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Marriage

Conflict Resolution and the Creation of Peace

Conflict Resolution and the Creation of Peace
by H. Wallace Goddard

“You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake.”

Nancy and I have some friends who have been married for a few years longer than we have been. They are earnest, good people. But they are human. A few years ago the husband was dragging home from work every day at dinner time. He was ready for peace and order. But things were not always in order at home. He nagged his wife. “Why can’t you have dinner ready when I get home? Why can’t you have the kids do their chores? Why can’t you have the place straightened up?” The day came when his good wife had had enough. “You know you have some faults, too.” He pondered that. “Yes, but they don’t bother me like yours do.”

The trouble with most conflict resolution is that it starts in the wrong place. It takes us when we are tired and irritated and puts us toe-to-toe with the enemy. But by the time that irritation and judgment have filled my mind, I am not in a good place to solve our problems. I am not even in a good place to know what the problems are. And I am not in a good place to show the respect that you deserve.

I have a friend who likes to say that “You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake.” That idea can be extended. You can no more win a fist fight than win an automobile accident. You can no more win a family argument than win a house fire. When we choose to fight, we all lose. That is why Satan recommends fighting so highly.

So, what is the gospel remedy for conflict? “Blessed [are] the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God” (Matthew 5:9). God recommends that we be messengers of peace. Three steps to being agents of peace come to mind.

We can see each other with charity.
Irving Becker has said that “If you don’t like someone, the way he holds his spoon will make you furious; if you do like him, he can turn his plate over into your lap and you won’t mind.”(1)

Often we allow a combination of irritations to fester. Judgment and discontent infect the injuries. Poison fills the system. Disease is a normal part of a telestial world, yet we are all choosing to be something more than telestial.

We cannot overcome irritation by ourselves. That is why Mormon encourages us to “pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart” (Moroni 7:48). Divine love springs only from Divine wells. We may love as He loves only when we are filled with Him, when we have the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16).

I don’t have the right to correct anyone I do not love. When I love them with Christ-like love, I feel inclined to bless, help, encourage, and support them.

We can take responsibility for our own feelings of irritation.
Elder Christensen has recounted a powerful story about irritation. As a newlywed, Sister Lola Walters read in a magazine that in order to strengthen a marriage a couple should have regular, candid sharing sessions in which they would list any mannerisms they found annoying. She wrote: “We were to name five things we found annoying, and I started off…I told him I didn’t like the way he ate grapefruit. He peeled it and ate it like an orange! Nobody else I knew ate grapefruit like that. Could a girl be expected to spend a lifetime, even eternity, watching her husband eat grapefruit like an orange! After I finished, it was his turn to tell the things he disliked about me…He said, ‘Well, to tell the truth, I can’t think of anything I don’t like about you, Honey.’ Gasp. I quickly turned my back because I didn’t know how to explain the tears that had filled my eyes and were running down my face…Whenever I hear of married couples being incompatible, I always wonder if they are suffering from what I now call the Grapefruit Syndrome.”(2)

I used to invest a fair amount of energy encouraging Nancy to keep our kitchen counters clear and clean. As the years passed, it gradually occurred to me that my obsession with tidy counters is not her problem. It is mine. If something is irritating me, I can take care of it. I do not have to make my preferences into universal commandments.

I have noticed that I am far more likely to be irritated by other people’s faults when I am tired, frustrated, or lonely. I can become, as George Bernard Shaw says, “a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making [me] happy.” If I am humble enough to accept my own contribution to the storm, I can take action to minimize it. I can ask for heavenly help. I can slow down and breathe deeply. I can isolate myself if I am unusually antagonistic.

One trap that prevents peace is the need to be right. We condemn others for their ignorance. But any divine mandate to be smart is superceded by the command to be loving. It is better to be good than to be right. “Often the difference between a successful marriage and a mediocre one consists of leaving about three or four things a day unsaid” (Harlan Miller).

We can act in ways that encourage growth.
Many psychologists have observed that Americans express many kinds of irritation in one way: anger. “Why can’t you ever think of anyone else?!” “What is wrong with you?!” “Why are you so selfish?!” Such statements do not invite peaceful sharing.

Rather than complain, “You are so wrapped up in your life that you never make time for anyone else!” I can invite, “I feel lonely. I miss doing things with you. Could we do something together this week?”

Love also sets people up for success. If I know that Nancy likes time to think about decisions, rather than stand tapping my toe, pressing her for decisions and wondering why she doesn’t learn how to make decisions, I will anticipate the need and will provide her time to reflect.

While it is true that people must bear the painful consequences of unwise decisions, we need never rejoice at another’s suffering. We can always offer the healing balm of understanding. A misbehaving family member may have sorrowful encounters with the law. Yet our charity “beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7).

