Your marriage’s worst enemy

Note: As my 25th wedding anniversary approaches, I feel compelled to write down some of what I have learned.  I don’t consider myself an expert on marriage by any means, but if perhaps these thoughts help someone–married or hoping to be married someday–it will be well worth my time.  I welcome your comments as well. 

In my previous article, I talked about how there is no “soul mate” for you.  Even if you find the person who most perfectly matches your criteria for a mate, marriage will still be hard work.

But why?  Why is it so difficult for two people to live together in a love relationship for a lifetime?  In my experience as a husband and a pastor, I have seen one factor more than any other divide husbands and wives.  You might think it’s money, workaholism, intrusive in-laws, one spouse’s wandering eye, bad temper, or ESPN.  Okay, in my opinion, Lifetime Network and HGTV are far worse for a marriage than televised sports  But I digress. None of those forces equals the sheer destructive power of this one thing.

Would you believe that your marriage’s worst enemy is you?

Specifically, your tendency justify yourself, to see yourself as the only reasonable person in the relationship, while casting your spouse in the role of the stubborn fool, the mentally delusional nutjob, or the garden-variety jerk.

Here’s a confession: I stink at marriage counseling.  It took me a while to realize this, because I love being a pastor.  I love most parts of my job so much, I’d do them even if I wasn’t paid.  So when married couples have approached me, asking if I could help them work through some problems they were having, I’ve always been glad to do what I could.  But afterwards, I rarely felt I had actually helped them.  Often, I knew these people well. They were friends.  I liked and respected them.  Surely, I thought, this will be simple, just letting them talk things through, offering a few pieces of sage advice, and praying for healing.  They would thank me and walk away, with their love for each other renewed.  It never seemed to work out that way.  Instead, I would find one partner tearfully, bitterly rehearsing the offenses she has had to put up with, the Hell on Earth she has been experiencing.  Meanwhile, the other spouse looks absolutely astonished.  He can’t understand why she gets to play the victim, when she is far from perfect herself (It wasn’t always the wife accusing and the husband on defense, but for ease of reading, I will leave the gender pronouns this way).  He offers semi-sincere apologies, promises to try harder, and basically minimizes her complaints .  They leave angrier than they were when they arrived.

After years of this, I finally realized something: By the time couples came to me for marriage counseling, they were already past the point of wanting to “work on their marriage.”  They had each dug a foxhole, and their relationship had degenerated into lobbing occasional grenades at each other.  Her motive in coming to me for counseling was simply an attempt to get a third party to confirm what she had been saying to him all along. She wanted me to say, “No woman should have to put up with what you’ve gone through.”  Whereas he was hoping I would join in with his self-defense, telling her, “Get over it; he’s not so bad.”  Each wanted me to climb into their foxholes and fight alongside them.  Any advice I offered would be politely received.  But I got the distinct feeling that they both were thinking, “Preacher, you obviously haven’t been listening to me.  I’m not the one who needs to change, my spouse is.”

I want to make something clear: I am not diminishing the pain these people felt.  The problems they expressed were real (Another point of clarity: We weren’t talking about abuse), and the pain they felt was profound.  Tears were shed.  These conversations were agonizing, for them and for me.  But in every case, I walked away thinking, “Surely two people bound together by a common commitment to Christ, who’ve raised children together and had years of experience with each other, can work through this.”  And often, the answer was no, they couldn’t.  Or perhaps wouldn’t.  They had crossed some threshold.  Their separate foxholes were too well-fortified.  Only unconditional surrender on the part of their spouse (adversary?) could possibly stave off the inevitable divorce.

Side note: Another thing I learned from this experience–and which I am anxious to share with you–is that a trained counselor is worth every dollar it would cost you to see him.  Your pastor, a family member or trusted friend can listen, offer advice and prayers, and there is value in that…but it’s not a replacement for someone who does this for a living.  Find a professional to talk to, and do it BEFORE you’ve got one foot out the door.  

