"Hi, beautiful!" my new husband, Jerry, called from the back bedroom where he was making pottery. I'd just come home from my university classes.
"Hi," I mumbled, heading into the kitchen of our bungalow to cook dinner. My straight hair was pulled into a ponytail, and I wore my usual outfit of cut-off army fatigues and threadbare plaid shirt. Because my father had sexually abused me when I was young, I'd always felt ugly and dirty and tended to dress the part. But since Jerry and I had married a few months before, he routinely called me beautiful.
No other man has ever called me beautiful, I thought, grabbing a handful of spaghetti. Although I'd heard Jerry say those words before, for some reason, that day it felt as if God himself wrapped his arms around me, and my feeling of ugliness began to melt away.
As a psychotherapist, I've seen many people healed by the power of words. Sometimes those words are understanding; sometimes warm; sometimes forgiving (or seeking forgiveness); sometimes encouraging. Through our words, we can be the incarnation of Jesus to each other, just as Jerry was, and still is, to me. He saw God's beauty in me and spoke the healing words I needed to hear, setting me on a path to recovery and wholeness.
Here are some powerful ways our words work.
1. Provide a sense of belonging
Healing words draw us together. Many of us feel we don't belong, even if we look as if we've always fit with the "in" crowd. Janet married her husband when they were both in medical school. "When my husband first referred to me as his wife, and introduced me that way, I felt such a sense of belonging," she told me. "More than I'd ever felt in my primary family." Her story of healing words surprised me because she appears as though she has it all: a beautiful house, two wonderful children, a great husband, a professional career. But she, too, has been hurt by rejection in her childhood family.
Maybe, like me, you have to keep reminding yourself that we're all members of the "walking wounded," no matter how good we look on the outside.
Feeling we don't belong, in a family, a social group, or at church is a common fear we keep inside, and only our spouses may know. I've heard other husbands refer to their wives as "my bride" or "my better half" or "my constant companion," all words that affirm belonging. Those simple words, repeated regularly, can ease the pain of feeling on the outside.
2. Create a positive spiral
Kind words to our spouse can create positive relationship spirals. Good words beget good words. My friend Bonnie describes her husband's words that calm her fears after an argument. Married 15 years, with two children, she and Paco have a good marriage, but like any couple, sometimes they hurt each other. She says, "After we've quarreled, I feel so hurt, I don't believe he cares. Then, he often opens his arms and says, 'I love you.' I'm deeply touched and feel secure again as I rush into his embrace."
Paco's words restore their emotional equilibrium as well as begin a positive spiral of intimacy. As Bonnie feels bonded again with Paco, she can comfort him. He's endured terror and danger from a civil war in his Central American home country. He describes the power of Bonnie's words when he feels insecure and sad about all the pain from the past: "Bonnie holds me and tells me, 'You are in God's hands.' Her words restore God's peace to me. She does what no one else can do."
3. Open a door for healing
In contrast, negative spirals can also spin out of control in a relationship. We can forestall those downward tailspins and help reverse old habits by using healing words, as Walt did with Lee Ann.
About a month after Walt started a new job, Lee Ann went to his office for the first time. As he introduced her to his co-workers, she made a joke at his expense. "As I looked at him," she says, "he looked pained but said nothing. It took my breath away, because I could see how much I'd hurt him. And the joke fell flat, so there was an uncomfortable pause." Someone changed topics, and Lee Ann quickly turned to go. As Walt walked her to the elevator, he looked at her and said, "I love you."
"It hurt to hear it," she says. "I'd expected rejection since I felt as if I'd rejected him with the joke."
Lee Ann felt remorse that she was capable of putting down Walt to build up herself. Though that old habit held on for many years after that incident, something was broken in her that day because of Walt's unconditional love. Suddenly she saw a crack in the wall around her heart, where deep pain resided. Walt's inspired, powerful words not only forestalled a cycle of rejection, but opened a door for healing in Lee Ann.
Asking for what we need
We can ask each other for healing words. Asking for what we need is a primary emotional skill. No one can read minds, but I've often heard women clients say, "But he should just know that I want to hear, 'You're a good mom,' after the kids have been giving me a hard time."
"He wants to say the right thing," I respond, "but he doesn't know what it is." I go on to describe how, when I've felt anxious that our daughter might be irreparably wounded because of my inadequate parenting, I've led Jerry to the couch, asked him to put his arm around me and say, "You are a good enough mom, and God will help us and heal her."
Growing up with sexual abuse left me with a ton of free-floating anxiety, especially about being an adequate parent myself. Every time Jerry said those affirming words to me, another pound of fear melted. Intellectually, I knew my parenting anxiety was over the top, but emotionally, I needed him to speak calming, faith-filled words.
When the hurts come from our spouses, instead of from old pain, we can also ask for healing words. I helped a wife who believed her husband didn't really care about her because he worked so much. He did love her, but needed help to formulate the right words.
One small, specific request from her made a big difference. She asked him upon awakening to say to her, "How did you sleep?" As a menopausal woman, she often slept poorly. Whether she slept well or badly, she felt his love in that expression of concern. In response, she spoke kindly to him, thus beginning more positive relationship spirals.
Good words spin a warm web of refuge and rest. Whether our spouses instinctively speak healing words or we ask for them, the right words at the right time bind us together in God's power and love.
Karen Rabbitt, M.S.W., a psychotherapist and writer, has been married 34 years.
Copyright © 2007 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.