Of the thousands of spouses who have written to us and our marriage ministry, the common thread that runs through almost all of them is that, in one way or another, it could be concluded that the number one problem in marriage is communication . . . or the lack thereof!
But is communication the root problem?
When couples come to you as a pastor, should your first and foremost goal be to help them communicate better? Will this help their marriage more than any other single thing?
My reply is “No!“
To contend that communication is the key to marriage is to assume that both spouses speak the same language, when in fact they do not. A wife speaks the language of Love and a husband speaks the language of Respect.
Mutual Understanding Is the Key
By way of analogy, suppose two believers with Indian roots find their parents creating an assigned marriage. The new young wife grew up in America and only speaks English. Her husband grew up in India and only speaks Hindi. They can communicate all day long, but without mutual understanding of the other’s language they are just talking at each other. Neither understands the mother-tongue of the other.
Mutual understanding of the other’s language is the key to a successful marriage.
The Languages of Love and Respect
Ephesians 5:33 says, “each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband” (NIV). As I pondered God’s clear command (not suggestion) in Ephesians 5:33, I uncovered what I came to call the languages of Love and Respect.
I am commanded to love my wife, Sarah, because she needs love; in fact, she “speaks love.” Love is the language she understands. Most often our communication breaks down when Sarah feels unloved.
Sarah is commanded to respect me because I need respect; in fact, I “speak respect.” Respect is the language I understand. Our communication breaks down when I feel disrespected.
Because I spoke one kind of language (respect) and Sarah spoke another (love), there was no mutual understanding! What made it more difficult is that neither of us was aware that we did not know the other’s language.
Honor or Hostility?
For example, during marital conflict, 85 percent of those who withdraw are the husbands. He is trying to prevent things from escalating out of control, as any honorable man would do. He is in warrior mode and does not want to fight, so he drops it. In his mind, he is communicating respect, but to his wife this feels unloving and an act of hostility.
So, it begs the question: Is the husband communicating honor or hostility? That depends on whether you speak the language of Respect or Love. I can say for certain, when these two languages are misunderstood, there will be no effective communication.
Care or Contempt?
On the other hand, the vast majority of wives during a conflict move toward their husbands to complain and criticize. They care deeply about the marriage and wish to resolve the tension between them so they can feel connected. But to their husbands, ongoing criticism feels like contempt. These men feel she is using the topic as an opportunity to send the message, “I find you inadequate and do not respect who you are as a human being.”
So, it begs the question: Is the wife communicating care or contempt? That depends on whether you speak the language of Respect or Love.
The Crazy Cycle!
Added to this, I discovered a Love and Respect connection! When I speak to Sarah in ways that sound unloving to her, though I am trying to do the respectful thing, her tendency is to react with words that sound disrespectful to me!
When Sarah speaks to me in ways that sound disrespectful, though she is trying to do the loving thing, my tendency is to react with words that sound unloving to her.
Round and round we would go in a Crazy Cycle! She feels unloved, tries to do the loving thing (caringly connect), only to hear that she is disrespectful, and feels even more unloved!
I feel disrespected, try to do the respectful thing (honorably withdraw to calm down) only to hear that I am unloving, and feel even more disrespected!
Without love she reacts without respect. Without respect I react without love. Ad nauseam.
The Good News
The good news is that I finally figured out that the opposite would also be true: if I would speak loving words to Sarah (even though I was mad), and stay engaged without feeling she was trying to provoke me, she would stop sounding so disrespectful. I noticed that I was getting through to her! I felt like she was my friend.
Sarah figured out that when she spoke words that sounded respectful to me and gave me a few minutes to calm down, I would later talk to her about the issue. She felt loved. She felt connected to me. She felt reassured about our relationship.
We ended up communicating because I spoke her language of Love and she spoke my language of Respect. We felt understood.
The Key to Communication
Learning these two languages is the key to mutual understanding, and mutual understanding is the key to communication!
As you help couples who come to you for pastoral counseling, I strongly recommend helping them learn these two languages!
— by Emerson Eggerichs from Love & Respect: The Love She Most Desires; The Respect He Desperately Needs
How to Use This Book
Dr. Emerson Eggerichs is an internationally known public speaker and bestselling author of Love & Respect with over 1.6 million copies sold. Based on over three decades of counseling as well as scientific and biblical research, the dynamic and life-changing message of Love & Respect has transformed thousands of relationships. Foundational to every marriage and counseling ministry, this book can bring healing and restoration in a way few other books on relationships can.
Love & Respect
The Love She Most Desires; The Respect He Desperately Needs