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Marriage

You Create the Story of Your Relationship

We can tell the story of our relationship in many ways. We can take the facts of our togetherness and form a comedy, a tragedy, a romance or a satire. We have full power to create whatever narrative we choose. And we can make it fully convincing.

Let’s take an example. A family needed a new refrigerator. The husband consulted reviews and settled on a good choice. He presented the data to his wife. She shook her head. Nope. She wanted one specific brand. He showed her data that favored other brands. She was undeterred; she knew what she wanted. He was frustrated.

When faced with experiences like this, we can form biased perceptions of our spouse: “She is irrational!” “He doesn’t care what I think!”

With that perception in place, we find plenty of evidence to confirm anything we want to believe. The next time he disagrees with or neglects her request, her hypothesis is supported. The next time she says something he doesn’t understand, his view of her is solidified. We continue to look for evidence and continue to find it.

Natural spouses are enemies to their partners. Unless. Unless, instead of looking for evidence to convict, we look for reasons to appreciate. The condition of our hearts determines what we see in people—especially those we are close to. When our hearts are self-focused, irritated, and resentful, we will see lots of offenses. When we are gracious, generous, and compassionate, we see very different people and tell very different stories.

You may recognize the story about the refrigerator as one that Steve Covey told. He and his wife Sandra could not see eye-to-eye on refrigerators. Some months later they were relaxing together when Sandra told Steve an important story from her childhood. During the depression, their family struggled. Her dad worked two jobs including running an appliance business. Only one appliance company had been willing to front her dad needed inventory in those tough times. He often expressed appreciation for that company to his family. Because of her deep love for her father, she had an enduring devotion to that company.

We never know enough to condemn another person. Only God knows that much. (And He uses His knowledge to redeem.)

So, when we’re frustrated with the actions or positions taken by our partners, our best bet is to become detectives. Why does that behavior make sense to my spouse? Why is that position so important to my spouse?

For example, in one couple the wife loves tidiness and order. It is hard for her to feel peaceful without neatness. For her, tidiness is a sacred duty. Her husband loves to hang onto old clothes, household items she believes have out-lived their usefulness, and all kinds of random “stuff” in the garage. He doesn’t like to throw out things that might still be useful. For him, frugality is a heavenly mandate. When she is irritated by all of what she views as “junk”, she faces a choice. She can see him as a slob who doesn’t care about tidiness or her preferences and probably would annoy all heaven’s inhabitants (if he had any chance of being admitted). Or, she can try to understand his mindset. “Why is his desire to hang onto things so important to him?” It may be difficult to understand, but, until she sees why it makes sense to him, she has not arrived.

In addition, she can also make requests that would help resolve the situation while trying to honor what is important to him. “Sweetheart, could we pack up some of the clothes you haven’t worn in a long time and store them in the attic so our closet is less cluttered?” “Would you consider organizing what’s in the garage as a birthday present to me?”

Understanding our spouse doesn’t mean we can’t make our own needs known. But when we truly gain understanding and compassion, we are more likely to tackle issues with kindness and creativity rather than blame, threats, or withdrawal. We are more likely to discover solutions that are agreeable to both partners.

In a marriage there are unnumbered opportunities for irritation. Intimacy. Finances. Priorities. Communication styles. Household chores. Children. If you didn’t know better, you might think that God was trying to stretch us towards greater godliness through our marriages. I often say: Irritation is an invitation. When we are irritated we should imagine it as an invitation from God to display greater understanding and compassion—what we call Christ-like charity. We can also pray to be given that divine gift of charity.

Please note that none of this discussion excuses destructive, abusive, or immoral behavior. In extreme cases we may need to leave a relationship. However, in most relationships we need to stop any narratives that condemn our spouses without any understanding or compassion. Instead, we need to soften our hearts and seek to comprehend the other side of the story.

Look for the good. Seek to understand the irritating. Be ready to forgive. Be wise in making requests.

If you want a vibrant relationship, one of the best things you can do is to collect memories of your best times. “Find the glory in your marital story,” Gottman advises. Make a habit of noticing and cherishing good experiences in your marriage. And elevate the ordinary experiences by the way you interpret them.

Marriage is God’s training ground for godliness. He invites us to bring compassion, patience, and kindness to those flawed and fallen humans to whom we are married.

Application: Watch carefully for irritation with your spouse. Next time you spot irritation welling up, take a deep breath. Try seeing the world through your spouse’s eyes. Pray for heavenly kindness.

Recommendation: The classic secular book on marriage is Gottman’s 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work. For an LDS perspective, see my Drawing Heaven into Your Marriage.

Thanks to Barbara Keil for her helpful comments on this article.

Marriage

Discoveries: Fitting the Parts Together to Make a Marriage

Marriage is like combining two halves of a house to make one home.

Imagine that a person has many friends in the construction industry. When it comes time to make a new home, he calls a couple of his buddies who make prefabricated homes. He asks each of them to send him their best half-home. They ask for specs but he says: “Just send me your favorite half.” He doesn’t specify size, style, or layout.

So one builder sends a sleek, modern half that is intended to be part of a contemporary structure. The other sends half of a geodesic home that is efficient and practical.

