I Married a Non-Christian, and They Don't Take My Faith Seriously

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Photo by Kat Smith from Pexels https://www.pexels.com/photo/adult-alone-anxious-black-and-white-568027/

Q: I married a non-Christian and they don't take my faith seriously. How can I continue to grow in my faith and still be a good spouse?

A: This has got to be one of the hardest things for a Christian to go through. That’s why we make such a point about Christians choosing to marry Christians. There’s a reason for that admonition in Scripture, and the reason is right here – the heartbreak faced by believers who cannot share the most important part of their lives with their spouses. It’s very difficult. It’s okay to be disappointed and frustrated. It’s okay to validate your feelings. Perhaps you stepped into your marriage when you weren’t walking with Christ. Or perhaps you were a Christian and just ignored God’s admonition because you were so “in love.” Or maybe you became a Christian after you got married and now you’ve got this vibrant relationship that you would love to share with your husband or wife. 

Whatever the case, once you are married, you are married. So what do you do? Don’t ever give up. We sometimes hear people in counseling say, “God is telling me to leave my marriage so I can marry this other person who is a Christian.” And God doesn’t do that. God never contradicts himself, so when he says in his Word that he hates divorce, he’s never going to tell anyone to get divorced. You’re in the marriage for a reason, and God will work it out to his glory. So your job is to pray and pray faithfully! Realize that you may be the only person praying for your spouse – at least in the ways you alone can pray for him or her.

Even if some [husbands or wives] refuse to obey the good news, your godly lives will speak to them without any words. They will be won over by observing your pure and reverent lives. 1 Peter 3:1-2

Go to the Lord of the universe because you love your spouse. Pray for his or her salvation, and then love your husband or wife with the kind of love Jesus showed you – patient, kind, forgiving, understanding of your flaws. Show respect and honor to your spouse. Love the way Jesus loves him or her. Such love may be able to love him or her right to Jesus.

A Husband’s #1 Love Need

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In our national survey of more than 700 couples, a majority of both men and women told us that unconditional love is their number one love need from their marriage partner. No doubt many would expect the number one need for men to be sex and the number one need for women to be communication, but that was not what we found. Instead, as different as men and women can be, both agreed on this one truth: We all need to be loved unconditionally by our spouses.

Unconditional love is the commitment that says, “I will stay with you no matter what. I will always love you. I will affirm you and support you.” Acceptance means, “I will receive you even in the midst of tough times.”

Barb and I have found that our love for each other is glorious in the good times But when our marriage comes under intense testing, we need unconditional love. Love that won’t quit. We need to know we are accepted even when we come up short, even when we can’t see beyond our own pain and failures.

When a husband receives that unconditional love and acceptance from his wife -  it doesn’t get any better than that for a man. When the wife God has given him reminds him that she will always be there for him, that’s when he knows the power of unconditional love and acceptance.

When I was dating Barb, I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. What finally convinced me? It was the simple yet overwhelming truth that God loved me unconditionally. Completely. Without reservation. Unequivocally. Just as I was. No matter what. That describes agape love. His great love. His mercy. His grace. These words took on a whole new meaning as I began to come to a true understanding of just how much God really does love me. And that is the heart of Christ’s love for me: He truly loves me without limit.

The Power of Unconditional Love and Acceptance

Unconditional love is powerful stuff. After a particularly difficult situation at work, Barb showed me unconditional love.

Her response helped me feel safe in the midst of a lightning storm. Her love allowed me to be honest. It established a comfortable environment for open communication between us. Her love reminded me that I wasn’t ultimately in charge—the Lord was. It reminded me that her commitment truly was for bad times as well as good.

Don’t misunderstand. Barb certainly had to deal with her own share of fear and uncertainty during that time in our life. But if she had rejected me or, maybe even worse, been neutral and unresponsive to me, I would have felt lonely and isolated. Her rejection would have built a wall that would have weakened our intimacy and trust.

What You Can Do to Meet Your Husband’s Needs

Your response, initiative, and connection to your husband are crucial to the health of your marriage and family. Your expression of your unconditional love and acceptance is the very force that will drive you together in the midst of the testing times in your marriage. Your standing with him in the painful times, as well as the good times, is one of the primary elements of a great marriage.

At times this means putting aside your own needs in order to meet his. It means resisting your tendency to be selfish and self-protective. But if you love unconditionally in the hard times, you and your husband will become one in the kind of intimacy the Lord desires for you. If you don’t, you will end up living like two immature children, each trying to get your own way and resenting the other person when you don’t. You may still be married, but you will miss out on the joy of a great marriage.

Your husband desperately needs to know that you will accept him no matter what. Even when he fails or makes poor decisions. Even when he feels crummy about himself or disappoints you. Your love is a make-or-break reality. Your inability or refusal to love will cripple him and tear him apart. Your unconditional love and acceptance will build him up and free him to go on.

Okay, this all sounds good in theory, you may be saying, but how do I live this out in the nitty-gritty of real life? What does it look like?

Giving your husband the security of your unwavering love requires at least five elements: showing grace with his weaknesses; affirming him whenever you can; helping him feel safe; taking time to connect, and studying your husband.

1. Show Grace in His Weakness

All of us need grace. But we need it most when we are truly aware that we don’t deserve it—when we have failed, when we have made mistakes, when we have been selfish, when we have sinned.