I recently read something that distilled these scattered, frustrated thoughts for me.  Someone expressed what I’ve been feeling perfectly.  In their book Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson write:

The vast majority of couples who drift apart do so slowly, over time, in a snowballing pattern of blame and self-justification. Each partner focuses on what the other one is doing wrong, while justifying his or her own preferences, attitudes, and ways of doing things. … From our standpoint, therefore, misunderstandings, conflicts, personality differences, and even angry quarrels are not the assassins of love; self-justification is.

I’m ashamed to admit it, but I’ve seen this in my own attitude toward my wife.  When I am upset with her, my frustration feels like the most legitimate, reasonable emotion I could possibly feel.  There’s a voice essentially saying, “You SHOULD be mad!  Anyone else would be!  In fact, anyone else would have been fed up long ago!”  (By the way, if you’re thinking, “I know Carrie. Buddy, you should NEVER complain,” you’re right…dangit)  On the other hand, I see my own faults as a husband as no big deal.  I’ve got a boatload of excuses: “Your expectations are unreasonable.” “You knew I was that way when you married me.”  “All things considered, I’m still a lot better than most guys you could be married to.”  I guess you could say I’ve spent time in both foxholes.  I’ve played my share of offense and defense.  My marriage’s worst enemy is me.

So what is the answer?  Simply put, the only sure answer is the Gospel.  I don’t mean that converting to Christianity will fix your marriage.  Christians have this problem just as much as non-Christians do. I mean we, as Christians, have to let the Gospel take over our marriages.  Here’s what I mean:

Most of us know the story Jesus told (in Luke 18:9-14) about the morally upright, devoutly religious man who went to the temple to pray, and happened to see a notorious sinner there, a man who made his living scamming his own people.  The pious brother prayed a pious prayer: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people–robbers, adulterers, evildoers–or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”  That man was doing what we do in marriage–self-justifying.  He was saying, “I’m not the problem, HE is.”  He was saying, “I’m so much better than most men, my flaws aren’t even worth mentioning.”  He was playing offense and defense.  But Jesus told us the prayer of the other man, too: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”   The Lord then said something that must have astonished his hearers: “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified.  For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”  It’s a little known fact about our faith: Christianity doesn’t make us perfect (at least, not yet).  It makes us repentant.  Christians aren’t better people than non-Christians; but they should be much more aware of their own failings than others.  That’s how we are saved in the first place; not by promising to try really hard to be good, but by admitting we’ve failed and asking Him to take over.  That’s how we grow into the people we were made to be.

So how does this work in marriage?  Whenever we feel ourselves moving towards “It’s HER fault!” or “Why does she always overreact?” we must recognize that as self-justification.  That’s the voice of the Pharisee, drawing us further away from God…and further away from our spouse.  I discovered years ago that the more I focus on things I’d like to change in my wife, the unhappier I am.  After all, a self-centered eye can find fault in anyone, and can magnify those thoughts to the point of making us miserable.  But when I begin to focus instead on overcoming my own flaws, working against my selfish, lazy tendencies, and trying to be the man she deserves, I am happier.  Counterintuitively, I begin to see in her all the reasons I married her in the first place…and discover some new ones I never noticed before.  Here’s another way to put it: If your main goal is to turn your spouse into the person you want him/her to be, it will always end badly.  If your main goal in marriage is to learn to love your spouse as he/she is right now, you will succeed.

If you are struggling in marriage right now, my words may seem trivial.  Consider this: What would it look like if you climbed out of your foxhole and met your spouse on neutral ground?  Imagine what might happen if you sat him/her down and said (without mentioning any of your grievances), “Here are the ways I know I have let you down.  And here’s how I want to improve.”  Or even, “If I could do anything to make our marriage better for you, what would it be?”  Does that sound impossible?  It probably does.  Getting out of a foxhole in the middle of a war zone always does.  But it’s the only way to make peace.  Someone has to take that risk.  Everything within you will resist; we enjoy feeling like the victim.  But when you first fell in love, you had dreams of building something wonderful.  I believe those dreams are still worth fighting for; only the enemy is not the person in the other foxhole, it’s our self-justification.