When an elderly woman was asked at her fiftieth wedding anniversary what the secret of her long and happy marriage was, she responded that she had decided at their marriage to forgive her husband ten faults for the sake of their marriage. “I never got around to listing the ten but every time he did something that made me mad I thought, ‘It’s a good thing for him that that is one of the ten.’”

Love, forgiveness, and wisdom bring peace to our families. Indeed, blessed are the peacemakers. They shall be called the children of God.

Marriage

Taking Your Marriage From Misery to Joy

Mom says I was a pleasant baby. As I grew, I must have become less pleasant. I remember spending a lot of my growing-up years annoying and battling my siblings. I suppose that struggles with life and siblings teach all of us many maladaptive lessons, as they did me.

We’re probably not deliberately malicious. In fact our official theology tells us that children are born innocent (see D&C 93:39). But innocent isn’t the same as charitable, and as we struggle to secure a place in the life and love of the family, we frequently develop some uncharitable and ungenerous characteristics.

When I attempted to inventory some of the maladaptive skills I developed in my youth, I came up with the following list. Consider whether you developed some of these attitudes and abilities in your childhood.

Put my own needs first lest my needs go unmet. (Go for the biggest piece of cake.)
Defend myself. (Don’t show weakness. Return fire for fire.)
See the other person as guilty. (Consider even innocent behavior as aggressive or selfish.)
Zero in on weaknesses in others. (Notice what makes others crazy and be prepared to bombard them when necessary.)
Make fun of and minimize the other person. (Treat others with disdain.)
Color the truth. (Tell stories in ways that make me look innocent, my siblings guilty.)
Argue their wickedness persuasively. (Describe their faults derisively.)
Be aware of the audience. (Take advantage of Mom and Dad’s irritations with the enemy sibling.)
Hurt them and keep them afraid. (Learn the tools of terrorism.)
It’s amazing what awful things we can learn in the course of growing up. I think these tendencies underscore the literal truth of the Lord’s message to Adam: “Inasmuch as thy children are conceived in [a world of] sin, even so when they begin to grow up, sin conceiveth in their hearts” (Moses 6:55, emphasis added). This world teaches us to look after ourselves at all costs. Truly, the natural child—the one who attends only to his own needs—is an enemy to siblings (see Mosiah 3:19).

Carrying the lessons into marriage

As we grow up and enter adult relationships, consider how maladaptive such oft-practiced thoughts and behaviors can be. Consider each item on my list once more—this time in the context of marriage.

Put my own needs first lest my needs go unmet. (Go for the biggest piece of cake.)
Defend myself. (Don’t show weakness. Return fire for fire.)
See the other person as guilty. (Consider even innocent behavior as aggressive or selfish.)
Zero in on weaknesses in others. (Notice what makes others crazy and be prepared to bombard them.)
Make fun of and minimize the other person. (Treat others with disdain.)
Color the truth. (Tell stories in ways that make me look innocent, my sibling guilty.)
Argue their wickedness persuasively. (Describe their faults derisively.)
Be aware of the audience. (Take advantage of Mom and Dad’s irritations with the enemy sibling.)
Hurt them and keep them afraid. (Learn the tools of terrorism.)
These lessons for childhood survival do not contribute to healthy marital functioning. Their awfulness is reminiscent of the mother who overheard her little girl and a neighbor child playing house. They decided to get married and the little girl began the vows: “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You may now kiss the bride.” If we are to have a strong marriage, we must put off the natural man and learn better ways.

A painful and realistic portrayal of marriage was provided by a man who submitted this question to an online family service.

“After 13 years of marriage, I’ve come to realize that I really don’t like my wife. She is everything that I despise in a wife and a person. I’m a religious man, have tried everything the books say, and have taken direct orders from our pastor to implement actions all in an effort to cause a positive change in the marriage. The bottom line is, I see no positive aspects to my wife’s personality, and it taints all of her relationships, especially ours. I really dislike being around her and I’ve run out of solutions. Just short of divorce, is there anything that can be done as a final effort to salvage this marriage? BC in NM”

Is the major problem in this marriage the wife’s shortcomings? Probably not. Later in this book I quote a colleague who says, “When people are upset and angry, they are blind to any position but their own.”

Can anything be done?

The Lord has provided the cure for the childhood lessons we learned in self-defense. Perhaps He intended that we learn these higher lessons in our growing-up years—though most of us learn them imperfectly if at all.

