“You always prioritize work over me.”
“You never take my feelings into consideration.”
“Your only concern is your own comfort.”
Here is a universal rule for marriage counselors: don’t allow couples to speak to each other in absolutes. We know that when couples use words like always, never, and only to describe each other’s behavior or to express a complaint, it will not help to resolve their conflict. These words exaggerate and overgeneralize in a way that provokes a spouse to defensiveness. Instead of considering and talking about their spouse’s concern, an accused spouse will be tempted to prove that they are not always guilty of this or that behavior.
So it’s easy to see the wisdom in steering couples away from such language. And yet it’s not easy to actually restrain our word choices, is it? When emotions run high, when we are convinced that we have just the right point to make to gain the upper hand in the argument, when we are boiling over with anger, all of us are prone to run to overgeneralizations to describe our spouse.
Given the pull toward such language, despite knowing its unhelpfulness, it’s important to think beyond just the rule of “don’t use absolutes” and press into the heart of the offense and what is at stake when we use these overstatements.
The heart of the offense is this: our usage of absolutes does not take into account that the Holy Spirit is at work in this area of our spouse’s life. Couples tend to have conflicts that repeat, so usually the concerning behavior that we are speaking about is one we’ve spoken about before. But with the addition of the absolute language, we are essentially declaring that we see no progress in this area. With the addition of the absolute language, we are essentially declaring that we have no hope for progress to occur. The impact of this? To be sure, the use of absolutes will shame your spouse. It makes a claim about who she is: “This is what you always (or never) do.” The message of this? “This (behavior) is who you are.” But imagine if your spouse really has been seeking to grow in this area. She will feel deeply discouraged. She will be vulnerable to hopelessness: What’s the point of trying to grow if my husband doesn’t see that I’m trying? Maybe she will even doubt the Spirit’s work and activity in her life.
And so of course I want to steer you away from having this impact on your spouse, but I also want you to be alert that your pull toward the absolutes is a time when your faith is being tested. Holding back from saying always, never, and only isn’t just an exercise in self-control. It’s also an occasion for you to wrestle with what you believe.
- Do you really believe that God is committed to helping your wife grow?
- Do you trust that the One who has initiated his good work in your husband continues to attend to his growth, even amid your marital struggles and his obvious shortcomings?
- Are you willing, even when you’re discouraged, to ask God to help you see ways that he is working in your spouse? Even if they’re small, baby steps, will you see them? And will you let yourself be encouraged by them, acknowledging that they indicate the reality of a God who stays with his people and keeps whittling away at the things that make them unlovely (2 Cor 3:18)?
Seeing the Spirit’s work in our partner doesn’t mean we ignore real issues or problems. Husbands and wives should speak about concerns in order to hold one another accountable and to invest in the health and growth of one another. But it does mean we expect to find ways God is showing up in our spouse’s life. And that means we must speak in a way that reflects that reality.
And so the next time you’re arguing and you’re tempted to use absolutes to make your point, remember the challenge I am putting before you. A marital conflict is a moment in time when you are prone to discouragement and hopelessness. And that is a time to use absolutes—just not ones about your spouse. Use absolutes to describe another Person. Use them to bolster your faith and increase your hope. Hope for your marriage to grow. Hope for your spouse to grow. Hope for you to grow. Our hopes are placed in…
… the One who is always transforming his people into Jesus’ image (Phil 1:6).
… the One who never ends his commitment to us (Matt 28:20).
… the One who only works in our lives for our good—even in and through our marital conflict (Rom 8:26).
Our good, kind, merciful Father is truly the only one we can rightfully speak about in absolute terms. So speak the truth about him—especially to your own heart, especially in a marital argument.