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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