A few weeks into a marriage ministry at church, I was faced with the harsh reality that, “I am my biggest marital problem.” [Paul David Tripp.] Like all those who have been through Re|Engage before, I realized I can only fix what is inside the circle- me. Staring into the cavernous abyss of the unknown, I was reluctant to get in too deep. I had spent so much time and energy sweeping my failings under the rug or covering them up with a compensative tarp and I didn’t want to reveal them. However, you can’t keep up the charade forever, can you? When two people get married, it’s only a matter of time before you discover all of one another’s weaknesses. It was time for me to get real…with myself. My husband already knew the real me and had been communicating (in such a lovely way- ha) my faults to me for years. Only, I wasn’t listening.
Lesson 2- Brokenness
Does your marriage look as romantic and spectacular as the love stories depicted in movies and books? Are you basking in your happily ever after? Maybe a few of you are, but I think most of us are not. Everyone has marital problems- infidelity, finances, parenting, ambition, loyalty, communication, sex, etc. Every couple has disagreements. Whether it’s a knock-down, drag-out brawl about the in-laws or a little tiff about forgetting to return a phonecall, I think the root of every argument comes down to this: she doesn’t feel loved and/or he doesn’t feel respected. Ever since we read Love & Respect, I am able to relate each and every conflict we have ever had to the fundamental rule that I need to feel loved and he needs to feel respected. (Of course, that is not all we need. But I believe it is the foundation for all men and women.)
So, what happens when a malicious word is thrown or a wordless dismissal cuts you to your core? An argument ensues. A glass is thrown. A door is slammed. Someone storms off. Someone cries. Then, silence. If you’ve never done any of the above then please comment below and share with us where, when, and how you learned to resolve conflicts in a healthy way. As for the rest of us, we are a mixed bag of characteristics we absorbed from our parents, friends, work buddies, movies, pop culture, books, etc.
When Dr. Phil was in his prime, I used to watch him pretty regularly. (His ratings were through the roof. I know I’m not alone here.) And now I only remember two or three bits of advice he gave in the beginning because the rest was drowned out by his unproductive drama fests that have plagued the last several years. One thing I always recall was his theory that, “the number one determinant of divorce is the way a couple argues.” I agree. However, he never offered a substantial solution.
Conflict resolution has been a sizable struggle of ours. My husband cannot recall witnessing any explosive arguments in his home growing up. I cannot recall one argument growing up that wasn’t explosive. Of course, neither method was instrumental in showing us how to resolve issues once we had a family of our own. Isn’t it ironic that we accept and even celebrate the differences of each of one of our children, yet we expect two people such as us, from such different backgrounds, to immediately and seamlessly fuse together? It surely doesn’t happen on its own. Love is not enough. Dr. Phil was not enough. The Re|Engage curriculum so wisely states, “Every marriage takes work, and no one passively arrives at a great marriage.”
So, how do you fix it? Where to start? Taken from Lesson 2, “The problem isn’t your circumstances or your spouse, it is the selfishness and sinfulness within your own heart.” Ouch. There it is again, accountability. Ouch.
“What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” James 4:1-3
I assumed if I could just fix my husband, then everything would fall into place and I would be a much happier person and therefore a better wife, mother, daughter, friend, sister. (Insert birds chirping and the silhouette of a family holding hands, frolicking down a hill at sunset.) That is what I had convinced myself after years of over-analyzing and dissecting it in my own head. Therein lies the problem, I’m in my head too much.
I am beginning to accept the idea that I don’t have all the answers. I don’t even have a few of the answers. Nothing I have ever tried has worked. I am convinced there is no self-help book nor a “Top 10” checklist that is going to fix this. I am broken. And the Re|Engage ministry is challenging me to do something different, “Until you acknowledge the brokenness in your own heart and turn to the One who is ready and willing to help you, your relationships will remain broken.” It’s worth a shot. Ok, Jesus. Take the wheel.
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” John 15:5
At this point, I still have my guard up, but the peephole has been widened to the size of a speakeasy door. I’m opening up a little. I’m curious. In the homework, I was asked to admit to times when I have been angry, selfish, prideful, lazy, controlling, and critical. Upon first glance, I wrote off a few already. He is the controlling and critical one, not me. I fessed up to getting too angry and fighting in front of the girls a few times in the car, being selfish by staying in the living room at night watching my shows instead of coming to bed and possibly being forced to watch the news or sports, and being lazy by not cleaning the house or finishing the laundry when I should, but making plenty of time for the things I enjoy. Still, I am not controlling or critical.