“Therefore I give unto you a commandment [A commandment!], to teach these things freely unto your children, [Note what is to be taught!] saying: “That by reason of transgression cometh the fall, which fall bringeth death, and inasmuch as ye were born into the world by water, and blood, and the spirit, which I have made, and so became of dust a living soul, even so ye must be born again into the kingdom of heaven, of water, and of the Spirit, and be cleansed by blood, even the blood of mine Only Begotten; that ye might be sanctified from all sin, and enjoy the words of eternal life in this world, and eternal life in the world to come, even immortal glory” (Moses 6:58-59, emphasis added).

Without a new birth, we will never be what we should be in marriage. We will drag our sick, troubled, tortured ways into every encounter and every relationship. God invites us to bury the diseased natural man and be born again as new creatures in Christ.

But, can the gospel of Jesus Christ really help us function better in the day-to-day challenges of marriage?

Surprised by the Doctrine

On one occasion an earnest, intelligent, LDS mother sought me out for advice. “My husband is a good man, but I no longer find him attractive. I am thinking about leaving him. But I am not sure if it is right.”

I really wanted to help this good woman find answers to her dilemma. I hoped my training in relationships and my years of marriage would help. I prayed for guidance.

Much to my surprise I found myself talking to her about the Atonement of Christ. All my training in family life protested: “What does that have to do with her dilemma?” But my spirit would not be deterred. An hour of testifying of His inestimable goodness, mercy, and love spilled out. Phrases from the great Atonement chapters in the Book of Mormon came to life. The cup of testimony was brim with joy.

After it all spilled out, I paused, wondering how to apply the doctrine of the Atonement to her dilemma. But her face told me that nothing more needed to be said. The Atonement of Jesus Christ was the answer. Because of His goodness, we are reconciled to God. When we are reconciled to God, we are reconciled to each other. His goodness makes us one.

Filled with charity—that sweet and divine gift of heavenly love—she felt a renewed bond with her husband. She chose to stay with him. Gladly. Joyously. Lovingly. Their marriage is strong today.

The answers are in the Principles

The Gospel of Jesus Christ—that great plan of happiness—provides the solutions for our humanness. Having suffered the bitter fruits of badness, it invites us to prize the good fruits of gospel-anchored relationships (see Moses 6:55).

Most marriage programs emphasize a set of skills to help partners express discontents in fair, non-attacking ways. The assumption is that every marriage has its discontents and that those must be processed in non-destructive ways in order for the relationship to function well.

My assumption is very different. I believe that the key to a healthy relationship is being a healthy, saintly, God-seeking person—to be born again—to be a new creature in Christ. When we are more godly, fewer things bother us. And when we run into problems, we are more likely to process them in helpful ways.

Notice that God offers just one single escape clause from our desperate mortal, fallen situation: “For the natural [spouse] is an enemy to God [and his or her partner], and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless [Here comes the escape clause!] he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord” (Mosiah 3:19, emphasis added).

In the upcoming articles, I will discuss the core gospel principles and describe the ways they can take us from our self-serving and self-centered traditions of the natural spouse—the spouse unchanged by the Spirit of God—toward the good and gracious ways of godliness. These are the First Principles of Eternal Marriage. These are the principles that will enable us to draw heaven into our marriages. These powerful principles can have eternal results.

If you would like to buy a copy of Drawing Heaven into Your Marriage, click here

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Marriage

The Road to Marital Misery is Paved with Good Intentions

Often, we think we are acting nobly when we are actually being destructive.

Some examples:

Hoping to strengthen their marriage, a wife approaches her husband: “We need to talk.”

Hoping to state the problem, she describes the husband’s faults. “You don’t communicate effectively.”

Feeling overwhelmed, the husband resorts to contempt: “Well at least when I say something I don’t go on and on without getting to the point!”

Feeling attacked, the wife gets defensive: “Well, that’s typical! I’m the only one who cares about our relationship!”

Hoping to restore peace and end contention, the husband walks away from his wife. “I’m not going to fight.” And the wife feels abandoned.

In every case, the person may have a perfectly noble intent. He or she hopes to strengthen the relationship. Yet noble intentions are not enough. The road to marital misery is paved with good intentions. Just like when we try to remove a speck from a person’s eye when our own eyes are filled with sand. My presumption will leave us both blind.

Maybe we shouldn’t judge the nobility of our actions by our own intentions but by its sensitivity to our spouses. God wants us to apply a higher standard than “my good intentions” to our actions.

“Every man seeking the interest of his neighbor, and doing all things with an eye single to the glory of God.” (D&C 82:19)

So, God’s principle is that we not act simply out of our objectives but out of the likely impact on our partners. In every decision, we also ask how our action will advance God’s work of redemption. When we use God’s principles to guide our relationships, we think and act differently.

We might argue: “But I am trying to improve our relationship!” Yes. But the path to a stronger relationship travels through your spouse’s heart. We cannot get to closeness without walking in our spouse’s shoes, thinking and feeling in his or her soul.

