Dr. Brent Potter
Husband and wife are unified in their life purpose to worship the Lord and to become more like Christ and reflect the beautiful relationship between Jesus and his redeemed people, the church. Effective communication in marriage is essential for the relationship between two different people to survive and thrive, and to live out this unity daily.
Marriage is an other-centered union
It’s easy to see why God designed an other-centered union for a me-centered world. Living that way is a challenge when bills pile up, communication breaks down and you’re just plain irritated with your husband or wife. For those days, Thomas offers these reminders to help ease the tension:
- God created marriage as a loyal partnership between one man and one woman.
- Marriage is the firmest foundation for building a family.
- God designed sexual expression to help married couples build intimacy.
- Marriage mirrors God’s covenant relationship with His people.
We see this last parallel throughout the Bible. For instance, Jesus refers to himself as the “bridegroom” and to the kingdom of heaven as a “wedding banquet.”
These points demonstrate that God’s purposes for marriage extend far beyond personal happiness. Thomas is quick to clarify that God isn’t against happiness per se, but that marriage promotes even higher values.
“God did not create marriage just to give us a pleasant means of repopulating the world and providing a steady societal institution to raise children. Further, He planted marriage among humans as yet another signpost pointing to His own eternal, spiritual existence.” (Hefferon, 2002)
How do we communicate?
People communicate both verbally and non-verbally. Although we think of the spoken word as the main type of communication, most of our communication is non-verbal, through facial expressions, gestures, tone of voice, eye contact, touch, and the use of personal space. Non-verbal communication either supports or contradicts what we’re saying aloud and is a powerful way of conveying meaning.
Saying “You should have called me!” in an accusing tone of voice and accompanied by an angry face and pointing finger means something quite different to the same sentence accompanied by a gentle tone and affectionate squeeze of the shoulder. It is therefore especially important to be aware not only of what you say, but how you say it, and what message your body is conveying.
Reflect on a recent difficult conversation with your spouse: what was your tone of voice like? What emotions did your body language communicate? How did your spouse react to you? If you had controlled or softened your body language a little more, could you have had the same conversation with a more constructive outcome?
Why is communication in marriage so hard?
There are both internal and external reasons why communication in marriage can be hard at times, or even for whole seasons. Let’s look at some internal reasons first.
Firstly, we are sinful people in need of a Savior (Romans 3:23). By default, we are selfish, and seek to satisfy our desires first before our spouse. This is often evident in our communication, by what we say, and how we say it. When external pressures intensify, such as work stress or the arrival of a new baby, our sinful nature shows itself more vividly and we are more prone to act selfishly.
We stop asking our spouses how they really are, and we stop listening to their answers. We give thoughtless replies to get them off our backs but demand intensive “therapy” from them when it’s something about which we are concerned. We descend into merely practical conversations about the children or the house or the bills and stop talking about our spiritual lives or our hopes and dreams. At worst, we withdraw from our spouse and stop communicating altogether.
Secondly, God has created us to be different from our spouse, not only along gender lines but in personality, family background, interests, and more. We even use different modes of communication, which means that our messages to one another can often be “lost in translation.”
In his book “The 5 Love Languages”, author Gary Chapman identifies five ways that people like to communicate or receive love: through gifts, quality time, touch, words of affirmation, or acts of service.
If we are self-focused and not paying attention to our spouse, we can miss important messages of love or pleas for help that can damage a marriage. God has not made us mind-readers; we need to be clear in our communication for a marriage to succeed. We need to mean what we say and say what we mean.
We can’t assume that the other person “just knows” where we are coming from. We need to persevere – and importantly, delight – in our differences, and learn to speak the other person’s “language.”
While the internal reasons for communication difficulties are most significant, external reasons are also powerful obstacles to effective communication in marriage. Let’s explore what this could mean.
When we’re dating, we are usually younger with fewer responsibilities. We are either studying or in a junior position at work. Although our income may be lower, we often have fewer bills to pay and can spend more of it on ourselves. We have much more leisure time.
In summary, our circumstances usually allow us to spend much more time and effort on building a relationship. It’s much easier to focus on each other, and we have the time and energy to communicate well. The relationship is exciting as you’re getting to know a new person, and you pay attention to their every word and action.
Within a few years of marriage, life circumstances can change dramatically. The blessing of children brings an incredible amount of responsibility and needs a sizable portion of our time, energy, and money. If we are working outside the home, our job responsibilities have likely grown, along with hours spent working.
There are more bills to pay and may be aging parents to look after in addition to our own family. General life stress can take its toll on our health, too. It’s harder to eat right and exercise, which requires time, money, and planning. Lastly, the longer we spend together in marriage, the more we see each other’s flaws.
The heady honeymoon phase has worn off and we are faced with an imperfect person, and we ourselves are revealed to be far less than perfect, too. At the end of a long day, we can feel utterly spent and frustrated and there is little time, energy, or even desire for proper communication with our spouse.
These internal and external obstacles to effective communication are certainly significant. Yet, as Christians, the gospel gives us hope in overcoming our sinful nature, which will help us to communicate well when human differences and difficult life circumstances threaten to derail our conversation.
The #1 secret to effective communication in marriage
The number one secret to effective communication in marriage is the same as the Bible’s secret to a good marriage: selflessness.
Jesus has set the pattern for this selflessness in his death on the cross, and we are to follow this principle in our relationships. “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”, Jesus says in John 15:13. “No one should seek their own good, but the good of others,” Paul instructs us in 1 Corinthians 10:24, and Ephesians 5:21-33 speaks particularly about the mutual selflessness that both a husband and wife need to have for each other.
Thankfully, the Lord has not left us alone with only a principle to follow, but by his Holy Spirit gives us the power to be increasingly selfless as we continue to put off our old selves, be made new in the attitude of our minds; and put on our new self, to be like God in true righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:24).
Practicing selfless communication habits
What does selfless communication in marriage look like? Selfless communication is other-person-centered. It sets aside time every day to connect with our spouse. It puts aside our tired self to ask “How was your day? How did the meeting go?” It uses eye contact, or gentle physical touch to show concern.
It listens with interest to what our spouse is saying. It is not merely waiting for a gap in the conversation to jump in with our opinion. It is content with silences and doesn’t rush to fill them. It takes note of non-verbal cues and draws the other person out with open-ended questions or statements like, “You felt frustrated? Tell me more about that.”
It connects actions to heart motives, life to Scripture, and seeks to build up and encourage. It dares to gently correct when necessary and has the humility to accept correction and seek forgiveness for hurts inflicted.
Finally, and most importantly, selfless communication doesn’t wait for the other person to satisfy us before we give them what they need. We are loved by God and trusting in this love fuels us to love our spouse and take the initiative in selfless communication whether or not they are delivering on our expectations (realistic or otherwise).
Effective communication in marriage is not easy. It is the result of God graciously answering our persistent prayers for selflessness and strength. It is empowered by the Holy Spirit. It is a habit, a discipline that is hard-won over time and through trials. Yet a marriage needs to survive and thrive.
May the Lord grant us the humility and grace to persevere in selfless communication with our spouse, so that together we can better reflect Jesus.
Hefferon, C (2002). God’s Design for Marriage. Available online: https://www.focusonthefamily.com/marriage/gods-design-for-marriage/Photos:
“Bride and Groom”, Courtesy of One zone Studio, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Holding Hands”, Courtesy of Ryan Franco, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Romantic Sunset”, Courtesy of Nathan Dumlao, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Dancing in the Wilderness”, Courtesy of Scott Broome, Unsplash.com, CC0 License