If your husband has failed you or disappointed you or sinned against you, then he needs your grace. And when you express grace to your husband in his areas of weakness and sin, you love him as Jesus loves him.

2. Affirm Him Whenever You Can

Mark Twain once said, “I can live a whole month on one compliment.” Just think about the life we can bring to a marriage with an ever-flowing stream of affirmation. Strengthen your husband with comments such as

•   “I am proud of you, honey.”

•   “I love the way you love me when you …”

•   “You are one of God’s richest blessings to me.”

Hearty affirmation is a key ingredient in unconditional love. It’s like a magnet: It draws us in; it attracts us. If you have a hard time verbalizing your affirmation to your husband, think about when you first met him. What drew you to him? What opened your heart to him? Now, as you have matured in your marriage, what do you appreciate about your husband? Write your thoughts down on a piece of paper.

From your own responses, make a list of at least five statements that you can grab onto and begin to repeat to your husband.

3. Help Him Feel Safe

When I know that Barb understands me, I feel safe. When I don’t feel understood, my insecurity increases. Normally, a man won’t recognize it in these terms. And we husbands don’t know how to tell you this, so instead, we blow up. Or we bury ourselves in some excessive behavior. Or we search for something we can control.

If you see any of these negative patterns in your husband’s behavior, something is missing in your relationship. I am not saying you are responsible, although you may be contributing to the patterns, something definitely is missing and needs to be addressed.

Where do you start? Get alone with him and assure him that you are not intending to criticize but that you are committed to him and want to help him work through any patterns that could be undermining the security of your marriage. As you do this, you begin to lay the groundwork for healing to begin. At some point, couples or individuals who are struggling with excessive behavior may need to seek the outside help of a professional Christian counselor and/or a pastor. But first, you need to approach your husband to begin the process.

How do we husbands know we are beginning to be understood? In two ways:

1.      When you are truly interested in our mundane life to the point of fascination.

2.      When we try to “fix” something and we know that you understand that we are just exercising the part of our masculinity that needs to “make things better.”

Just as you feel understood when we listen to your feelings, we feel better when you listen to our ideas.

For a marriage to become a great marriage, husbands and wives need to learn to partner with each other, accentuating each other’s strengths and helping to compensate for each other’s weaknesses.

4. Take Time to Connect

As unbelievable as it may sound, the first few minutes you and your husband connect at the end of the workday is critical.

Barb and I have a tradition in our home. Within minutes of greeting each other at the end of the day, we are sitting and talking—just the two of us. We talk about the kids, we review Barb’s day and my day, we discuss the highs, the lows - everything! Sometimes these are deep discussions, but often they’re just newsy, connecting talks. This connection sets the tone for the rest of the evening. It reminds us we are teammates who are absolutely committed to the same game.

When this doesn’t happen consistently, the atmosphere can become colder than a Dairy Queen blizzard. We get out of sync, disconnected, and that leaves room for coolness and selfishness to grow.

Unconditional love occurs only in the context of communication and true connection. Think about your own relationship with God. When do you feel most secure, protected, loved, understood? It’s when you’ve had a rich time of prayer, when God has spoken to you personally through his Word, and when you’ve reached the heart of the Father in worship. And when this connection happens every day, not only do you feel secure as a Christian, but you also develop a mature relationship with God, where everything is possible. That’s the way marriage is designed to work

5. Study Your Husband

One of the best ways for you to know how to meet your husband’s need for unconditional love and acceptance is to know your husband. This means you must become a student, getting to know your husband inside and out.

As a man, I can’t figure out sometimes how Barb knows things, but she just knows. The kids may be hurting, hiding something, having problems with a friend, or isolating themselves a little because of some insecurity or conflict. And Barb just knows.

Our household isn’t unique in this. You need to use that same womanly sensitivity to pick up on what’s going on with your husband—which means not only reading his moves but also his moods.

Men often don’t know how to verbalize what they are feeling. So it’s essential for you to use your instincts when you’re trying to understand what’s going on in our heads. Timing is always important, even when dealing with the most even-tempered male. So learn to read our moods. If you do, you’ll soon find you’re learning more about your husband every day.

Grace. Affirmation. Safety. Time. Study. All are keys to unconditional love and acceptance.

Building a great marriage is not easy. As Barb says, true love doesn’t always take place on a romantic balcony. Sometimes it takes place on a battlefield.

Unconditional love is the real thing. The genuine article. It is the kind of love that is given when it isn’t deserved.  Jesus models it, Paul writes about it, and our Father gives it to us.Will you love your husband unconditionally? This is the number one love need men have in their marriages.  This is the way a great marriage is designed to work. God said so.

Forgiving & Rebuilding

How Forgiveness Happens: Six Elements of Whole Forgiveness

Who is supposed to initiate the process of forgiveness in a marriage relationship: the offender or the offended?  We don’t think it really matters. Both of you are responsible for clearing up conflicts by initiating forgiveness.  If your spouse offends you and you refuse to resolve the conflict until he or she makes the first move, you could be waiting a long time.  And if your spouse plays by the same rules, think of all the intimacy you could forfeit by waiting each other out. 

Barb and I mutually accept the role of being peacemakers in our marriage.  Ideally, whoever recognizes the conflict first is the one to bring it up and initiate forgiveness regardless of who is at fault.  If one of us senses friction, that person usually confronts the other on the issue.  I use the words “ideally” and “usually” because, just like at your house, Barb and I are sometimes deterred from initiating forgiveness by hurt, anger, or pride.  That’s why it is important to share the responsibility equally.  Since both of us are committed to peace, if one is a little slow to step up, the other is there to take up the slack.  This virtually assures that the conflict will be resolved sooner rather than later. 

