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Fairly often someone calls me at home or at work and tells me their marriage is in trouble. They ask if they can come see me. I explain that I am a professor of family life but not a therapist. That almost never deters them.
They—usually a couple but sometimes one partner—set an appointment to come to see me. They are always in deep pain. I often do something they don’t expect. They come prepared to process a litany of complaints and a load of discouragement. They often expect me to be able to sort it out and equip them with a new tool for relationship repair.
That is not what I do. Instead I ask them to tell me about a time when things have been great in their marriage—when they have felt close, loving, and happy. Being able to do that is a very good sign. It means they have not destroyed the possibility of love.
A More Excellent Way
As they speak of good times, I am amazed at the distinct and remarkable talents that are manifest. For example, it may become clear that one has great compassion and the other has a delightful sense of humor. In another couple one may be a careful, practical thinker and the other exuberant. Whatever the combination, their strengths are almost immediately evident.
And so is the trouble. Our strengths unfailingly get us in trouble. Not only do we overuse them so that they become a major irritation to our spouses, but they also under-gird the fundamental falsehood of marriage: we think we can make things right. We assume that we can work through our differences if we just use our God-given talents.
We are mistaken.
We cannot create a vibrant marriage out of two people regardless of their talents, penchants, or country of origin. It is not possible. We must have divine help. “Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord” (I Corinthians 11:11).
The Lord must be a partner if a relationship is to prosper. In fact He must be the ruling partner. There is no other way to have a vibrant relationship.
While there are those who have never heard His name who have healthy relationships, I believe that they must operate by His principles if they are to have a strong relationship. The Light of Christ lights every man and woman who comes to mortality. That Light knows that He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No man or woman comes to a healthy relationship without His prospering principles.
His formula for growth and well-being—and for a happy marriage—is very different from that described by the world. In fact it is counter to that prescribed by the world. I return to a familiar and challenging passage: “And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them” (Ether 12:27).
Notice the key elements. Our weakness is divinely appointed. It is intentional and heaven-sent. And it has one purpose: to make us humble.
That is a big surprise. God gave us weakness so we would recognize our dependence on Him. Our central task is to make ourselves (with the help of our weakness) humble. Then, as we turn our lives over to Him, He will make us clean and holy.
Testing the Formula
Here is a way to test this formula. Think of times when you have been completely at peace with God—when you have felt His goodness and love. How did that feeling of rightness with Heaven affect your marriage? I’m guessing that you could tolerate any amount of disappointment and misunderstanding as long as you felt close to God. It is the magic potion, the heavenly elixir.
So the enemy desperately wants to prevent that. He wants to get us thinking not about God’s goodness but about our partner’s failings. He wants us to be filled with them. He knows that rumination and recrimination put us in his filthy hands.
Satan knows that healing human souls is something we humans always do poorly. That is why the devil wants us to be mate-fixing do-it-yourselfers.
This is a keen irony in our dilemma. We cannot fix our partners. We cannot even fix ourselves! But we can make ourselves humble. We can recognize our dependence on God for all that we have and are. We can gladly acknowledge that it is He who lends us breath and sustains the simplest functions of life and love.
So when we presume to set our partners and our marriage right, we are intruding on the Heavenly prerogative. We are seizing the reins from God. It doesn’t work. We fallen mortals make poor gods.
What does work is to recognize our weakness and beseech God for that divine gift of charity. Rather than tamper with our partner’s soul, we can throw ourselves on the merits, mercy and grace of Him who is mighty to save. Only when filled with heavenly light can we offer healing love to our partner.
This is fully foreign to the natural man—that same natural man who is an enemy to God. We want to fix our marriages using our own insights and wisdom. But, when we recognize that we never see the big picture, that we cannot look into our partner’s soul, and that there is only One who sees perfectly, then we are on the path to healthy partnership.
A Mighty Change
It is miraculous to me to describe these truths to the couples who come to see me and watch them become peaceful as they lean into His able arms. We are not responsible to fix the universe—or even our marriages. We are to cheerfully do all that we are able to do. Then we ask God to make up the difference—which is vast for all humans.
My testimony is that the puny mortal who leans on God is far more powerful than any humanist armed with any measure of talent and training. King Benjamin challenges us to recognize that we do not know all things that God knows (see Mosiah 4:9). We are not able and God is.
As I testify of these truths, those couples who are most spiritually mature weep with joy. They soften as they turn themselves and their lives to the One by whom we are made sons and daughters unto God. They have faith unto repentance—that is, they trust God enough to turn themselves over to Him. This is President Benson’s powerful message from his Christmas devotional:
Men and women who turn their lives over to God will discover that He can make a lot more out of their lives than they can. He will deepen their joys, expand their vision, quicken their minds, strengthen their muscles, lift their spirits, multiply their blessings, increase their opportunities, comfort their souls, raise up friends, and pour out peace. Whoever will lose his life in the service of God will find eternal life.[i]
Because the formula is simple does not mean that it is easy. Most of us guard our independence quite jealously. Even when we are convinced that we should turn ourselves over to God, the natural man fights and kicks against the effort.
Yet the disciples who repent, regularly and gladly, find a growing goodness in their lives. They find God taking up occupancy in their souls. They are changed.
In my experience, it does not take 25 sessions of therapy to work through our marital woes; It does take thousands of occasions when we turn our souls over to God. The Holy Ghost delivers the shiver of recognition not only in sacred places but even as we ride in the car mulling over our irritations. He invites us to kindly helpfulness even as we arrive home tempted to deliver a corrective sermon. He points us toward compassion even as we are tempted to condescend toward the ones to whom we are joined by covenant.
All eternity hangs in the balance. Will we respond to the invitation? I pray that we will—again and again—until He calls us forth and presents us to Father as those who trusted in Him. On that holy day our knees will humbly bow and our tongues gladly confess that Jesus is the Christ—the one who saves our souls, changes our hearts, and rescues our relationships.
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[i] Ezra Taft Benson, Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, Salt Lake City, UT: Bookcraft ,