I wasn’t going to let myself off the hook that easily though. I bound myself to my chair and really focused on his point of view, at the inner circle surrounding me. “Come on,” I told myself, “you know when you’re driving him nuts. Think about it. When have you irritated him and what were you doing?”
Then, it clicked. I know that when we are running late he sometimes offers to help get the girls ready so I can get myself ready and we can leave the house quicker. He nicely asks, “Do you want me to get them dressed?” And I snap back, “Noooo. I’ll get it.” I always tell him “‘no” because, honestly, I don’t like the outfits he picks out for them. They have such cute clothes and hair accessories, but it doesn’t bother him a bit if they wear their old, stained pajamas to the park with their hair in knots. So, instead of letting him pick out whatever he/they want(s) which sends me into convulsions because, “…their outfits don’t even match, we are taking pictures at this party, and they’re going to outgrow all these cute clothes before they get to wear them and we won’t have gotten our money’s worth…”, and instead of me getting them ready ahead of time as to avoid the issue completely, I just say, “Noooo.” Ok. So, I’m a bit controlling. And critical. And, I have a lot to work on.
Over the next week I was acutely more aware of my actions, my responses, my manipulations, and my avoidances. Wow. I’m a mess. Who knew? I didn’t! Wait. My husband knew. And he loved my anyway. God knew. And He loved me anyway. Hmmm. This is interesting. I’m diving in now.
Lesson 3 – Grace
“By God’s good grace,” or “with the grace of God” are common phrases I hear at church all the time, but I’ve never really stopped to think about their meaning. “What is Grace?” According to Re|Engage, “In two words, it’s undeserved love.” “To Reengage with your spouse, you must follow Christ’s example as an initiator. He does not initiate with you because of how lovable you are. He initiates again and again because His love for you is perfect, and His love for you perserveres- even when you’re most unlovable.” Grace is the footing of our personal relationship with God.
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith-
and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God…” Ephesians 2:8
This was a difficult concept to grasp, to say the least. In our culture today, we tend to view marriage as a contract instead of a covenant. A contract is a bound agreement in which you produce and then are rewarded with pay. A covenant is a promise with God. You can’t do anything to get God’s grace granted upon you. It has already been given. Since we view marriage as a contract, we expect our spouse to perform and earn our love. And if our spouse doesn’t perform accordingly, or at all, then we will not offer our love. However, when you start to accept that God has granted you kindness, you feel freer to extend grace to others.
That didn’t go over real well (snort) so the next few times I tried something different, “Honey, (taking slow, deep breaths and trying to remain calm), I feel hurt and sad when you say that because I think I work really hard around here and you’re saying I am not doing my job well enough.” That went right over his head. It had absolutely no affect. Soon, I was back to defending myself and reading him his rights. That’s what we’re supposed to do, right? We’re supposed to say, “I feel (blank) when you (blank)”? We’re also taught to stand up for ourselves, to set boundaries, and to not take any flack from anyone, right? As Dr. Phil also used to say, “How’s that werkin’ for ya?”
The night we went over our homework in our group, my husband shared something I never knew about myself. He said that one of the reasons he first fell in love with me was when he would get angry about politics, sports, or money (he is a fiery one) and I would so effortlessly pet his arm or rub his shoulders that my touch would make all his stress melt away. I had the ability to dissuade his hot temper? I had no memory of that. Then, looking back there were a few fuzzy moments I could recall. Though over time, I felt his anger had turned its focus to me too. And because of his “irritability” and my previous heartbreaks before we met, I hardened my heart and moved on. In fact, had he started extending me grace on his own I wouldn’t have believed nor would I have accepted it. I would have questioned his motives and rejected it. Hearing I used to be capable of tenderness towards him, and that it made a lasting impression, made me want to peel away the layers and find that sweet girl again.
Following the lesson on grace, things started to change for us almost immediately. I restrained myself and prevented a couple arguments. He noticed. It made us both smile. It made our hearts lighter. A weight was definitely lifting. And we were starting to realize it was credited to strengthening our vertical relationship with God.
Now, instead of having a conniption fit and packing his bags for a guilt trip, I make a point to do as much housework as possible after the girls go to bed-rather than doing whatever I feel like completing and assuming he’ll understand when he comes home in the morning. And, he doesn’t ask if he can help with the dishes if there are some still in the sink. Now, he just does it…quietly. Baby steps. Small victories. That’s what it’s all about. I’m in deep.