Some of my favorite memories from growing up are the family trips we took every fall to the beautiful Texas Hill Country with a few other close friends. After a scorching- hot Texas summer, the wonderful cool breeze and crisp golden leaves of autumn were always an event worth celebrating. At meals, the adults would all gather at one end of the table and all the rowdy kids would congregate at the other. Being the obsessive observer of relationships that I was, I always loved quietly scooting as close as I could to listen in on the adult conversations. Almost every night, without fail, as the meal wound down, the dialogue would ultimately turn to teasing as each couple took turns telling jokes about each other. It seemed playful at first, but eventually you could start to hear the tension behind the banter: “Listen to what this bozo did last week.” “You wouldn’t believe what Sara said last night!”
There was one couple, however, who always stood out to me: Mike and Linda. They just never joined in the game. In fact, it was clear how much they seemed to genuinely enjoy each other, and the only fun stories they would offer to the group revealed just how much they truly adored each other. Something about their relationship struck me, and deep down, I made one of my mental notes for my future marriage: Never throw your spouse under the bus.
Years later, when Chris and I met, fell in love, and got engaged, I remembered Mike and Linda’s thriving marriage and decided it would be a good idea to learn from the best. So we packed up our bags and took a trip down to Birmingham to spend a weekend learning from this incredible Never throw couple. It was one of the sweetest gifts God your spouse gave us as we began our life together. Each night, we let the candles burn all the way to the bottom as we sipped our French roast and soaked up every drop of wisdom we could from these two sweet sages on what it means to love each other well for a lifetime.
One of the greatest lessons they taught us was the very principle that had caught my attention all those years ago over Texas BBQ: Never throw your spouse under the bus. Or, to put it another way: Always speak life over your spouse.
As it turns out, this principle is straight out of God’s Word: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits” (Proverbs 18:21, esv). That winter weekend, Mike and Linda unpacked a truth we have seen confirmed over and over in our own marriage and in countless thriving couples we’ve encountered along the way: The words we speak over each other literally have the potential to create and build life in us . . . or to poison and destroy us. Thriving couples choose to speak words of life over each other.
Words matter. What a powerful gift we’ve been given, one that requires incredible stewardship. We possess the power to shape our spouse’s sense of identity, for better or worse, with our words. We get to contribute to the shaping of who they are becoming. Every day we wake up next to each other, we can choose to see the good and speak it out loud, or we can focus on their faults and point them out every chance we get. Either way, as Portland pastor John Mark Comer says, “They will rise or fall to meet the expectations we place on them.”1
Comer continues, “When we show honor to others, we open ourselves up to receive from all they have to give, but when we dishonor them, we cut ourselves off from all that they are and all that they carry.”2 Each human we encounter, including our spouse, is a child of God—a walking, talking miracle, full of unique gifts, strengths, and abilities to be discovered.
When we honor our spouse with our words, we open our lives up to share in the extraordinary gift of who they are. And when we cut them down with words of dishonor, not only do we poison them with our disrespect but we also miss out on the blessing and the beauty that they carry.
Think of the couples you admire most in your life. One thing we’ve noticed, time and time again, is that any thriving couple who has made it together over the long haul has this way of talking about each other with a deep sense of admiration and respect. Take it to the bank. This foundational sense of deep respect simply must be present in order for a couple to thrive. Even in moments of conflict and frustration, the couple remains strong and leans on this underlying sense of appreciation. It’s almost like a safety net.
To thrive, we have to respect each other as people. One of the things that sealed the deal for me with Chris (even before we started dating, when we were just friends) was how respected I felt by h m— more than anyone I’ve ever met. I would overhear him from time to time in a conversation with a friend, quoting something I had said. “Yeah man, I was talking to Jenni the other day, and she said x, y, and z. It was so good.” Or “Yeah, Jenni taught me this thing about prayer, I can’t stop thinking about . . .” He just had this way of always noticing the absolute best in me and holding it up like a trophy for the world to see. He saw things that I couldn’t even see in myself.
Are there negative behaviors in a relationship that need addressing? Of course. But even in our honesty, we can still choose to speak to each other with words of kindness, viewing even our hard conversations as an opportunity to build one another up. You’ll be surprised at the positive results you see in your spouse when you simply shift to pointing out their strengths rather than their faults, reminding them of who they really are. According to Dr. John Gottman, “People can change only if they feel that they are basically liked and accepted the way they are. When people feel criticized, disliked, and unappreciated they are unable to change. Instead, they feel under siege and dig in to protect themselves.”3
There’s a reason why we began with this particular rhythm. We truly believe it has the greatest potential for change and is the foundation for all the other rhythms because the words we speak toward each other create the culture between us. If the environment of our relationship is filled with words of criticism and contempt, no amount of romantic gestures will make a dent of difference. But we hold the power to change the environment of our relationship—simply by changing our words.