Thanks for writing and for teeing up an issue that every married couple (and those preparing for marriage) deal with at some level. Because every marriage involves two sinners, every marriage will sometimes (some marriages more often than others) involve conflict and disagreement. That’s neither unusual nor the sign (necessarily) of a bad relationship.
The better a couple either prevents or deals with those things, however, the happier — and godlier — the marriage will be. That’s a long way to say that you and your fiancé are wise to seek good, robust premarital counseling. I recommend it for every engaged couple, not just to improve at the crucial skill of communication, but to prepare for marriage in general.
Let me offer you some thoughts on two things: first, some brief passages and principles on communication in marriage and in general, and second, some questions and issues to explore that will make your premarital counseling more valuable.
1. Most broadly, keep in mind that ultimately, the goal of communication is union — shared understanding with each another — that builds one another up spiritually and otherwise. Most communication in marriage (at least around any important issue) is not “neutral.” We either use our words to build union and create understanding, or we use words to undermine union and create frustration. Good communication doesn’t just happen by inertia; we have to work at it.
2. Biblically, our model for communication is the incarnation of Jesus, who took on flesh and entered into our experience for our good. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).
3. We do not choose our words in a vacuum. The way we choose to speak and communicate — in any particular situation and in general — reflects the spiritual condition of our hearts and minds. Jesus said that “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34; Luke 6:45).
If our hearts harbor a sinful perspective or approach to a given situation or relationship, our words will reflect that. That also means that an evaluation of how I speak or communicate in a given situation or relationship should always start with a spiritual evaluation of my heart and perspective on that thing. An effort to change what I say or my tone of voice will ultimately be incomplete and unsuccessful without an examination of why I choose to communicate as I do.
4. As to that examination, the Bible suggests that almost all conflict arises from the sin of undue self-interest and selfishness. Paul tells us in Philippians 2:3 that as we relate to our brothers and sisters in Christ generally, we are to “[d]o nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility consider others more significant than yourselves.” Even more on point, James puts a penetrating question to us in what is, for my money, the most pivotal communication passage in all of Scripture: “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel” (James 4:1-2).
That word passions covers a lot: desires, fears, insecurities, frustrations, perceived rights. It covers anything that might make us communicate not in an effort to build union with our spouse and build him or her up spiritually, but instead to communicate for our own gain to right a perceived wrong, or obtain a desired thing or outcome, or dispel a fear or insecurity. This is not to say that we can never defend ourselves or our perspective, but to the extent that each spouse can approach communication and conflict with a mindset of serving and loving the other sacrificially rather than automatically fighting for self and associated “passions,” communication will be much better.
5. As a general rule (certainly there are exceptions), men and women communicate differently. This last one is not really theological but practical. Again, generally, men tend to communicate with the goals of information transfer and/or problem solving and “fixing” any difficulty presented. Women generally tend to communicate with goals of revealing their feelings and building relationship. Especially as husbands, we will be much better communicators with our wives if we realize that the most efficient conversation is not always the best one, and that our wives are not necessarily expressing difficulty to us so we can “fix” it, but simply to express their feeling and be listened to and lovingly understood.
All these things take time and effort (and trial and error!) to put into practice, but couples that keep these ideas in mind tend to have less conflict, and they tend to “fight better” when it does arise.
On the topic of communication and conflict, the most effective premarital counseling will help you think through four things:
1) A theological/biblical overview of communication (basically a fuller version of what I’ve written above)
2) How do each of you tend to communicate (what is your “communication style,” for lack of a better term) and to deal with conflict?
3) What in your respective backgrounds/experience/personalities has contributed to those tendencies?
4) What are some differences (or similarities!) between you or aspects of your relationship that might give rise to conflict in the context of marriage?
The idea is to identify current and possible future areas of friction and prepare to head them off and deal with them in a biblical way.
A great way to get at the latter three things is by using some sort of written tool that both of you can fill out and then turn in to the counselor for comparison and discussion. You can download an excellent “Marriage Inventory” that I use in all the premarital counseling I do.
I will pray for your counseling, upcoming marriage, and that you will glorify God as you communicate well for His glory.
Copyright 2014 Scott Croft. All rights reserved.