We call this process “whole forgiveness.” In any offenses, someone offends and someone is offended.  Of course, it is rarely that cut-and-dry.  In many conflicts, you both offend each other to some degree.  For example, your spouse hurts you with a critical remark, so you snap back with a zinger of your own.  Or you forget to buy your spouse a birthday gift, and in return, he or she gives you the cold shoulder for 2 days. 

For each offense, whole forgiveness requires action on the part of both the offender and the offended.  We have represented this activity with the following 6 statement for closing the loop with forgiveness:

1. I was wrong.

2. I’m sorry.

3. I don’t ever want to hurt you like this again.

4. Will you forgive me?

5. I forgive you and close the loop on this issue.

6. I forgive you for…

Requesting Forgiveness

Statement #1: I was wrong.

The admission of wrongful behavior starts the process of whole forgiveness in motion.  It’s not very important which partner points out the offense.  The key is for the offending party to say categorically, “What I did was wrong.” 

You may be tempted to wriggle off the hook at this stage by stopping short of, “I was wrong.” The following statements sound like the admission of wrong, but notice how they don’t quite go far enough: “Ok, if you think I did something wrong, lets talk about it”; “I don’t think what I did was such a big deal, but since you think it was, let’s talk about it.” You need to confront the offense for what it is.  Say something like, “I am wrong”; “I have done wrong and need to talk to you about what I did to offend you.” 

Statement #2: I’m sorry. 

Simply admitting wrong behavior is insufficient.  Having determined the nature of what you said or did, you need to state how you feel about what you said or did.  Do you feel regret over hurting your spouse?  Certainly you do!  You need to express that sorrow.  Together, the admission of wrongdoing and the expression of sorrow covey to your spouse your sincerity about making things right. 

The Apostle Paul understood what it means to express sorrow.  He wrote: “Now I am glad I sent it (a letter of correction), not because it hurt you, but because the pain caused you to have remorse and change your ways.  It was the kind of sorrow God wants His people to have, so you were not harmed by us in any way.  For God can use sorrow in our lives to help us turn away from sin and seek salvation.  We will never regret that kind of sorrow but sorrow without repentance is the kind that results in death” (2 Corinthians 7:9-10).

The expression of remorse and sorrow is healthy when it leads to healing in the relationship with your spouse and with God. 

Statement #3: I don’t ever want to hurt you like this again.

True repentance requires a change of heart and mind.  It goes beyond “I’m sorry” to actually changing your hurtful behavior and the patterns of your offenses.  Seeking forgiveness without promising repentance is pointless.  Only when you commit to turning away from your hurtful behavior can true healing take place. 

This is the same response God seeks from us in our sinfulness.  When we confess our sin, He graciously forgives (see 1 John 1:9).  But He doesn’t expect us to keep going in the same sinful direction.  He is looking for us to change direction. 

Statement #4: Will you forgive me?

This key question brings the process of whole forgiveness to a crescendo.  It is forgiving love at its best, the ultimate of humility and intimacy in marriage.  You are never more vulnerable to your spouse than when you make this request.  It means putting yourself at his or her feet as a servant to receive an undeserved favor.  In asking this question, you are swinging the door wide open for whole forgiveness. 

If you omit any of the 4 elements in requesting forgiveness, you run the risk of leaving the conflict unresolved.  Too often we leap to the final element and ask for forgiveness without acknowledging any understanding, remorse, or repentance.  This is cheap forgiveness, and it creates uncertainty in your spouse about how to respond.  It is very important that you take all 4 steps as you approach your spouse for forgiveness.

Granting Forgiveness

When your spouse comes seeking your forgiveness, you can participate in whole forgiveness in 2 ways: graciously and specifically. 

Statement #5: I forgive you and close the loop on this issue.

When you say, “yes, I forgive you,” you are reflecting the love of a gracious, forgiving God.  You are granting something your spouse doesn’t deserve.  It is a free gift; it cannot be earned or bargained for. 

When you say, “I forgive you,” you must let go of the offense once and for all and set your spouse free.  When you do, there is closure.  Both you and your spouse experience emotional relief.  The pressure is off, the pain begins to subside, and the healing starts. 

Statement #6: I forgive you for…

In addition to being gracious, your forgiveness needs to be specific.  State precisely the offenses for which you are granting forgiveness, the very offenses for which your spouse has requested forgiveness.  For example: “I forgive you for not spending more time with me last weekend”; “I forgive you for committing me to serve on a church committee without asking me first.” 

Being specific assures your spouse how complete your forgiveness is.  It doesn’t leave anything hanging in the air.  It answers for your spouse the nagging question he or she may have:  Did he or she understand what I was asking forgiveness for?  Did he or she really forgive me for what I did? 

Rebuilding the Walls of Your Marriage

Almost 2,400 years ago, the city of Jerusalem lay in ruins.  King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had ordered his army to plunder and destroy it, tearing down its protective wall then deporting and enslaving the Jews who lived there (see 2 Chronicles 36:15-21).  Among those deported was a godly man named Nehemiah.  Many years later, after Persia had conquered Babylon and taken over all its territories, God gave Nehemiah in the eyes of Artaxerxes, the Persian king.  He allowed Nehemiah and a group of Jews to move back to their homeland and the city of Jerusalem.  Then God used Nehemiah to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem so the returning Jews could live in safety and security. 

