ecay. When does it happen? Have you ever had a cavity? Do you know exactly what date it appeared? Not when you discovered it, but when it first became a cavity. If you’re like me, you have no idea. I can think back to a range of time, say between the previous dentist visit and when the dentist pointed it out or my tooth started to hurt, but that could be a window of half a year or more. It’s one of those things that you don’t notice until someone points it out to you or you feel pain. Decay is a process, not an instantaneous event, and it happens slowly over time. So slowly, in fact, it’s very hard to tell when it first began.
The same is true of decay in our marriages.
If we aren’t going through all the steps of proper prevention, things can sneak up on us and grow into a huge problem over time. That’s no good, so let’s talk about how to avoid it.
30 Years of Dirty Socks
During one marriage intensive that Jess and I participated in a few months after we realized we had a problem, we were in a group counseling session with a few other couples and a counselor. There was another couple in the group who had been married nearly 30 years. We’ll call them Elise and Mark. They had raised a son who was nearly out of high school, and, from the outside, seemed to have it all together. During one of the group discussions on the second day of the intensive, a question was asked that made Elise freeze. Then she started to cry. She told Mark how she felt like he didn’t care about her when he left his socks on top of the dirty clothes bin instead of lifting the lid and putting them inside. The more she talked, the harder she cried.
Mark was completely caught off-guard and was genuinely shocked at how much hurt such a simple act had caused over 30 years. He quickly apologized and before long they were hugging each other and crying together. I was surprised at just how much hurt had been caused by such a seemingly small thing over time, and I realized just how easily Jess and I could end up in Mark and Elise’s shoes if we aren’t continuously vigilant.
But what would it mean to be vigilant? I certainly wouldn’t start a habit of leaving socks on the hamper, but that was obviously just a small example. So many small things can cause hurt. Big things too.
As half of the marriage team, you can only truly be responsible for half of the communication. You need to share openly and be receptive to your spouse’s sharing. They need to do the same. Mark was completely unaware. Maybe he had initially ignored Elise’s comments, or maybe she had never said a word, but the communication gap could have been prevented with a few simple steps. Here are a few tips on how to communicate with your spouse about these hurts in the best way possible:
For the person sharing where they feel hurt:
- If you find yourself really struggling with something your spouse does, plan how to share with them in a calm and loving way. Proverbs 15:1 says it best, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”
- Use feeling words: “I feel______when you______.” (I feel hurt when you leave your dirty dishes in the living room.)
- Don’t use accusations that focus on their character: “I feel that you______.” (I feel that you are a terrible person for not taking the trash out when it’s full.)
- Remember, it’s hard to hear an area where you’re not measuring up. Don’t be mean. Even though you’re hurt, wait to share until you can share in a calm and respectful way. (This can be hard sometimes, especially when we want to share at the moment when we’re angry, but that usually doesn’t end well.)
- Once you’ve shared, don’t expect your spouse to agree with you immediately. They may need to process and understand in their own way. Give them space and some time to think about it.
- Allow them to mess up. Nobody is perfect, and change can take time.
- A little praise can go a long way. Recognize when they’re making an effort and thank them for it.
For the person hearing where their spouse feels hurt:
- As your spouse shares, try to focus on their emotions and feelings.
- Don’t get defensive. If your spouse tries to share something with you, try to avoid seeing it as an attack. Sharing something can be hard enough for them without fear of backlash.
- Thank them for sharing. You don’t need to respond or agree with what they say, but their sharing was an attempt at deeper communication. That’s something you want in your marriage, and it’s worth a “thank you” when they go out on a limb.
- Take some time to pray and reflect. These things aren’t always easy to hear, but if they mean something to your spouse, you want to treat them seriously and do some self-reflection. Sometimes it takes me a few days to fully process what Jess shares.
- If anything is unclear, ask follow-up questions to better understand how your spouse feels and how they see the situation.
- Once you feel like you understand everything, make a plan to change habits. Ask your spouse to call you on it to help you become more aware. Then resolve to try to change in the moment.
For both of you:
- Give your spouse permission to speak into your life. They may be bothered by something that you’re completely unaware of. Ask them periodically if anything that you’re doing is bothering them. This whole process is about being your best and trusting that your spouse will strive to be their best.
- Don’t be afraid to speak up. Follow the tips above, but don’t bottle up your feelings or tell yourself they’re not important and you’ll “get over it”. This is how the decay starts.
- Pick the best time. Jess and I have found that we can be our best in difficult conversations in the morning when we aren’t tired and we have a bit of time before we need to be anywhere. A rested mind can respond much better than a tired one. Most of our conflicts have been at night when we’re tired.
- Grab a bite to eat. Our bodies process better when we aren’t hungry, and a bit of food can help us to share gently and respond well.
- Remember, your spouse loves you. Whether you’re the one sharing or the one listening, the conversation can be hard for both of you. Have a little grace and make it as easy on them as possible.
- It gets easier! If you keep working at it, you might be surprised just how easy the process can become over time. Things that were hard a year ago might be a lot easier now.
- It’s okay to ask for help. If at any point you find yourself struggling with something for more than a couple weeks and it’s just not improving, reach out to a pastor or a counselor for help. This single step will make sure that nothing in your marriage grows as big as the socks did for Mark and Elise.
One of the best goals we can have in our marriage is the open sharing of struggles with each other in a loving way. If you follow these steps, they’ll help prevent decay in your marriage just like brushing and flossing regularly do for your teeth. It’s a process that takes time for you to learn as a couple, but if you work at it a little, you’ll find what works best in your marriage.
Has there been a time when you’ve shared something difficult with your spouse? How did it feel? Would you do anything differently? Let us know in the comments below…