By Gary Moore
Author’s note: Many of these thoughts are from the book, “The First Few Years of Marriage” by Jim Burns and Doug Fields.
At one time in my career, I worked with a man who was absolutely brilliant. In fact, I’m convinced he was a genius. He actually turned down a full-ride academic scholarship to Harvard so he could go to a Christian college and seminary. But Berk, as I called him, was tone deaf when it came to music. We used to laugh about it. He would say he sang the same way he preached – without notes.
A lot of marriages are tone deaf too. Many couples can’t hear the negative tone that accompanies their communication. We all know it’s not always what you say to each other that creates tension. It’s how you say it. The “how” involves tone. My friend Berk could have spent a lot of money on voice lessons, but he’d still have most likely been tone deaf. He couldn’t change that.
But unlike Berk’s condition, you can learn to change the tone in your marriage and begin to make beautiful music together. This change isn’t always easy, but it can be done. Positive tones and healthy communication are learned traits.
Before going any further, I want to say that I understand that it’s not always how you say something; it can also be what you say that creates conflict and hurt feelings.
We feel tone stronger than we hear words. When negative words are combined with negative tone, trouble is bound to follow. In fact, authors Burns and Fields say it’s double the trouble. When you express your words with a tone of sarcasm, shame, pessimism, insincerity, guilt, negativity, assumption, or speculation, your spouse barely hears the actual words. But, the tone shouts at him/her loud and clear. If you’ve been married very long, you’ve probably had a time of “heated fellowship” that was less about the words and more about the negative energy behind the words. Why? Because we tend to feel tone stronger than the words we hear.
Over the years I’ve learned to manage my tongue, but even when I’m silent or speechless, an exasperated sigh can reveal negativity. Or when my wife and I are in the car and I know we’re going to be late, I can simply take a heavy, deep breath that she receives as a tone of disappointment. Even when I don’t use any words, she can hear my frustration clearly.
Here’s the truth about your spouse: you didn’t marry a robot. Robots don’t discern tone. They simply respond to words. Siri and Google Assistant aren’t smart enough to pick up on tone or innuendo. But our spouses pick up on it quickly. You married an amazing person who is wise and emotionally aware enough to discern your tone and interpret it when it’s negative. A negative tone can create unnecessary defensiveness and stir up additional conflict. Let’s be real. A lot of the time, the issue that created the tension wasn’t what escalated it. The conflict began as a mini flame until the negative tone added fuel, and then it became a blazing inferno. A little negativity can create a lot of damage.
Once a spouse hears a negative, demeaning tone, all the “good stuff” in his or her brain stops working the way it should. It produces a chemical reaction of stress hormones that simultaneously shut down good communication and intimacy. If you regularly use a negative tone with your spouse, you might be reading this and thinking, “Well, when I’m really mad, I can’t control my tone.” While that statement may feel 100 percent accurate, it’s 100 percent wrong. Tone isn’t a matter of self-control; it’s a matter of choice.
Reality check time. The majority of the time, we’re in control of our tone when we’re talking with friends, when we’re at work, and even when we’re engaging with total strangers. Negative tone tends to appear most prominently in marriage and parenting. Ironically, it shows up with those we love the most. Too often everyone except our spouses are the recipients of our best tone. There’s something fundamentally wrong with this reality. When negative tone happens too often, your spouse will begin to lose respect for you, and emotional distance and marital drift will become the norm.
Remember, you can learn to change the tone in your marriage and begin to make beautiful music together. And although this change isn’t always easy, it can be done. Positive tones and healthy communication are learned traits.
Gary Moore served as associate pastor at Cloverdale Church of God for 15 years. He does couples’ coaching and leads couples’ workshops and retreats called MUM’s the Word. He does a weekly radio program called Life Point Plus on KBXL 94.1FM at 8:45 a.m. on Fridays. Monday mornings at 10 a.m. he does live relationship teaching called MUM Live on his Facebook page Mutual Understanding Method. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.