Cities in biblical times needed walls to protect them from invading armies. In a similar way, a marriage relationship needs a wall of protection around it to keep it healthy and secure.  This wall is built by faith in God and by developing disciplines and habits that strengthen commitment and trust.  When a loop of conflict has been opened and your spouse is wounded, that wall of trust around you begins to crumble.  Repeated offenses break down that wall just like the battering rams of an invading army.  Hearts are plundered, security is undermined, and trust is eroded. 

Step 1: Weep and seek God.

While still in Persia, Nehemiah, the king’s cupbearer, heard the troubling news: “things are not going well for those who returned to the province of Judah. They are in great trouble and disgrace.  The wall of Jerusalem has been torn down, and the gates have been burned” (Nehemiah 1:3).  What should he do? Ask for a meeting with King Artaxerxes?  Gather some people together and head to Jerusalem to do the work?  There is nothing wrong with these steps but that is not what Nehemiah did first.  Upon hearing the news Nehemiah says, “I sat down and wept.  In fact, for days I mourned, fasted, and prayed to the God of heaven” (Nehemiah 1:4).  The first step to rebuilding trust in your marriage is to mourn what you have lost and go to God for help. 

Step 2: Pray.

Next, Nehemiah confessed his own sins and asked God to give him favor with Artaxerxes (see Nehemiah 1:5-11).  As Nehemiah prayed, he knew that he could help to restore the wall around Jerusalem. 

How do we respond when the wall is tumbling down around us at home? Some of us cower in fear.  Others deny that there is a problem and even try to anesthetize ourselves with alcohol, other drugs, spending, pornography, or anything that feeds our rationalization. Still, others get angry.  But look at what Nehemiah did. After expressing the pain of his heart, he prayed.  And it wasn’t just a quick, catch-all prayer. The second chapter of Nehemiah reveals that he prayed earnestly for four months before he set out to do anything. 

Step 3: Communicate needs honestly.

One day, King Artaxerxes noticed that Nehemiah was not himself. God had opened an opportunity for Nehemiah to explain his feelings about the destruction in his homeland, so he told Artaxerxes the sad story. 

When the king asked Nehemiah what he wanted to do, Nehemiah didn’t just spit out his request.  He prayed first and then asked for the opportunity to go to Jerusalem to rebuild the wall.  The king asked how long he needed.  Nehemiah not only gave him a timeframe for completing the task but also ask the king for some materials for the rebuilding project.  Artaxerxes gave Nehemiah everything he asked for. 

The rebuilding process works when God is at the center. 

Step 4: Commit to the journey.

As Nehemiah set off on a journey of hundreds of miles, what went through his mind?  He probably had little idea of the extent of the devastation he would encounter.  He likely knew even less of the amount of resistance he would face and the hard work needed to rebuild the wall.  But he still went for it.  He was committed to doing what was needed to be done. 

When you and your spouse commit to the journey,  you remind each other that the relationship is nonnegotiable.  You honor the covenant expressed in your marriage vows.  You commit to strengthening your marriage both for your sake and the sake of future generations. 

Step 5: Evaluate the damage.

Arriving in Jerusalem, Nehemiah set out to survey the damage done to the wall.  The rubble was so great that he couldn’t even ride his horse through it.  He must have been overwhelmed. 

In order to close the loop and rebuild trust, you need to evaluate the damage in your relationship.  Admit your failures, acknowledge your offenses, talk about your hurts.  Lay it all out there.  You can’t effectively rebuild and heal if you don’t bring all the hurt and the anger into the open. 

Step 6: Formulate a plan.

Nehemiah urged the people to get started on the project.  He reminded them to trust God to help them get the job done.  And he not only came with the blessing of the king and some materials but also had a plan for completing the work.  Part of that plan directed the people to rebuild the portion of the wall that was in front of their homes.  What better motivation could Nehemiah have provided? 

Trusting God and devising a plan is critical to the process of rebuilding trust.  You may feel helpless to change your situation or behavior in your own power. Perhaps you have tried and failed repeatedly.  You need to devise a solid plan while trusting God to make it possible. 

Step 7: Begin the work.

Chapters 3 and 4 of Nehemiah describes the actual rebuilding of the wall.  Nehemiah wrote, “At last the wall was completed to half its original height around the entire city, for the people had worked very hard” (Nehemiah 4:6). 

There is a honeymoon effect in the process of rebuilding marital trust.  A couple launches into it with a lot of hope and energy, the healing begins, and they think Hey, this isn’t so hard.  But they often fail to realize how much time and hard work it takes to complete the rebuilding. 

The element of time can work in your favor in at least 2 ways.  First, it takes time to heal the pain – often months or years.  We often tell people that when there is a serious breach of trust in the marriage, it often takes 18-24 months to rebuild the trust.  But as the weeks and months go by you should experience greater levels of healing. 

Second, you need time to inject some positive experiences into a relationship that is accustomed to pain.  As you spend time nurturing the relationship and storing up positive memories, the healing process is encouraged. 

Step 8: Trust God through the inevitable resistance.

