As a marriage therapist and being married myself, I have learned that what is said is not often what is meant. For example, after a discussion with my wife, and she says “fine,” that is often used to end an argument when she is probably right, and I need to stop talking. Other times she may ask me ”What is wrong?” and I say ”Nothing,” even though something is wrong. If I make a proposal and she says, “Go ahead,” I cannot assume it is permission. (It is actually a dare.) I’ve also learned that when my wife says “Whatever,” it is not “Whatever makes you happy.” Instead, she is sending a subtle but possibly explicit message. If she apologized and I say ”That’s okay,” I actually may be planning to keep my distance for awhile. Finally, when my wife says “Wow,” it is not a compliment. It often means the she is amazed that one person can be so stupid.
Not only do I see communication problems, but I see problems people think would be solved if they were married to someone else. Some problems may be solved this way, but it also is true that we carry our response to problems from relationship to relationship, and our response to problems may be bigger than the problems.
John Gottman, a marital researcher, gives this example:
Paul married Alice and Alice gets loud at parties and Paul, who is shy, hates that. But if Paul had married Susan, he and Susan would have gotten into a fight before they even got to the party. That’s because Paul is always late and Susan hates to be kept waiting. She would feel taken for granted, which she is very sensitive about. Paul would see her complaining about this as her attempt to dominate him, which he is very sensitive about. If Paul had married Gail, they wouldn’t have even gone to the party because they would still be upset about an argument they had the day before about Paul’s not helping with the housework. To Gail when Paul does not help she feels abandoned, which she is sensitive about, and to Paul Gail’s complaining is an attempt at domination, which he is sensitive about. The same is true about Alice. If she had married Steve, she would have the opposite problem, because Steve gets drunk at parties and she would get so angry at his drinking that they would get into a fight about it. If she had married Lou, she and Lou would have enjoyed the party but when they got home the trouble would begin when Lou wanted sex because he always wanted sex when he wants to feel closer, but sex is something Alice only wants when she already feels close.
Even rock-solid marriages have sensitivities like the ones described above. All marriages “fall short of the glory of God.” So what is God’s purpose for marriage?
Genesis 1:26-28 tells us, “Then God said, ‘Let us (the triune God) make man in our image, in our likeness…’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” In the Old and New Testament we can see four purposes for marriage: to reflect the image and unity of the triune God, to experience of Christ’s love for His church, along with procreation and management of creation.
This is where it can hurt. It is common to think of marriage as something that is difficult, discouraging, and even hurtful. Many think of personal failure. It is difficult to respond well in an intimate relationship when we are not treated well. We all can think of examples where we are not treated well. Maybe you can think of a time you were betrayed by a childhood friend. Or, you ask your teenage daughter how her evening went, and she nearly bites off your head. Possibly you are caring for aging parents and in spite of all your efforts, they are still unhappy. Or, you are unhappily married but stay together for a number of reasons. Others do not. Every 45 seconds a marriage ends in divorce (Dr. Greg Smalley).
An incredible statistic is the one that predicts divorce. Marriage is one of the most researched topics over the last 40 years and this prediction is well-documented. John Gottman and other researchers underscore that your response, when you are treated poorly in your marriage, is predictive of eventual divorce with 91 percent accuracy.
It is not exactly what is said, or what is done, that is so predictive. It is the feeling that one spouse is above or below the other. It results in defensiveness. It can come from dwelling on the injustices in your relationship, or from ruminating on the weaknesses of the other. It leaks out in one’s tone, facial expressions, and non-verbal body language. It is contempt. We often do not mean to be contemptuous. Maybe you just want to bring up an issue, or just talk about it, and your spouse interprets it as criticism and wants to defend, attack back, and finally withdraw. Dan Allender, in his book with Tremper Longman III, Intimate Allies says that “many couples live with an underlying contempt for each other.” Later they write, “Spouses degrade each other when they show a contemptuous, shaming, judgmental spirit.”
We are all treated poorly at times. We all have different desires and these can turn into expectations. When these expectations are not met, we get angry, or at least disappointed. We can feel that the other is not living up to their end of the bargain. The contract is not being fulfilled. If you a sign a contract, there are certainly expectations to be met. If you use that mentality in marriage, you are set up for more disappointment and hurt. Tension develops between the idea of marriage being a contract, and marriage being a covenant.
So what do spouses do, who generally get treated well, in their marriage, act at those moments when they are not treated well?
The Bible starts with the heart. Proverbs 4:23 says, “Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life.” “Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be” (Luke 12:34). The Bible also contrasts open and hardened hearts. On one hand is the verse, “Love each other deeply with all your heart” (1 Peter 1:22b). In contrast, Jesus said that Moses permitted divorce in the Old Testament because of hardened hearts (Matthew 19:8a).
