Have you ever had one of those days or weeks when everyone in your home was in a rotten mood? A couple of weeks ago, I (Bonnie) became frustrated with the way our children were talking to each other. They are the typical eight and ten-year-old siblings. Still, the tone behind every conversation had turned negative and accusatory. After sending them to school, I spent my Monday morning reading scripture and praying, asking the Lord to give me wisdom about how to effectively address the little rascals.
I both love and hate how reading God’s word is like looking into a mirror. It didn’t take long that morning for me to sense a prompt in my spirit, “your kids are not the problem… You are.” That message stung, but the more I recalled the events of the previous week, the more I realized it was true. Writing blog posts, prepping for YouTube shoots, and recording podcasts for a new ministry takes time and energy. Unfortunately, that left me tired and grumpy with the people I’m closest to. As much as I feel called to invest in and encourage other marriages through The Marriage Adventure, I cannot lose myself in it and give my family the leftovers. Proverbs 18:21 says, “The tongue has the power of life and death.” As tough as it was to own up to, MY attitude and MY words had clearly been setting the tone for our entire family.
I don’t think any of us wake up in the morning and think, “let me go wreck someone’s day,” or “how many things can I pick apart in my spouse before work this morning.” But if we don’t become aware of our attitude and the words we use with people, over time, we can become the thermostat that sets a negative temperature in our home. When we realize we’ve fallen into an unhealthy pattern, what can we do to change the climate and breathe life and peace back into our marriage? Here are a few things we have found helpful in our own relationship.
#1. Recognize the problem.
It’s common to live in an environment for so long that we normalize what might be a glaring issue to an outsider. We have a little stool that sits in the corner of our kitchen that is rarely used. About three weeks ago, I moved a stack of tax papers I was working on from the table to the stool. I fully intended to come back to them and finish entering them into our accounting software the next morning. For the next two days, every time I looked at those papers, I thought, “I really need to do something about that.” Another week passed, and I thought, “I can’t believe I haven’t finished that yet. Maybe I should at least move them.” Three weeks later, I don’t even see them anymore, except when Daniel reminds me they’re still there. They have blended into the background and become part of the kitchen that I walk around. Until I recognize those papers have to be dealt with and actually plan a time to sit down and sort through them, they will continue to be a part of our daily life. If we are ever going to change the way we speak to each other in our marriage, we have to stop settling for “normal” and recognize a need for change. But that’s not quite enough.
#2. Ask the Lord to help you see your part and change your heart.
If you’re like us, recognizing a problem is the natural part. Recognizing my contribution and taking ownership of it becomes a little more complicated. Even if we know we are the problem, our pride wants us to bury it and keep ignoring or making excuses for it. That’s where we need the Lord to change our heart. We need Him to help us become more self-aware and reveal our own attitudes and words that we use as weapons. One effective way of figuring out what you sound like is to listen to your children. For better or worse, their tones and phrases parrot us. If God reveals that you are the problem, that means He can also change your heart. Just ask Him.
#3. Capture the quarter second.
If you are uncomfortable with the temperature in your home, you have to actually get up, walk across the room, and adjust the thermostat. Likewise, changing an ingrained pattern of sarcasm, cutting, or negative words will take work. You will have to make a conscious effort to capture your words before they come out of your mouth. Like the Psalmist, you can ask the Lord to help you. “Set a GUARD, O Lord, over MY mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips!“-Ps. 141:3 Research has shown that it takes ¼ of a second from the time we take in a stimulus until it is processed in the “reasoning” part of our brains. It hits our emotional center first, then is relayed to the part that explains it to us, then allows us to respond… all within a ¼ of a second! If we can capture that ¼ second, pause, and lengthen it to thirty seconds, we can better process the response that comes out of our mouth. If we’ve just encountered harsh or hurtful words, we can de-escalate the conversation by choosing to speak life in return or by saying nothing at all. But this takes lots and lots of practice, which leads to #4.
#4. Apologize when you fail.
Even after you have adjusted the thermostat, it takes time for the temperature to change. If you and your spouse work together to speak life-breathing words to each other, you’ll be amazed at how many areas of your relationship improve. But even when you’re both trying, you’re still gonna blow it. When you do pierce each other with your words, apologize. Hearing a heartfelt, “I’m sorry” can soften a heart and re-route an entire conversation. And make sure you show each other grace quickly as you move toward a peaceful pattern of communication.
The old saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is a cute little rhyme that helps children deflect the meanness that’s dished out on elementary school playgrounds. But, as grown-ups, we know there’s not an ounce of truth in it. Some of our deepest wounds have most likely been inflicted by words. “There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts” (Prov. 12:18a). Recalling someone’s intentional or careless words decades later can still feel like a twisting knife.
Thankfully, that proverb offers both counsel and hope. “But the tongue of the wise brings healing” (Prov 12:18b). We get to choose the words that we use with others. We can be the “wise” who bring healing into our marriage and family. To do that, we must guard the words of our mouths and the attitudes of our hearts, choosing words that breathe life, rather than death. Today is a new day. Speak life!
Enjoying the Adventure,
Daniel & Bonnie