Friday, October 26, 2012

It takes time...

     “I can’t do it!”  That was what my daughter moaned in her frustration at missing another problem as I was quizzing her on multiplication tables one evening.
     “Of course you can do it,” I replied.
     “Then why did I fail my test at school today,” she snapped back almost tearing up.
     “Just because you haven’t done it doesn’t mean that you can’t do it.  It just means you haven’t done it yet.”
     While that kind of logic is not very inspiring to an elementary age child who’s struggling with homework, there is a reality to our exchange that profoundly affects marriage.  It would be nice if a healthy, God-centered marriage was an instantaneous process; if as soon as you said “I do” you were completely, selflessly in synch with each other, if communication was perfect, if holistic intimacy was second nature, if all of our annoying little quirks and our big struggles were suddenly gone.  But that is not the reality of the world in which we live.  It takes time.
     Each week, as I post thoughts, ideas, and advice about ways to enhance and strengthen marriage, I have no choice but to speak in broad-stroke generalities.  The circumstances of each couple’s specific situation will of course be different.  Everything from a couple’s family of origin, to each spouse’s individual health, to length of time married, to the number of children in a family, to an infinite number of other factors plays into exactly how someone reads, interprets, and applies a blog post.
     I say that to say this.  Building a healthy marriage takes time.  The fundamental building blocks—recognizing marriage as a God-centered relationship, really understanding the concepts of “one flesh” and “helpmate,” healthy communication, holistic intimacy—these things don’t happen automatically.  Healthy marriages require time, commitment, sacrifice, making hard choices, and a whole lot of forgiveness, grace, mercy, and compassion.  The easy thing to do when you become discouraged and frustrated is to quit, give up, throw it away, and hope that the “true love” and harmony that you failed to find in your current relationship can be found in a subsequent relationship.  But that’s the call of the world, not the call of God.
     When talking about healthy, God-centered marriage, it is important that we keep the ideal in front of us because we don’t need to ever settle for “good enough.”  But intentional movement toward an ideal marriage takes time.  So, when I say “when we are paralyzed by our fears, we are not truly living in a loving relationship…There is no fear in loving communication, even when we have to say things we don’t want to say”well, that level of communication is the ideal we strive for.  Just because you are not there yet doesn’t mean you won’t get there.  It just means you are not there yet.  It takes time.
     When you read “In a Christian marriage, shared prayer is a priceless connection that helps bring husband and wife closer together and centers their marriage in Christ,” that doesn’t mean you will instantaneously being praying together like a couple that have disciplined themselves to pray together for 40 years.  Shared prayer is the ideal we strive for.  Just because you are not there yet doesn’t mean you won’t get there.  It just means you are not there yet.  It takes time.
     Whether it is practicing forgiveness, having a positive perspective, encouraging your mate, or putting aside a habit or behavior that is destructive to your marriage, we strive for the ideal that God is calling us to.  But we must also never forget that He is also always present in the reality of our current situations.  If you're not yet where you want to be, don't get discouraged.  It takes time.
     Remember, God has promised us that he will not put upon us more than we can bear (1 Corinthians 10:13), and we cling to that promise when it comes to individual temptations and trials.  But have you ever considered the certainty of that promise applying to your marriage as well?  Don’t quit when things get difficult, when things become uncomfortable, when it’s easier to see temporary superficial distractions as more pleasant than working through the problem that vex you and your marriage.  Often, rather than putting in the required work to master our selfish, broken human nature, it seems easier to focus on the negative and accept a defeatist attitude toward our spouses and our marriages.  But remember, it takes time.  For you and your spouse, it takes time.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Afraid to say it...

     Communication is the lifeblood of any strong relationship. If communication dies, the relationship dies. This is especially true in marriage. But fear destroys communication. Although we don’t normally identify fear as the reason, communication often lapses or stagnates because of it.
     Have you ever known of a husband or wife withdrawing communication because he/she is afraid how his/her spouse will respond?
“What would she think of me if she knew?”
“Will he still love me if he finds out?”
“I can’t tell her because I know how she will react.”
“If this comes out, he will never trust me again.”

Have thoughts like these ever crossed your mind?  More than likely, all of us have felt something similar at one time or another.  We are afraid of being belittled by our mate. We are afraid of disappointing our mate. We are afraid guilt might be stirred up.  We are afraid that we won’t be accepted because of our faults.  We are afraid to expose the sin in our lives that is destroying our marriage covenant.  We project our own fears and insecurities onto our spouses, assuming certain reactions because we know we have made a mistake that will cause pain.  So, rather than put ourselves at risk, we isolate ourselves and shut down communication.  And we convince ourselves that if we block communication—the avenue into our fears—then we don’t have to face those fears.

