It is unavoidable. We will find ourselves feeling threatened and offended by others. Hot adrenaline will rush through our veins and push us towards anger. Too often, we will succumb to it. Even with those we love the most, laying aside our desire to protect and preserve ourselves seems vehemently opposed to all that wages war within us and around us. But, scripture warns us to discipline ourselves against anger and do what feels almost dangerous in those moments; to be compassionate. “But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.” (James 1:19-20).
Heeding this wise admonition didn’t come naturally to us at all. In the first 10 years of our marriage, anger was commonplace and often unbridled. As a habit, we blamed, dismissed, and invalidated each other. In those ways and many more, we chose to pursue self-protection and self-promotion, which eroded the trust and intimacy we both needed and desired. Therefore, learning to respond to offensive words and actions with a humble and patient spirit was uncharted territory and felt quite unsafe, but it proved to be the vehicle that moved us away from fear and alienation and into an atmosphere of trust and partnership. It laid a foundation for the deep love and safety we now enjoy.
For me, it began by inviting Jesus into our conversations. Literally, I imagined Him sitting in the seat between us and I took my cues from Him. This required me to slow down and listen. I must admit that it wasn’t common for me to listen before I spoke, especially when I felt attacked or criticized. And on the rare occasions that I did pause to reflect before opening my mouth, it wasn’t often that I asked the Holy Spirit to guide my words. I had to learn to do both. I had to learn dual listening; listening to my husband and listening to Jesus at the same time.
Attending to my husband’s words and seeking to understand where he was coming from was an intimidating process. I was afraid of being manipulated, afraid of becoming lost in his world, afraid of losing my own point of reference. All too familiar with my heart and oh, so invested in my growth, Jesus confronted my fear and pride in this area and reminded me that His reference point was the one I needed to be loyal to, not my own. He has the corner on truth and reality, not me.
Perhaps for the first time in our marriage, I slowed myself down and refused to give way to my fleshly reactions. Instead, I started asking clarifying questions. “Can you explain what you mean when you say…” In doing so, I discovered that my assumptions about his thoughts and motives were unfair and often inaccurate. He comes at things from an entirely different vantage point, one that I needed to become more familiar with. And wouldn’t you know it, when I asked him to explain and expound, he became less defensive. As I slowed down, so did he.
But listening wasn’t enough. I needed to learn how to validate my husband’s feelings and perceptions. Again, a daunting task for me. I knew that acknowledging his perceptions was not the same as agreeing with them, but it still felt very risky. I feared that any concession or admission of wrongdoing on my part would put a dent in my armor, that it would be used against me, or that he would lose respect for me. Once again, Jesus addressed my fear and pride. He reminded me that He has never shamed me, never condemned me. My every confession to Him has been met with grace and freedom. Regardless of how my husband responds, Jesus will always grant me love and dignity.
As an act of faith, I began to verbalize empathy and understanding. “I can totally understand why you would feel that way. I would too.” I began to apologize. “I’m sorry I hurt you. I don’t want to hurt you.” Sometimes, I said these things in response to genuine conviction, but not always. Sometimes, I was simply honoring him, even if I didn’t think I was wrong, even if I felt misunderstood, and even if I didn’t think it was something that should have mattered. Because I knew he needed it and because Jesus had always offered me the same humility, I set myself aside and offered compassion. In doing so, he felt heard and validated and he never used it against me later. Quite the opposite, he began to trust me and expose more and more of his heart. In this way and many more, compassion interrupted the cycle of rejection that was killing trust and intimacy in our marriage. It provided us with a safe place to start over and recover what we had lost.