Nehemiah faced resistance continually throughout his project in Jerusalem.  He had many enemies who did not want to see the wall rebuilt.  They tried to stir up the people against him, planting doubts in their minds.  They conspired to harm him.  They even hired a prophet to try to intimidate him.  In each case, Nehemiah prayed to God for guidance and asked Him to lead the way. 

Satan is threatened when you and your spouse grow in trust and intimacy.  He is actively at work trying to keep you isolated from each other, trying to keep you suspicious and distrustful.  So when you set out to rebuild trust in your marriage be aware that the enemy will be there to discourage and deter you. 

But God is eager for you to close the loops in your marriage by experiencing forgiveness and restoration.  He will empower you to work through the resistance and discouragement. 

Step 9: Work toward completion.

At one point Nehemiah was able to write, “So on October 2, the wall was finally finished – just 52 days after we had begun.  When our enemies and the surrounding nations heard about it they frightened and humiliated.  They realized that this work had been done with the help of our God” Nehemiah 6:15-16).  Can you imagine Nehemiah’s joy at writing that the wall was finally finished?  What a sense of accomplishment.  In reality, the major part of the work was done but, as some scholars suggest, the Jews continued to patch the wall for some time. 

Rebuilding trust and restoring marital intimacy after offenses is a job that is never fully completed.  Each area of healing continues to need maintenance long after you have closed the loop.  Enjoy each victory along the way, but continue to allow God to do His “finish work” in your marriage. 

As you do, something wonderful happens.  Your marriage will be a strong testimony of the power and grace of God.  Just like Nehemiah’s detractors, those who didn’t see any hope for you will have to say, “Wow, look what God accomplished in their lives!” That’s your great hope, even in the middle of the work.  You are not alone in the rebuilding process.  God is at the center of the work.  It is His desire to restore your relationship and strengthen your marriage.  He is the God of restoration and reconciliation.  He is the God of closing loops. 

How Important is it for Us to Build and Maintain Friendships with Other Couples?

Having friendships with other couples is very important. We tell people three things at the end of pre-marriage counseling:

  1. Guard your heart.
  2. Always exercise forgiveness.
  3. Connect to other like-minded couples who love each other and with whom you can go through life.

A friend is always loyal, and a brother is born to help in time of need. Proverbs 17:17

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In our parents’ time, couples may have been lifetime friends because people didn’t move around as much. You may move every few years, so it will take a bit of extra work to connect with other couples at each new location. You can do it, however, by connecting to a church and its small groups, through friendships in your neighborhood, or with the parents of your children’s friends. These need to be like-minded couples – believers who can be there for you in the tough times and who understand the focus of your life in Jesus. The only caveat is that you must be alert to guard your heart in those close relationships.

The friendships you form with other couples can add incredible richness and meaning to your life. We just read a story recently about a man who fell off a ladder. He was paralyzed from the fall, but he’s hoping to be able to walk again one day. For the three months following the accident, not a day went by that other people didn’t show up to comfort him, encourage him, transport him, or do some other necessary chore. He knew many of the people from his church small group. These kinds of friendships are priceless. That is the body of Christ, and we are called to coach, encourage, and equip one another. We have created a seven-part DVD series entitled “6 Secrets to a Lasting Love.” This is an excellent series for a small group you could host in your home or for Sunday school, evening classes at church, or even retreats. There are handbooks to guide you in facilitating one-hour or two-hour small group meetings. This is just one way to get some couples together to connect and learn from the Word together. However you choose to forge friendships as a couple, remember that it takes initiative and then time to let relationships develop. Don’t give up in the process—God wants you to be connected to other people that will invite you into their lives and help you grow and thrive.

Communicating Concerns & Confronting Conflict

Continue with us in our Healing the Hurt series as we discuss how to communicate concerns and confront conflict in your marriage.

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Communicate Your Concerns

Communicating your concerns is absolutely necessary to the process of healing the relationship. In fact, communication is absolutely vital to the health of your relationship even when there isn’t a conflict. And if you struggle with communicating in times of peace, it will be even more difficult in times of conflict. So we want to coach you on seven basic communication principles that will not only help you resolve conflicts, but also equip you for enriching the intimacy of your relationship day to day.

Principle 1: Check your Relational Temperature
For a number of years, Barb and I have checked the vital signs in our marriage to both diagnose and prevent conflicts. It’s one of the best ways we know to open up communication that will lead to healing.

Here’s what we do. Every four to six weeks, we pose two questions to each other. We call it taking our relational temperature. We are not legalistic about it, and it’s not something we feel we have to schedule on the calendar. Often we will have this discussion during a walk together or at the end of a date night. Sometimes these questions will come up when one or both of us feel some tension in the relationship. Whenever we make a point to ask and respond to these two questions, we are able to cut conflicts off at the pass. We encourage you to use these questions periodically to check your vital signs as a couple.

1. How am I doing as a spouse? When I ask Barb how I’m doing as a husband, I’m not fishing for compliments, although she is generous to provide them. I’m looking for honest feedback. I want to know where I am missing the mark as her husband or offending her in some way. I give Barb carte blanche to tell it as it is, and she expects the same for me when she asks, “How am I doing as a wife? “We usually come away from these discussions knowing exactly what we can do to prevent or disarm conflicts in our marriage. This question allows the person closest to you, your lifetime partner, to lovingly point out any blind spots. Perhaps you have shifted from focusing on the Lord and your spouse due to other demands in your daily schedule: work, church activities, hobbies, etc. If anything is taking you captive, if the good things you are involved in outside the relationship are hindering the best things in your relationship, it should come to light when you ask each other this first question.
2. What do you need from me? This is not only a question about things like helping with household chores or finding a lost article in the house. Typical of the answers we hear from one another are things such as “more time with you”; “a little more patience”; “affection – a wink, a smile, or a hug”; or “during this pressure-packed week, I need you to pray with me.” Being proactive about uncovering your spouse’s needs will help you preempt many conflicts. It is also a straightforward way to communicate that you care about meeting needs in your relationship.

