I’ll never forget a conversation I had with a counsellor several years ago. My husband and I were going through a particularly rough time: he was experiencing some stresses in his work life, I was experiencing health and anxiety issues (how often the two are linked!) and our marriage was becoming increasingly strained.
Sitting in the counsellor’s office, I began to relate a conversation that I had recently had with my husband. The conversation had been pretty one-sided: it was me, telling my husband everything that he was doing that was causing friction in our home: all the behaviours that I was not happy with.
After I had finished this extensive—and what I thought was compelling—list of evidence against my husband, I expected the counsellor to turn to me and validate what I had said or offer sympathy for what I was experiencing. Instead he leaned back, crossed his arms over his chest and asked, ‘Rachel, in that entire conversation that you had with your husband, did you even once tell him the way that you wanted things to be between the two of you?’
Build or Demolish
My counsellor was not undermining my concerns nor was he saying that the words I had spoken were necessarily untrue: rather he was pointing to the way in which I had communicated with my husband. Proverbs 14:1 speaks of the wise woman (or man!) who builds their home, rather than tearing it down. Although my conversation with my husband had been a calm one, I had effectively ‘torn down’ rather than ‘built up.’ I had been problem-focused rather than solution-orientated and nothing deflates a human spirit more than pessimistic criticism.
Encouraging words, however, are motivators. They have the power to shift a perspective, open up a space for problem-solving and change the emotional climate of our relationships.
Following are some practical tips that you can begin to apply now, to speak encouragement into your marriage.
The Five-to-One Ratio
John Gottman is a PhD family and marriage therapist who has done extensive research on marriage and divorce. His surveys indicated that the single biggest factor responsible for the breaking down of marriage is how many negative comments spouses communicate to one another as compared to positive comments. Marriages operate best when spouses communicate five positive comments for every negative one. Gottman found that the average ratio for divorced couples was three positive comments for every four negative ones. It is no surprise that such imbalanced environments become uninhabitable.
However surprising the results of Gottman’s survey may be, they do offer us great insight—and an incredibly practical and simple method—for building a positive environment with our marriages.
Simply keep the balance in check: five positive comments for every criticism!
Of course, this figure is a guideline and not a rigid rule, but it offers a general principle for us to keep in mind. Try to think back to the things you did when you and your spouse were in love. How did you compliment one another? How did you bless one another with your words?
Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Thank your spouse for bringing a paycheque home, for cooking a meal or for driving the kids to school each day: explain that you value their commitment to the family
- Make a point of paying your spouse one genuine compliment daily
- Write a list of ten things you appreciate about your spouse and give it to them
- Has your partner made something or accomplished something? Maybe they ran a marathon, made a beautiful batch of brownies or did a super job on the hedges…pop a photograph on your social media status and tag them for a job well done!
- Speak positively to and about your spouse in the presence of others. Set a tone of respect amongst your friends and colleagues by complimenting your spouse openly
- Think of what’s important to your spouse. What are their goals? Where are they headed in life? Take time to communicate that you believe they will get there. That you will be by their side all the way
- Ask your spouse if you can help them in any way
- It can be easy to talk about the negative experiences of the past. Try to bring to mind the most positive memories you have with your spouse: laughing at the movies, a beach trip, an in-joke. Keep the memories alive!
The Place for Constructive Criticism
In Psalm 145:5, King David cries out, ‘Let the godly strike me! It will be a kindness! If they correct me, it is soothing medicine. Don’t let me refuse it.’
Even our concerns can be encouraging if we are wise in the way that we communicate them.
- If you do have something that you need to bring up with your spouse; try to start the conversation with something positive, something that you appreciate. In one of my writing classes we use a ‘positive feedback sandwich’ when critiquing our peers’ work. We start by communicating something positive about the work, then we respectfully communicate what we felt needed changing and then we finish by again affirming what worked in the piece. This positive-negative-positive technique can be really helpful in our marriages too
- When communicating your concerns, try to avoid blame-shifting language and hyperbole; statements such as ‘you always’ or ‘you never’ deplete the listener and put them on the defensive
- Too often we speak in generalised criticisms: try suggesting the solution rather than going into details about the problem! Instead, try starting with, ‘I love it when you….(play with the kids, do the dishes, wash my uniform etc.) I would really appreciate it if you did it more often.’ Not only are you making a request versus expressing a complaint, but you are being concrete with what it is that you want.
Using our words to speak encouragement into our marriage is a practice that we will never regret. Proverbs 16:24 tells us that kind words are like honey: ‘they are sweet to the spirit and bring healing to the body.’ Marriage can be a challenging, but our partner is not the enemy. They are the ally; the teammate on our side, fighting in the same challenges. Speaking encouragement establishes our partnership and helps to create a marriage environment that is safe, positive and pro-active. Try it and see.
Rachel Wallace and her husband, Nathan, live in Melbourne where they parent two incredible kids who challenge and delight them daily. She is currently studying professional writing, loves seeing what God does with the sky each day and aims to encourage and empower others through her writing. Find out more and follow Rachel's blog at https://rachelwallacewritesat.blogspot.com.au/