2 Rules for Safe Conversations In Your Marriage

This article is an excerpt from 9 Lies that Will Destroy Your Marriage by Greg Smalley and Robert Paul

Think for a moment about the safety level of your marriage. Is your marriage a safe space?

  • You can feel safe emotionally (the two of you believe your heart is safe in the other’s hands, and the two of you can be honest and vulnerable with each other).
  • You can feel safe physically (neither of you fears being hit, slapped, having your body disrespected in any way, or engaged at times or in ways you don’t prefer).
  • You can feel safe mentally (knowing that you can share thoughts and ideas without fear of humiliation and ridicule, even if it’s a poorly thought through idea or comment).
  • You can feel safe spiritually (being able to vulnerably pray together, share your beliefs and your unique journey of spiritual growth, and even be open together in the presence of God).

Think about your marriage as you ask yourself the following questions. These are some of the questions we ask couples to answer at our intensives.

  • Are there times when you feel unsafe in your marriage, either physically or emotionally?
  • Have you ever felt physically threatened?
  • Have you ever felt like your spouse either dismissed your emotions or turned them against you?
via Unsplash by Priscilla Du Preez

Think about what’s happening between the two of you when those unsafe feelings start to emerge.

  • Can you remember what happens between you, or what statement causes things to become unsafe?
  • Are there behaviors or practices your spouse engages in that make you feel unsafe in the relationship?

The next question may be even more difficult and more important to answer.

  • Are there behaviors or practices that you engage in that make your partner feel unsafe in the relationship?

Take some time to wrestle with this question. Take a walk down memory lane and see if your past behaviors have created an unsafe atmosphere for your partner.

  • Have you ever been in a conversation when you felt your partner close down, back off, or walk away? Was there something you did that contributed to that happening?
  • Have you ever closed down, backed off, or walked away?

We ask all these questions because safety can be an elusive quality. Many couples don’t appreciate it until it’s gone, but then some can’t figure out where it went or how to get it back.

via Unsplash by Korney Violin

We suspect that most of the people reading this book have never thought about or never clearly articulated what it is that causes them to be uneasy or cautious and thus to close up. But if the two of you are ever going to figure out how to create a safe place in your relationship to grow a more satisfying closeness and connection, you are going to need to start figuring this out and communicating it to each other.

In the case of Randy and Becky’s marriage, safety never was job one. Both were careless. Both uttered cold, thoughtless words. Both committed heartless deeds. They’re not bad people—at times they’re just a little insensitive and somewhat self-centered after so many years of living alone. Their careless words and actions made each other feel cautious and gradually close down their hearts.

They realize that now, and they want to know what they can do to make their marriage the safest place it can be. In situations like that, we encourage couples to follow our two rules for safe conversations.

Two Rules for Safe Communication


For many couples, conversations are a major source of fear and defensiveness. Conversations that start out bland but end up explosive can scare one or more partners from trying to talk.

via Unsplash by Dennis Brendel

Have you ever engaged in these behaviors during a conversation with your spouse?

  • Argued or defended yourself rather than listened
  • Laughed at or made fun of something your partner said
  • Allowed distractions (your smartphone, the television, your own thoughts) to prevent you from hearing and understanding your partner’s words
  • Rushed the discussion along because you felt you had more important things to do
  • Resurrected past problems from a year or a decade ago

These rhetorical tricks are nonstarters for safe conversations. After all, you’re not in a debate club or a political rally. You’re talking to your beloved life partner!

Practice listening instead of responding. Prove you’ve listened by telling your partner, “Here’s what I hear you saying.” Make it your goal to understand, not to explain or defend. Work on being emotionally present with your spouse so he or she can feel you’re really listening instead of trying to change or critique how the other feels.

Choose the Right Setting

Often couples’ conversations go off track right away because they don’t take place in a manner or environment that both of you find comfortable and safe. You may feel comfortable discussing deep topics while jogging or cooking, but your partner may need to sit down across from you and look into your eyes to be able to feel connected.

We recommend the two of you talk about talking, focusing on the setting that gives you the greatest opportunity for successful conversation. We learned this the hard way, starting conversations with our wives that quickly went south because we failed to properly prepare an environment where we were both comfortable. Setting, environment, and time of day are crucial components of successful conversations. The two of you can vastly increase your conversational competence by setting the stage for safe and meaningful discussions.

via Unsplash by Rene Ranisch

Talk together about these important environmental concerns:

• What factors make each of you feel most comfortable when talking about important issues? If you could design a perfect scenario for a safe and intimate conversation, what would it look like? How does that differ, if at all, from your spouse?

  • Which setting is the best for good conversation? In the kitchen over dinner, or out to dinner at a restaurant? In the living room or in the bedroom? Or should you head for the great outdoors, talking on your porch or on a park bench? Or are you like some couples who prefer talking while driving?
  • What time of the day is best for you? One of you may be an early riser and the other a night owl, but the two of you can still find a way to agree on a good time for your important conversations.
  • How long? Some conversations are like flowers: fragrant for a while but then they quickly go bad. Before you start a new conversation, negotiate a time frame. Is this a simple  ten- minute talk about a few mundane matters, or is this a potentially more challenging two-h our discussion of an important but troubling issue? Scope it out before you start and renegotiate along the way if you need to.
  • Dissenting opinions? Find out how each of you feels about the other person expressing disagreements or negative viewpoints. The two of you don’t have to totally agree on everything, but some people don’t know how to disagree in an agreeable manner. Give each other space to hear each other out and to express differing viewpoints without fear of judgment or retribution.

Conversations that end poorly often started out poorly, but if the two of you can learn to negotiate these issues of place, timing, and goals, your rate of successful conversations will soar to new heights.

9 Lies That Will Destroy Your Marriage by Greg Smalley and Robert Paul

Lies about marriage are rampant in our culture and the church. They’re killing marriages. But the corresponding truths can strengthen marriages and even save the most troubled relationships. In this book, marriage experts Greg Smalley and Robert Paul identify the lies, explain how they work to destroy marriages, and reveal the truths that not only can improve marriages but rescue those that are floundering.

Hope Restored, the renowned crisis marriage program created for Focus on the Family, is the basis for the discovery and understanding of these specific lies and their impact. Dr. Greg Smalley, a general marriage expert, and Robert Paul, the therapeutic director of a program that resuscitates nearly dead marriages, bring an unusual but powerful combination of perspectives that restore hope and healing in any marriage.

9 Lies That Will Destroy Your Marriage includes several self-tests to help you assess the extent to which your own marriage has been affected by each of the nine lies.

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