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The Advanced Curriculum in Love



May I tell you about my wife, Nancy? I wish I could be objective, but I cannot. She is mild in temperament—we laugh in the family that she is constitutionally and dispositionally unable to yell. She is compassionate—she seems naturally drawn to those who are lonely or disenfranchised. She is unselfish—she demands no gifts nor considerations. Yet she is glad to serve—it will take half of eternity for me to repay all the backrubs she has given me in 32 years of marriage. She has a gentle and clever sense of humor—only those who listen carefully get to enjoy it. She is devoted—her children and grandchildren know that her love is stronger than the cords of death for she would gladly die for any one of them—and they know it. She is uncomplaining—I was first drawn to her when, during a single adult activity, she fell in a bitter cold river and climbed into the raft laughing. In addition, she is beautiful—I love her sweet face and lovely frame. As if that were not enough, she is also the kindest person I have ever known—bar none.

I regularly thank Heavenly Father for blessing me with a companion who is far better than I knew and far finer than I deserve. I cannot imagine life without Nancy.

So, why is it that I sometimes get irritated, impatient or judgmental of my dear companion? How can I explain patches of discontent? After decades of episodic analyzing and blaming, I have discovered that my feelings about Nancy are not a measure of her but of me. Just as our feelings about God are a good measure of our faith, so our feelings about our companions are a reliable gauge to our personal goodness.

So how do we mortals build our dramas of discontent? How do we transform our early love into simmering (or seething) discontent? Andrew Christensen and Neil Jacobson, two marriage research pioneers, observe that, in the cycle of marital frustrations and disappointments, both partners have valid reasons for their complaints. But “every editor chooses a different beginning and a different ending. We usually start the film with our partners doing something to us and end it with our justifiable reaction. We are good; they are bad” (p.116). It is human nature (of the natural-man variety) to edit our life film so that it tells a story in which we are the suffering victim and our partner is the careless offender.

As long as we tally shortcomings and demand change, we get defensiveness from our partner (who can make an equally compelling and valid case against us) and discontent in ourselves. Just as Satan would have it.

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Christensen and Jacobson have a surprising recommendation: Accept and enjoy your partner as he or she is. “Being prepared to accept lack of change opens up a wealth of opportunities for transforming your relationship into the peaceful, intimate union you’ve wanted all along. . . . We have direct control over and responsibility for our own behavior alone” (pp. 249–50). In that heavenly division of responsibility, we repent ourselves and love others. Our job is not to change others; it is our duty to love them. “. . . when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man” (D&C 121:37).

People can endure amazing things if they take a positive view of their situation. I recently visited with a couple that was having marital distress. We spent almost three hours talking together. The man was the most dogmatic and demanding person I have ever known. He would not seriously consider any view of anything besides his own. His thinking was the measure of all truth. His needs were the measure of family functioning.

His wife is an energetic and optimistic person. With those qualities also comes some occasional irresponsibility. But she is abundantly positive. After several years of marriage he is angry and she is exhausted. At the end of our marathon session, I felt more despairing for their marriage than I have ever felt about any. Some days later I ran into the woman in another setting. She asked my candid assessment of their marriage. I told her that, for their marriage to work, she would have to live off her husband’s life script. He was not likely to change.

I felt awkward because I was trying to be positive but I could not in good conscience advise her to stay in the marriage. We were prepared to help her move. Yet her response to my bleak assessment was “I can do it! If that’s what I have to do, I will do it!” I honor her for her resolve even if I wonder how she will find the strength. (Actually, since she is a woman of faith, I know where she can find the strength.)

I should note that I do not believe that every marriage can make it. But the great mass-of-quiet-desperation marriages do not need divorce but need only more charity in order to flourish. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the cure for the common marital complaint.

“Whatever Jesus lays his hands upon lives. If Jesus lays his hands upon a marriage, it lives. If he is allowed to lay his hands on the family, it lives” (Howard W. Hunter, “Reading the Scriptures,” Ensign, Nov. 1979, p. 65).

Jesus is not only the Creator of worlds but the Energizer of relationships. In him all things have life. As he said: “The thief [Satan and his servants] cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10).

Abundantly indeed. If I am unhappy with Nancy it is because I do not understand or do not honor the covenants I have made. I do not have charity. I believe that the covenant of consecration together with the marriage covenants effectively requires me to promise God: “I now covenant with Thee that from this time forth and forever I will never see any fault in Nancy.” It is not enough just to stay in solemn determination while occasionally mowing the lawn. I believe that God expects me to consecrate not only my time but also my thoughts and feelings.

Certainly it is better to shine a candle on our partners’ qualities than to curse the darkness that can be found in every soul.
Over the years I have judged Nancy for a wide variety of human imperfections: varicose veins, picking my nails, leaving things on the kitchen counter, poor word choice, a different affectional style from mine, indecision, etc. God has been working to teach me that, when I have charity, those complaints and discontents disappear. I can actually learn to enjoy whatever she is. What a lesson! So, when I am unhappy with Nancy in any way, it means that I need to get a spiritual tune-up. As in the Lord’s great parable, having been forgiven a billion dollar debt, how can I fail to forgive Nancy her $15 (or 15 cent) debts? (In her case they may only be nickel debts but, being a natural man, I lord them over her as if they were larger than the national debt.)

As we mature in love, it is possible for our partner to become the working definition of everything we want in a partner. We discard youthful dreams in favor of the blessed reality. “She is perfect for me.” Of course every mortal spouse is imperfect—some more imperfect than others. But a combination of faith and charity can cause us to say, “This is precisely the person I need to become the person I should be.”

God designed marriage as advanced training in charity. Our irritations with each others’ mortal weaknesses cannot be managed unless we have charity. Our peace and joy grows as we learn to see our partner through Jesus’ eyes.
Some scholars estimate that about 70% of the things we don’t like in our partner will never change. Wow. That changes the whole nature of the contract. Instead of trying to communicate our discontents so that both of us can change and become more satisfactory to each other, we work instead to accept each other. We learn to notice, remember, and celebrate the parts we enjoy about our partner. We laugh (kindly) and help each other with our weaknesses. We provide each other a supportive hand rather than an accusatory finger.

Some may argue that if there are 70% of the things that we don’t like about our partners that can never change, what about the other 30% of the things we don’t like that can change? Gottman’s research says that they will only change when I accept Nancy as she is. What a wonderful irony—when I stop trying to change Nancy and simply enjoy her as she is, then she can grow. Heavenly Father has charted the path to joy right through the territory of unselfish love.

There are many related lessons I have learned. If things on the counter bother me, I can take care of them. When I think that Nancy does not “get it” (meaning that she doesn’t agree with my dogmatic viewpoint), I can work harder to understand her perspective. I can make requests rather than complaints. (It would be silly not to tell her that I have an enduring distaste for eggplant, parsnips, and—forgive me, Southern colleagues—okra. But I can frame this sharing in the context of what I enjoy: tomatoes, broccoli, carrots, tomatoes, corn, peas, spinach, and tomatoes.) When I am in a foul or tired mood, I can hold judgments and complaints until kindness returns (at which time I am not likely to have any complaints).

I think God designed marriage to help us grow spiritually. The most important lessons I have learned about being a good person I did not learn on my mission, sitting in high priest quorum, or serving as bishop; I learned them in marriage. But it has taken three decades of work to go from a selfish clod of complaints to a marginal saint who adores his companion. I thank Heavenly Father for the priceless lessons he has taught me about the sweet joy of love.

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