5 Characteristics of a Lasting Marriage - Communication

Communication: Understanding Destructive Patterns in Your Marriage

As we learned in the last article, the way that a couple handles conflict can determine success or failure in their marriage. Understanding key negative communication patterns is crucial to your relationship because these patterns can create huge barriers, keeping you from the fullness of oneness in marriage.

Most couples will say “Why focus on the negative?” According to a study by the University of Denver[1], the presence of certain negative communication patterns can alone destroy a marriage. Therefore, if you can eliminate or keep to a minimum the negative patterns, your relationship can blossom and grow. If you don’t focus on controlling the negative, it will erase the good effects of just about everything else that is positively affecting your relationship. [2]

In seeking a God focused marriage, we must also take heed to the scriptures,

“Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. For, whoever would love life and see good days must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from deceitful speech” - 1 Peter 3: 9, 10

This scripture backs up research that, how you speak to your spouse has a great deal to do with how many “good days” you are going to see together. Knowing this, let’s explore the four key communication patterns you will want to avoid:

Destructive Communication Patterns in Your Marriage- WENI

Withdrawal

Withdrawal and avoidance are patterns of behavior when one partner shows an unwillingness to get into or work-through important discussions. It may appear gracious: “I don’t want to fight about this,” frustrated: “You just do what you want,” or angry: “I don’t care.” It also may be physical avoidance by the spouse leaving the room. The problem is that one spouse avoids an issue or “checks out” of the dialog. If you tend to get quiet during an argument, look away or agree quickly to your spouse’s suggestions just to end the conversation, you are a withdrawer. You may even avoid certain discussions, to keep conversations from happening in the first place. A spouse prone to avoidance would prefer that the topic not come up and if it does, will withdraw as described above.

Withdrawing leads to an unhealthy dance, one spouse becomes the pursuer (wanting to deal with the issue) and the other avoids or withdraws. So why do you withdraw? Perhaps you are afraid of change, maybe you don’t feel emotionally safe, or you may even fear that the conflict will turn physical. (If this is a concern, we strongly encourage you to reach out to a domestic violence group or church to assist you).  Withdrawing seems like a “safe” way to deal with an argument, but in reality you can leave your spouse feeling uncared for or disconnected.

So how do you put an end to the pursuer/withdrawer game?

You must work together!

Remember, that this pattern in a relationship will likely get worse if you allow it to continue.  So let’s see what the Bible says about this type of communication, “Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body. In your anger do not sin; Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry and do not give the devil a foothold”. [3] We are called to not allow avoidance to grow in our marriages. When you do not speak openly and truthfully, anger will grow, and when anger is not being dealt with constructively, it gives the devil a toehold that will wreak havoc in your relationship. You must not let this happen.  Remember that you are not independent of each other, it takes two, you must learn to work together to change or prevent the pursuing/withdraw dance.

If you are usually the pursuer, give your partner time to process their feelings. Withdrawers, promise your spouse that you will revisit and discuss the issue. In our experience, giving your partner a time period, (we will process this for the next 3 hours, and will discuss it then) will ease anxiety in the pursuer and give the withdrawer time to process.  If you have difficulty expressing your feelings or do not feel comfortable talking about them alone, we highly encourage you to reach out to a third party (community group/church elder/Christian counselor) to help you learn how to communicate with your spouse. Remember, as scary as it is, learning to communicate through discussions or arguments will strengthen your relationship and lead to true trust and intimacy within your marriage.

Escalation

Escalation occurs when partners respond back and forth negatively to each other, continually upping the ante so the conversation gets more and more hostile. In escalation, negative comments spiral into increasing anger and frustration. Research shows that couples who are happy now and likely to stay that way are less prone to escalation; if they start to escalate, they are able to stop the negative process before it erupts into a full-blown fight.

So what does this look like in real life? Most couples’ fights start over small issues, and then escalate to the point where damaging words are said that threaten the very lifeblood of the marriage. As frustration and hostility mount, spouses will try to hurt each other by hurling verbal (and sometimes physical) weapons.

The Bible tells us that “Reckless words pierce like a sword”. [4] If you are in one of these arguments, it may heat up quickly and even include threats to end the relationship. Once these damaging words are said, it is hard to take back. Reckless words will do major damage to the oneness, intimacy, and sense of safety in the relationship.  These hurtful words are exaggerations meant to hurt the other person, and often do not reflect how we really feel. If escalation is something you struggle with, address it and do what you can to stop it. James tells us, “If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.” [5]

We live in a society where we are prompted to “say what you feel”, with no filter. But saying how you feel anytime you feel it will not lead to a healthy marriage. It will also affect your walk with the Lord as well.

So how do we practically avoid escalation?  Put a stop to it and end the escalation. Say something to de-escalate the argument, break the negative cycle.

This takes humility.

Softening your voice and putting down your shield can stop an escalation in its tracks. You don’t need to be defensive- you are on the SAME TEAM. Acknowledge your partners point of view, choose humility and diffuse the tension. Scripture tells us, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger”. [6] You must work together, you must see each other as a unit and seek to stop these arguments in their tracks. Be intentional with how you speak to your spouse and remember the weight of your words on the legacy of your marriage.

