Healing a hurting marriage can begin with some self-help. Much can be done to save or improve a marriage, if the partners are willing to put some effort into building up the relationship.
Every now and then I speak to groups about marriage relationships. I often use the title, "Blocks that Build a Marriage", because I think a good relationship is made of many small items that are either cemented firmly in place or absent. Like the wall of a strong building, the little things in a marriage must be put together and built up, month after month.
The first and major statement comes directly from the Bible. The thoughts of 1 Corinthians 13 are so powerful, direct, and eloquent (and so appropriate in marriage counseling) that I want you to stop and read that passage before you continue. Read them from a marriage partner's point of view.
"Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres." 1 Corinthian 13:47
Marriage is not a 50/50 arrangement. It is a surrendering of oneself to the marriage partner - completely, unconditionally, and without reservation. There should be no competition, no self-seeking; no power plays. The relationship should be filled with concern, sacrifice, patience, mutual support, respect, forgiveness, and trust. In a world full of greed and hatred, the ideal marriage relationship is a haven of protection and love.
But we are all human beings, and we all fall short of these noble goals. Sometimes even caring, compassionate people fall into patterns of behavior that can destroy a marriage. Christian couples also experience separation and divorce. How do we build up a suffering marriage? How do we work through problems?
Many building blocks are laid - you might call it a whole section of the foundation - as couples deal with conflicts in marriage. I find that the way conflicts and anger are handled is almost as important as the problems themselves. But before we discuss conflicts, we need to look at one or two preliminary issues. I believe the Bible sets forth some good guidelines for marriage partners, and these same guidelines are compatible with psychological principles. Wives should be respectful of their husbands, careful about their appearance, gentle, loving, and supportive. Husbands should strive for some of the same qualities. I believe that men should also exercise caring leadership and try to develop qualities that are too often lacking in the male species: an ability to listen, an interest in communicating with their wives, honesty, an interest in spending time with the family, and making a commitment to "unconditional love. Many wives, of course, also need those same qualities.
How many Christian couples pray together? Just the act of getting on your knees beside your spouse makes a statement about who you are, who your spouse is, and your relationship with God. Prayer can be a powerful influence in a relationship. If marriage partners will adopt those Biblical guidelines for their own, they will cement many blocks firmly in the structure of their marriage.
Marriage partners must be informed about serious physical or emotional problems and be courageous enough to help a spouse overcome them if they exist. Some faltering marriages are in the grip of forces that can only be handled by trained professionals. For example, very odd or extremely eccentric behavior might signal severe problems. Strong, continuous anxiety, fear, or a bad physical condition might signal a need for hospitalization or therapy. Spouses too often deny the existence of serious substance abuse on the part of a spouse. Continuos cruel or antisocial behavior indicates a need for special help. If your marriage problem falls into one of these categories, don't try to solve things on your own. Seek help.
Now that I've mentioned those preliminary thoughts, let me move on to solving conflict in marriages. Conflict does not need to destroy a relationship. It can function as an adjustment mechanism - a way to iron out the rough spots and make life better. Anger is not deadly. It can help us understand that change is needed.
Anger within marriage comes when the following things are threatened: (1) Our self-esteem; (2) Hope for the future; or (3) Safety. As we all know, husbands and wives have different ways of venting anger. some husbands turn on the ice machine and freeze out the wife. Some wives throw pots and pans. These days, some husbands throw pots and pans too! Arguments are common, although most of them produce more heat than light.
Agression is a very visible sign of anger. Men, in particular, fall prey to this mode of behavior - they attack a spouse and subtly humiliate her. Men who slip into this kind of behavior, interestingly enough, are usually insecure and threatened themselves. Sometimes a spouse will fix the blame for a bad marriage situation on somebody or something else. A few years ago there was a popular song in which the singer blamed his wife's parents for her failure to understand his needs. At other times an angry spouse will internalize all the anger until his or her body begins to break down. Sometimes repression causes depression.
To cope with anger, we need to recognize it and deal with it. Rather than being aggressive or passive, I suggest being assertive. My definition of assertive behavior within marriage includes:
- being direct
- being respectful
- having flexibility
- being honest
- getting respect from the spouse
- using appropriate behavior
- being self-assured
There are three levels of assertive behavior:
- Basic Assertion. Stating your personal needs, beliefs, feelings, and opinions
- Empathic Assertion. Conveying sensitivity for the other person. considering the other person's feelings.
- Escalating Assertion When a person fails to respond to a basic assertion or empathic assertions you increase the firmness of your statements. There is a slow but steady progression from quiet, gentle communication to more forceful statements. I think Jesus did something like this after Peter's denial, when He asked Peter three times if he loved Him.
A marriage partner who feels he or she is consistently being ignored or hurt should be assertive, and should be prepared to move up through the states of "escalating assertion" as the problems are attacked.
I find it interesting that there are never any serious fights until after a couple ties the knot. Women don't find out about the husband's fanatic worship of TV football until after the honeymoon is over. Husbands don't hear complaints about the status of his job until well after the relationship is established. In American culture, men and women ignore many pertinent facts about a spouse during courtship. There is an element of dishonesty in the early stages of a relationship.
Therefore, the fact that a little dishonesty exists in a marriage should not be devastating to a marriage, because it has been there all along. We are by nature fearful of being completely honest with others. They will see our weaknesses! As we build strong bricks into a marriage, however, we must bring a new sense of honesty into the relationship. A spouse must be willing to accept truths about himself or herself and be honest enough to admit that changes are needed.