Principle 2: Adjust to Your Spouse’s Gender Style
Men and women communicate differently. That’s just how God wired us. In their classic book Love Is a Decision, Gary Smalley and Jon Trent refer to studies indicating that “The average woman speaks roughly 25,000 words a day, while the average man speaks only 12,500.“

How can a husband and wife adjust to each other‘s gender style of communication? It helps a great deal just to be aware that a difference exists. As you sharpen your awareness of this difference, continually ask yourself, “What can I do to meet my spouse’s communication need?“

Wives, realize that your husband is probably not as adept at or perhaps not as deeply interested in frequent and extended conversation as you are. It is okay to be home together or driving somewhere together and not be constantly talking about something. And it will allow your husband to focus his communication on those times when you need to talk through some issues or conflicts.

Husbands, get a clue that your wife needs to talk about things more than you do. You may need to save some of your “word power” during the day to spend on your wife. As you make her communication needs a priority, you may even find that you have a greater capacity for talking than you realize.

These are exceptions to the rule, of course. Some men are more skilled and interested in conversation than their wives. But it is remarkable how often we hear about women who want more communication and men who want less. The key is to be sensitive to your spouse’s communication style.

Principle 3: Choose the Right Time and Place
When it comes to successful communication in general or talking through a conflict in particular, timing and setting are vitally important. A friend once named two major components of healthy marital communication: skill and time. You need to exercise effective sharing, listening, and connecting skills in marriage communication, and you need to make it a priority in your schedule. You must be willing to initiate time with your spouse and be quick to respond when he or she takes the initiative. And when the timing doesn’t work for you, be sure to suggest a time that does work.

Communication is a process that allows a couple to express their hearts to each other. It involves both expressing themselves to one another and attentively listening to each other. In order for this to happen effectively, you need time that isn’t crowded with other activities and responsibilities, and you need a place that is free from distraction and interruption. When loving communication happens in a quiet, unhurried atmosphere, a husband and wife establish a sense of emotional intimacy that allows the relationship to blossom.

Principle 4: Share Thoughts, Feelings, and Needs
Since men and women are wired differently in this area too, we will share some helpful ways to communicate effectively both as a husband and a wife.

When you communicate effectively with your husband, the best order is information, feelings, then needs. When you follow this order, you are cooperating with the way God has wired your husband.

Share what you think about the issue. Wives, your husband needs information—content, a bottom line—and he usually needs that first. It is important for you to share what is on your mind about the topic or conflict in question. This will include both objective and subjective information plus your own insights, perceptions, ideas, values, and biases.
Share how you feel about the issue. Once you have shared the bottom line with your husband, you can move on to sharing your feelings. Everything we think about is attached to one or more emotions: fear, pride, joy sadness, frustration, betrayal, rejection, anger, anxiety, contentment, and so on.
Share what you need from your spouse. As you express your thoughts and reveal your emotions in communication, also state what you need from your husband in the situation. You are a partnership. You have committed before God to share each other’s burdens. But it is difficult for your husband to help carry the load if you don’t tell him what you need.
Men, women need the same three components of communication, but in a different order. They need to hear your feelings on the issue first, then your thoughts, and finally what you need to reach a solution.
Connect with her heart. The first step in communicating positively with your wife is to connect with her emotions before dealing with the details of the offense. How do you do that? Assure her that you hear her pain. If you don’t hear your wife’s heart first, she will feel misunderstood and frustrated. But when you ask her how she is feeling, she is more likely to feel heard.
Connect with the facts. Once you understand the emotions your wife is experiencing, she will be able to look at the facts more clearly. The issue will move from her heart to her head. As she feels heard and is comforted by your concern over her hurt, she is better able to receive your thoughts and ideas.
Connect with a solution. After you have connected with your wife’s emotions and discussed the facts, you may want to supply some ideas or options that will lead to a solution to the conflict. Such an approach lets your wife know that you want to help resolve the hurtful situation.

Principle 5: Tune In and Listen to Your Spouse
The Bible provides us with a simple guideline for all our relationships: “My dear brothers and sisters, be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry. Your anger can never make things right in God’s sight” (James 1:19-20). That says it well, doesn’t it?

If you are quick to listen, you will be more concerned about hearing and understanding your spouse than about getting your point across or winning the argument. Many times, the key to resolving a conflict is simply to listen to your spouse and seek to understand his or her position on the issue. When you both practice this discipline, you will probably be able to see things more clearly and reach a point of agreement.

Gary and I coach husbands and wives to listen actively. Active listening begins with eye contact. When your spouse is sharing with you, turn away from the newspaper, magazine, TV, or anything else and lock onto his or her eyes. When you avoid eye contact, you are conveying, “What you are about to say isn’t as important as this important issue I am focusing on.” Eye contact is vital to healthy marital communication. Eyes are the window to the soul.