Does this mean that we must all be mind-readers? No. It means that we draw on our knowledge of our spouse. It will often mean that we ask questions and invite input rather than push in our preferred direction. It means that we take the long view of relationships.

First, enter their world.

Rather than take our irritation as the ultimate truth and guiding principle, we consider “the interest of [our] neighbor”—our spouse. We try to enter our spouse’s world and understand what he or she may be feeling.

Maybe she has had a terrible day.
I was thoughtless. I need to consider his feelings.
Maybe he is worried that I will put him down.
Maybe she feels lonely and powerless.
Maybe he feels like he is in trouble for everything he does and says.

When we understand how our spouse is feeling, we can be more helpful.

Second, we ask questions.

For example, “I would love your thoughts on our vacation plans [parenting, housing, employment, meals]. Is this a good time to talk about this? How are you feeling about our plans?”

When our spouse responds, we will be tempted to become defensive: “Yeah, but you just don’t understand that . . ..” The key to a good discussion is being a good listener and investigator.

Third, we present our ideas as opportunities for discussion. “I like your ideas about our vacation. My concern is that the kids might be overscheduled this summer. What do you think we can do about that?”

Often, we meet resistance (a partner who sees things differently), we push harder for our own beliefs. A shoving match ensues. If we want both harmony and growth, we will resist the urge to push back. We will open our minds and hearts.

Returning to the examples at the beginning of this article, consider the following:

Hoping to strengthen their marriage, a wife approaches her husband: “I would get your input. Would now be a good time for you?”

Hoping to approach the issue, she describes her needs in a way that invites understanding and input. “I know your communication style is different from mine. Sometimes I wish I knew more about what you are thinking. Is there a way you would be comfortable sharing more of your thoughts with me?”

To avoid feeling overwhelmed, the husband chooses humility. “I’m sure I’m missing important things here. I am accustomed to the way my family did things. Will you tell me more about how you like to communicate?

To avoid feeling attacked, the wife remains patient. “I want to make sure I understand you. Can you tell me more about your needs?”

Hoping to avoid contention, a husband leans into their relationship. “I think I need some time to sort out your request. Could we plan to go to dinner and talk some more one night this week?”

There is a particular difficulty in offering gentle responses: When we feel attacked, we react. We run away. We strike back. We get angry. And, once we are upset, it is natural for the conflict to cascade. If we want discussions to be productive, we should catch ourselves before we become roused. When we see that we are entering the war zone, we can take deep breaths, we can use gentle humor, we can declare a timeout.

One source of mischief in relationships is our expectation that we will magically be synced. If our relationship is a good one, we will naturally understand each other and gladly work together. Nope. God intended that we stretch ourselves. We are more different than we realize. Our job is to learn kindness, compassion, and generosity. God wants us to learn other people’s points of view.

The Lord directs: “succor the weak, lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees” (D&C 81:5). God wants us to learn to lift each other just as He lifts us.

Invitation: Notice your irritation. Challenge it. Check the assumptions that generate your irritation. Try to understand why your spouse does as he or she does. Ask kind questions to help you understand.

Recommendation: The leading scholar on these marital processes is John Gottman. His book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, describes the ways we react to each other and ways to do better. For a gospel perspective on marriage, see my Drawing Heaven into Your Marriage.

Thanks to Barbara Keil for her insightful editing of this article.

Marriage

Aligning Our Vision in Marriage

Yesterday I asked Nancy a question. She gave an answer that seemed quite unrelated to my question. I was baffled and annoyed. I blinked a few times to try to clear my mind. Had she heard and understood my question? Then I realized for the first time that Nancy and I experience entirely different things in our conversations.

I grew up with a philosophical, articulate, and precise Dad. He loved to reason with us. We often sat around the table to explore many subjects, mostly the gospel. He was careful about logic and grammar. I tried to learn from him.

Nancy grew up differently. Her dad was a gentle man of few words who loved finding uses for cast-off stuff. He gathered this and that from the dump and made a shed . . . or a statue. His creations were practical and imaginative. A person needed to watch him carefully to figure out what he had on his mind. Nancy was good at understanding him. She learned a lot from him.

After almost 50 years of marriage, I made a fresh discovery about my beloved Nancy. In any conversation, she notices what people are doing and feeling. So she hears the context of people’s lives and emotions more than she hears words. Those factors influence her understanding of my messages no matter what I say.

In contrast, no matter what is happening around me, I focus on the words and the logic. I love clarity and precision. I want Nancy to listen to my words and offer precise answers.

While this tendency of Nancy’s can sometimes create communication differences between us, I also view it as one of her great gifts. It makes her aware of people in gatherings who need a friend or a word of encouragement. She seems to have a sixth sense about the needs of others. I love that about her.