When the two halves arrived at the site, the halls do not line up. The roofs do not match. There are two kitchens and two living rooms but no bedrooms. The electrical, plumbing, and heating are not compatible. The styles are jarringly different.

Marriage is much like that construction challenge. Two people are built in different “factories” (or families) with different tastes, traditions, styles, preferences, and experiences. Neither family coordinates with the other in the creation of their half of a family-to-be. They just build things their way.

One family is loud, exuberant, and expressive. The other is quiet and avoidant. One family is relaxed, the other is exacting. One family is rigorous in their religious practices, the other is more casual. One loves sports and informality. The other is more serious and task-oriented.

When two people come together from two very different backgrounds, the challenges in connecting the two halves into a functioning whole are immense and continuing. We do not create a well-connected home overnight.

The challenges are also often unexpected. We imagine that, coming from two good LDS families, we have almost everything in common. Yet one partner thinks that a rousing political argument at the dinner table counts as family home evening while the other wants hymns, quiet reflection, and healthy snacks. The different perspectives on holidays, affection, food, time-use, chores, money, and communication seem quite insurmountable. Further, the differences between marriage partners are not due simply to their different families of origin. They also have different personalities, different values, and different sets of experience.

Nothing in the dating experience prepares us for the vast surprises in combining two people from different traditions into one cohesive, functioning family. The only solution is to activate powerful gospel processes. Only then can we hope to create a successful family.

The first key to combining the two halves is humility—the openness to other people’s ways of doing things. There is a tendency to believe that our way of doing things is the best way or the right way. I recommend that we become good private investigators. When our spouses do something that does not make a bit of sense to us, we might ask ourselves, “I wonder what that means to my spouse?”

Here is a great truth: People do what they do for reasons that make sense to them. When their actions do not make sense to us, it is because we don’t understand them. We can judge them or we can seek to understand. The spouse who takes time to understand the partner’s logic has a good start for connecting the two sides of the house.

A person who loves tidiness believes that cleanliness is next to godliness. The person who creates a junkyard wherever they are may see themselves as creators or savers. Each preference has its logic. And, if we are humble, we will be able to discern and honor our differences rather than condemn them.

Of course, we can, as Gottman recommended, start a dialogue with our unresolvable differences. We can make good-natured jokes about her love of order or his passion for tools. We laugh about the ways our different styles create surprises in our lives. This is compassion—the willingness to look kindly on someone who—like us—is afflicted with quirky fallenness.

The other key to managing our persistent differences is positivity—the willingness to keep our focus on what is good, admirable, and loveable. Van Wyck Brooks issued the invitation: “How delightful is the company of generous people, who overlook trifles and keep their minds instinctively fixed on whatever is good and positive in the world about them. People of small caliber are always carping. They are bent on showing their own superiority, their knowledge or prowess or good breeding. But magnanimous people have no vanity, they have no jealousy, and they feed on the true and the solid wherever they find it. And, what is more, they find it everywhere.” (Brooks, V. W. (1948). A Chilmark Miscellany. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., p. 6)

So the jarring differences between the two halves of our marriage can lead to frustration, contention, and discord. Or they can lead to amusement, patience, and charity. Every time we choose to use humility, compassion, and positivity, we choose to create a strong home.

Application:

We all feel irritation in marriage. The difference between successful and unsuccessful relationships depends on what we do with that irritation. Notice your irritation with your spouse. Become a private investigator; see if you can figure out the logic behind your spouse’s choices. Then apply compassion; find appreciation for that point of view. Then keep your focus on the many things you love about your partner. Try it. It will make a difference.

Invitation:

The perspective of marriage as a God-given and character-building enterprise is the focus of my book, Drawing Heaven into Your Marriage. It recommends gospel thinking and covenants as the path to relationship success.

Marriage

The Blessings of Sacrifice in Family Life

I love cheese. Big piles of melted cheese. Cheese enchiladas. Covered nachos. Omelets oozing cheese. Almost any form of cheddar. But my affection is unrequited. Cheese is not good for me.

Most the time I avoid cheese because of what it costs me. I feel much better when I do. So, is it a sacrifice for me to give up cheese? Yes and no. It may seem painful to choose a chicken tostada at El Sol rather than the cheese enchilada special. But it saves me days of suffering.

When in a gracious mood, many of us gladly make adjustments for the people we love. But family life inevitably entails sacrifices that are hard to make. We lose sleep to care for a sick one. We attend school programs that we would never attend without coercion. We get irritated with our spouse’s decisions. There are so many preferences we forfeit in service of family life. We are tempted to become resentful that we surrender so much for our families.

