What goes through your mind when you hear a couple giving compliments to each other? Some people melt; others snicker; a few roll their eyes. But I want to contend that what is said during moments of marital affirmation has a powerful effect upon the character of each spouse and the future of the marriage.
Too often these kinds of discussions do little more than scratch the surface of these profound marital interactions. When this happens we only think about what makes each other feel good (which is something we ought to consider) and usually how that helps us get what we want in return. But we miss the character shaping influence of compliments.
Compliments Teach and Motivate
When I compliment my wife I am teaching her what is important to me. My compliments show her what aspects of her person cause a reflex of praise to spill out of my mouth. If I have protected our relationship and speak with honor, her heart will be motivated to increase or enhance those things I affirm.
With that said, my words hold great power to encourage or discourage; to move her towards godliness or merely towards my preferences. Do I only praise features of beauty tied to her youth (Prov. 31:30) or do my words of affirmation point her towards her “imperishable beauty” found in Christ expressed through her unique life and gifts (I Pet. 3:4)? Do my compliments cause her to fear “Father Time” or restfully pursue those things that are timeless?
If I am to stir her up towards godliness (Heb. 10:24), then as her husband, my compliments are a primary way I should carry out this calling. In order to realize the full effect of affirmation I describe in this post, I will recommend two types of compliments. However, I want to affirm all types of honoring compliments that spouses might exchange.
First, compliment the full character of Christ in your spouse. For help in this, take several key passages that capture Christ’s character and make index cards of key attributes: Galatians 5:22-23, I Corinthians 13, Philippians 2:1-11, and Proverbs 31 (for wives). Use these index cards as a scavenger hunt and to ensure that you are teaching and motivating your spouse to pursue the full character of Christ in your compliments. Pay attention to which attributes you tend to compliment least and grow your appreciation for this facet of Christ by learning to praise it in your spouse.
Second, compliment your spouse most frequently and emphatically for those qualities and interactions that are most unique to your marriage. What are the ways that your spouse cares for you that no one else does? What are the aspects of your spouse’s character that you get to see and few others see? What is special about your marriage that is not shared with anyone else? Compliment those things frequently. Focusing your attention on these things helps you not to view your marriage as ordinary.
Compliments Reinforce a Narrative
Compliments do more than teach and motivate; they write a story. In a fast-paced, now-oriented culture we don’t reflect very much. Journaling or nostalgic conversations are becoming increasingly rare exercises. But that does not mean that we have become people who live without a story. We just tell our story in sound bites.
The marital sound bites that we use to tell our “marriage story” (most often without realizing it) are our compliments and our grumblings. Intentional affirmation does more than make your spouse feel good; it is a discipline to protect the way you think about your marriage.
If you are hunting for full breadth of Christ’s character in your believing spouse, thinking on those attributes, and verbally bringing them into conversation; then it is harder for a negative marital story line to emerge. However, when we begin to fixate on all the things that are not the way we prefer, then any marriage can begin to feel lousy and the door is opened to many marital difficulties.
Compliments Affect Competition
Complimenting your spouse in the ways described above serves to protect both partners from a sense of competition. First, the spouse being complimented is protected from performance anxiety. Beauty, intelligence, humor, earning power and the like are not verbalized as the primary things that make the marriage good. Because of this, these things can be the blessing God intended them to be. As C.S. Lewis famously said (paraphrased), “When we put first things first [Christ’s character in our spouse] second things are increased, not decreased.”
Second, the spouse giving compliments is protected from thoughts of straying. When you are complimenting those things that are uniquely good about your spouse and marriage, then outsiders cannot compete in that “scoring system.” Complimenting those things that are uniquely good about your spouse has a way of “setting apart” (the biblical behind the words “to make holy”) things like your spouse’s beauty, intelligence, humor, etc…
My prayer for you as you’ve read this post is that you no longer view compliments as a “silly” nicety of marriage; something that you are “supposed to do” like you’re supposed to floss your teeth (for good “marital hygiene”). I hope you see the compliments you give your spouse as an incredibly powerful shaping influence on your spouse and marriage which is only surpassed by each partner’s personal relationship with Christ and conversations with Him (personal prayer and Bible study).
This post was originally published at the “Grace and Truth” blog of the Biblical Counseling Coalition. I highly recommend the BCC as a place to find excellent resources for counseling and discipleship.