You may have suffered serious moments of honesty in your marriage. A wife tells her husband she wishes she’d married someone else. A husband tells his wife he dreams of being single again.

Just as there are forms of dishonesty that creep into our communication, there are also several forms of honest expression that are loaded with corrosive content.

Exaggerations — only, always, never
Sometimes one spouse has something legitimate to share with the other but exaggerates it in a way that makes it almost impossible for the other spouse to receive it. For example, imagine you’ve just blown it and in a flash of anger you spoke harshly. After a few minutes you cool off and realize that you need to apologize. As you try to apologize your spouse says, “You know, it would help if you weren’t so critical all the time! You never say anything nice to me!” How would you respond to that? You might think, Am I critical “all of the time”? I “never” say anything encouraging? Okay, I blew it; and I’ve blown it before, but haven’t I gotten it right at least once?

Consider how different it would have been if your spouse had listened first or started by saying, “You know it really hurts me when you lose your temper like that. And sometimes I feel like you’re disappointed with me more often than you’re happy with me.” It might have deepened your understanding of what happened, which would have deepened your apology rather than negating it.

Trait names
“You’re a liar!” “You’re such a jerk!” “You’re a monster!”

In the heat of battle, spouses say things that are especially destructive. They use trait names, taking the behavior that’s angered or hurt them and using it to label the other. Instead of saying, “I feel like you weren’t being honest with me,” they say, “You’re a liar.” Instead of saying, “You really hurt me when you said . . . ,” they say, “You’re a jerk!” Loser, liar, and jerk are just a few that I often hear as a marriage counselor.

You know all too well that these words sting, but you may not understand why they’re so damaging. Trait names and exaggerations work the same way and have a similar effect. (Trait names are a type of exaggeration.) Both, in effect, reduce a spouse’s identity to his or her sinful behavior. Trait names and exaggeration communicate, “You’re no more and no better than what you’ve just done.” That’s a powerful statement, and, if you let it sink in, overwhelming. When your identity, who you are, is under attack, it’s very hard to respond in a positive way.

Mind reading — assuming the worst
Stewart and Tammy had a real blowout this morning, yelling and screaming ugly things. Five minutes ago Stewart came through the door with a dozen roses, planted a passionate kiss on Tammy, and announced that he had arranged for a babysitter and that they were going out to a fantastic restaurant, Tammy’s favorite.

Tammy angrily pushed Stewart away and proclaimed, “Don’t think I don’t know what you’re up to! You want me to just forget everything that you said to me this morning, pretend that it didn’t happen and then you’re just going to sweep me off of my feet, buy me dinner, and even expect me to have sex with you tonight! Well, you can just forget it!” Tammy stormed off to their bedroom, slamming the door behind her. In effect, Tammy acted as if she’d read Stewart’s mind, as if she not only knew what Stewart was doing but why he was doing it — and that it was awful.

Sometimes mind reading is a strategy of self-protection. When you assume the worst, you believe you can defend yourself from unpleasant surprises or being wounded in the same way you’ve been wounded in the past. But whatever benefit you believe you get from mind reading is far outweighed by the damage done to your marriage.

One of the biggest challenges to honesty is shame, our sense that there are things about us that make us unacceptable and unlovable, things that we feel we must hide. Marriage gives us an opportunity both to give and to receive the same kind of love that God gives us, a love that communicates that we can be known and loved. It’s especially egregious, then, when in a moment of anger a spouse takes something you’ve shared in a moment of intimacy and safety and uses it as a weapon against you. When you shame your spouse in this way, you’re not only humiliating your spouse and breaking trust; you’re actively attacking the work of the gospel in his or her life.

Wholesome speech affirms identity
Even a few well-chosen words can provide a compass heading and reorient a couple in danger of losing their way. Consider how different difficult conversations would be if they were punctuated with statements like these:

  1. “I know God wants better for us. Let’s take some time to cool off and pray.” Bring God into the discussion, not to seem spiritually superior but to remember that he’s as real a part of your marriage and your problems as anyone.
  2. “We aren’t just husband and wife but brother and sister in Jesus. Let’s listen to each other and help each other grow.” I recently met with a couple struggling in their marriage, and the wife shared that one of the things that’s helped her the most is remembering that her husband isn’t just her husband but a child of God and her brother.
  3. “One of the things I’ve always loved about you is your _____.” [Fill in the blank with whatever fits your spouse and the situation.]

How can you draw on the strengths that each of you brought to the marriage? How can you remind each other of what they are and activate them? This is a way of remembering and recognizing that God has given us gifts to strengthen and bless each other.

  1.  Let your spouse know that you want to understand. Ask honest questions — questions you want answered.
  2. Verify your understanding. Don’t assume that you understand; to be sure, ask.
  3. Emotionally respond to what you hear. Your spouse needs to know that you’re affected by what he or she has shared.

Adapted from Marriage Matters, by Winston T. Smith

Copyright © 2011 by Winston T. Smith,  published by New Growth Press, used with permission.

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