After one of our marriage conferences, a woman came up to us with a complaint about her husband. “We live in the city,” she said. “My husband and I like to go walking together downtown. Sometimes when we’re out for a walk an attractive woman will pass by. When that happens, my husband will stop and slowly look her over. Sometimes he’ll even whistle, or make some comment like, ‘Now there’s a good-looking gal!’ I hate it when he does that, and I tell him so—but whenever I complain he says, ‘Look, that’s just what comes to my mind when I see an attractive woman. I’m just telling you the truth about what I think. What do you want me to do, lie to you?'”

“What do you think?” she asked us. “Should my husband tell me the truth?”

“What do you want him to do?” we asked. She paused for a long moment.

“I want him to tell me the truth,” she said slowly, “but not like that.”

The woman’s husband is an honest man. He’s also a crude and thoughtless man. Honesty is a wonderful quality, but uncontrolled honesty is like uncontrolled heat—it can injure and even destroy you. In the movie Liar, Liar, Jim Carrey plays an unscrupulous attorney who suddenly finds himself compelled to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. He spends the rest of the movie being slapped, beaten, and humiliated by friend and foe alike. Just for being honest?

Honesty is an excellent virtue, but honesty alone can be brutal. Maybe that’s why the Bible often recommends virtues in pairs. “For this very reason,” Peter writes, “make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love” (2 Peter 1:5-7 ESV). The pursuit of moral virtue should be balanced by the intellectual pursuit of knowledge, and increasing knowledge needs to be tempered by self-control, and so on. One virtue is necessary to moderate and enhance another.

Was it wrong for the woman’s husband to be honest? No, but it was wrong for him to be honest only. His honesty needed to be tempered by another virtue. As Paul expresses it in Ephesians 4:15, we need to speak the truth in love.

Wrapping truth in love

Think of your words as a kind of product, something you hope to sell to someone else. Most products begin their lives in the Engineering Department—that’s where the original concept and design are developed. But once the original design is complete, the product leaves Engineering and goes to Marketing—that’s where decisions are made about how the product should be packaged.

No successful product jumps directly from the Engineering Department to the retail shelf. Imagine breakfast cereals in brown paper sacks, or perfume sold in a jelly jar. Impossible! For some products, such as cosmetics and perfumes, more money is spent on the package than on the product it contains. The product spends more time in Marketing than it does in Engineering.

Why? Because books are always judged by their covers, and perfumes are sold by the sensuous curves of their bottles’, and panty hose are sold because their package is shaped like an egg instead of like everyone else’s boring box. When it comes to the success of a product, packaging is almost everything.

But strangely, when it comes to marital communication packaging is often ignored. If you think of your words as a product, that product should begin its life in Engineering—that’s where you think of the idea you’d like to get across. But once that idea leaves Engineering, it ought to head directly to Marketing—that’s where the idea is given its look and feel.

Paul encourages us to speak the truth in love. In communicating with our partners, truth should supply the content, and love should supply the package. All of us need to become packaging experts because in communication, as in manufacturing, packaging is everything.

On our survey we asked the question, “If you could change one thing about the way your mate argues, what would it be. One woman responded, “I’d change his matter-of-fact way of dealing with conflict. ‘Here’s the problem—Here’s the solution—I’m sorry—Forgive me—Move on—NOW! Don’t drag it out.'” “I’m sorry—Forgive me”—aren’t those the exact words most of us would like to hear in a conflict? What is this woman complaining about? Certainly not the content; this is a complaint about packaging. In fact, we received many complaints on our survey about a partner’s lack of packaging skill. Here are just a few:

  • I turn off my ability to resolve when he sounds condescending.
  • Even though she is not yelling, her tone of voice is sometimes saying, “How stupid can you be?”
  • His body language is too loud and his words are too few, so I can only assume what he wants to communicate.
  • Criticizing just makes the argument escalate into areas we don’t even need to argue over.

Packaging design is not a spiritual gift; it’s an acquired skill. Like all skills, it requires focus and discipline and repetition to master. And like all skills, it can be improved by observing others who do it well.

A poet once wrote to his one true love, “Let me take you out into my garden, I want my roses to see you.” That’s a packaging expert’s way of saying, “You don’t look half bad today.”

In most cases, it doesn’t take much imagination to see the benefits of speaking the truth in love. Yet we often ignore this critical phase of the manufacturing process, and then when our message fails to win the respect and appreciation we hope for, we can’t imagine what went wrong. Maybe the problem wasn’t with the message at all; maybe it just needed a better package.

Find out why over 1.5 million couples have attended FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember.

A short course in packaging

In communicating with our partners, truth should supply the content, and love should supply the package. It takes both, working together, to make a successful product. All of us need to become packaging experts, because in communication, as in manufacturing, packaging is everything. Five simple principles can help us become better packagers of the truth.

  1. Choose a package your mate will like. Bringing up a complaint or a concern is sometimes a nasty business, so the goal is to look for the most diplomatic way to do it. Try to introduce a complaint with a praise, express approval before disapproval, point out what was done right before what was done wrong, find fault without assigning blame, and recognize good intentions before pointing out bad actions. The goal is to choose a package your mate will like. Tailor the package to her specific needs and wants, and you’ll find that your words get a much better reception.
  2. Make sure the package fits the product. We make three common errors when we’re first learning the art of package design. Sometimes the package is too small—we’re a little too sparing on our expression of praise or approval. Sometimes the package is too big, and then the gift inside is a bit of a disappointment. Sometimes the package is too transparent, and then our attempt to speak the truth in love looks like empty flattery or manipulation.
  3. Change the package often. The first time you choose to introduce a complaint with a praise, you may be very pleased with the results. Be careful! We tend to think in formulas. A formula mind-set might reason, “Hey, that worked. I should do that again next time.” And it might work the next time—but with slightly less impressive results. Once the approach begins to look like a formula, it loses its genuineness, and if it begins to feel manipulative, it’s certain to make your mate angry.
  4. Take the time to admire a beautiful package. A beautifully wrapped package is a work of art, and art should be admired. Speaking the truth in love requires awareness, discipline, and practice, and that kind of effort deserves recognition. The next time your mate extends a beautifully wrapped gift to you, make sure she’s aware that you noticed. Try “Thank you for saying it that way,” or, “That was a very thoughtful way of putting it.”
  5. Deliver the package! Someone once said, “To love someone and not tell them is like wrapping a beautiful gift but never giving it away.” Speaking the truth in love begins with a change in attitude, but it should not end there. Don’t wait for your next complaint to begin to communicate praise, approval, gratitude, and encouragement. Give away the gifts of gratitude and encouragement frequently and freely.

Copyright © 2003 by Tim and Joy Downs. The Seven Conflicts by Tim and Joy Downs. Used with permission of Moody Publishers. All rights reserved.