     But when we are paralyzed by our fears, we are not truly living in a loving relationship.  John says, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” (1 John 4:18) There is no fear in loving communication, even when we have to say things we don’t want to say.
     To step out of fearful communication into loving communication is scary.  It’s risky and it takes an amazing amount of courage and trust.  As ironic and paradoxical as it seems, we are more comfortable residing in our fear.  Why?  We feel that, at least in the short term, we are protected if we continue to retreat in fear and build walls between us and our mates.  It just seems easier than confronting our fears.
     In order for a marriage to have communication that is free of fear and perfected in love, it is essential for both mates to fully participate in cultivating a relationship of forgiveness, grace, mercy, and kindness.  I know I’m being a bit blunt, but we are all selfish, broken, and often stupid.  We make bad choices and we do things that hurt our mates and hurt our marriages.  Our words and our actions do not always measure up to our intentions.  But when those things happen, what is your default reaction?  Do you try to hide it, justify and rationalize it, cast blame somewhere else?  Or, do you face your fears knowing that your spouse loves you and he/she is a safe harbor where you can be honest, authentic, and imperfect.  Does your spouse feel the same safety from you? And the reality is, those fearful communications just might hurt initially, but forgiveness, healing, and restoration cannot begin if we continue to live in our fears and shut down communication.
     Without communication a relationship will die.  Communication constantly tainted by fear is not authentic communication.  Make it your goal to create an atmosphere of communication in your marriage that is free of fear.  Without fear you will grow closer to each other and to God as your communication flourishes.

Friday, October 12, 2012

In-laws: Helping or hurting your marriage?

     It’s amazing how many Christian children’s Christian marriage to a good Christian spouse have been destroyed by Christian parents who didn’t know their place.  “Cleave and leave,” the act of leaving your parents' care and guidance to join yourself in covenant union with your mate, is one of the easiest biblical concepts to understand.  So why is it so hard for many to practice?
     From a parent’s perspective, we attach ourselves to our children from the moment they are born.  We invest ourselves in raising them, caring for them, and wanting to see them succeed in every way possible.  So, there is a natural inclination to want to continue to give them guidance and help.  It is hard to see that process as anything but beneficial and needed, just as when the child was fully in our care.  And, if our child’s spouse sees our care and concern as anything else, they can easily be painted (intentionally or unintentionally) as misguided or even hateful.
     Yet, parents must let their child’s primary allegiance go to the child’s spouse.  In fact, they must not only allow it, they must encourage and facilitate it.  To fail to do so, to try and sway or manipulate your child, or to try and maintain any level of control is sinful, destructive behavior.  Moving your child’s primary allegiance and affection from you to his/her spouse doesn’t mean you don’t love your child.  It doesn’t mean you can’t still give advice.  It doesn’t mean you can’t help your child in positive, marriage affirming ways.  It does, however, mean you are obeying God’s design for marriage and family.
     “We believe that those who marry are to leave their parents’ primary care to cleave to their spouses, and godly parents will facilitate rather than frustrate this God-ordained process (Gen. 2:24; Mark 10:6-9).”  This sentence is found in the middle of the Theology of Marriage statement held by my church.  Good in-laws can be a wonderful blessing to a marriage.  Intrusive controlling in-laws (no matter how well intentioned) are a constant detriment to a healthy marriage and an ongoing source of friction between husband and wife.
     Parents, if you have married children, consider the stress you will be placing upon your child and his/her marriage if you are forcing your child to choose between his/her spouse and you in any area of life.  Also, ask yourself, do you want to have a relationship with your child and your child’s spouse, or do you want to have a relationship only if it is on your terms?
    Husbands and wives, as you navigate the spouse/in-laws relationship, it is vitally important for your marriage that healthy, mutually-discussed and mutually-agreed-upon boundaries are established and maintained between the couple and both sets of in-laws.  If those boundaries are set up from the beginning, they will be easier to maintain.  However, if in-laws are causing stress in your marriage, no matter how long you’ve been married, you must establish firm boundaries.  But be ready, because boundaries usually cause hurt feelings.  Boundaries are usually pushed and tested.  But for the sake of your covenant marriage relationship they must exist!
     Parents, be a blessing to your child and his/her spouse, but be willing to listen when they tell you “no” or ask you to step back.  Husbands and wives, love your parents, but remember if your first love is God then it will be reflected in your spouse being your primary love in this life.  It’s not easy to let go, but godly parents and godly children will if a marriage is to be what God intends.  Obviously, there are always case-specific circumstances, but as a general rule, God’s design of “cleave and leave” is what will make a marriage and relationships with in-laws flourish.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Blame Game

