When it comes to conflict and communication, the most important factor may be the tone we choose with our spouse.
Maybe you’ve been there. You say something totally innocent and your spouse takes it completely the wrong way. Then they do that thing they do when they are frustrated with you: maybe they get loud or maybe they do the opposite and withdraw from you. When that happens, no matter what started it, whether you meant it or not, it hurts your connection as a couple.
For some of us, this dynamic of not hearing ourselves the way our spouses hear us is an annoyance that happens once a week or once a month. When it happens it’s like a relational speed bump. It’s not a huge deal, just something you wish you could change. But for some of you, this dynamic of not hearing yourself the way your spouse hears you happens almost every day, and it is killing your connection as a couple.
What’s really going on when you and your spouse do not understand each other, or when you’re frustrated with each other? I have found for many couples, Nancie and I included, that it’s not what we said that was wrong as much as how we said it. I’m talking about tone. And just to be clear, I’m not defining tone as your voice inflection but as your overall posture and attitude toward your spouse.
The great news is the Bible isn’t silent about the tone of our interactions. It’s actually very clear and descriptive. I want to share with you just three verses that are directed specifically toward Christians, but I think they are powerful for anybody who applies them. These verses come from Colossians 3. Paul is explaining that in response to God’s extraordinary love for us, we are to have extraordinary love for each other.
These verses come from Colossians 3:12–14. He says, “Therefore, as God’s chosen people.” “Therefore” means because. Because you are “God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves.” Now before I give you the rest of this verse and the two verses after that, I have to warn you it’s a relatively long list of virtues. But I don’t want you to feel overwhelmed because the final verse allows us to sum up all these virtues into one word. But I do think it’s very important that we take a close look, and I will tell you a little bit later why.
“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, clothe yourselves with compassion.” Those of us who owe so much to God’s mercy toward us should be full of compassion. I mean, think about the compassion that God had and has on us. Our response to God’s compassion toward us is to have compassion toward others. This, of course, includes your spouse.
“Next, clothe yourselves in kindness.” Because of God’s extraordinary kindness, we, too, must be kind. A dear friend of mine who has done clinical research with couples for twenty-five years said this to me—it’s very powerful—“We have convinced a generation that a group of PhDs like me have the complicated answers to marriage, and the average Joe and Sue must somehow extract those answers from us. When, in actuality, people have forgotten the small things, like being kind.” Here’s a man who knows all too well about the complexity of marriage and counseling, and here is how he boils it down: He boils it down to the basics like being kind. How are we to respond to God’s great kindness for us? By being kind to others. And this, of course, includes our spouses.
The next word he uses is humility. Part of humility is not responding to anger with anger. This is a tough one for me. When my wife gets angry with me, which isn’t often because she is very patient, I tend to get angry back, especially if I feel misunderstood. But that is the exact time to clothe myself in humility. How are we to respond to God’s great humility for us? By being humble with others. And this, again, includes our spouses.
Next, clothe yourselves with gentleness. Yes, the tone we use with our spouses should be gentle. Guys, I think this applies especially to us. Later on in this same chapter, Paul says for husbands not to be harsh with their wives. I heard a great piece of advice from a newlywed the other day. He told me his wife said to him, “Talk to me like I’m a woman, not a man.” Men, we are called to be gentle. Women, you are called to be gentle. How are we to respond to God’s great gentleness for us? By being gentle with others. And this includes our spouses.
Next, we are to clothe ourselves in patience. Part of being patient, in terms of tone, is being consistent with our tones. When our tones are consistently loving, our spouses know that no matter what happens, we love them. It’s so important. How are we to respond to God’s great patience with us? By being patient with others. And this includes our spouses.
Paul goes on to give us one more virtue before he sums it up into one word. “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” Wow, what an amazingly relevant piece of advice to all married couples! How powerful that one verse would be for so many couples who are stuck, who need to let go and move on. So many people have filing drawers of everything their spouses have ever done wrong. In the name of being grateful for God’s forgiveness, many of us just need to toss out those files, especially if you are a stuffer. I have found that people who tend to stuff their feelings when they get hurt have very detailed filing systems. For many people, it is time to let go so you can move forward.
Now I realize that is a lot: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, and forgiveness. But as I promised earlier, the next verse allows us to consolidate. I love the Bible. It’s so relevant. Watch this. It says, “And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” (Colossians 3:12–14)
You may be thinking, If we can sum it up in one word, then why in the world did you take us through all the words? The reason I took us through those verses was for us to understand that, as believers, our tones with our spouses need to be extraordinarily loving. I believe that it is particularly important when it comes to our spouses because, as Christians, our marriages are supposed to look so good that it reflects the relationship between Christ and the church. In other words, it’s supposed to make non-believers see our marriages and say, “I’ll have what they are having.” I’m not talking about perfection here. But I’m talking about an extraordinarily loving tone. We are called to nothing less.
This article excerpted from What's Your Tone? by Ted Lowe.