Arguments about the gift-giving budget, unrealistic expectations for the perfect Christmas, demanding time constraints, a house full of people and maybe even something burning in the oven.
All of these stressors can contribute to a miserable Christmas—and a horrible New Year.
But my wife of 37 years, Terrie, and I have learned that one word can help ease the tension of the holidays—communication.
In our new travel-themed guide for marriage "Are We There Yet?"we address the important topic of communication and talk about staying within four "guardrails" when it comes to how husbands and wives speak to each another.
Especially at the holidays, the words we speak hold tremendous power. And their power is increased exponentially when we speak them to people we love. Our words also hold lasting power long after we speak them. You can probably remember within a matter of seconds the most hurtful thing someone you love said to you. Conversely, you can probably also remember unexpected words of praise or thanks from someone you loved or respected. Although these words may have only lasted mere seconds, they had a powerful influence on you. This is true in marriage as well. The words you say to one another have extreme significance.
Too often, Christian homes are no different than non-Christian homes in communication. Couples who wouldn't think of physically abusing one another may hurt the other even more deeply with sarcastic or cutting words. Husbands demean their wives, and wives belittle their husbands. There's yelling and screaming or silence and cutting off. But no one wins in this kind of environment—not the spouse who hurts the other and not the spouse who clams up and refuses to speak. Perhaps the saddest aspect of communication dysfunctions is not the harm that is happening, but the good that is being missed. God created us with a need for relational connection, and marriage is the pinnacle of fulfilling that need. But it requires that we communicate with one another in godly, positive and kind ways.
A relationship with poor communication is like a traffic jam. Couples don't go anywhere—at least not very fast. But grace-filled communication opens hearts and allows couples to travel down the road of marriage further together, especially if they stay within these four guardrails.
- Guardrail of Truth—The two guidelines of "No Secrets" and "Safe Sharing" can help keep couples on the right path toward truthful communication.
- No Secrets—Lying has become a way of life for too many Christians. From hiding the truth to exaggerating the facts to bold-faced lies, any breach in truthfulness will damage a marriage because it destroys the trust needed for real communication to take place. Marriage is not a place for secrets. This means no hidden websites, private texts, secret social media, hidden credit cards, secret stashes of porn or hidden relationships. When you hide part of your life from your spouse, no matter how innocent or noble the reason seems, you open your marriage to disaster.
- Safe Sharing—There is more to truthfulness than what you don't say; there is also what you do say. Ephesians 4:25 not only warns us not to lie, but it also instructs us to speak truth. Good communication is proactive communication where your spouse is the one person on earth with whom you can and do share anything and everything. Regular communication is the highway to complete openness. Without the real exchange of thoughts and emotions, there will be no depth to your relationship.
- Guardrail of Indignation—No real relationships avoid conflict. Any relationship that does either has no depth or has underlying stress that one or the other will not acknowledge. When you face a point of conflict that evokes anger, determine to stand together in your anger. That is, be angry together at the problem, not at each other. You are on the same team. Rather than pointing fingers at one another, jointly tackle the problem that is hurting or threatening your relationship.
- Guardrail of Kindness—If you want to have kind speech, it helps to set parameters—like the out-of-bounds areas in a basketball game. Having limits protects you from saying things in the heat of the moment that you'll regret later, like these four simple rules for marital communication.
- Never threaten with divorce. Usually whoever mentions divorce first does it to try to get the other's attention. But once you crack that door open, even suggesting divorce as a possibility, you are giving Satan entrance to push it open wider. If you've already crossed that line, why not pray together, renewing your commitment to your marriage and making today a fresh start from which divorce is never mentioned again?
- Never argue in front of the kids. The greatest gift you can give your children is to love your spouse. Hearing their parents fight does influence children. It makes them insecure, worries them that the disagreement is their fault, and even impacts their academics because of the emotional distraction it creates. Make it a rule: you will stand united in love in the presence of your children and will work out disagreements privately.
- Never attack personally. This is the practical outworking of attacking a problem rather than a person. Instead of accusing, "You always leave your socks on the bathroom floor because you don't care how much work I do," explain your vantage point and ask a question: "I'm feeling overwhelmed. I know it seems like a small thing, but would you mind putting your socks in the hamper?" Don't presume to know your spouse's motives or turn an action into a lack of character.
- Take breaks during tense moments. When you sense frustration or anger rising, take a few minutes to collect your emotions and to remember that you love your spouse before reengaging in conversation. Proverbs 29:11 warns, "A fool uttereth all his mind, but a wise man keepeth it in till afterwards." Instead of giving your spouse a piece of your mind, choose to give yourself a slice of time. If we will take a few minutes, we are far less likely to say something we will regret.
- Guardrail of Edification—While our words have power to wound and hurt, they also have tremendous power to build. In fact, to edify means "to build." And if there is one action that love does, it is build others. First Corinthians 8:1 tells us that "charity edifieth"—it builds. Every time we use our words to criticize, we are saying to our spouse, "I don't love you." But every time we speak words of encouragement and praise, we are communicating love in one of the most meaningful ways possible.
As you work at communication in marriage, you will have times when you mess up. You'll scrape the guardrails; sometimes you'll swerve into the ditch. You may end up traveling in the exact opposite direction you intended to go. But even when you struggle to go forward or when you mess up by overcorrecting, don't just put your communication in park and quit trying. Don't shut down or leave all the communicating to your spouse.
Communication is a two-lane highway, and it works best if you keep moving on it. There may be some frustrations along the way, but it is the highway to happiness in your relationship. So keep driving.
Dr. Paul Chappell is the pastor of Lancaster Baptist Church and the president of West Coast Baptist College in Southern California. You can follow him on Twitter @PaulChappell. He and his wife, Terrie, have just written a new book titled 'Are We There Yet? Marriage—A Perfect Journey for Imperfect Couples.'