Sticks and Stones and Broken Marriage Bones: The Power of Words in Expatriate Marriages

‘Sticks and stones may break my bones,
but words will never harm me’. March, 1862, British Digest

I’d taunting sing this when a kid said mean words to me at the British boarding school I attended as a TCK in Malaysia. We all did. Somehow we thought it’d build a shield of protection around us. It did no such thing. I quickly learned that words can really, really hurt.

Words possess incredible power:

Our words can wound, or heal; comfort, or grieve; inspire, or intimidate.
They can build up, or tear down; clarify, or confuse; affirm, or discourage.
Words can give courage, or condemn; develop, or destroy; calm, or cause chaos.
create connection, or control.

Any frustration, overwhelm or hurt in marriage tempts us to wage war on our spouse. Sometimes it’s intended. Other times, due to a hurt frame of mind, words escape before we realize their impact. And sometimes we’re just careless or angry. In expatriate marriages, with the added strain of negative emotions through relocations and the sense of aloneness and helplessness during stressful and challenging times, keeping our words kind and loving can be difficult. Dennis and Barbara Rainey in Building Your Mate’s Self Esteem, say that words have “the power to contaminate a positive self-image or heal the spreading malignancy of a negative one.”

Husbands and wives can become experts at launching verbal missiles. Which of these have you thrown recently?

1. Guilt trips control and punish. Phrases like: Couple Arguing
        o “I hope you’re happy now!”
        o “It’s always my fault, isn’t it?”
        o “Like you never do anything wrong!”

2. Faultfinding heaps on criticism. This can happen with any subject from how to take care of things, to parenting; how to manage money, to how you’re handling the new culture. The spouse throwing this missile feels superior and makes the other feel incompetent.

3. Name calling adds a negative word to a spouse’s weakness. Derogatory words like: stupid, lazy… make a spouse feel worthless and small. When we say “that was dumb” it come across like “you’re dumb because you did something dumb”.

4. Sarcasm is another method of control. “You’re kidding?” or “whatever” or “No!” said with a condescending tone of voice discounts a partner’s point of view. It’s a power up on our partner.

5. Blaming imposes guilt on the other spouse and often gives them the feeling of being punished and confused. “It’s your fault” doesn’t take responsibility for what’s happening.

6. Put downs can be subtle or overt. They cause a sense of unworthiness and shame. Ex.
        o “That wasn’t too bright!”
        o “What did you do that for?”

Why do we do this, without often being aware of what we’re saying? Sometimes it’s because we want to get our own way. There’s a selfish streak in all of us! Getting even is also a reason to launch a verbal missile. We feel hurt and want to retaliate. What about hiding? Vulnerability and personal responsibility are needed in a successful marriage. Without them, there’s no maturing personally or in the relationship. When we’re confronted by the truth from our spouse, sometimes we don’t want to own up. We’re afraid we’ll be attacked or abandoned. So we throw a jab at them.

And why is it that we remember, in detail, the negative things our spouse throws at us? Blame it on the brain! Studies by Dr. John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago have shown “the negative bias” of the brain. It is more sensitive and responsive to unpleasant news. Add to that: one positive phrase can’t offset a negative one. Dr. John Gottman, world renowned for his work on marital stability and divorce prediction, has researched thousands of couples for over 40 years. He says this:

“How many positives are needed to offset a negative in our most intimate relationships? The ratio is five to one for married couples.”

That’s scary! How can you change things up, so that words of healing come from your mouth?

1. Be mindful that your words have incredible power.

2. Be intentional about what you say. Before you speak, ask yourself 1 or 2 of these questions:
        o Does this really need to be said? Be Careful With Your Words
        o Does it build my spouse up?
        o Can it be said gently? Lovingly? Kindly?
        o Does it bless?

3. What is something positive and encouraging you could say to your spouse today? Each day, with intent, speak words of affirmation. What words may lift up his/her spirit?
        o “I love it when you…”
        o “I appreciate…”
        o “You are so good at…”
        o “I see ____________ in you.”

4. Avoid interrupting. A challenge when you feel you have something to say, or set straight! The female brain processes facts and emotions at the same time so more thoughts bounce around a woman’s head that she wants to blurt out before she loses them! This can make it more challenging for women. Humans listen without interrupting, on average, only 17-20 seconds.

5. If you think you’ve said something to offend or hurt, check it out. We often see by body language or disengagement in the conversation, that what we said was deflating to our partner. Ask “What did I just say something to hurt you?” Let go of defensiveness when your spouse opens up, even if you didn’t intend hurt.

6. When you fail, ask for forgiveness. Don’t beat yourself up. “Please forgive me” or “I’m sorry” are powerful words. When you acknowledge the mistake and its impact, the healing process moves more quickly and will result in more intimacy. You might want to add, “Can I start over?” and say it differently if you’re still in the moment.

7. Use kind and polite words. Words like:
        o “Please” invites and requests, rather than demands or controls.
        o “Thank you” shows appreciation. Don’t take your spouse for granted.
        o “I love you” keeps the focus on what’s good and takes it off what drives you crazy.

Remember, you can talk yourself into feeling love for your partner just as easily as you can talk yourself into feeling frustrated. Why not focus on what you love?

Kind Words

8. Keep away from extremes. They can be deadly missiles. All or nothing phrases like:
        o “You never…” implies little hope for change – They’ll always be a failure.
        o “You always…” gives a sense of self-righteousness. You’re right, they’re wrong.
        o “*#%&.” Any vulgar language is degrading and sucks the life out of the relationship.

9. Try the ‘daily double’. Say two positive things TO YOUR SPOUSE, each day for a week. No pointing out negatives. None. You can do this! The rewards will be worth it. What are they?

10. Brag on your spouse’s character and accomplishments to others – within his/her earshot.

11. Text or write out the “5 Top…” list. This way your spouse can go back and look at them often!
        o The 5 Top Reasons I love you
        o The 5 Top Ways You Helped Me This Week
        o The 5 Top Reasons You Make Me Smile

“Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”
King Solomon, the wisest man in the world

How do your words show wisdom? Bring healing? How do they give life to your spouse?
Choose words of love, respect and honour! Your relationship will blossom!

Share your stories in the comments below. I’m here to champion your marriage to thrive wherever you’re living and working globally.

Becky Signature





  1. Maureen Clarke says:


    What a wonderful article and great reminders. I love your blog! I can hear your voice in every paragraph. M

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