There are other ways that Nancy and I think differently. She is more likely to see danger and I am more likely to see adventure. She is quiet and reflective. I am enthusiastic and passionate. She values healthy food and I relish fun food. She is task-oriented and I am fun-loving. It is surprising how differently two people can see our shared world!

Maybe we could compare our different perceptions of the world to binocular vision. Humans have two eyes not only to provide a wider range of vision but also so that we can perceive depth. For this to work, the two eyes must be carefully coordinated. They must align and focus together.

Babies learn to coordinate the views coming from both their eyes within the first few months of life. Learning to coordinate our different views of the world in marriage can take decades. We come from families that are vastly different not only in the way they communicate, but the way they define closeness, express emotions, and solve problems. Typically, our spouses are more different from us than we realized!

We all have our own specific way of reacting to the world around us. Yet our personal way seems so natural—so right and sensible. We expect our spouses to be like us. When they are different, we judge them to be defective.

How do we learn to coordinate our vision with our spouse? How do we learn to make productive use of our different ways of seeing the world?

1. Humility is the recognition that we don’t see everything. In fact, we entirely miss some of the most important things. And we often don’t know it. So, when we set aside our dogmatism and take a genuine interest in our spouse’s views, we are likely to discover a lot.

2. Explore your spouse’s point of view. Ask questions—especially when something isn’t making sense to you. Your spouse has a coherent vision that you can only appreciate if you are attentive and inquisitive.

3. Work to harmonize your two views. We are all tempted to dismiss other ways of seeing the world. When we are willing to understand and incorporate the others’ view into our own, we will see more and understand better.

When we add our spouse’s perspective to our own, we see far more. Instead of judging our spouse, we are able to appreciate what our spouse values. And we are more likely to enjoy each other.

Invitation: The next time you think your spouse’s ideas are weird or illogical, pause, take a few breaths, and then try to enter their world. Don’t judge. Try to understand.

Recommendation: John Gottman’s chapter about love maps in The 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work provides activities to better understand your spouse’s world.

Thanks to Barbara Keil for her helpful edits to this article.

Marriage

As a Couple Thinketh

Two amazing people were struggling in their marriage. In desperation, they went to see a therapist. He told them to go home and each spend the week until their next visit creating a list of frustrations with their partner. He promised to help them discuss those frustrations at their next appointment. All week long their lists and their irritations grew. By the time they returned to see the counselor, each had a soul-full of exasperation. And that is what they discussed during their sessions. Each accused. Both felt hurt and defensive. Any hope for their marriage disappeared. They divorced.

A different therapist took a different approach. When a couple came to see him, each partner anxious to confess the spouse’s sins, he asked if he could first get to know their history. He asked if each of them would tell what first attracted them to each other. They thought back and began telling their stories. Both softened as they recalled the good qualities that had brought them together. Good feelings returned. Problems seemed more manageable.

John Gottman, the preeminent marriage scholar, observed: “In a happy marriage couples tend to look back on their early days fondly. When they talk about the tough times they’ve had, they glorify the struggles they’ve been through, drawing strength from the adversity they weathered together. But when a marriage is not going well, history gets rewritten—for the worse” (p. 42).

Our stories are not objective facts. They are personal creations. We choose to forgive or not, to appreciate or not, to work together or not.

Without realizing it, during times of marital dissatisfaction, we “re-script” our memories of our marriages. Perhaps we think: “Now that I think about it, he has always disappointed me.” Or, “As I look back, I’m not sure I ever really loved her.” We re-script the history of our relationship to align with our current unhappiness. This causes us to think our unhappiness is more “real” than earlier times when the marriage flourished. And so we justify our thoughts of abandoning the marriage.

Gottman’s research shows that couples whose marriages are less likely to survive make the assumption that their dissatisfaction is permanent. They assume that their unhappiness is the new reality that likely cannot be changed.

In contrast, couples whose marriages are more likely to survive view their dissatisfaction as temporary—they hold onto the belief that, with patience, compassion, and commitment, they can weather the current winter storm and the marriage will blossom again.

Let’s add gospel perspective to the scholarly view.

1. Don’t let pains harden your perspective. We can let pains turn into positions. We can move from frustration or hurt to resentment to recalcitrance. That is the natural course of relationships in a fallen world. Paul offers the remedy: “Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). Rather than offer condemnation, we can offer mercy and kindness to those who hurt and frustrate us—even those who are closest to us.

