We were blissfully in love and thrilled to be on our honeymoon. Then came day five—we had our first argument. That put us on a slippery slope moving swiftly toward desperation. Within the first nine months of our marriage, Gina and I were both convinced that we not only married the wrong person, but also were condemned to a loveless marriage.
One very tangible side effect of our difficulties was poor communication. I would ask, “What’s for dinner?” She would hear, “I can’t believe you haven’t prepared dinner again tonight!”
She would say, “What time are you coming home?” I would hear, “You better get here and help me because you’re never here.”
We could not express anything we wanted to. We resorted to hurting each other with our words. We did not build each other up … we tore each other down and caused deep, emotional pain. Quite honestly, we had endured so much hurt that we could not see any hope for ever communicating well. Our despair was overwhelming.
In counseling we began learning about intentional communication. I remember thinking, “That is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. This stuff is so simple … I can’t believe I’m paying this guy for this.”
But, once I got off of my high horse, I realized something very simple yet profound: If communication was really that simple, everyone would be doing it and all of our communication would glorify God and reflect His image (1 Peter 4:11; Ephesians 4:29). Glorifying God did not describe my communication, and it may not describe yours either. In fact, many of us struggle to communicate well even with those we love the most: our siblings, our parents, our children, our spouse.
The road I took to learn about communication was a tough one. Here are some of the tools that helped transform my marriage and change my heart.
1. The Principle of First Response: The course of a conflict is not determined by the person who initiates, but by the person who responds.
You may feel it’s okay to strike at someone verbally because, “He is picking a fight with me.” You may be correct, but that person does not have the power to decide whether a fight actually occurs. That power rests with the responder. As Proverbs 15:1 says, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”
Jesus has a well-worn track record with the Principle of First Response. Recall the times that the Scribes and the Pharisees came to question Him. They were the initiators in nearly all of their communication. Their intention was to defraud Jesus and corner Him. In how many cases were they successful? None. They failed because the power to decide the direction of each conflict rested with Jesus, the responder (Luke 20:19-26).
The implications of following Jesus’ example were huge. My wife’s sin did not give me free license to sin in return. And conversely, my sin did not give Gina free license either. By following the principle of first response, we were being called to take a poorly spoken comment and redirect it.
2. The Principle of Physical Touch: It is difficult to sin against someone while you are tenderly touching him or her.
A difficult time to apply this principle is after an argument has begun. However, a perfect time is when you know you are about to sit down and have a discussion about something that might lead to tension.