Negative Interpretation

Negative interpretation is when one partner consistently believes that the motives of the other are more negative than is really the case. This is a very destructive pattern, that will make communication harder to deal with constructively. When you analyze and read into everything your spouse says as something that could be negative you are a creating an environment of hopelessness and demoralization in your relationship. A way we can often negative interpret is by mind reading our spouse, assuming that we know what our partner is thinking or know why they did something. Mind reading is extremely damaging not only in your marriage but in your spiritual life. Corinthians tells us that we must be careful when attempting to judge the thoughts and motives of others.[7] We must remember to take the speck out of our own eye and be cautious of our tendency to look more for the flaws in others than in ourselves. [8]

When innocent actions of either mate are consistently interpreted negatively and unfairly, the marriage is headed for big trouble, or is already there. This type of communication can be sewn throughout the fabric of a relationship. Do you have “confirmation bias”? Confirmation bias, is the tendency to look for evidence that confirms what we already think is true about others or situations. This behavior can be very difficult to change and you must reconsider what you think is true about some of your partner’s motives.  Negative interpretations are something you have to confront within yourself, as only you can control how you interpret your partner’s behavior. Here are some steps to help you assess your tendencies towards negative interpretation:

1. Ask yourself if your thinking might be overly negative in your interpretation of things your partner does or fails to do.

2. (This is a hard one), You must push yourself to look for evidence that is contrary to the negative interpretation you usually take. For example, if you believe your partner is uncaring and generally see most of what he/she does in that light, you need to look for evidence to the contrary. Does your partner do things for you that you like? Could it be that they do nice things because your spouse cares enough to try to keep the relationship strong? It is up to you to consider your interpretation of behavior that others would see as obviously positive. Ask the Lord to humble you. Ask Him to remove the plank from your eye. Ask him to give you a heart that sees your spouse as He sees your spouse.

3. Lastly, give your spouse the benefit of the doubt in wanting to make things better. Do not allow inaccurate interpretations sabotage and destroy your marriage.  

Invalidation

Invalidation is when the speaking spouse receives feedback that denies the significance of their feelings, ideas, logic or goals. The listening spouse rebuts their spouse by attacking them. Responses such as, “that doesn’t make sense,” “how can you believe that,” “you’re being silly,” or “you are being irrational” are examples of invalidation. Without realizing it, in subtle invalidation, we can put down our spouses for how they are feeling. Even constructive feedback such as “It’s not so bad” or “Trust in the Lord”, can lead to invalidation in communication. Your spouse will feel even more hurt because now their feelings of fear and frustration have been deemed “inappropriate” by their spouse.  Proverbs describes this as “singing songs to a heavy heart” [9], and it can be devastating to be on the receiving end of it. Learn what your spouse needs to hear in these situations.

In heated invalidation, we directly deny our spouse, leading our spouse to cover up who they are because they begin to believe it is too risky to express who they are.  How can a marriage experience true intimacy when this type of invalidation is in the midst of how we communicate with our spouse?

So how do we prevent invalidation in our marriage?

In the words of Aretha Franklin,  R-E-S-P-E-C-T.  Whether it is subtle or heated, we can avoid invalidation by simply showing respect for our spouse by acknowledging their viewpoint.  When there is acceptance of feelings, respect for each other’s character, and an emphasis on validation, we give way to really hearing our spouse. Also remember, you don’t have to agree with your spouse to validate their feelings. We have a wonderful saying we use often in our marriage, “Agree to Disagree”. Knowing that we respect each other’s viewpoints, even though we don’t agree, creates unity and a mutual understanding. Remember, you can always be right or you can be married.

Teamwork- Healthy Communication and Forbearance

Communicating with your spouse is a critical part of creating unity and promoting healthy behaviors where both spouses feel heard and validated. The patterns above will erode all the good things in a marriage, until it leaves couples feeling like there is nothing left worth fighting for. You must create a strategy in your marriage to tackle talking about your problems in healthy ways. We highly encourage you discuss this article with your spouse. If you need help communicating , getting in a community/life group at your local church (or seeing a Christian counselor) can help you to work through these concepts and help you to apply these to your specific communication struggles.

Overall, as Believers no matter what your communication struggles, we must remember that the Lord calls us to forbearance for our spouse. Forbearance is showing your spouse grace and overlooking their offenses for the sake of Christ. Forbearance is an expression of mercy that can cover both the big sins of communication strife and the small sins of marital tension. We know (or at least suspect) we have been sinned against, but we actually make a choice to overlook the offense and wipe the slate clean, extending a heart attitude of forgiveness and treating the sin as it never happened. Proverbs 19:11 tells us, it is a "glory to overlook an offense", so keep this in mind as you work towards communicating with your spouse in a way that glorifies God. [10]

 We feel truly blessed to have had these concepts introduced to us, in our foundation group, where a mentor couple guided us with biblical truth and helped us to create unity and healthy communication patterns in our relationship. Trust us, there are days where we are tempted to fall back into our old patterns, but we have learned that recognizing our behaviors and having a heart of humility towards our spouse, is the only way we can stay focused on loving each other as Christ loves us and continue to build a marriage that last.

We would like to extend a big thank you to Watermark Community Church Foundation Groups, Ann and Stephen Key, and the wonderful resource “A Lasting Promise: A Christian Guide to Fighting for Your Marriage”, in which the material from this article was derived. We highly encourage you to read this book in its entirety as an incredible foundation for your marriage.

 

[1] A Lasting Promise: A Christian Guide to Fighting for Your Marriage, Stanley, Trathem, McCain, Bryan, Ch. 2, pg. 308

[2] A Lasting Promise: A Christian Guide to Fighting for Your Marriage, Stanley, Trathem, McCain, Bryan, Ch. 2, pg. 309

[3] Ephesians 4:25-27

[4] Proverbs 12:18

[5] James 1:26

[6] Proverbs 15:1

[7] 1 Corinthians 4:5

[8] Luke 6: 41-42

[9] Proverbs 25:20

[10] When Sinners Say I Do: Discovering the Power of the Gospel for Marriage, Harvey, David. Chapter 5, Part 1