2. Cherish good times. Notice, remember, and cherish your good experiences. We look at each other “with kindness and pure knowledge” (D&C 121:42). Gottman observed: “I’ve found 94 percent of the time that couples who put a positive spin on their marriage’s history are likely to have a happy future as well. Despite what many therapists will tell you, you don’t have to resolve your major marital conflicts for your marriage to thrive. In other words, [successful couples] are constantly working it out, for the most part good-naturedly. These couples intuitively understand that problems are inevitably part of a relationship, much the way chronic physical ailments are inevitable as you get older” (pp. 64, 131).

Marriage is intended to stretch us toward being more like the Savior: gracious, forgiving, helpful, and encouraging—even redemptive. We can welcome our irritations and differences as an invitation toward godliness.

Caveat: Some marriages are too destructive to survive. To see if your is one of those, read Hawkins’ and Fackrell’s excellent article: https://ldsmag.com/should-i-keep-working-on-my-marriage-perspectives-and-tools-at-the-crossroads-of-divorce/

Invitation: Set your mind and heart to think differently about irritations. Choose to be gracious and generous. Also, track through your relationship history looking for the “glory in your marital story.” Make a record of the great moments in your marriage.

Recommendation: Gottman’s quotes in this article are drawn from The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work which is the classic marriage book. My book, Drawing Heaven into Your Marriage, provides a gospel perspective on marriage.

Thanks to Barbara Keil for her insightful edits to this article.

Marriage

The Secret to Showing Love Effectively

Dave Barry ironically observed that “Americans who travel abroad for the first time are often shocked to discover that, despite all the progress that has been made in the past 30 years, many foreign people still speak in foreign languages.”

It’s human nature to expect people to learn our language, to do things our way, to meet our needs. No where is that more evident than in marriage.

Despite decades of marriage, Nancy has not reorganized her life, personality, and priorities around meeting all my needs. She is amazingly considerate and accommodating. But she still has her own preferences. She has not become another Wally or a servant to Wally. She is a unique person with her own strengths and her own inclinations. She still speaks her own language.

That is exactly God’s point in marriage! We may care very much about each other, but God wants us to do more than settle comfortably into our own ways. He wants us to stretch beyond our egocentric preferences. He wants us to truly learn how to love. And as part of that assignment, He wants us to spend a lifetime learning someone else’s language. We may one day speak it naturally and fluently. But, without effort, we will hardly be able to communicate.

You have probably heard of languages of love—the idea that we all have different preferences for the ways people show us love. Gary Chapman has written a popular book in which he lists five love languages:

Words of affirmation
Quality time
Receiving gifts
Acts of service
Physical touch

His book is good. And I love the concept! Yet his system seems unnecessarily complex. I never remember all five languages. So I use a system with three love languages instead:

Show me. “I’m not convinced by words but by actions.”
Tell me. “I love words and messages of love.”
Touch me. “I love to touch and snuggle.”

I find those three love languages easy to remember and simple to classify. Of course, most of us like to be loved in some mixture of the three languages. We want to see the actions. We value the words. We like to be held. We may value all three to some extent, but each of us likely places greater importance on one or two.

To add challenge to our relationships, our preferences may change over time. For example, sometimes we most cherish what is least available. Heavenly Father wants us to learn to pay attention to our partners and their needs on a continuing basis.

In addition to the three specific languages, I sometimes add two universal languages—ways of expressing love that everyone desires:

Understand me. “Listen to my thoughts and feelings. Try to value them and make sense of them.”
Spend time with me. “Join me in doing things I love to do.”

I wish I could say that I was a quick learner. The truth is different. Because I love (LOVE!) stuff, I tended to give Nancy stuff. When I wanted to show her love, I would buy her a new dress or a lovely mixer. Yet I could tell that Nancy wasn’t excited by those gifts. She would be gracious, but I could tell that I wasn’t speaking her language.

After almost three decades of marriage (Yes. I’m a quick learner!), I decided to try a different approach. I asked myself, how does she like to receive and show love? What are the gifts Nancy has received that she most cherishes? What makes her feel loved? It was instantly clear to me that I had not been speaking her love language. She loves sincere notes. I decided to write her a note for Christmas.

Having never been knowingly guilty of moderation, I decided to review the entire year and write to her about the sweet blessings we had shared that year. It took a lot of time to review my records for the year and write a letter that covered all that time. I worked at it many hours. As Christmas approached, I printed out the 4-page letter on quality paper, put it in an envelope, and put it under our Christmas tree with her name on it.

When Christmas arrived, our youngest, Sara, handed out presents from under the tree. After a time, she got to the letter and handed it to her mother. Nancy was puzzled. But she opened it and read, “Sweetheart, I am so grateful for the joyous experience we have shared this year. . . .” Nancy had read only a few paragraphs of the letter when she began to cry. She turned to me and said, “Wally, this is what I really want for Christmas!”

I instinctively responded, “Yes, Dear. But there will be some great sales after Christmas!” Despite my natural tendency to buy Nancy stuff, I am learning to love her in her language.