Body language is also important to active listening. When you face your spouse, lean toward him or her, and occasionally nod your affirmation, your body is saying, “I’m really interested in what you are saying. You have my full attention.“ This is a concrete way to honor your spouse.

Principle 6: Share What Your Spouse Needs to Hear
A man’s approach to communication is often called the pyramid style of sharing information. When journalists write news stories, they start at the top of the pyramid with the main point: “Tornado claims hundreds of lives”; “Pentagon steps up war effort”; “Famous actor dies.” Subsequent paragraphs give additional information, from the most important to the most trivial. Many men are content just to read each headline and opening paragraph in the newspaper. And that’s often how they communicate with their wives.

Invert the pyramid, and you see how many women share information – not like a journalist but like a novelist. We gradually unfold the plot, giving all kinds of details inside lights, adding to the story layer by layer, and eventually working our way to the main point by the end of the story.
Communication between Gary and me has greatly improved over the years as we came to understand what each of us needs when we talk together. When we sit down to chat about our day, I give him several “bullets” of information, which satisfies his need to know up front what we’re talking about. But when Gary shares, he has learned to give me all sorts of information, weaving in as many secondary issues as he can remember before delivering the punchline. We both feel fulfilled with this type of communication.

When dealing with conflict, we use the same approach. I will say something like “Gary, I need to talk to you about the way you spoke to me this morning.” And then I get right to the point, no beating around the bush. He can handle it because he knows my agenda immediately. He typically responds, “Tell me what you’re concerned about.“ With that we begin to discuss and resolve the issue.

But if Gary approaches me with the same directness, he knows he might wound me. So he is more apt to ease me into the topic by saying something like, “Barb, I need to talk with you about something that’s been bothering me.“ This statement alerts me that he has something to say, but it meets my need to go through the process instead of jumping right to the bottom line.

Principle 7: Listen for the Underlying Issue
It’s likely that every married couple has experienced this kind of tension. Your communication sounds good on the surface, but you sense that your spouse is avoiding the key issue. Sometimes two different messages are being sent simultaneously: spoken and unspoken. Which one do we usually believe? That’s right, the unspoken message. We often try to say something without stating it directly, and just as often the real message gets lost in the verbiage. So a key principle for communication and resolving conflicts is to seek to understand the underlying issue with your spouse.

When you sense that your spouse is not owning up to the real issue, you have three options.
First, you can cave in and ignore the issue along with your spouse. We refer to this as the “back-door“ approach. The longer you avoid dealing with the main issue, the longer you will suffer the hurt and anger of the conflict.

Second, you may be tempted to throw your weight around. But an aggressive approach might touch off a full-blown conflict that will only make things worse.
Third, you can open the door to healing by lovingly confronting the buried issue. Using this kind but assertive approach, you can affirm your spouse, state your need, and challenge your spouse’s motives.

Your spouse will probably appreciate your willingness to dig a little deeper to deal with any issues lying beneath the surface of communication. Such honesty is healthy for both of you. There may be some defensiveness because confrontation often creates anxiety. But being direct in communication will help you resolve conflict and avoid additional conflict.

Confronting Your Conflicts

Conflicts are a given in every marriage. At some point in every conflict, you and your spouse must confront the issue head-on and resolve it. Having prepared your heart, diffused your anger, and sharpened your communication skills, you need to take the necessary steps to confront the conflict and heal the wounds. Here are six practical ways to do that.

Disarm the Conflict through Prayer
Any conflict between you and your spouse is potentially explosive. The combination of wrongs, hurts, and a variety of emotions can touch off a firestorm of cutting words and divisive actions. The first step toward confronting your conflicts is to disarm the potential for further hurt. This can happen only through prayer.

Gary and I are most effective at resolving a conflict when we have both approached it with tender and respectful spirits. It’s the kind of spirit that genuinely wants to work it out with God and with each other. So when we are ready to confront a conflict, one of us will say, “Let’s pray together first.” Here we are, armed for battle with an arsenal of verbal and emotional weapons at the ready. But we are determined that our marriage is going to glorify Jesus Christ. So we pray and invite Jesus into the process. Talk about draining the anger and fight out of a conflict! Prayer not only controls the flames of conflict but also forces us to humble ourselves before God and one another. By praying, we admit that neither of us has all the answers and that we must rely on God’s wisdom and direction.

Do we always feel like praying in the midst of a conflict? No way. Our pride tries to convince us that we can find a solution without God. Indeed, we fear that if we ask God into the discussion, we won’t get the justice or revenge we seek. The only way to deflate that pride is to humble ourselves before God and approach the conflict in prayer.

Take One Issue at a Time
Many attempts at resolving marital conflict unfold something like this. Husband and wife are trying to deal with a problem, and then one of them drags out another unresolved issue of pain from the past. In self-defense, the partner under attack responds in kind, digging up another long-buried issue and tossing it into the mix. Before long the initial discussion is buried under a truckload of conflicts dating back to the beginning of the relationship, and nothing gets resolved.

Gary and I have learned a great way to deal with multiple conflict issues. When a second topic comes up during the discussion, whoever recognizes it first will say, “It seems that we now have two open loops on the table. Let’s close the first one and then come back and close the other loop, okay?”

Depersonalize the Problem
Another technique we use in confronting conflicts is to depersonalize our conflicts. The key to depersonalizing a conflict is to attack the problem without attacking each other.