Brigham Young gave us a fresh perspective on sacrifice:

I have heard a great many tell about what they have suffered for Christ’s sake. I am happy to say I never had occasion to. I have enjoyed a great deal, but so far as suffering goes I have compared it a great many times . . . to a man wearing an old, worn out, tattered and dirty coat, and somebody comes along and gives him one that is new, whole and beautiful. This is the comparison I draw when I think of what I have suffered for the Gospel’s sake—I have thrown away an old coat and have put on a new one. No man or woman ever heard me tell about suffering. “Did you not leave a handsome property in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois?” Yes. “And have you not suffered through that?” No, I have been growing better and better all the time, and so have this people. (Discourses of Brigham Young, p. 348)

Maybe the difference between purposeful, meaningful sacrifice and begrudging and constrained sacrifice is some combination of love and faith. Do we (to paraphrase Fosdick) face suffering hopefully as a school of moral growth in a world presided over by a Father, or grimly as a hardship in which there is no meaning? (See Meaning of Faith, 1918, p. 24)

I suspect that God’s commandments are a little like my avoiding cheese. Commandments seem to deny us many forms of satisfaction. They seem costly. But they are really God’s guides to greater peace and well-being. They are not arbitrary tests of our obedience. They are wise counsel from the one Person who is most committed to our happiness. He knows the surest path to joy and He is giving us universal and specific counsel to get us there.

When we see our sacrifices as a necessary part of our moral education sent by a perfect Teacher, we welcome them.

Nancy is the kindest, finest person I know. Yet there is inevitable sacrifice and adjustment in sharing life—even with a saint. I sometimes chafe because Nancy didn’t wash the dishes the right way, or because she is flummoxed by her phone, or because she wants me to eat vegetables. But God did not create Nancy as a convenience for me. He created her as a miraculous expression of Himself. My calling is to cherish her, show compassion for her, learn from her, and be changed by her.

Can our sacrifices for our families sanctify our souls? Is it possible that we cannot become good people without making the sacrifice of our petty preferences?

Dennis B. Neuenschwander taught: “One may not have the sacred without first sacrificing something for it. There can be no sacredness without personal sacrifice” (Holy Place, Sacred Space, April 2003).

Remember that Adam and Eve offered precious sacrifices to the Lord without understanding their purpose (Moses 5:6). When the angel asked why they would risk starvation to make such sacrifices, Adam’s reply was simple: “I know not, save the Lord commanded me.”

After Adam affirmed his commitment to making the required sacrifices, the angel taught him:

“This thing is a similitude of the sacrifice of the Only Begotten of the Father, which is full of grace and truth. Wherefore, thou shalt do all that thou doest in the name of the Son, and thou shalt repent and call upon God in the name of the Son forevermore.”

That is good counsel for family relationships. When we make our puny sacrifices for each other, we may come to understand the One who has sacrificed infinitely for us. As we understand His great love and commitment, we are more likely to do everything we do in His name, to repent gladly, and to love redemptively.

Sacrifice can sanctify us and our relationships. “May we ever choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong” (Thomas S. Monson).

Invitation:

What sacrifice are you holding back from your family? What specifically do you feel called to do differently? Forego the caustic remark? Apologize? Jump in to help with disagreeable tasks? Make a gift of that “sacrifice.”

Recommendations:

For more ideas about sacrifice in healthy relationships, read Drawing Heaven into Your Marriage.

Marriage

The Importance of Service and Sacrifice

Here’s a great idea …

In his book, The Heart of Commitment, Scott Stanley says, “Sacrifice [and service are] the highest expressions of dedicated, loving action because it asks you to show by your actions that you really mean it when you say you are committed.” (p. 193)

In other words …

The old saying “actions speak louder than words” is especially true when it comes to our relationships. Our words of love and commitment mean little if our partners don’t feel they are sincere. Acts of service are one of the best ways we can show our sincerity. By putting our partner’s needs and wants in front of our own, we can show them how much they matter to us.

Here’s how you can use this idea to have a better life …

This week, actively look for ways to serve your partner. Maybe you can do a chore that is normally their responsibility.

To find out more…

about couple relationships, check out The Marriage Garden program at arfamilies.org, follow us at facebook.com/navigatinglife or contact your local county Extension agent. You can also read Stanley’s The Heart of Commitment.

Marriage

How Can I Get My Partner to Change?

Here’s a great idea …

In her book, Why Talking is Not Enough, Susan Page says, “Of course, most of us want certain changes in our partners. The way to create these changes is to begin with what is actually the case and to accept it. Change happens when you stop trying to control everything yourself.” (p. 167)

In other words …

Sometimes we think our partners would be better human beings if we could only get them to change in this way or that. We then spend countless hours working on our latest “spousal improvement” projects. Then we are frustrated when things don’t turn out as we had envisioned them. Trying to get our partners to change in order to make us happy rarely ever works. While the need for our partners to change may be genuine, they will probably be unwilling to do so until they know that they are loved and accepted exactly as they are.

Here’s how you can use this idea to have a better life …

Let go of those endless pursuits to change your partner. The only person you can change is yourself. The next time you are tempted to try and change your partner, try instead to change the way you are seeing him or her. Some of the things that bug you about your partner might actually be his or her greatest strengths. Rather than looking for and dwelling on irritations, look for the good in your partner. Your positivity may transform your relationship.

To find out more…

about couple relationships, check out The Marriage Garden program at arfamilies.org, follow us at facebook.com/navigatinglife or contact your local county Extension agent. You can also read Why Talking is Not Enough.