Nancy also likes me to help her in the yard. Of course, that is not what I prefer to do. Showing love requires sacrifice. It will always cost us to effectively show our love to another person. But if we wish to learn God’ lessons of love, we must be willing to do be stretched.

Of course, this same principle of customizing our love applies to our relationships with our children, other relatives, and anyone to whom we would convey genuine caring. To be effective, we must notice what matters to them.

There is an exception. In new and casual relationships, we appreciate any evidence of interest. A half-can of broken Pringles may touch our hearts at the beginning. But, in a mature and committed relationship, we must care enough to notice and to act in the ways that are meaningful to our loved ones. This stretches us. It challenges us to be more like the Savior, focused on the needs of others instead of focusing on our own convenience or preferences.

Invitation: Think about your loved one. What expressions of love would be most meaningful to him/her? Are there ways you can better customize your messages of love?

Recommendation: Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages is a good book for understanding the idea of customizing our love.

Thanks to Barbara Keil for her help with this article.

Marriage

Showing Understanding in Marriage

Imagine that my wife Nancy has been in hard labor for hour after long hour through an entire night and most of the next day. I am by her side trying to comfort her. She is exhausted from relentless and inexpressible pain. Image that she groans, “I just don’t know if I can keep going.”

Let’s imagine that I say, “I know just how you feel.”

Nancy would have every right to rise out of her bed and smite me.

I don’t know how she feels! My body has never experienced 14 hours of labor. And, even if it had, it would still diminish her current and painful experience if I redirected attention from the one in crisis to the experience of the one who is sitting comfortably at the side of her bed.

There is hardly a poorer way to show understanding or compassion than to say to someone in pain, “I know just how you feel.” That is equally true whether the pain is physical or emotional.

By the way, I did not say that to my wife. Unfortunately, when our firstborn was placed in my arms, I marveled! “Amazing! We need to have more children!” Those were not the words that Nancy was ready to hear immediately after hard labor. It is hard for us to think outside our own experience and fully enter someone else’s experience.

There are times when a dear one is suffering, and we want to offer words of comfort and compassion. What are the best ways of doing that?

Let’s start with INEFFECTIVE ways to show understanding. Many of our efforts to show compassion may have the opposite effect. They make a person feel mad or misunderstood. Following are some examples of things that we should not do:

• Don’t jump in and immediately give advice.
“Here are my thoughts on that…”
“What you need to do is . . ..”
“When something like that happens to me, here is what I do…”

• Don’t talk about your own feelings and experiences instead of theirs.
“I know just how you feel.”
“That same thing happened to me.”
“That’s nothing. You should hear what happened to me.”
“That just makes me so angry because…”

• Don’t make your spouse’s pain seem unimportant.
“I think you’re over-reacting.”
“Everything will seem better tomorrow.”
“That’s too bad…. Now I have something else we need to discuss.”

When people are in emotional pain, the first gift you can give them is the willingness to listen. Provide them a safe harbor in which to express whatever they want to share. Don’t interrupt with questions or opinions. Don’t immediately begin offering counsel. Avoid becoming distracted by planning what you are going to say when it is your turn to talk. Don’t become impatient and signal they are taking too long to share their experience.

While someone is struggling with emotional pain, that experience is very personal and very significant to them in that moment. They don’t feel anyone really understands. And they are right—even if you have listened carefully or been in similar circumstances, you can’t fully understand how the other person is feeling That’s why a person who is hurting would probably rather have you say, “I’m so sorry this is happening to you. I wish I could understand just how sad (or hurt or lonely) you feel.” Sometimes the best way to show understanding is to admit that you can’t understand exactly how they feel.

The key to understanding what the other person feels is identifying the person’s feeling. After we have listened and watched carefully to learn how a person is feeling, we might do and say one of the following EFFECTIVE things:

• Acknowledge or identify the person’s feeling.
“You feel strongly about this!”
“You seem to feel very (concerned, hurt, upset, confused, frustrated, lonely, sad).”

• Invite more discussion.
“I would like to understand how you are feeling. Will you tell me more?”

• Use active listening.
“Let me see if I understand. You feel like . . .? “
“It sounds like you feel (lonely, confused, sad, etc.).”
Effective compassion keeps the focus on the person in pain. It sets aside my own discomforts to minister to one who is suffering. When the good Samaritan was ministering to the wounded and half dead man, he did not say, “I know you’re in bad shape, but my bunions are killing me!” No! We set aside our discomforts to minister to those who are suffering.

