When most couples come to me about struggles in their marriage, they usually reduce such struggles to “communication issues.” But here’s a little secret about communication issues: They’re never really about communication. If they were, they’d be relatively easy to fix. A wife could just stop yelling or a husband could just stop being so critical. But there is usually so much more going on. Do you have trouble communicating with your spouse? Here are some suggestions as your navigate these thorny issues:
1. Seek help to identify the state of your own heart.
Communication will be nearly impossible if you hold your spouse in contempt. We usually reach that point after long periods of heartache where resolution seems hopeless. We give up trying to relate to our spouse and start tying every word, deed, and motivation to the negative caricature we’ve reduced them to. We interpret everything through a negative filter. If this is where you find yourself, counseling is not optional. You will need God’s grace through others to transform the dark and cynical lens through which you’ve turned your best friend into a foe.
Likewise, communication will be nearly impossible if you carry unresolved trauma within your heart—and with it, unidentified triggers. How can your spouse possibly relate to a heart that you don’t understand yourself? They will not only be contending with present issues but past ones that may have nothing to do with them. They will be walking through a minefield of triggers without knowing where to step. Such traumas and triggers must be brought into the light of day by the grace of God through the help of others.
2. Watch your language.
Let’s assume now that you’ve identified and worked through the communication killers at work in your own heart. You can now work to communicate in such a way that helps get to the heart of the real issues in your marriage, rather than hinders your efforts. The single greatest thing you can do in this regard is couch your words in the language of feeling: “I feel like you don’t care about me” or “It hurts when you say that.”
These feeling words can transform the way your words are heard by your spouse. If you take those words away, then your sentiments immediately become accusations and will put your spouse on the defensive. Instead of engaging the problem, you will be treating your spouse as the problem. When you use the feeling words, you are inviting your spouse to see your heart rather than close off their own. You are asking them to fight alongside you rather than against you.
3. Pursue the real issues.
Communication issues mask the more difficult sin issues at work in our marriages. Every one of us brings a world of sin into our marriage—a world in which others have deeply wounded us by sin, where we have harbored idols that serve as our functional saviors, and where we engage in real-time, flesh-and-blood sin struggles. Our sanctification is a key part of God’s plan for marriage (1 Cor. 7; Eph. 5).
But we can only identify and engage sin from the vantage point of God’s love and with words of grace and compassion. This is how God can use marriage to grow us in holiness. We feel safe enough in God’s love and in the love of our spouse to reveal the nakedness of our own hearts. God takes the drooping chin of our hearts and lifts it up so that our shame can be met with the healing light of our Savior. We can be accusers of our spouses—like Satan—condemning one another in our sin, or we can be advocates—like Jesus—bringing all sin issues before the throne of grace and both resting in and reassuring one another with the sweet knowledge that our trespasses are nailed to the cross (Col. 2:13-14).
4. Don’t lose the forest for the trees.
Marriage is a profound mystery, and your life will be spent sorting through its complexities with your spouse before God. Don’t forget to draw upon the vast resources of wisdom that comes through the local church. Your elders are shepherds of your soul and care about your marriage. Older believers will give you precious perspectives on God’s faithfulness over time and those who are in a similar stage of life will remind you that your journey is part of the broader journey of God’s redeemed people.
Satan will constantly obscure this vision of marriage, but God gives you a Holy Spirit who is far greater than any demonic power—even your sin! He will imbue your marriage with grace and guide you in paths of righteousness for his sake (Ps. 23). Your words may fail you, but the Lord will not. He will not leave you in your sin, nor forsake you, but will use your marriage for his glory. He is faithful.