Married couples can find something to argue about. Two people constantly learning to live together as one results in unintentional, but completely expected clashes.
A good pre-marriage counselor will usually prepare couples for arguments over finances, household responsibilities and even parenting styles. Those topics often result in the most serious and fundamental disagreements between a husband and wife.
But a great pre-marriage counselor will go beyond those issues to an unspoken source of contention. It has nothing to do with the specific words you speak, but those words can carry this incendiary device into a seeming innocuous conversation and spark a roaring, raging fire between two people.
The not-so-silent marriage killer that never says a word is your tone.
How you say things can make all the difference. We can see this in an unlikely place.
C.S. Lewis had an uncanny ability to diagnose the human condition and detail the hidden areas where sin and rebellion lurked unaware. And despite being his being married later in life, that often extended to his insight into marriage and married life.
In The Screwtape Letters, Lewis uses correspondence of demons to reveal human temptations. In letter 3, the senior demon Screwtape instructs his nephew and protege Wormwood on how to exploit the relationship of a man, referred to in the letter as “your patient,” with his mother.
Even though the specific situation in the book is about mother and son who live together, it is extremely applicable for a married couple.
In civilized life, domestic hatred usually expresses itself by saying things which would appear quite harmless on paper (the words are not offensive) but in such a voice, or at such a moment, that they are not far short of a blow to the face. … Your patient must demand that all his own utterances are to be taken at their face value and judged simply on the actual words, while at the same time judging all his mother’s utterances with the fullest and most over-sensitive interpretation of the tone and context and the suspected intention. She must be encouraged to do the same to him. Hence from every quarrel they can both go away convinced, or very nearly convinced, that they are quite innocent. You know the kind of thing: “I simply ask her what time dinner will be and she flies into a temper.” Once this habit is well established you have the delightful situation of a human saying things with the express purpose of offending and yet having a grievance when offense is taken.
The demonic tempters recognize how easily human can argue themselves off the hook. They saw how we actually do use tone to inflict injury, while feigning innocence.
When we are the judge and jury of our own words, we most often come back with a not guilty verdict. But things change when we evaluate someone else’s words.
How they asked that question becomes what matters. When they brought up the subject is most important. Those are the key pieces of evidence in their trial. Their actual words are tossed out as meaningless to our investigation. Meanwhile, we were “just asking a question” or “didn’t mean anything by that at all.”
We tip the scales in our own favor, but what does that mean about our spouse—the one we are supposed to treasure and value above all others? It means we are intentionally and maliciously harming them.
When we judge their words differently than our own, we insert injustice and arrogance where love and honor should be. We trade service for selfishness. And all of this creeps unaware through our marriage weaving disharmony and discord into the fabric of our relationship.
The solution is obvious, but not very easy. Each person must refuse to read into words deeper than their meaning, while also avoiding using tone and timing as a means to dish out subtle (or not-so-subtle) digs.
There are many loud things that can kill a marriage, but the ones that we must be on guard for the most are the ones that sneak in underneath a calm, cold word.
The demons in The Screwtape Letters understood it. For the sake of our marriage’s life, we must as well.