Lack of open and honest communication is one of the major problems in relationships, and it is a visible conflict within the family system. After Cain murdered his brother, he lied to God and tried to remain in his world of denial. When Abraham and his wife went down to Egypt during a famine, he told his wife to tell Pharaoh that she was his sister instead of his wife. That could have resulted in serious consequences, even the loss of his wife. Later, Sarah encouraged Abraham to have relations with Hagar, the maid, resulting in the birth of Ishmael. But conflicts were evident by Sarah’s angry demand to cast out the bondwoman and her son (Gen. 4, 12, 16, 21).
God created the family, and from that time communication was vital both to God and man. “As [a man] thinks in his heart, so is he” (Prov. 23:7 NKJV). But man’s thoughts must be clothed in words to be understood. Hence, communication began with God and was manifested by Adam when he gave names to the animals. Since the fall of man, the breakdown in communication has affected the lives of all humans. The tongue has become wild, and none of Adam’s race is able to tame it. God says the tongue has the power of “death and life” (18:21) and “no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison” (Jas. 3:8). Our tongues are susceptible to slip at any moment. But the power of the Lord gives us control and enables us to use pleasant instead of harsh words. “Pleasant words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the bones” (Prov. 16:24). The source is the heart: “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Mt. 12:34).
It is amazing how family members build walls around themselves due to a breakdown in communication. This psychological barrier of refusing to communicate or avoiding communicating one’s feelings often becomes evident in adverse reactions to each other. Sometimes either the husband or wife will gossip with others outside of the family in an effort to find acceptance and approval. But gossip only spreads the problem and creates more problems because of third-party involvement. Gossip should be avoided because it is detrimental to healthy relationships.
Even the wisest man, Solomon, had conflicts in his communication with his wives, which resulted in despair (1 Ki. 11:1-4). In David’s family, there were serious communication problems, resulting in much grief (2 Sam. 13:7-16,23-29). Samson, the strongest man, had conflicts in communication with his parents, culminating in the loss of his morality, his eyes and his life. Even though his parents cautioned him about his desire for immediate, lustful gratification, he demanded that his parents obtain a certain pagan Philistine woman for him: “Get her for me, for she pleases me well” (Jud. 14:3). Although other biblical examples could be given, now I want to focus on families today.
The language of alienation and deception, mixed with profanity, is often promoted in our society. The “freedom of speech” concept is widely abused, even to the point “where families are practicing so-called “self expression” or “free association” by communicating their feeling in any manner. When conflicts are unresolved, the communication often becomes intense and laden with anger, even to the point of dehumanizing the other person. Accordingly, name-calling becomes a way of life, and negative comments such as “chicken,” “sissy,” “four-eyes,” “dumb,” “good-for-nothing,” “stupid,” and much worse are hurled at the spouse or children, often mixed with swearing and other foul language, which affects the self-esteem of all in the family system.
Therefore, conflicts in communication can be destructive to the whole family because the expression of criticism and negativism causes further problems. “The hypocrite with his mouth destroys his neighbor” (Prov. 11:9). Words are powerful tools in breaking down or building up relationships. Harsh words increase anger while soft responses soothe hurting emotions. “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (15:1). Moreover, “a wholesome tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit” (v.4). Thus, when in heated communication, or where there is false accusation, or one is in “hot water,” it is often important not to open one’s mouth.
We live in a world where everyone has something to say but no one has time to really listen. Many families suffer significantly because members feel rejected, ignored and devalued as a result of not being listened to when trying to communicate within the family. The patterns of communication play an important role in the giving and receiving of affection within the family system. Hence, when communication is focused primarily on each other’s weaknesses, it stirs up anger and bruises egos that can lead to over-reaction and the display of inappropriate behavior.
Some husbands and wives have conflicts in communicating their affection. A husband who spends long hours on his job with his co-workers is able to verbalize his emotions with them. Upon his return home he is often emotionally drained and becomes a passive listener to messages from the family. On the other hand, the wife, who is at home and has no one with whom to share her emotions during the day, is often anxious to report to the husband what transpired in his absence. However, most of the time the husband pays little or no attention to her, so she represses her feelings of anger, which later result in emotional distance. How comforting to know that God is always willing to listen to us – that He will always lift us up and never let us down.
When children observe such adverse communication patterns between their parents, they tend to either support their mother or take sides with the father, or simply replay the communication pattern among themselves. Sometimes the mother, having been ignored by her husband, turns to one of her children to find support and acceptance, and becomes detached from her husband. Then the father may exhibit negative behavior toward that child by withdrawing from him or her. Thus, the parents’ communication problems cause an “emotional divorce” between them and affect the whole family.*
Poor communication patterns can also lead to disruptive behavior within the family system. The failure to verbalize one’s feelings in an acceptable manner eventually leads to unacceptable behavior. Sometimes the wife is aware of the pattern of responses from the husband and simply agrees with him, even if she doesn’t agree with the decision. At other times she recognizes the differences between talking and communicating. She perceives talking as simply saying something while communicating is having something to say. When there is communication without feedback, it tends to produce unhealthy relationships.
Another problem manifested because of unresolved conflicts in communication is confusion as a result of receiving conflicting messages (which we in the counseling field call “double bind” messages). Communication occurs in many ways, such as verbal expression in various tones of voice, gesturing and by the eyes. Sometimes there is inconsistency between the verbal message and the non-verbal message. It was reported that Gerald Ford, as president of the United States (1974-1977), once gestured with his hands to signify to the audience that they should stand while at the same time he verbally requested them to sit.
In families in which alcohol or drugs are abused, double-bind messages are prevalent. Sometimes the husband, in an angry and loud tone of voice, says to his wife, “Come here, my love.” The wife hesitantly draws nearer to him but is indecisive and fearful as to whether to respond or not. As she slowly moves toward him, he moves away and angrily says, “What’s the matter honey, don’t you love me?” By this time the wife and the children are confused about the message that was given because there is a mixture of anger and love, abandonment and acceptance.
This kind of communication significantly affects the children. At times the child observing the conflicts in communication will feel sorry for his or her mother, identify with her and be very supportive of her. But then the child feels guilty for abandoning or displacing the father. Sometimes the child will attempt to act as a mediator and appease his or her parents during heated arguments. The child may act as the parent and tell the father to “Cut it out,” “Stop talking like that,” or “Go sit down.” The child may feel responsible for the parents’ arguments and problems, and might say: “When are you both going to stop? I can’t take it anymore! I’m leaving.”
Communication is vital in all relationships. Poor communication can be a reaction to unresolved conflicts. But open and honest communication in love can turn barriers into bridges and facilitate healthy family relationships.
* George A. Rekers, Counseling Families, (Dallas: Word, 1988), 59.
By Emmanuel V. John, adapted from “Resolving Family Conflicts – How To Prevent Break-downs And Breakups,” published by Overcomer Press, Owosso, MI; 1993.
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