Escalating assertiveness should be kept under control. You can't go from "Level Zero" to "Top Level Fully-Escalated Assertiveness" in just 24 hours! You need patience and perseverance. You might need to work for months just to make certain facts clear to a spouse. Keep your actions under control. Let love guide your program. Timing is important. Be aware of the need to have your discussions in the proper time and place. Here are a few situation in which assertiveness is not appropriate:
- When the house is a complete mess and friends from Peoria are on the way to visit you.
- When the husband staggers through the door after a rough commuter trip on the Dan Ryan Expressway.
- In bed.
- Just before it's time to leave for work, when Junior throws a bowl of strained prunes against the kitchen wall.
- At the dining room table, when a mother-in-law is visiting.
Assertiveness is most effective after both husband and wife have had a restful night and there are no emergency situations that need attention. discussions can be calm, relaxed, and non-threatening. Discussions, by the way, should always be positive. Condemnation and finger pointing are no good. "Honey, I have a couple ideas that might make life a little easier for us" is a better opening line than, "Honey, I can't believe how stupid you are!" Be tactful. Certain words send up red flags. No matter what the discussion is all about, you can immediately turn on the high voltage if you accidentally touch a raw nerve. The dangerous topic might be money, sex, a problem with a child, or a job problem. Stay away from the hot buttons. Be cool. Stay within the boundaries of a non-threatening discussion. Don't tell your spouse that you have a special revelation from God that he or she is supposed to follow. Be kind.
Keep your discussions private. At first this advice might seem unnecessary, but think for a moment about the times when you're talking with a good friend, or the times when you feel an urgent need to crack a joke at the expense of your spouse. Low and behold! Some of your spouse's most private fears and problems are hung on the laundry line for all to see! Christians sometimes feel a need to bare their souls in group settings. In itself that may be alright, but remember that your spouse comes first - private matters should be respected as such.
When you go from one level of assertiveness to the next, keep the road clean. Be willing to forgive and forget, so you don't clog up the dialogue with unnecessary debris. A husband or wife should always be willing to provide complete, unconditional forgiveness, if a spouse sincerely asks for it. Jesus was very firm about that. He even said that a sin could reoccur many times, and if a sincere request for forgiveness is forthcoming, we should extend forgiveness just as many times.
Other qualities that help heal an emotionally hurting marriage are summed up in these words: permanence, unity, and intimacy. The Bible teaches - and no one will argue against this point - that the best relationships develop in an atmosphere of total trust and acceptance. Despite all the changes in marriage vows, customs, contracts, and live-in arrangements, the element of permanency always enters into a marriage relationship. We still use the term vow to describe the commitment we make. There is a deep need for love, commitment, and trust in all of us, and marriage fulfills that need.
Marriage relationships blossom when partners know they will be together "for better, for worse, till death do us part." I realize that strong forces destroy those relationships from time to time, but I also believe that we are far too quick to fall out of love and abandon a spouse when things get rough. Taking the attitude that marriages is permanent sets the stage for working through difficulties and solving even the worst problems.
Another building block of a strong marriage in unity. The Bible teaches that there is an almost mystical union of two people in a marriage. Marriage is much more than a partnership or a legal contract. It is "two people becoming one." God even compares the relationship between a husband and wife to the relationship of Jesus Christ and His Church. When marriage partners form this union, the needs, fears, hopes, dreams, and happiness of one become the same as those of the other. Mutual support is the norm. Standing up for the partner is expected. Sacrificing life and limb for the spouse is part of the relationship - and so is taking out the garbage.
Another building block is unselfishness. It doesn't take a psychiatrist to see the value of that trait. In fact, even a child can understand the problems of being selfish. But time after time I listen to a spouse who defines every single marital problem in terms of what he or she is getting or not getting out of the relationship. The frame of reference is limited to the speaker. Very little is said about what the relationship is doing to the other person.
On the other hand, I know a 35-year-old father of two who realized that a marriage relationship was more than getting. It was giving. He gave everything he had to help his wife fulfill her long-time dream of going back to medical school and becoming a doctor. By the time she was done with her internship, he had given up his own career to work out of a little office in his home, he had taken over most of the homemaking duties, sold their house to raise money for medical school expenses, and in his words, "begged and borrowed every cent I could get my hands on". "Marriage is not a 50/50 relationship", he says, "It's more like 100/100. When the two of us were convinced that God was leading my wife to medical school, my duty became clear. I had to do everything I could to help her. It was a pretty clear cut decision. I was prepared to sacrifice my career, my own personal dreams, and the things I like to do with money. Whether or not I'm getting back an equal amount from the relationship - or whether I'll get "my share" after she finishes her residency - is beside the point. My duty was to help my wife to the best of my ability".
The young man goes on to say that the example he follows is Jesus Christ: "The Bible talks about a husband's duty to love his wife 'as Christ loved the Church'. That's unconditional, sacrificial, total love. That's the kind of love I'm to bring to the marriage. I'd jump into a river to save my wife if she were drowning. I'd fight off someone who tried to attack her, and I'd sacrifice my career to help her on her way. In fact, that's exactly what I had to do."
Intimacy is part of the honeymoon, as we all know, but continuing intimacy is a brick that builds a strong marriage structure. The tragedy is that it breaks down so often! Many husbands and wives desperately need time alone to talk, dream, cry , laugh, and enjoy each other. Our society tends to treat people like objects that are used and discarded - or used and then ignored until the next usage. A wife or husband, however, is one of the most valuable human beings in the world - a person to be treasured and understood as a gift from God, not used as an object. I believe that this need for intimacy is built into every human being. The Bible says that God knows even the secrets of our hearts. If the marriage relationship is (as the Bible claims) a reflection of the love of Jesus for His Church, there are no secrets. Everything should be known. Everything should be shared. Again, I am amazed at the way the principles of the Bible mesh with facts we psychiatrists learn about human nature.