I was going to call this tip “How to have a fair fight,” which captures the essence of the message well. But the idea behind this tip isn’t to help you fight better; the idea is to help you express your feelings better so you and your spouse can truly hear what each other is saying and do something about it before it becomes a fight.
I think you’ll find this tip applies to any of your relationships, not just your marriage. In fact, I heard from a single woman who wrote to tell me as I was writing this series to say how surprised she was that God was speaking to her through these marriage tips, even though she’s not married. She wrote:
“I was hesitant at first to read this devotional as I’m not married. I was just scrolling through and saw a part about Lana and yourself getting a car and about marriage being a calling. So I decided to start from the top for I believed God wanted me to learn a thing or two and also to be encouraged as I was feeling a bit down and questioning my future. I enjoyed it and it made me laugh how God worked out your differences, even your breaking up and eventually getting married. That gave me hope since I’m single and struggling relationship wise. My concern about my future especially is that I really want to change my car and I laughed with tears coming to my eyes when you said about Lana’s desires for a car and how you reassured her about God working and providing for you and He will do the same for her. I like the part too about your partner understanding your purpose & dreams and how God can use you to help each other reach their potential and how God can use each other to bring about change & transformation. I have always believed that. Thanks for sharing your testimony. I must read the 7 points from earlier and see what else God wants me to know. God bless!”
So whether you apply this tip to your marriage or to any relationship, I hope you’ll read today’s tip closely and let God speak to your heart.
13) Watch your timing, tone and words. Lana and I didn’t fight often, and when we did, we tried to do so in private. This may have given others the impression that we never fought, but that’s not true. I will say, though, that we were able to avoid many of the all-out fights that others experience simply by following some advice that we learned during pre-marital counseling and some other wisdom that we learned for ourselves from the Bible.
This tip involves 3 aspects of how you express your feelings to each other: your timing, your tone and your words.
First, watch your timing. It’s important, of course, to share your feelings and not to stuff them down inside. We all have feelings and we want others to respect our feelings. But it’s also important to consider the timing of when to share those feelings. Even Jesus didn’t say everything that was on His heart to His disciples, but took into account when they would best receive what He had to say. Jesus said:
“I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear” (John 16:12).
Jesus eventually did share everything on His heart, and He told the disciples that He would send His Holy Spirit later to remind them of everything He said. But He did so at a time when He knew they could best receive it.
Lana and I found that if we had something important to share with each other, especially if it was potentially explosive, that it was best to talk about it when we were both fresh and alert and able to talk about it rationally. We seemed to have our worst conversations when one or both of us were tired and worn out or when we had pressing deadlines that had to be met. It was better if we could realize the timing was bad and set a time to talk later when we could truly listen to each other.
Second, it’s important to watch your tone. It’s easy to jump to conclusions and blame your spouse for things they didn’t even know were wrong. In America, we love the idea of being “innocent until proven guilty.” But in marriage, we often jump to the conclusion that our spouse is guilty and we start an argument based on that assumed guilt rather than simply explaining what we’re feeling. The Bible talks about the importance of tone when it says:
“A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1).
When I came to Lana with gentleness, simply sharing something that I was feeling, I was usually met with a gentle response in return. But when I came to her with a harsh or accusatory tone, it stirred up a harsh or angry response. This is a simple law of nature and it’s a simple law of communication: “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.”
Instead of looking straight at your spouse and assuming they are the problem, it’s better to turn shoulder to shoulder and address the problem together. It might even help to remind yourself and your spouse, “I know you’re not my enemy. I’m fighting for you, not against you.” By simply reminding yourselves of this truth, you can often diffuse the bomb that might otherwise explode.
I remember being called to a friend’s house late one night. She and her husband were in the middle of an argument—and it was bad. In fact, when I walked in, I wondered if she should have called the police instead of me.
