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Dr. David Hawkins
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Nine Critical Mistakes Most Couples MakeNine Critical Mistakes Most Couples Make

The Fire of the "Untamed Tongue"

Dr. David Hawkins
The Relationship Doctor I received a vivid lesson about fire and fuel one warm, summer day. Lying on our backs in the tall grass behind my house with a couple of buddies, stalks of dried grass hanging out of our mouths, we told stories and enjoyed ourselves. Life couldn’t have been sweeter.

To ten-year olds, those stalks of grass were temptingly similar to the forbidden cigarette and one of us wondered what it would be like to “smoke” a few of those blades of grass. It all seemed innocent enough. We gathered our “cigarettes” and proceeded to light up. Suddenly, without warning, a spark caught in a bundle of dried grass, and then another, until we were faced with an inferno beyond our control.

Realizing the potential danger of the fire, we ran for the help of my dad. Three screaming boys immediately caught his attention. We quickly formed a “bucket brigade” and were able to douse the fire and get on to the next important issue—explaining all of this to my very angry father.
An innocent outing, an impulsive act, a furious outburst of potential danger.

Fire is one of those elements that is either our friend, keeping us warm and dry, or our foe, creating incomparable damage. Likewise, the tongue can either encourage or destroy. As the Apostle James said, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness.” (James 3: 9) James goes on to say the tongue is like a spark that can set a mighty forest ablaze.

Fire creates searing heat. Perhaps more destructively, however, is the fact that fire consumes the oxygen needed to survive. Fire robs us of life just as the tongue can set a deadly blaze in our marriages, stealing vitality from our life.

A marriage can become tinder dry at times, ready for a spark to ignite things. A season of dryness, or ongoing conflict, can set the stage for an angry outburst of deadly proportions. Sharp words, issued without caution, set the tone for a hostile and fiery outburst.

“But, I just can’t help it,” twenty-seven year old Karen said recently. “I just get so mad that I say what’s on the top of my mind. I know I can be extremely hurtful. We have called each other the most horrible names, and are embarrassed about it. We both have biting tongues, and know it.”
Karen and Doug, clients of mine, were newly married and already having problems. I watched as Doug nodded his head to Karen’s rendition of the problem. I asked them to explain more about their problem.

“My husband and I can’t seem to agree on anything. I mention to him that I want more help around the house, and somehow we end up in World War III. I hate it.”

“It’s true,” Doug said soberly. “We don’t know how it happens, but when we fight, which feels like all the time, it gets bad. We say things we would never say at other times, and we’ve nearly called it quits because of it.”

“Well,” I said slowly. “I have a saying -- ‘If it’s predictable, it’s preventable.”

“It certainly is predictable,” Karen said wryly. “The preventable part is questionable.”

I could clearly see the pain Karen and Doug were in. They had hurt each other deeply with, impetuous, ill-spoken words.

“It takes a lot of self-control to slow things down enough to see what you two are doing so you can change the pattern.”

“Doug is just as tired of my biting tongue as I am,” Karen said.

“I can get pretty sarcastic and angry, too,” Doug replied, “and we’re both tired of our bickering.”
“Good,” I said. “Being tired of how things are going is a great place for God to work in our lives. We have to get to the point where we are at our wits end—then God can step in. He loves a humble heart. We’re not very teachable when we feel like we have all the answers.”

We spent the rest of our session exploring the roots of their anger and biting tongues. We discussed how their anger and sharp words had caused tremendous pain in their marriage, to the point where they had nearly separated several times. It had scared both of them, and they wanted to learn new tools.

One of the tools I shared was “speaking from your most vulnerable self.” This requires slowing down the process and exploring what other feelings could be shared rather than anger -- which so often is hurtful. We discussed how anger is a secondary emotion, and how we need to look beneath the surface and learn to share other more vulnerable emotions that lay below the surface.

We discussed common underlying feelings known as GIFT:

  • Guilt: anger often covers feelings of unexpressed guilt.
  • Inferiority: anger often covers feelings of insecurity or inferiority.
  • Fear: this is often an emotion that is difficult to express, but can be powerful when expressed appropriately.
  • Trauma: conflicts often reawaken previous trauma in your life, creating hypersensitivity to an issue.

We also talked about allowing one person to speak, and really listening to the other. We discussed the importance of listening with an ear for “the kernel of truth” in what their mate was saying. They learned about the value of letting themselves be influenced by their mate’s concerns, silencing the temptation to become defensive and offering a quick rebuttal.

Karen and Doug seemed relieved to hear that their problems were normal and could be remedied. They agreed to slow things down when they became defensive, to guard their tongues and to look deeply to see if there were other, more vulnerable emotions needing expression.

They agreed to take time outs when needed. It would take work, but they agreed to take these new insights home to practice.

Are you using a “fiery,” untamed tongue in your marriage? This is a critical mistake that will only lead to regret. Consider taming your tongue. Recognize and own your primary feelings, practice some of the tools in this article, and allow God to heal problems with anger and harsh words. Let me know how these tools worked for you.

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