Marsha’s stomach tightened. She had innocently asked her husband Dan what he had planned for the afternoon. She wanted to make sure he wasn’t depending on her to be at home. She was still shaken from the anger Dan had expressed the day before when he found out she had gone shopping without telling him. For several long minutes in the middle of last night’s dinner he had glared and shouted, and threatened to take away the checkbook and the car if she didn’t start checking with him first. So now, the next morning, Marsha was cautiously asking him about his plans for the day. Typically, Dan misread her motives: “Why do I always have to tell you what I’m going to do?” he snapped.
Marsha could feel her body beginning to tense more. “You don’t,” she said timidly. “I was just wondering if you might like to do something this afternoon.”
“Well, I just don’t know why you expect me to tell you everything I’m doing,” Dan said, even more angrily.
“Why are you getting so upset? I never said you had to tell me everything,” Marsha replied.
“I’m not upset. You always make such a big deal out of nothing!” Dan snarled.
“I wasn’t trying to make a big deal out of anything,” Marsha reasoned. “All I did was simply ask—” Before she could finish explaining herself, Dan cut her off and in a loud voice shouted, “Don’t try to deny it. You always do that!” After a few seconds of awkward silence, Dan slammed his fist on the table and continued, “Why don’t you just shut your big mouth and drop it! You don’t have a clue what it means to be a submissive wife, and you’re probably too stupid to ever get it!”
“Okay, Dan, I’ll drop it,” Marsha conceded.
“You’re not going to get off that easy,” Dan shouted. “You always try to get in the last word!”
Exasperated, Marsha exclaimed, “But I thought you wanted me to drop it!
Marsha continued trying to explain herself, but there was no reasoning with Dan. He persisted to twist what she was saying and to call her more derogatory names. A phone call mercifully ended the episode. But Marsha left that conversation, as she had left many others, feeling belittled, confused, and guilty. She wondered what she had said to make Dan so mad and why she couldn’t get him to understand her.
Conversations like Marsha and Dan’s illustrate how spouses can hurt their partners by what they say. No punches were thrown. There was no slapping or shoving (although there could have been). Instead, Dan used his words to beat up his wife.
Using words as weapons is a practice that is as old as human language, but we still don’t give it the attention it deserves. While we have come a long way in understanding the damage that physical and sexual abuse can do, many of us have still not realized that we can injure others with our words perhaps even more than with our fists.
The purpose of this booklet is to call our attention to the power of words to help or to hurt. While we’ll deal primarily with the misuse of words in the marriage relationship, the principles covered can be applied to other relationships. Our chief concern is for the countless husbands and wives who need help in understanding and reacting in a proper manner to varying degrees of verbal control and harm. Together we need to think carefully about words that violate the spirit and promise of the marriage covenant.
The author, Jeff Olson, is a licensed counselor in Michigan and works for the RBC Ministries biblical correspondence department.
e cannot afford to underestimate the importance and power of our words. The New Testament writer James said that even though the human tongue is a small part of the body, it has the power to make a tremendous impact (Jas. 3:1-12). The book of Proverbs reminds us that “the tongue has the power of life and death” (18:21). The language we use to communicate with one another is like a knife. In the hands of a careful and skilled surgeon, a knife can work to do good. But in the hands of a careless or ignorant person, it can cause great harm. So it is with words.
The Power To Do Good. The Bible teaches that a kind word can uplift, nourish, and mend a broken heart. Proverbs 16:24 says, “Pleasant words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.” A well-considered word can help to restore confidence, hope, and purpose to a spouse who feels dejected, lost, and confused. For example, a husband could lift the spirits of his wife by saying, “Honey, I appreciate your patience with me lately. I know I’ve been absorbed in my work. I’ve taken you for granted. You’ve been hurting, and I’ve been too preoccupied to realize it.”
The Power To Harm. Remember the schoolyard comeback, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” It’s a lie. Unkind words do injure—sometimes deeply. Being yelled at or called a name like “stupid” or “idiot,” especially by a spouse, can inflict a wound that will fester for years.
We often don’t take seriously the power of the tongue to assault and its ability to devastate. A few inconsiderate words can kill the spirit of a spouse or a friend. Proverbs 12:18 states that “reckless words pierce like a sword.” James described the tongue as being “full of deadly poison” (3:8). Psalm 52:2 speaks of the tongue as a “sharpened razor” that works to bring about the destruction of another.
Does this mean that we should never cause pain with our words? No. There is a time for “verbal surgery.” Some situations require the compassionate and skillful use of incisive words that may cause pain (Prov. 27:6). All of us need admonition, correction, and constructive criticism at times. Even though they are necessary, such words still hurt. But this is not the kind of pain that harms (2 Cor. 7:8-10). It is pain intended to help us grow.
Far too often, however, a loving motive is missing in the pain we cause with our words. It is more likely that we will use hurtful words in the process of attacking one another. Unfortunately, such instances of verbal warfare are all too common in most of our marriages. As regrettable as it is, almost all marriages experience the conflict and discord that occurs when both partners use their words to control and hurt each other.
Conflict is unavoidable in marriage. Because each partner brings his or her own perspective into the relationship, which is influenced by gender, family background, and life experiences, most marriages encounter frequent disagreements and profound differences of opinions.
In healthy relationships, most of these disagreements are resolved in a nondestructive manner. Although married couples may strongly disagree, many learn to work through their conflicts in a way that allows them to disagree with each other in a controlled and respectful manner.