But as I sat down with both of them and listened to what they were arguing about, it turned out that the husband was trying to tell his wife that he wished he could spend more time with her, because she was often out helping other people in need. They were talking past each other, though, because they were talking about 2 different things. The truth was that they both wanted to do something good; they just needed to work on how to achieve those good things together.
Here the wife thought her husband hated her for wanting to help others, when the truth was that he loved her so much he wanted to spend more time with her! And he loved that she wanted to help other people, but he just wished she would spend more of that energy on him, rather than depleting it all before she got home. By talking through both of their desires, without accusation or harsh words, they were able to find a way to move forward and help meet each of their desires more fully.
This story leads to the third aspect of how to have a fair fight, which is to watch the words you choose. Here’s a simple phrase you can memorize and, if you start using it today, you’ll find your conversations will go much smoother immediately. The phrase is:
“I feel … when … because … ”
This focuses the issue on you and your thoughts and feelings rather than on the other person.
In the story I shared above about the couple fighting, the husband started with an accusatory tone by saying “You’re always out helping other people!” To which his wife immediately reacted by saying, “What’s wrong with helping other people?!?” Then she started listing all the good and godly reasons to help others. She was also stung by the word “always” and said, “I’m not always out helping other people!!!” because she began to recall how many the times she stayed home to help him or their family. (It’s better just to drop the words “you always” or “you never” from arguments, because the other person can usually think of at least a few times when they did or did not do whatever they’re being accused of doing).
But because of the husband’s wording (and probably his timing and tone, based on the lateness and intensity of the conversation), he had inadvertently derailed the conversation from the beginning and they began squabbling over side issues. Rather than starting the sentence with the accusatory words “You always…,” consider if he had started by saying, “I feel…,” and then filled in the blanks that followed:
“I feel hurt when you go out to help others because I’d like to spend more time with you myself.”
That’s really what the husband was trying to say, but it came out as anger and jealousy rather than love and affection. By blaming her for wanting to help others, he put her on the defensive from the start, rather than simply expressing what he really wanted, which was to spend more time with her.
Using the words “I feel … when … because…” changes the tenor of your conversations immediately and helps you get closer to meeting your own needs sooner than if you get sidetracked on secondary conversations. You may still need to have those secondary conversations, but you’ll realize that they are just that: secondary. The main thing is to be able to express what you’re feeling, without blame or accusation, by describing how you feel when the other person does or does not do certain things.
Your choice of words can make all the difference, not only for yourself, but also for the other person. The Bible says:
“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver” (Proverbs 25:11, NKJV).
Which means that words that are well timed and placed are beautiful to behold.
As an exercise to help you think through your words the next time you need to express something you’re feeling, imagine a conversation that you may be currently having with your spouse (or co-worker or friend), whether it’s a conversation you’ve been having out loud or if it’s still just in your head, and try to rephrase what you’re feeling using the words “I feel… when… because.”
Think hard about what you’re really feeling and why. Rather than accusing the other person in your head, imagine that you’re truly just trying to express your feelings and what triggers those feelings.
I feel lonely
I feel frustrated
I feel hurt
I feel unappreciated
when you come home late
when you move my piles
when you forget to do what I ask
when you correct me
because I want to go to bed with you
because I don’t know where things are when I need them
because I want to know that you care about me
because I’m trying hard to do the right thing
You can see how each of these statements could lead to further discussion and exploration of why the person feels what they feel and finding a solution that is beneficial for both people.
You might be thinking, “That sounds like a lot of work,” and you’d be right! It is! But the payoff is worth it.
In woodworking there’s a saying, “Measure twice; cut once.” When you carefully take the time to measure a piece of wood twice and then cut it only once, you save yourself a whole lot of time patching things up later. The same could be said of your words: “Think twice; speak once.” As the Bible says:
“Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19b).
Although it takes extra time and effort to think through your timing, your tone and your words, you’ll save yourself a whole lot of time and effort in patching things up later!
Coming up next, tips #14 and 15!