Bumping into Each Other in Marriage
We had just finished a national meeting in which we were planning a marriage curriculum when a colleague from another state took me aside. “My wife and I are having a hard time.”
I was surprised. The colleague is a very positive man and an expert on marriage.
He fumbled forward. “My wife is always exhausted and always mad at me. She criticizes me constantly—especially about my busy schedule. So I have sort of checked out. That makes her even madder.” His discouragement was obvious. “I don’t know what to do.”
I asked him to tell me more about his wife. “She takes on far too many projects including many learning projects with our children and she gets overwhelmed. And she did not have a happy childhood.”
The Pain of Mortality
Life in mortality can be brutal. Even earnest, faith-filled Latter-day Saints can be beleaguered by life. It can be cause for despair. Or cause for growth.
It seems that we all get in situations where our strengths fail us. The husband’s enthusiasm led him to take on many work assignments that kept him from home. His wife’s commitment to their children caused her to undertake too many ambitious projects with them. Our strengths can become our challenges! I believe that this is a universal problem for mortals.
I made recommendations that felt like the right things for him and his marriage. I do not claim that these recommendations are panaceas for all marriages. Yet they might also be of value for other relationship challenges as well.
Listening for Coded Messages
First I recommended that he “listen past the edge in his partner’s voice,” as John Gottman, the leading marriage researcher suggests. This good husband can come to see his wife’s criticism as a cry for help. “It may sound like she is telling you all that is wrong with you when she is really begging for both compassion and some practical help with her life. She needs you but doesn’t know how to ask for the help she needs.”
Our normal way of dealing with complaints is to argue with each other’s perceptions. This is as effective as a slugfest. Both people get hurt and neither learns anything. When we listen to argue and correct our partners, we all get injured.
Or we shut down and seek to avoid dealing with the complaint. When we ignore our partners we create emotional separation and painful misunderstanding.
When we listen to our partners’ pains with the intent of feeling and showing compassion, the result is greater closeness and openness.
The second recommendation was to help his wife find her joy. The idea probably sounds ridiculous. How can a person find joy when buried under tons of rubble? Actually, the idea applies especially well to someone buried in a landslide; look for the light and go toward it!
This recommendation is in stark contrast from the usual tendency to give advice to a struggling spouse: “Well, what you need to do is give up such-and-such.” The inevitable response is to defend the importance of such-and-such. Our spouses dig in their heels. An even larger problem is that I am trying to impose my priorities on my spouse. That violates the foundation principles of agency.
It is wiser to find a quiet time—maybe an evening out to dinner—and ask his wife: “What are the projects and activities that you find most satisfying? What are you loving in your life?” When we focus on the joy and light, the darkness is less salient. Further, when we clearly know what is most important to us, then, when choices must be made, it is easier to prune away the activities that bring less joy.
This doesn’t mean that we only do things that are fun. Joy is different from pleasure or amusement. Getting to joy often entails sustained effort. Joy is the evidence that our gifts have intersected with God’s design. We are doing the thing for which we were designed. God tells us to “fill the measure of our creation and have joy therein.” This is a key principle of life design. As my friend helps his wife discover her deepest joys, she will be able to shed burdens wisely.
Call for Mercy
My third recommendation was that he cheerfully do all that he is able to do while looking to God for His life-giving light (See D&C 123:17). Maybe he would try to amend his schedule. Maybe he would make extra efforts to help at home. Yet, in addition to all his best efforts, he should regularly call out to God for mercy. Maybe every day as he drives home from work he could have a chat with God, asking for an outpouring of strength, compassion, and love.
I am confident that we live far beneath our spiritual privileges. God stands willing to give us far more than we know or receive (See D&C 78:17-19). In response to our calls for mercy, God may give us greater compassion, lighten our loads, open doors of opportunity—God is eternally creative!
It is too early to tell whether these suggestions will help my friend and his wife. I hope they will. I hope these principles may also help all of us to live together more charitably and helpfully.
If you’re interested in strengthening your marriage, you may be interested in the Valentines Week Marriage Celebration-at-Sea, February 13-21, 2010, a cruise in western Caribbean and Panama. Go to http://www.cruiselady.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=178&Itemid=53 for more information.
Or you may be interested in getting a copy of Drawing Heaven into Your Marriage, the gospel-centered marriage book by Brother Goddard:
Also, Brother Goddard has a new 2-talk set out: “The Heart of a Healthy Marriage and a Happy Family.” Go to http://www.seagullbook.com/lds-products-579216.html
To discuss this or other articles by Wally Goddard, join us at www.drWally.org.