Marriage researcher John Gottman reports that when four elements are present in your arguments as husband and wife, you may be spiraling downward to an ultimate divorce. When a pattern of criticism leads to defensiveness, contempt and ultimately withdrawal, Gottman can predict divorce with over 90% accuracy. In order to confront your conflicts effectively, you need to approach each other without criticism.

Criticism is different from complaining. It is sometimes appropriate to complain about something your mate says or does. Complaining sounds like this:

·       It really bugs me when you leave the toilet seat up. Please be considerate and put the seat down after you use the toilet.

·       This is the second time this week you have been late picking up the kids after school. If you think you’re going to be late, just let me know so I can help out.

Criticism is an attack on the person instead of the problem. Criticism sounds like this:

·       All you care about is yourself. If you had any sense at all, you would think about others and put the toilet seat down.

·       You blew it again. I can’t believe you don’t call when you are running late. You are thoughtless and irresponsible.

One of the most frequent mistakes Gary and I made in the early years of our marriage was being critical of each other. As a result, even when the conflict was over and things had cooled down, we often felt we had added fuel to the fire because of a critical outburst.

Take a Gentle Approach
Another way to depersonalize the conflict and neutralize the weapons of verbal accusation is to use I-statements instead of you-statements. As illustrated below, you-statements tend to point the finger of accusation at your spouse, and they are often used in an effort to win the argument.

“Why do you keep criticizing my weight?”
“You shouldn’t get so uptight about your father.”
“You are blowing this problem way out of proportion.“

Your statements almost never encourage conflict resolution and often thwart it. Notice how the I-statements take the accusatory sting out of the same issues illustrated above.

“I feel discouraged when my weight problem becomes the topic of our discussion so often.“
“Is there anything I can do to help you work through your anger toward your dad?”
“I think there is a more realistic way to view this problem.“

Another way to incorporate gentleness when you confront your conflicts is to avoid exaggerations like always and never. Exaggerated you-statements only add fuel to a conflict. Such over-generalizations prompt the listener to take a defensive posture, which is not conducive to conflict resolution.

Seek to Resolve Instead of Repair
When it comes to resolving conflict at home, I’m (Gary) like a lot of other men. My first response is to jump in and try to fix the problem by righting the wrong or changing someone else’s behavior. But a quick-fix approach can get you into real trouble because your spouse may think you are trying to fix him or her. Sometimes your spouse just needs you to listen, empathize, provide support, or demonstrate that you care.

So what should you do when you don’t know what to do in a conflict? Simply ask your spouse what he or she needs from you. Our friends Charles and Janet shared with us a healthy alternative to “fixing“ a conflict. Janet’s father was an engineer – a problem-solver by trade. When she was growing up, Janet and her father had their share of conflicts, and her dad’s solution was to try to fix them, which led to further breakdowns in their communication.

Realizing that this approach wasn’t working, Janet’s dad took another tack. Instead of pummeling Janet with solutions, he would say in the midst of a meltdown, “Janet, I love you deeply, but I don’t want to blow it with you. What do you need for me right now: sympathy or a solution?” It worked every time and when Janet married Charles, he was wise enough to continue using this excellent technique in their marriage.

Barb and I have employed this technique in our marriage. Often when she comes to me with a problem or conflict, I will ask point-blank, “What do you need from me: sympathy or a solution?” We recommend this approach to you. Your spouse’s answer to that simple question will probably save you a lot of guesswork and wasted effort.

Work Toward a Decision
As you confront your conflicts, be aware that some decisions may be necessary. When you come to the decision-making stage, the first questions to ask each other are, “What does the Bible say about the situation? Is there a clear admonition we need to obey?” How’s that for getting to the heart of the matter? It’s not, “What do we feel like doing?” or “What do other people think we ought to do?” Those may be good questions, but they are secondary to what God has to say.

Sometimes the Bible does not give specific direction about an issue. For example, you and your spouse are arguing over whether to send your children to public school or private Christian school. Try as you might, you won’t find a “thus says the Lord“ that will make that decision for you. At these times, you need to seek God‘s wisdom for making the best decision in that situation. Here are a couple of suggestions that will help you reach your decisions and resolve your conflicts.

Stay open to different options. Avoid tunnel vision as you make your decisions. Think through all the possibilities instead of jumping on the first one – or the only one – you see. Brainstorm about different options with your spouse. Invite trusted family members or friends to share their wisdom on the issue. You can get so locked into “the way we’ve always done it” that you fail to recognize or appreciate a better solution.
Be open to not doing it your way. How would you react if your spouse said something like, “You know, your idea is just as good as mine, if not better. Why don’t we try doing it your way“? If your spouse tends to be a controller, no other statement would cause you more shock! That’s a great way to resolve conflict, but it rarely happens so easily. Instead, we instinctively want to resolve things according to what we think is best.

One of the most important aspects of resolving conflict is to defer to your spouse whenever possible, hoping your spouse realizes that he or she is more important than the issue at hand. This is essentially what the apostle Paul meant when he wrote, “So encourage each other and build each other up, just as you are already doing” (1 Thess. 5:11). We are to edify and encourage each other as husband and wife, delighting in the opportunity to resolve a conflict to our spouse’s advantage. This may mean swallowing your pride and relinquishing control. But when each of you is committed to edifying and encouraging the other, the rewards will be well worth the s