If there is any recourse from a hardened heart to one that is open, safety is key. “The name of the Lord is a strong fortress; the godly run to him and are safe” (Proverbs 18:10). It is hard to open up and admit feelings and failures, if you are afraid of your partner’s response. A covenantal approach, though, invites this kind of vulnerability. If one feels safe, you can be honest about feelings and failures. It creates a joint struggle to expose the beautiful, and the broken. It allows for true love, the grace that provides the elements needed to grow, and it feeds passion. It is a picture of God’s love for us. Accordingly, we are to love our spouse as a reflection of God. Imagine, as Allender and Longman write, “I am to see my spouse as a unique reflection of God. She is a woman like no other.” They return to this theme when they write, “I must learn what it means to draw out my wife’s uniqueness.” They point out that both spouses reflect God’s glory, and as they treat each other with this respect they move closer together. How might you do that? We can glorify or degrade our spouses in our words, in our silence, in how we look at them, and how we treat them. It matters.
Contempt, on the other hand, is beyond the inevitable frustration with your spouse. It does not just say that I am angry, afraid or sad; it puts the emphasis on that the other is wrong or bad. We are all wrong or bad at times. We all struggle. But people that get treated well do not put down the other resulting in defensiveness. 1 Peter 3:7 sets a foundation with “Treat your wives, then, as equals so your prayers don’t run aground.”
Paul describes the marital relationship in Ephesians 5:21-28:
Out of respect for Christ, be courteously reverent to one another.
Wives, understand and support your husbands in ways that show your support for Christ. The husband provides leadership to his wife the way Christ does to his church, not by domineering but by cherishing. So just as the church submits to Christ as he exercises such leadership, wives should likewise submit to their husbands.
Husbands, go all out in your love for your wives, exactly as Christ did for the church—a love marked by giving, not getting. Christ’s love makes the church whole. His words evoke her beauty. Everything he does and says is designed to bring the best out of her, dressing her in dazzling white silk, radiant with holiness. And that is how husbands ought to love their wives. They’re really doing themselves a favor—since they’re already “one” in marriage.
Here we see a model representing a divine relationship. Both roles show a heart that is open, a willingness to be responsive and to yield to one another out of love. Marital researchers agree. This approach seeks to make sense of your partner, and understand what he or she is feeling, and to make his or her feelings as important as your own. Marital researchers underscore that this non-judgmental approach happens in the context of equal regard, creating a sense of safety. It does not deny truth or grace. It acknowledges underlying needs on both sides of the equation.
Here are common needs for men and women, as highlighted in Shaunti and Jeff Feldhahn’s research-based books on relationships, For Men Only and For Women Only.
Women need to be pursued. They are wired for relationship. Women feel it when something is missing here. They write, “Pursuit is likely to make you a great husband in her eyes.” Relationships need an infusion of energy like anything else of value. A little time can yield big dividends.
In the movie, Parent Trap, Nick asks his ex-wife. Elizabeth, about what happened between them. He said, “It ended so fast. So about the day you packed, why’d you do it?” She replied, “Oh, Nick. We were so young. We both had tempers, we said stupid things, and so I packed. Got on my first 747, and . . . you didn’t come after me.” After a period of dead silence, Nick admitted, “I didn’t know that you wanted me to.” If Elizabeth felt if she asked him to come after her, she would never know if he would on his own.
Men need to be proud of. They are wired for accomplishment. Men feel it when something is missing here. The authors write, “What is at stake isn’t his pride as much as his secret feelings of inadequacy as a man.” Many unmarried men described feeling inadequate as a major barrier to getting married in the first place. They do not want to feel inadequate the rest of their lives.
What if I am not open to this kind of covenantal approach? Impulsivity, stress, lack of time and energy, built-up anger, hurt and resentment are all facts of life but get in the way. A formidable obstacle is the belief that one’s partner is more to blame for the relationship problems. An urgent need is for personal support to make personal changes from friends, support groups, Bible study, accountability, and counseling.
What if my partner isn’t open to this kind of covenantal approach? This kind of approach is for the sake of the giver as much as the receiver. It allows the giver to feel settled and in control about their part, even if your partner does not respond well. Researchers underscore that when one partner is not treated well, this is precisely the time that this approach is needed. When it gets tough, take a break and come back allowing both sides time to process to a better conclusion. Or break the discussion and ask your partner for proposals, or make proposals. Living in a fallen world and being self-responsible means that we have to set personal boundaries. The key is to not look down on your partner in the meantime, because looking down on your partner itself pust your relationship at risk. Remember that God is walking this journey with you.
Can we trust God when we see no way out? Can we say like the father in Mark 9:24 who said “I believe. Help me with my doubts!” I know how hard marriage can be. We all have challenges to face in our relationships. God provides a way to look at others through his eyes. God will honor the covenant you made with each other. When our heart is open, when we provide safety, and we are vulnerable ourselves, it opens the door for hope. God has a covenantal love for us, as seen here in Isaiah 43:1-3:
Don’t be afraid, I’ve redeemed you.
I’ve called your name. You’re mine.
When you’re in over your head, I’ll be there with you.
When you’re in rough waters, you will not go down.
When you’re between a rock and a hard place,
it won’t be a dead end—
Because I am God, your personal God,
The Holy of Israel, your Savior.
I paid a huge price for you:
all of Egypt, with rich Cush and Seba thrown in!
That’s how much you mean to me!
That’s how much I love you!