It is just as true, however, that most couples go through periodic moments or seasons when they misuse their words in the midst of conflict. Occasionally, communication breaks down and turns ugly even in the best of relationships. All of us have been guilty to some extent of fighting unfairly and not trying to resolve differences as much as we are trying to manipulate, win, or at least “even the score.”
How Are Words Used To Control And Attack? Knowingly or unknowingly, all of us who are married have used our words to control and hurt our mates. Although the ways we do this can vary in intensity from one relationship to the next, the following is a brief description of the most common tactics couples use to control and attack each other.
1. Guilt trips are an effective means of controlling people or punishing people. When spouses are able to make their partners feel guilty for disagreeing with them or challenging them, they gain power over their mates. The guilt-trip vocabulary can be as straightforward as “I hope you’re happy now” or “What took you so long?” Or it can be more subtle: “It’s always my fault.” For instance, one wife got this response from her husband whenever she pointed out one of his mistakes. He was experienced at making her feel guilty for mentioning anything negative about him.
2. Faultfinding puts spouses under a barrage of criticism. From how they take care of their things, to how they manage money, to how they look, to how they drive the car, spouses can pick apart and lecture their mates. Whether it’s occasional or ongoing, faultfinding allows spouses who are dishing it out to feel superior and makes their partners feel inferior.
3. Name-calling is applying a negative word or phrase to a spouse’s deficiency. Derogatory names like stupid, lazy, idiot, jerk, dumb, or cry baby are used to make a partner feel small and worthless. Spouses may also resort to character assassinations like “You’ve never been much of a wife” or “You’ll never amount to anything.”
4. Yelling occasionally occurs in many marriages. Shouting or blowing up and screaming statements like “What’s your problem!” or “Just shut up and leave me alone!” intimidates a partner. It allows the spouse who is yelling to feel strong and makes the other feel weak, defeated, and terrified of doing or saying anything that might provoke another attack.
5. Sarcasm is another method of control, and it is often a thinly veiled attack. Sarcastic responses such as “whatever” or “sure” (especially accompanied by rolled eyes) discounts and condemns a partner’s point of view. Sarcasm obviously doesn’t set the mood for honest discussion. Instead, it frustrates partners and sabotages the conversation in a way that leaves the offending spouse in charge and on top.
6. Blaming allows one spouse to be exonerated and imposes guilt on the other. When something goes wrong, it’s the other partner’s fault. For example, one wife asked her husband to make a phone call for her and then later scolded him for doing it when the phone call created a problem with another family member. One husband blew up at his wife but then blamed her for causing his outburst. Blame-shifting leaves the innocent partner feeling confused and punished.
7. Put-downs, whether subtle or overt, are also used by some spouses to gain power over their mates. In a very calm yet condescending tone, one husband would talk down to his wife by telling her not to worry about the finances because they were over her head. Other spouses may mock their partners in public for something they did or said. In a public display of power they might say, “Why did you wear that outfit?” or “That wasn’t too bright!” to make their spouses feel foolish and small.
Why Are Words Used To Control And Attack? In one way or another, most husbands and wives have resorted to at least some of the above verbal tactics. And the problem is not just about words. It’s about personal selfishness, anger, or insecurity, compelling us to use words for any of the following purposes:
1. To Get Our Own Way. There’s a selfish streak in all of us. To some degree, we all struggle with wanting to get our own way. One of the things that made Jesus’ life here on earth so remarkable is that He wasn’t selfish. He always put the best interests of others and the purposes of God the Father before His own, even though it caused Him to suffer more than anyone else in history. As the people of Christ, we are called to follow His example of unselfishness wherever that may lead (Phil. 2:3-5). But all of us fall short. At a point of marital disagreement, even mature spouses can act childish and demand to have their own way. Controlling our mates through intimidation or guilt is an effective way to get what we selfishly want and to avoid personal loss.
2. To Get Even. Retaliation is a major reason many spouses turn to tactics such as name-calling or sarcasm. Right or wrong, some spouses feel personally attacked or let down, so they seek to punish their mates. They forget or ignore that vengeance is God’s business (Rom. 12:19). They react out of anger with the intention of “getting even.” Other spouses simply take out personal frustrations on their partners. They’re angry about certain circumstances or at other people, and they want someone—anyone—to suffer for the fact that things aren’t going their way.
3. To Hide. Openness and personal responsibility are fundamental to a marriage. Without them there can be no maturing of the relationship. It may be difficult for us to admit, but sometimes we use words to hide and protect ourselves. Like the first married couple, Adam and Eve, we get scared and try to conceal our failures from our mates and from God (Gen. 3:7-13).
When confronted with the truth of our harmful behavior toward others, we don’t want to own up. We’re often too angry over being hurt ourselves. We’re afraid that if we do own up, we will be attacked or abandoned. Like an accused criminal, we vigorously declare our innocence (Prov. 16:2). Following in the footsteps of Adam, we often become defensive and blame our spouses, and even God, for our self-centered behavior (Gen. 3:12). For example, rather than taking responsibility for how his anger had made it difficult for his wife to speak up in their relationship, one husband responded, “How can you say that about me after all I’ve done for you!”
To some degree, all of us have spoken manipulative and intimidating words to get our own way. All of us have used unkind words to “punish” our spouses. And we all have blamed our spouses to protect ourselves. When we see this in ourselves, we need to be more willing to own up to it and feel sorrow over the specific harm we do to our spouses and the problems we’ve created.
It is our ownership and brokenness that begin to repair the damage we’ve caused. Words of open and honest confession and remorse can begin to rebuild trust, and in time may lead to reconciliation and a return to intimacy.
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