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The “Soul Mate” Deception

In May, Carrie and I will celebrate our 25th anniversary.  That certainly doesn’t qualify me as an expert on the subject of marriage.  But I have learned so much through the process of building a family with her, as well as observing (and sometimes awkwardly trying to help) the marriages of friends, family members, and people I’ve ministered to.  A handful of good books have helped clarify things for me, as well.  I wish I could go back to that naive, love-smitten kid I was in May of 1992 and tell him what I know now.  But, since I possess neither a DeLorean nor a Flux Capacitor, time travel is impossible (and even if I did, there’s that whole “messing up the time-space continuum” thing).  So I thought I would write down the lessons I have learned so far, just in case they might help someone struggling in marriage, or someone planning to be married in the future. I know I have a lot still to learn; I pray that I have over 25 years left with her to learn those lessons.  But for the next several weeks, I’ll share here the most meaningful things I’ve learned.

I’ll start with this: There is no such thing as a “soul mate.”  There.  I said it.  The twenty-one-year-old me would have disagreed passionately.  In my young adulthood, I thought with all my heart that there was one special woman God had chosen for me…just like there was one special person for everyone.  Furthermore, I was absolutely certain I had found her.  And since God had brought us together, we would have a marriage so blissful, so perfect, the world would stand amazed.

Where did I get such an idea?  Believe it or not, the idea of a soul mate comes not from Scripture, but from ancient Greek thought.  As Plato put it,”…and when one of them meets the other half, the actual half of himself, whether he be a lover of youth or a lover of another sort, the pair are lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy and one will not be out of the other’s sight, as I may say, even for a moment…”  I found that quote on a website called “The 45 Best Soulmate Quotes.”  Yes, apparently that’s a thing.  Our culture loves the idea that there is a perfect person for each  of us out there somewhere.  It’s the main idea behind most romantic movies; note that movies almost never focus on what it takes to make a relationship last. Instead, they tend to be about the obstacles a man and woman have to overcome in order to find each other and fall in love. It’s all about the dashing Prince placing the glass slipper on Cinderella’s foot, not on what life is like for Cindy and her man five years later, when there are bills to pay, kids to feed, and the Fairy Godmother is nowhere to be found.

Our song lyrics buy into the notion as well. The most common theme in popular music by far is the notion of “true love,” which means finding that person you were destined for, who makes life worth living.  Talk to unmarried people, and you’ll see we have completely bought into this idea.  In our minds, the soul mate we’re looking for is someone who will meet all of our expectations in a lover, without asking us to change in any way.  We’re looking for the ideal version of ourselves, only in the body of an attractive member of the opposite sex…who also happens to be crazy about us.

For twenty-one-year-old me, it was even worse, because I had made this idea part of my theology.  In my defense, I had some help with that.  My engagement and early marriage days were during a time when Bible-believing Christians were so eager to build up the institution of marriage, our leaders over-sold some ideas.  One was the idea that Christians, especially committed believers, and ESPECIALLY Christians who had put off sexual intimacy until their wedding day, had happier marriages (including more torridly satisfying sex lives) than unbelievers.  Joel Gregory in his book  Too Great a Temptation tells the story of his predecessor at First Baptist, Dallas, the legendary WA Criswell, preaching a sermon on this very subject.  He referenced some recent studies about marital satisfaction among Christians, baptized it in Scripture, and his takeaway line was, “Young men, marry a First Baptist woman.  She’ll love you so good, they’ll have to carry you off in a wheelbarrow.”  The huge congregation was initially stunned at hearing such saucy stuff from their white-haired patriarch, but after a moment’s silence, the place went up in laughter.  That message was forevermore known as “the wheelbarrow sermon.”  Interestingly, Gregory reports that when people asked Mrs. Criswell what she thought if it, she said, “WA doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

But I thought I knew.  I had found a godly woman who had agreed to marry me. We had done everything right, as far as I could tell.  We were destined for marital greatness.