All of this gets more complicated when both partners in a marriage are feeling hurt and distressed. When one person can set aside his or her pain to offer comfort, healing is advanced. But that is rare. When we feel attacked by another person, we tend to counter-attack. When a wife enumerates a husband’s faults, he is likely to respond in kind. Sometimes the best we can do when we are both in distress is to take time out. During that timeout, we are wise NOT to rehearse our own complaints but to try to understand our partner’s pain.

There are many times every day when our spouses express pain, dismay, or discouragement. When we regularly offer genuine compassion through the ordinary challenges of life and marriage, we build a bond of trust and love.

Invitation: Next time your partner expresses pain, pause your natural reactions. Turn your full attention to his or her distress. Offer words of understanding.

Recommendation: For an LDS perspective on marriage and compassion, read my Drawing Heaven into Your Marriage.

Thanks to Barbara Keil for her excellent additions to this article.

Examples of poor and good ways to show understanding are adapted from my publication, Being Understanding, written for the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.

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

Discoveries: Essential Truths for Relationships Making Each Other Crazy

Top view of different tapas food recipes. Delicious table of foods.

People are as different as foods on a buffet. For example, I am an extrovert. I do my thinking on the outside. I think out loud. Nancy is an introvert. She likes to think before she talks (in spite of my consistent example to the contrary).

Sometimes it makes me crazy when I ask Nancy a question and she goes into a trance. I want to know what she’s thinking; I want to participate in the process. She, however, likes to mull ideas over before she offers a considered opinion—after several minutes. In the meantime, I tap my toe impatiently.

Of course, I have a talent for making her crazy (thankfully she is amazingly patient and forgiving!). When I am playing with an idea, I talk about it from different angles. Each time I talk about it, I make small refinements. But, to the untrained ear, it sounds like I’m saying the same thing over and over. It could make anyone crazy!

That is an enduring difference between us. Unfortunately there have been times when I have gotten impatient and pushed her to talk. I’m sure there are times when she wondered if I would quit talking.

Differences can irritate and grow. They can become defining issues. After all, the natural man is an enemy to his spouse. And always has been. And always will be.

There simply is no hope we will get along unless we can change the way we feel about our differences—“unless [we] yield to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord” (Mosiah 3:19). Even then we will still be different. But the differences won’t bother us like they do when our fallenness is talking.

Daniel B. Wile, the insightful marriage therapist, observed:

There is value, when choosing a long-term partner, in realizing that you will inevitably be choosing a particular set of unresolvable problems that you’ll be grappling with for the next ten, twenty, or fifty years. (p. 13, After the Honeymoon)

Wile notes that we can get disgusted and leave our marriages. We can find new partners. And it will take a few years before we discover our unresolvable differences with our new partners. At that point we can leave those marriages and find new partners again. And thus we have the great American marriage pattern, serial monogamy. We stay frustrated and keep looking for the partner who is the perfect match, the one who completes us.

Or we can subscribe to God’s purposes in marriage. We can turn our discontents into humility and openness. We can try to understand and appreciate someone else’s perspective. We can seek to learn from each other.

If you have been paying attention, you have discovered the unresolvable differences in your relationship. You may have also discovered that they are not resolved as the result of candid discussion. Nope. Often they get worse. We get entrenched in our way of thinking and feeling.

There really is only one solution: heart-changing humility. When we become truly humble, we seek to understand our partners. We appreciate their uniqueness. We adapt to their ways. We even learn to appreciate them.

After all, God does not intend that we spend our lives coasting along in easy happiness. He intends to provoke us toward charity. Sure, God intends that we have times of peace and contentment. He also intends that we ascend the mountains of godliness. That will require real climbing—spiritual transformation. We “pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love . . . that we may be purified even as he is pure” (Moroni 7:47).

Of course we must cooperate with God. When we feel ourselves getting irritated we must do more than wait for Him to patch our souls. We must actively call on Him as Alma did: “O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness, and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death.”

Will the differences go away? Nope. God wants us to get disgusted enough with our grumbling and complaining that we beg Him for the mighty change that brings us charity.

The leading relationship scholar, John Gottman, has recommended that we start a dialogue with our unresolvable differences. Whether our differences are about relatives, money, sexuality, housework, or parenting, we can set aside our demands and seek to truly understand what matters to our partners.

We can stop thinking of differences as problems to be fixed and embrace them as opportunities for appreciation. We can stop holding up our own preferences as the standard of rightness. We can become “as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father” (Mosiah 3:19).

As we learn to appreciate our differences, we become more like our perfect Father.

Invitation:

Think about the things that irritate you most often in your marriage. How would you feel about those things if/when you were filled with the Spirit of God? How can you turn irritations into appreciations?

Recommendations:

For more about coping with our differences, read Gottman’s The 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work.

For more about cultivating charity in marriage, read my Drawing Heaven into Your Marriage.