Communicate: Debate vs. Relate

Debate VS Relate - AdobeStock_215364210When you communicate, do you have a tendency to debate or relate? How about your spouse? What is his or her communication style? When you talk to each other about something important do you walk away with a good understanding of what each of you said?

My six-year-old was dazzled the first time he heard the Welsh language being spoken. “Mom,” he said, “it sounds like they’re scribbling with their tongues.” (Mickey Miller Regal)

Have you ever felt like your spouse was “scribbling with their tongue” as you’re trying to understand what they’re trying to communicate? Or maybe your spouse feels like you are scribbling with your words? It just doesn’t make any sense!

The Scribbling Debate

In our 51+ years of marriage we can testify that we’ve been there many, many times. One of us will say something and the other will completely miss the point in what we (think we) are clearly saying. And when this occurs it’s confusing, and frustrating—for both of us!

There is a humorous scene in the “Everybody Loves Raymond” TV series that relates to this issue. In this particular scene the wife, Debra, is trying to communicate something to her mother-in-law and husband, but they don’t understand her reasoning at all! In frustration, Debra looks at them and says, “When I speak, what is that you hear? Is it like backwards talk, or dolphins squeaking?”

We can laugh at the humor of that statement, but it’s true, isn’t it? Don’t you feel like sometimes your spouse hears something totally different from what you (thought) you said? It’s a scribbled up, confusing mess!

So, to help all of us “un-scribble” some of the mystery involved in this type of communication gap, we’re sharing a portion of what Dr Judson Swihart wrote in the excellent book titled, The First Five Years of Marriage. Whether you’ve been married 1 year, 5, or many more, we believe you’ll benefit from reading the following (as we have):

“Any marriage counselor can provide tons of examples of husbands and wives who, having lived together for 20 or 30 years, are in some ways a mystery to each other. The obvious answer is that God chose to wire males and females very differently. Some would even suggest that this illustrates His sense of humor.”

Dr Swihart then goes on to give the following insights:

Perceived Debate and Relate Messages

“It’s possible that the communication gap lies in how messages are perceived. But the style and content of the messages themselves differ, too. Men tend to [but not always] use language to transmit information, and report facts. They like to fix problems, clarify status, and establish control. Women are more likely to view language as a means to greater intimacy [and bonding]. This leads to stronger or richer relationships and fosters cooperation rather than competition.

“In other words, it’s ‘debate vs. relate.’ That means you and your spouse may be tuned in to very different ‘meanings’ in what each of you is saying. This provides fertile ground for conflict, misunderstanding, and hurt feelings. What one of you thinks is the other’s ‘hidden meaning’ can be 180 degrees out of phase with what the speaker really intends to communicate.

“This can easily lead to distorted conclusions about the other person’s motivations. ‘She’s an unreasonable, demanding nag. She just won’t leave me alone,’ he thinks. ‘He’s an insensitive, domineering bore. He doesn’t have a clue about my feelings,’ she tells herself.

“… Of course, one size never fits all. Females don’t all fit neatly into one communication-style box. And males don’t fit into another. Some men can be quite nurturing and emotionally empathic in their language. Some women are aggressive and task-oriented in theirs.

The Need for a Translator

“Still, you needn’t be surprised if you and your spouse sometimes seem to need a translator. In the book, ‘How Do You Say I Love You?’ it is noted, ‘Often the wife comes in [to the marriage] speaking French and the husband speaking German —in an emotional sense. Unless you hear love expressed in a language that you can understand emotionally, it will have little value.’ The author goes on to say, ‘If you are going to communicate an attitude of love toward your spouse, you must learn to speak his or her language.’

“It’s hard to do that if, like too many couples, you enter marriage focused on being loved rather than on giving love. Try making it your goal to turn your attention to hearing the heart of your partner rather than to the frustration you may feel about not being heard or understood.

Communication Date

“If you feel stuck, and that your marriage is in a hole that just gets deeper, do something about it. Make a date with each other once a week to try a communication exercise. For example, the wife talks 10 minutes about feelings or issues she has. The husband does nothing but listen. He may respond only with, ‘I don’t understand. Could you restate that?’ or ‘What I hear you saying is…’

“Then he talks for 10 minutes and she listens. She can ask for only clarification or affirmation that she’s hearing him accurately.

“At the end of the exercise, neither of you is allowed to try to ‘straighten the other one out,’ by reacting angrily to something you didn’t want to hear or debate the issue.

“Other approaches to getting ‘unstuck’ include attending a well-recommended weekend Christian marriage retreat, participating in a couple’s support group through your church, or enlisting the help of a licensed Christian marriage counselor.

“This is not a hopeless situation. In fact, compared to many marital conflicts, it’s a state that can more quickly and remarkably improve —when two children of God who are committed to their marriage decide to work on it and seek appropriate help.”

Debate or Relate as Christ

In closing, it’s important to note:

“Generally, people think the goal of conflict is winning. If you’re winning, your partner is losing. And if your partner is losing, the relationship is losing. The goal of conflict is understanding. Understanding doesn’t mean you agree, which is okay because you don’t need to resolve your conflicts. You just need to manage them. So, the next time you feel yourself getting frustrated, instead of digging in and defending your position, stop and say, ‘Help me understand.’ This turns conflict into connection.” (The Gottman Institute)

To learn more on this issue, visit the COMMUNICATION AND CONFLICT topic on this web site. Also, the COMMUNICATION TOOLS topic offers even more to help you with this debate or relate issue. Plus you can put “communication styles” in the search feature of this web site.

Above all, it’s important that we reveal and reflect the heart of Christ within our marriages. So, be committed to resolving conflicts in Christ-honoring ways. After all, if we aren’t resolving conflict in healthy ways, what does that say to others, who are looking to Christ to be their Savior? The testimony of our love for Christ and for each other speaks loudly through the ways we treat one another.

There’s no doubt that conflict IS GOING TO HAPPEN in our marriages. That is a given fact, because of the closeness of the relationship. Plus, the enemy of our faith works overtime to get us to fight against each other. After all, if we’re fighting with each other, we’re diverted from fighting against him/them.

That’s why it’s even more important to LEARN how to resolve our conflicts in God-honoring ways. We pray that Marriage Missions will be helpful for you in this endeavor.

Cindy and Steve Wright


To help you further, we give a lot of personal stories, humor, and more practical tips in our book, 7 ESSENTIALS to Grow Your Marriage. We hope you will pick up a copy for yourself. (It’s available both electronically and in print form.) Plus, it can make a great gift for someone else. It gives you the opportunity to help them grow their marriage. And who doesn’t need that? Just click on the linked title or the picture below:

7 Essentials - Marriage book


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