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Over time, the things that attracted us to each other start to make us crazy.
Two marriage scholars share a story: “Frank’s need for time alone conflicted with Debra’s need for time together. The more he sought independence, the more she pressed for closeness. The more emotional she became, the more he “turned off.” Before long, she began to see his shyness as inadequacy, his careful, deliberate style as boring, and his reluctance to communicate as lack of love. He began to see her emotionality as immaturity, her energetic tempo as exhausting, and her desire for closeness as weakness.” (Christensen & Jacobson, Reconcilable Differences, 2000, p. 8)
The qualities that we once cherished become the annoyances that we can’t stand. Quite naturally we conclude that our partner was hiding her true nature when we were courting. Of course our partner feels the same way. “He was never this way when we were dating!”
With her separation from her second husband, Scarlett Johansson expressed her doubts about the institution of marriage: “I don’t think it’s natural to be a monogamous person. It’s a lot of work. And the fact that it is such work for so many people—for everyone—proves that it is not a natural thing” (The Week, March 10, 2017, p. 10). Hmmm. There is the fallen person’s view; marriage should be natural and easy. God’s intent is quite different. Marriage should help us grow beyond our own self-serving preferences.
Our complaints in marriage are really saying: “You made me happy once before. I expect you to keep acting in ways that make me happy.” Our fallen natures make us self-centered, self-serving, self-justifying, and only too glad to blame the person who doesn’t meet our needs. The natural partner is an enemy to his or her spouse.
Yet there are certain compensations for the misery. “How wonderful to have someone to blame! How wonderful to live with one’s nemesis! You may be miserable, but you feel forever in the right. You may be fragmented, but you feel absolved of all the blame for it” (Erica Jong).
This is all quite gloomy. We are tempted to forgo close relationships. Unless we see things from heaven’s perspective.
Marriage is ordained of God; it is the laboratory He prepared to teach us advanced lessons in discipleship. Along the way we will experience immense joy.
Two prominent marriage researchers and therapists who had dedicated their careers to helping couples change made a shocking discovery. We should worry less about changing our partners and work harder at accepting them. “Change is the brother of acceptance, but it is the younger brother” (Christensen & Jacobson, 2000, p. 11). When we step outside of our own perspective, our own demands, our own narrative, we may discover new possibilities.
As G. K. Chesteron observed: “How much larger your life would be if you could become smaller in it. . . You would begin to be interested in others. You would break out of this tiny. . . theatre in which your own little plot is always being played, and you would find yourself under a freer sky, in a street full of splendid strangers.”
This is consistent with God’s purposes for marriage. Rather than provide us ease and comfort, God provides us growth and progress. He is especially interested in our humility, compassion, and positivity.
Humility: God wants us to be open to other people’s point of view. Our partners do what they do for reasons that make sense to them. Do we understand and appreciate their reasons?
Compassion: God wants us to open our hearts to our partners. He wants us to feel tenderly toward their pains and struggles. Am I touched by my spouse’s challenges?
Positivity: God wants us to look for and appreciate the good in our partners. Getting better acquainted does not have to make us cynical; it can make us more appreciative. Do I celebrate the good in my spouse?
Every irritation we feel toward our partners is an invitation to take the heavenly view. “How can I understand, appreciate, and bless my partner?” In the process, we grow. We become more godly.
I should add a caveat that applies especially to women. Women are more like to accommodate and even surrender their personalities in marriage. Acceptance is not servile submission. It is the strength to see the heavenly view while still respecting themselves. A woman who feels that she has lost her identity in her marriage should get help in identifying her essential self.
Dating and courtship are filled with fun and entertainment. But the serious business of marriage and discipleship, while filled with abundant joy, will also be challenging. We should not expect that the finishing school for godliness would be undemanding. Rather than expect changes in our spouses to be the key to better marriages, the answer is usually in becoming better disciples ourselves.
Next time you feel irritated with your spouse, consider how God would have you enlarge your discipleship. How can you bring greater humility, compassion and positivity to your marriage?
For more insight about acceptance, read Christensen, Doss, and Jacobson’s Reconcilable Differences, Second Edition: Rebuild Your Relationship by Rediscovering the Partner You Love–without Losing Yourself.
For more insight about the heavenly view in marriage, read my book, Drawing Heaven into Your Marriage.
Ron BarnesNovember 14, 2017
Not long ago I had the opportunity to talk to a young couple shortly before their wedding. I told them that after more than 40 years of marriage I could tell them one of the secrets to a successful marriage. I told them that they needed to learn to tolerate each other. They looked at me funny. I explained that each of them would do things that irritate the other. They need to learn to tolerate those things.