And then we got married.

I won’t go into detail about the first year of our marriage.  I will simply say this: I was devastated at how hard it was.  So much so, I questioned God.  How could He do this to me?  I had tried to do things His way.  Didn’t He owe me happiness as a result?  We had rarely argued during our 2 1/2 years of dating and engagement; now we fought almost daily.  For years, she had been the person I couldn’t do without.  I had driven an hour each way to see her three times each weekend.  Now, we often couldn’t stand the sight of each other.  It’s almost as if getting married was the worst possible thing that could happen to our relationship.

I learned two invaluable lessons that year: One, in order for this marriage to work, I had to change…and so did she.  We both needed to grow out of our selfishness and pettiness, and the sooner, the better.  Two, I couldn’t look to her as the source of my happiness.  Marriage doesn’t work like that.  The infatuation of the early days of falling in love is thrilling.  So is the anticipation of an engagement.  But those kinds of feelings are temporary.  It’s like eating the most spectacular dessert ever; it tastes amazing, but you can’t live on it long-term.  I knew then that I needed to deepen in my relationship with Jesus, the actual Bread of Life…only He would give me the joy, purpose and identity I was foolishly looking for in marriage.  The good news is that, as I did this, the growth I would experience would (hopefully) make me a better husband, too.

I’ll talk more in a later blog post about how things changed (both in me and in our marriage) after that, but for now, I’ll just say that it was a long process of learning what it meant to be a good man.  I’m still working on that.  So is she.  (Okay, that last sentence was a joke…sort of).  The good news is that, over the years, we have built something wonderful.  I look forward to seeing her each day, and the high point of my week is our Friday breakfast date.  I look back over these twenty five years, and see so many ways she has supported me, helped me choose the right path, and filled my days with joy and laughter.  It took work for us to get to this point, but it has been well worth it.

I remember seeing a published study in the years just after I stopped believing in soulmates.  It said that people who were in arranged marriages had far greater marital satisfaction than people who chose their own mates.  It’s hard for us in the Global West to believe such a claim.  We think freedom is always best, including the freedom to choose one’s own spouse.  But as I thought about it, it made sense.  A man in an arranged marriage knows that he is stuck with this woman, so he might as well learn to love her for who she is.  He has no reason to compare her to some mythical person who meets all his needs; he went into the relationship without those overly romantic expectations.  So whereas the American model leaves him thinking, “My soulmate is out there somewhere.  I just married the wrong person,” his actual situation leaves him with one viable option: Love the one he has.  And build something beautiful with her.

I’m not arguing that we should begin arranging marriages for our kids (although as a Dad, the idea is appealing).   But here’s what I am saying:

If you’re not married, choosing the right person to marry is crucial.  A life of singleness is not an empty life (see 1 Corinthians 7, where Paul calls his singleness a gift), and is far better than marrying someone for the wrong reasons.  Before you marry, ask yourself, “Does he/she make me a better person?”  From a Christian perspective, that means “Does he/she draw me closer to Christ, and to becoming the person He is trying to create in me?”  Ask someone who knows you well that same question–your parents or a close friend who will definitely tell you the truth.  If the answer is no, walk away.  If the answer is yes, and you choose to marry…it will still be hard work!  I absolutely married the right person, and it has still been incredibly difficult!  But the work will be so very worth it.

If you are married, there is a person God has in mind for you to love, to believe in, to support, to pray for, to seek to please, and to enjoy completely.  That person is the person to whom you are currently married. If you are unhappy in your marriage, unless you are being abused by your spouse, leaving them won’t bring you the happiness you yearn for. Ask God to help you love them as they are, to love them as He does.  In other words, ask God to help you love your spouse the way He already loves you…He sees all the flaws, but He chooses to love you anyway.  In fact, against all the odds, He delights in you.  And He can produce that kind of love in your marriage, too.  Give Him that chance…and then go to work building something beautiful.