Monday, May 20, 2013

Solving Someone Else's Problems: Keeping the Relationship Alive Within Marriage

Often when things are going poorly in a marriage, it's both partner's fault. Original blame may lie with one person, but then the other person retaliates, causing more backlash, and very quickly both spouses are feeling hurt and blaming the other person for the rift.

If you're honest with yourself, you know that you've not been doing everything out of love, and you wish you could do better. But now that there's a rift, there's insecurity in the relationship. Everything you both do is defensive now, and sometimes you hurt each other just because you're dodging invisible bullets. You're afraid to open up while the other person is acting like this because as soon as you pop your head over the barricade, you know you'll have all their guns trained on you. What if they shoot and ask questions later? No one wants to attempt to heal the relationship and only get slammed.

(Conceptual Photography by Eugenio Recuenco.)

So what do you do? Put on a false face of all-is-well? Shove it under the rug and ignore it? Wait long enough until it's in the past enough for you to reasonably try to pretend it never happened?

Waiting may end up with the other person popping their head over to your side of the barricade first. If that's the case, remember that they're as wary as you are--and don't shoot! Hear them out. Stop acting like every word is a volley of arrows and treat every word as if it's an attempt at peace. You may be able to talk it out if you stay calm.

But of course, you're still just waiting on the other person to make a move...or things to go away. And the problem with the ignore-it strategy is that these things never go away. Sure, the infractions themselves fade with time; but their mark upon our hearts and the little tears in the fabric of the relationship that have been made are not going to heal on their own.

Ever heard of the five love languages? Gary Chapman wrote an excellent book that details these "languages"--the main categories of ways we express and receive love. He puts it as five main categories:* quality time together (doing activities or talking); words of affirmation; physical touch/affection; acts of service; and gifts (big and small!). The thing is to learn what your spouse's primary "language" is so that you can speak it to them often. You may be great at the whole conversation thing, but cuddling and being affectionate is hard for you; nevertheless, if that's your spouse's love language, you need to be speaking it, or else your love will feel thin and incomplete to them, no matter how sincere you are.

But it's not just loving your spouse in the way they need and desire. That is what marriage is all about: serving your spouse, meeting their needs, and loving them in a way that is most loving to them. In a word, selflessness. (No wonder marriage is so good for building character!) But that's not the only thing.

When things are rocky in a relationship, one half of the problem is that we're hurt and consequently selfish, not wanting to serve and open our hearts up to attack by being selfless. (Selfless love is tough on the heart.) But the other half of the problem is that we're too afraid of not receiving what we need back. We're afraid they won't reciprocate our love. A lot of times, I feel that it doesn't matter if I'm hurt by the healing process as long as we end up on better ground; what I'm afraid of is that my efforts won't work. I'm afraid all my effort and pain will be for nothing.

But when you work on solving what you did wrong, you help the other person in solving what they did wrong. We so need love and connection to function as relational beings. When our most vital relationship has broken down, it's so hard to forgive and love. We go in defensive mode, and we stop being selfless. If you want love from you spouse, love them first. If your spouse hasn't been doing the things they normally do--"being romantic" or "helping around the house" or whatever is on your grudge checklist--it's probably because they're hurting just as badly as you. Loving them through your own pain and bridging the gap will help give them the strength to bridge it back to you. You are in charge of enabling your spouse to be that better person you know they can be.

We need to note, of course, that you can't change your spouse. You are not in control of their choices. There need to be good boundaries in your marriage where you don't try to force them or coerce them or threaten or bribe or anything else to get them to be the spouse you want. You can either live with their quirk, or discuss it and compromise. I believe that the point of marriage is character development--making us into the better people we can be. Your job isn't to force this, but simply to empower your spouse to make the changes they think necessary in their own lives.** Sincere love goes so much farther than anything else in helping someone become a better version of themselves.

Nevertheless, loving your spouse has a tendency of being reciprocated. If you are loving your spouse out of a sincere heart, the chances are better than 9 in 10 that your spouse will come to love you more in return. I say this because I know you're feeling hurt too. There are things you wish you could get from your spouse--more love, more security, more respect, more tenderness. You can ask for those things from them; I think one of the healthiest things in marriage is when there is open enough communication for you to communicate your deepest needs to one another (which is a lot harder than it sounds!). But I guarantee that your request will be better received--and better spoken, too--if you work at loving them again for a while first. Loving your spouse is the best way of asking for their love in return.

This works for major infractions as well as small ones. Gary Chapman has an excellent chapter talking about how you can never force your spouse to be a better spouse, to make up for their wrongs, to love you the way you want--none of it. When the marriage is in serious trouble, you may wish you could force it! But we can't. Marriage means being at the other person's mercy; that's the kind of vulnerability it involves.

You can't control their actions, and you can't protect yourself from the pain without pulling away and hurting your relationship more. The one thing you can do is love them, like you both promised to on your wedding day. Love them in the ways they're always asking for, or badgering you about in not-so-nice ways! Their deepest heart needs you. Don't make it about revenge or defense. Love them in their love language, and chances are high that you'll find them warming up to it and reaching out to you--no matter how far apart you've grown.

It doesn't require both participants to heal a marriage; one person can make the spark that relights the fire. You can heal the relationship. You can't solve your spouse, but you can solve their problem: you. You can be what they need and love them again, and in so doing, give them the heart-strength to love back.

* Emerson Eggeriches, whose book I have not read but always wanted to, also writes about the "languages" of love, but he categorizes them differently. He sees there as being two main ways of expressing love between the sexes: love and respect. Men want respect and women want love. His book and many others are all good resources if you and/or your spouse want to learn how to love each other better and in ways your spouse will better understand your meaning. (But if it's just you, don't despair! Your love is enough to encourage your spouse want to love you.)
** If you care about your spouse, you won't just want them to be what you think is the best they can be; you'll want them to be all they can be! The beauty of marriage is that each partner sees in the other things we didn't know were there before. We help each other see ourselves more clearly. But your spouse is still the expert on themselves. They often know much better than you what needs to change in their hearts. Whether they pursue that change or not is up to them. You can just keep loving them and learning to appreciate who they are.