Cherish or Crush

I was driving my darling wife to Makati when she suggested that we park the car at the Rustan’s store near EDSA. But I decided on Greenbelt 1 instead and launched into a discourse on strategic thinking.

“Look,” I told her, “you have to learn how to look at the bigger picture. Our last agenda for today is closer to Greenbelt than Rustan’s. If we park at Rustan’s, we would have to walk a longer distance and by that time, we would already be tired from the long day. You have to factor in blah blah blah…”

Miffed, Lucy said, “Why do you have to add a lecture?”

I blurted, “Because I’m training you. What if your boss asks you for advice and you give an inferior answer?”

I stopped myself cold as I immediately regretted my thoughtless reply. I run two factories with a very cerebral approach to decision-making. Before knowing it, I was bleeding that culture into our marriage. I was treating Lucy like one of my machine operators, instead of the incredible life partner God has given me. We were still brainstorming but I cut her off, proud that I had the superior solution.

We tend to condemn shortcomings instead of commending strengths. In my case, I was implying that Lucy wasn’t smart enough – and it hurt. But I married a truly wise woman: there were times when I heeded her advice and it worked perfectly. Conversely, I’ve made some bum decisions despite her disagreement, and ended up spending more time, more energy and sometimes more money than necessary.

There is a graphic passage that goes “The tongue has the power of life and death” (Proverbs 18:21). What we say to our spouses can spell the difference between a flourishing marriage and a floundering one. Here are three principles to remember.

It starts with the heart. Our words betray our inner worlds. One time in a coffee shop, I overheard a conversation between two women. One lamented, “My boyfriend just keeps insulting people. He’s so careless.” The other shot back, “Don’t judge. You can’t see what’s inside his heart.”

I wanted to butt in right there and then, “Excuse me, but you can! ‘For out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks’.” Mercifully, I didn’t. But my quoting Jesus (Matthew 12:34) reminds us that if we are to build up our spouses, we have to cultivate a heart that longs for her best.

As an exercise, I want you to gaze at your spouse. If you are the husband, drink in her raving beauty. If you are the wife, let your heart go a-flutter again at his dashing good looks. Then, reminisce on what drew you to your spouse in the first place. In my case, it was Lucy’s fear of the Lord and her serious concern for her churchmates. Next, imagine how lacking you would be had the two of you not met and married. End this with a fresh appreciation of your spouse, and, inwardly, bow down before God in incredulous wonder that He had brought you together.

The exercise will fill your heart with a good kind of abundance, and out of that heart your mouth will speak. Practice giving encouraging words until it becomes your nature.

It shows in how you talk. There are several elements to speech such as tone, pace, pitch and content. Due to space constraints, I will address only a few.

Be humble. Some husbands bark instructions to their wives like drill sergeants. Some wives grill their husbands like tax auditors. But preface your instructions with “please”. After all, you married a spouse, not a slave. Both of you are co-heirs in the grace of life (1 Peter 3:7).

Be appreciative. Do you know what erodes motivation? Not being appreciated. So whenever your beloved does a good thing for you, be quick to say “Thank you.” I know some of you grew up in families where service is taken for granted, but now you are forming a whole new culture together.

Be level-voiced. I lost count of the times I raised my voice whenever I want to emphasize a point to Lucy. But conversations are better when your voice is neither too loud nor too soft, neither too fast nor too slow. You have to experiment what works for both of you. The point is that how you say it is as important as what you say.

Be more positive than negative. I tend to be critical about people, even organizations, and sometimes Lucy actually tells me, “I’m not encouraged.” It takes no brains to point out what’s wrong. It takes wisdom and discernment to spot what’s right. A good rule of thumb is that for every one negative you need to compensate with five positives. I learned it from Toastmasters, where speech evaluation is the key to self-improvement. It is true for marriage as well, especially if you need to correct your spouse.

It shows also in how you act. Early in our marriage, I had the nasty habit of rolling my eyes whenever Lucy would say something I disagreed with. When she told me that she felt offended, I realized I was signaling, “Boy, what a dum-dum you are.” Thus, to this day I have to be aware of this mannerism, such that when I was tempted to make that “face”, I stop myself and maintain at least a neutral expression.

Many spouses may say, “As long as I have not screamed at my wife or insulted her, I’m okay,” whereas they do it through non-verbal cues. Most of us have a sense of what the other person really feels even though they deny being hurt, angry, or afraid. You may be unaware that you are scowling, pouting, crossing your arms, leaning back to signal disapproval or tapping your foot in impatience as your spouse is speaking. Sometimes these are passive-aggressive responses. So make the conscious effort to smile, hug, pat the back and the other gestures that makes your spouse feel valued. This is especially true if your love language is touch, as per Gary Chapman’s famous book.

Conclusion. It all boils down to this decision: Will you cherish or crush your spouse? This is the lynchpin of all marital communication. Renew your commitment before God to handle your spouse the way you would handle exquisite champagne glasses: with a whole lot of care and wonder. You will be rewarded with fine wine as time goes by.

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