Communication is central to our ability to connect well with our spouse and to work with them in resolving presenting issues that arise in day to day life. Though there are many facets of communication, I want to focus on one specific area that I find married couples are often unaware of that can make a significant and positive difference in how they communicate with each other: slowing down.
Slowing down is a broad phrase that needs to be defined. In this particular context, I'm not referring to enunciating slowly or having fewer events on our calendar. I'm referring to something more difficult, and possibly more important: controlling our emotional responses.
That's right, controlling how we respond to our spouse in spite of how we feel. This is something that is always easier said than done, especially when we're having a disagreement and can feel our emotions steadily rising. It's usually at these critical points that we say or do things that we regret, and ultimately place the emotional safety in our marriage at risk.
Maintaining that emotional safety and preventing painful breaches is fundamental to a healthy marriage. Protecting your marriage in this regard is simply too difficult when we allow our emotions to guide our responses. That's why we need to put principles like slowing down in place. Let's take a moment to examine how we can put this unique principle to work in our marriages.
TAKE TIME TO CALM DOWN
Taking time to calm down may seem entirely elementary, but I assure you it is not. It takes a mature and disciplined individual to recognize a conversation is quickly breaking down, decide to disengage for a period of time, and obtain the space needed to calm down emotionally.
I realize that many spouses would prefer to have their partner remain with them until their disagreement is resolved, however staying together and continuing to talk may only lead to further conflict or the emotional withdrawal of one or both members. The reality is there are times when slowing down and doing the following is far more constructive:
1. Identify when a conflict is developing.
2. Break from the conversation and allow each member to have adequate time to rest emotionally.
3. Continue the needed conversation later that day after each person has calmed down.
These steps allow each spouse to move out of fight or flight tendencies, to reflect upon why they are experiencing a sense of heightened emotion, and to prepare to calmly disclose the basis of their frustration, anger, hurt, or sadness when their conversation resumes.
It also helps to do something which helps you calm down and relax. Take a walk, work out, pray, listen to music you enjoy, read, or apply a different strategy. Either way, do something that you enjoy to help your body and mind to rest before returning to the conversation with your partner.
I write this knowing that couples who obtain this type of rest are better positioned to calmly express their thoughts and emotions to each other, and to work through important issues in a fashion that helps build the emotional connection between them.
Empathy is a truly unique and powerful human capacity that goes a long way in marital communication when it's applied. For some people, empathy is more of a natural response. For others, it is something they have to work to develop.
In either case, empathy is a resource we need to become proficient in using if we desire to see our communication with our spouse reach new levels.
I've frequently seen couples come into marriage counseling sessions angry, defensive and in conflict with each other. They seemed to be getting nowhere in their conflict, aside from only escalating the situation at hand. After helping them slow down and apply use of empathy, they begin to engage very differently.
Not only are they able to calm down, they are better able to understand the perspective of their spouse and validate what they had been going through emotionally. Watching this transformation occur is nothing short of incredible. Furthermore, these experiences speak to our ability to literally improve and change the nature of our conversations, while increasing our understanding of our spouse.
The following is a brief exercise that you can follow to practice using empathy:
- Take 60 seconds to mentally put yourself in your spouse's position.
- Ask yourself, "If I was them, What would I be feeling? or What would I be thinking?"
- Take additional time to reflect upon the thoughts and feelings generated by this exercise, and allow yourself to consider them in light of how your spouse is responding.
- Like most couples, you'll probably find that putting yourself in your spouse's position enables you to be more sensitive to their stated needs, concerns, desires and emotional responses.
I would encourage you to practice this exercise multiple times a day, whether you and your spouse are together or apart. If you happen to be apart, know that you can later engage them by saying something to the effect of: "I was thinking about you earlier, and am wondering if you might be feeling (e.g., anxious, hurt, etc.) or be thinking about (e.g., our disagreement earlier this week, etc.)."
This type of engagement is important because it immediately lets your spouse know you were thinking about them (which is always a great sentiment to express) and conveys that you are genuinely sensitive to their emotional and marital needs.
SETTING BOUNDARIES EARLY
Last but not least, set boundaries in your conversations as a means of slowing down and preventing conflict from developing. This is a truly important step in healthy communication. I've often seen spouses neglect setting boundaries and end up in a painful negative communication cycle (e.g., one member harshly pursues / the other member emotionally withdraws) in which both members feel hurt and misunderstood.
It's far better to know your emotional limits in a conversation and to make them known early, in order to protect yourself and to help your spouse better understand how to redirect their approach to you.
"I care about you and would be glad to listen to you, however please stop attacking me with your words."
"I know you would like to keep talking about this, but I feel myself shutting down. Let's break for a few minutes, rest, and continue afterwards."
The objective is to be aware of your own emotional process, to use an I feel statement reflecting those emotions, and to make your communication needs known to your spouse as soon as a possible. Setting a boundary in this way will help you slow down the emotional process between you, as opposed to seeing it quickly escalate into something destructive.
BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER IN PRAYER
All of these strategies are helpful. And yet, implementing any of them well requires that our hearts are in the right place.
Prayer is central in this regard, as it reminds us of our larger calling to live out our desire to honor the Lord each day, especially by loving and caring for our spouse.
It also helps us gauge whether we are allowing The Fruit of the Spirit to be evident in our day to day lives:
"But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law (Galatians 5:22)."
Couples who infuse their relationship with these fruit will greatly benefit from peace and connection that follow in their relationship.