand our spouse’s point of view. Here’s how: 

We can use our words to reflect what has been said.  It’s often our tendency to immediately respond to our spouse’s words rather than ensure we have an accurate understanding of what has been communicated.  However, when we use reflection the flow of conversation is slowed and our desire to understand is communicated.  Reflection also gives our spouse the chance to clarify their point or to affirm we have understood them.  Consider these examples: “I want to make sure I understand. You’re saying…” Or, ”You just said….is that correct?”  Taking the time to reflect on what we’ve heard is a simple but effective way to have productive end edifying conversations.  

We can take a curious stance.  Rather than jump to conclusions or rush to judgment about what our spouse is saying, we can ask questions first.  Of note: tone and intention are important here!  When we take a genuine interest in our spouse’s view and approach the conversation from a curious standpoint, we invite open dialogue and increase safety.           

  1. Compassionate Responses.  In order to respond to our spouse in a meaningful, compassionate way, two things are needed: empathy and undivided attention.  When it comes to undivided attention, let’s face it- we can’t be all that compassionate if we’re scrolling through Facebook while our spouse is speaking.  (Trust me, I’m preaching to myself here.)  Giving our spouse undivided attention when they speak communicates love, respect, and interest.  It also allows us to practice point #1 and arrive at a better understanding of what is being said.  

Once we have a clear understanding of what our spouse is communicating we can offer a compassionate (rather than judgemental) response.  As noted above, this requires empathy; being able to identify and feel what our spouse is feeling.  This may seem like an inconsequential matter, but being able to reflect our spouse’s feelings is a superpower.  Rather than rushing to give advice or piping up with a quick, “I told ya so,” try first reflecting their emotion.  Statements such as: “That sounds like a really frustrating situation”, or,  “I know you worked hard on that project and feel disappointed it didn’t work out like you planned,” are great ways to increase emotional safety in the relationship.  

So often couples stop talking to one another because they either fear their spouse’s harsh response or believe their spouse won’t understand them.  Compassionate responses are a key way to build safety, connection, and assurance in marriage.   

  1.  Repairs.  We’re not always going to get it right.  Our self-control and tempers may wane or our words may not come out the way we intended.  When this is the case we need to remember our keyword, humility.  (For more on this see Welcome Home: Marriage Sets the Tone.)  In humility, we value the relationship over being “right” and prioritize reconciliation over pride.  It is humility that allows us to recognize our faults and make repairs.  

John Gottman, the founder of the Gottman Institute, defines a repair as “any action or statement- silly or otherwise- that prevents negativity from escalating out of control.”  (For more on repairs see https://www.gottman.com/blog/r-is-for-repair/).  The language of repairs involves taking ownership of personal faults and extending an invitation to calmly continue the conversation.  Examples of repair statements include: “Let me say that again in a softer way,” “I can see my part in all of this,” and, “My reaction was too extreme, I’m sorry.” 

Conflict may never feel comfortable.  But when repairs become commonplace during emotionally charged topics, both spouses can enter the discussion with confidence that they will be respected.  They will know their spouse is for the relationship rather than just themselves.             

  1.  Assertive Statements.  As discussed in principle #2, speaking the truth regarding our thoughts and feelings is essential to marriage.  The key here is the combination of direct speech and a respectful attitude.  Remember, our intention in conversation should be connection rather than alienation.  Assertive communication aids us in this goal in two important ways:    

Assertive statements express emotion while taking ownership of the emotion.  

It’s commonplace to blame others for how we feel (i.e. you make me so mad!).  However, when we own the emotion rather than blame, safety is created.  Beginning a statement with “I feel” is a good way to do this…provided the third word is an actual emotion!  It’s common in our culture to use the phrase “I feel” but then proceed to not actually name an emotion (i.e. I feel like you’re not listening to me).  This is not the proper use of “I feel!”  Instead, express the specific emotion and connect it to a specific fact.  For example, “I feel frustrated when you scroll Facebook on your phone when I tell you about my day.”  Once we’re able to identify and express our emotions we’re ready for the next step.

Assertive communication expresses a need or a request.       

As much as we would like our spouse to magically know what we need (or as obvious as we think it might be) it’s our responsibility to directly and specifically communicate it.   For example, the statement “I want you to help out more around the house,” is very vague!  Alternatively, a specific request might sound like this: “My Mondays are so hectic. Can you please do the dishes on Monday evenings?”   To use our above example about phone scrolling, the request might go something like this: “What I request is that you put your phone down when we’re having a conversation.”  Lastly, be sure to add your emotion about the fulfillment of your request.  Let your spouse know you would feel loved, appreciated, or cared for should they do what you ask.      

In writing this post I fully realize that none of the principles and applications discussed have been complex concepts.  However, as is often the case, the simplest of instructions come with the most difficult applications.  And yet, it is through the application of these simple truths that we reap a great reward; the reward of a strengthened marriage and a home culture of emotional safety.  

Published by Nicole Byrum

Hello! I have been a therapist in the community mental health field for the last 13 years. During this time I have worked with numerous women in recovery from substance abuse. It was this work, along with my relationship with Jesus, that inspired me to write my first book, Remade: Living Free. I have found writing to be a joy and it is my aim through this website to continue to share my faith, insights, and hope with my readers. Some fun facts about me: I have been married for 15 years and have 2 children; I love to read, run and cook; Even though I have lived in Ohio for most of my life I am not a fan of cold weather!

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