My husband and I have a passionate marriage. This can be great, especially when it comes to intimacy, but it can also have a dark side — particularly in conflict. A couple of years ago, it almost threatened everything we held dear.
Eleven years of marriage and we knew every button to push, all the words that hurt, and ways to set each other off (insert my perfected eye-roll). Conflict was a never-ending fountain of angst, loud fights, and being on opposite sides of the line. I guess it’s typical for a lot of couples; he felt that I wasn’t being sensitive, I felt that he wasn’t listening or understanding. One of us would say something, it would set the other one off, and soon we were off to the races. After one particular series of fights (you know the kinds — the ones that make you wonder how things can go on), we sat down at our kitchen table, lowered our walls, and came to an agreement that we needed a counselor to give us some insight and wisdom. The typical knee-jerk reactions that so many of us have to marriage therapy or counseling — “think of the cost”, “what will people say,” “this will take forever,” “how do we know things will change”, etc. — weren’t important anymore. What was important was doing whatever it took to get our marriage back to a healthy place.
In one of our first meetings together, our therapist shared 3 words that forever changed how we dealt with conflict. I’m hoping that by sharing them, you’ll find hope just as I did.
When conflict arises and your spouse comes to you with an issue they have, usually about you, it’s hard to hear their hurt. It’s much easier for us to become defensive, build a wall and hide, or deflect. To remedy this, we have very clear parameters about how and when we approach each other with hurt. We call a “Talk Time” — a time for listening to happen, for potentially defensive walls to come down, and for something we call R-E-R.
Reflect – When your spouse comes to you with their hurt, it’s our responsibility to listen. We hear what they have to say and then repeat it back. Verbatim. “What I hear you saying is……Is this correct?” In essence, we are using a mirror to reflect what they are saying back to them, in an effort to find the core problem. It gives you a chance to make sure you’re dealing with the main issue, gives them a chance to change their words if the main point wasn’t made and gives both of you a sure footed place to stand. Most conflict happens because we don’t get this part right. One person feels one way and the other isn’t clear on the problem. Miscommunication ensues and then you come to the end of a fight having to start all over again because it was wrong from the beginning.
Empathize – We usually aren’t trying to hurt our spouses, right? As a result, we don’t usually intend the hurt they feel. After you have reflected and now know the main reason behind your spouse’s hurt, you empathize. Use feeling language and a sincere tone, and say something along the lines of, “I feel really badly that you were hurt by (fill in the blank). I never intended to hurt you.” (It’s important not to say “I’m sorry,” since you shouldn’t apologize for something you didn’t intend to do, but saying “I feel badly” acknowledges your spouse’s hurt.) You’re trying to bridge the gap here. You may not have intended to hurt your spouse, but somewhere along the way you triggered a hurt, maybe even an old wound from childhood. When we empathize, we are showing we care about them and their heart.
Reassure – After we have successfully empathized (it might need to be done more than once if our tone or choice of words aren’t working), you reassure them. Of course, we don’t want to hurt our spouse again. What can we do to make that NOT happen again? Is there something you could have done differently when the person got hurt? So the script continues with, “In the future, I will try not to….” Find something truthful, honest and helpful that will help them feel reassured they won’t be hurt the same way again. Close by saying, “I am willing to do this because I love you, and I don’t want to hurt you” — affirming language.
There’s no toolbox or manual that comes with marriage. My husband and I had gone through pre-marital counseling, which helped in the beginning, but there just aren’t enough moments to prepare you for what marriage actually looks like. It’s a constant evolving and ever changing process for each couple. However, the set of tools we learned that day have completely revolutionized our marriage. I wish I had known how to communicate this way earlier. We both feel heard, respected, and cared for by each other when we both use Talk Time and R-E-R.
After six months of hard work, our therapist said that we didn’t need to meet anymore, and apart from a few check-in sessions, we haven’t been back. At one point, when things were hardest, we would fight every few days; now, while we still have conflict, it’s much less often, and we have the tools to avoid escalating that conflict, and instead working through it. We have found that when you’re both willing to take ownership, stop blaming each other, and do the hard work of being transparent and faithful, good fruit can come. Change is possible; hope can be found. We just had our thirteenth anniversary a few weeks ago and it was such a celebratory affair. I’m amazed at the muck and mire we’ve gone through together, and that there was a sunny, clean, and fresh place to rest our weary souls when we got through that swamp. I have hope for our future.
These swamps will come again, but I feel courageous enough to continue knowing that these tools helped us.
If you’re feeling lost, hopeless and without a clue how to change your marriage, I pray that God reveals himself to you. Maybe these tools will help. Maybe you need a third party as a mediator. Maybe sharing with a safe confidante and friend will help for accountability. Maybe you just need to get on your knees and listen to what God has to say. Whatever you need, don’t be afraid to do it — the end result is worth it.
If this message blessed you, be a leasing by sharing with others.