     As soon as you hear the sound, you know something is terribly, terribly wrong.  Before the child’s scream, before the panicked cries of others, you feel your heart sink.  It’s just not a normal sound.  It’s unusual.  Unexpected.  It’s not a sound you’ve ever heard before, but you can immediately identify it.  It’s the sound of an impact. A dull, sickening thud.
     That’s the sound Lance heard.  As the adrenaline rushed through his body, he quickly scanned across the crowd of faces at his best friend’s end-of-the-year backyard barbeque.   The only missing face was his 5-year old son, Johnny.  It took Lance less than two seconds to realize that as he was talking with the other fathers, Johnny chased a ball through the backyard gate and right into the busy street.
     As Lance scooped up his hurting, tearful son, Lance’s wife Kari rushed out beside him, yanked Johnny from Lance’s arms, and coldly spewed out for all their assembled friends to hear, “You were supposed to be watching him!”
     While the above account is certainly a much more extreme example, this type of scenario happens all the time.  It all started with Adam.  “Yes.  I did it.  But it was her…you know…that woman that you gave to me…she’s the one who enticed me.  Yeah, maybe I was a little lonely, but I didn’t even ask for her.  You just put her into my life.”
     Then it quickly spread to Eve.  “Yes.  I did it.  But it was the serpent.  He’s a smooth talker and I fell for his line.  If you’re really looking for who’s at fault in all of this, I think you only need to look at that crafty, misleading, beguiling serpent.  This garden would be such a nicer place to live if he were not around.”
     And, here we are, untold generations later still doing the exact same thing.  We all do it to some extent.  I’m talking about “the blame game.”  The blame game is that nasty habit that people have of blaming others for everything from their own moral failures to missed opportunities.  It is the ongoing exhibition of living in a victim-mentality society.  If left unchecked, the blame game is detrimental to any relationship, but especially to a marriage.  Between a husband and wife the blame game is at best a miserable experience and at worst a death sentence for the relationship.  And no, the irony is not lost on me that I am blaming Adam and Eve for the current state of affairs.
     First, a little self-examination.  The vast majority of people who get trapped in the blame game exude a victim mentality, live in a constant state of denial, and have absolutely no conscientious idea that they do so.  However, a couple of characteristics are typically obvious.  First, the blame game perpetuates an ongoing self-centeredness.  People who blame others for everything that goes wrong in their life are usually so self-absorbed that they honestly cannot comprehend a world which does not revolve around them and their problems.  They might use terminology like, “I know I’m not perfect,” but it is always followed by the indicting “but” which squarely places the blame for their imperfection on someone else or some outside circumstance.
     Second, people who are wrapped up in the blame game sink deeper and deeper into isolation.  They believe that no one cares for them.  No one understands their circumstances.  Either no one can or is willing to help them.  In their minds, they are all alone, so they lash out at the perceived “insensitivity” of others and drive others away.  And the paradox is that the very thing they crave, community, is what they continuously reject because of the cycle the blame game creates.
     So, how do you eradicate the blame/victim mentality from your marriage?  The first step is recognition.  Look at yourself as honestly as you can and ask a trusted friend if you are sinking deeper into selfishness or isolation, especially toward your mate.  (Make sure the friend is someone who really knows you and who cares for you enough to be willing to offend you for your own good and not just agree with you to make you feel good.)  If you begin to believe that everyone is pulling away from you—including your mate—then it’s time to start the introspection.
     Next, cultivate an environment of responsibility in your home.  Confession can be a really, really tough thing, especially if it is embarrassing or hurtful.  But the blame game can’t survive in a marriage where spouses are willing to admit their faults.  When both spouses are willing to acknowledge their own shortcomings and admit that they are imperfect people, then the victim mentality doesn’t have a place to grow and thrive.  It’s hard to use blame to try and position one’s self as a long-suffering martyr or use blame to try and manipulate someone when that person has already owned up to his/her own part in a problem.    
     Finally, to eradicate the blame game from your marriage, it is essential that you live in forgiveness, grace, and mercy.  We are fallen people living in a fallen world.  The worldly nature tells us to blame others and protect ourselves at any cost.  The spiritual nature however, leads us to seek reconciliation and unity with our mates.  That leads to a vulnerability which leaves us open to incredible oneness.  If abused it can lead to incredible pain, but without forgiveness, grace, and mercy healing is just not possible.
     Certainly there are other characteristics of a blame game mentality, and there are other ways to win against a marriage tainted by blame, but this is a start in moving from blame to blessing.