Perhaps the most pernicious sins are those that make us feel virtuous while we devastate our fundamental Christian professions. For instance, the Pharisees were famous for painstakingly observing the law while failing at basic compassion.
There is a modern and proximate sequel to that hypocrisy. It is very common for a marriage partner to vent his or her spleen at the spouse’s expense and justify it under the banner of honesty. “I have to be honest, dear. I just don’t find you to be attractive as a woman or a human.”
That particular cruelty has a close cousin: “If I can clearly paint a picture of my partner’s faults for her, then she can overcome them.” The idea that we continue to be foolish and sinful because no one has systematically portrayed our faults for us has been discredited by thousands of years of sad, mortal history. Cool, scornful objectivity is not the world’s greatest need.
There is still another relative in that dismal family. “My anger is a special kind of indignation. It signals when someone has done something wrong and needs to be chastened.”
One last relative. “Lately I have noticed that you seem to be very self-centered. In fact, now that I think about it, it seems that you have always been self-serving.” It is common to let today’s discontent eclipse years, even decades, of struggling together.
As always, the perfect example of the right attitude toward fellow travelers (especially our spouses and children) is provided by Jesus. There may be no more poignant, elegant and dramatic contrast between the condescension of the natural man and the compassion of the Gods than in the encounter between Jesus and Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36–50).
Simon invited Jesus to dine with him apparently for no other reason than because Jesus was the talk of the town. He did not show Jesus the minimal gestures of hospitality. He treated him with cool disdain.
As they sat on couches at a low table in the open courtyard, a woman of the city who was well known as a sinner brought an alabaster box of ointment and began to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears, wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with the perfumed oil.
The Pharisee acted even worse than an uncivilized natural man who might have considered the woman a temporary annoyance. He judged both the woman and Jesus, saying within himself: “This man, if he were a prophet, would have known who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him: for she is a sinner.” In one condescending swoop he condemns the woman as unworthy of contact with civilized humans and Jesus as uninspired for failing to discern her loathsome sinfulness.
Jesus, ever gracious, invites Simon to think differently by telling him a story. “There was a certain creditor which had two debtors: the one owed five hundred pence, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing to pay, he frankly forgave them both. Tell me therefore, which of them will love him most?” Simon acknowledged that the one who had been forgiven the greater debt would probably be more grateful.
Then Jesus did something wholly unexpected: he held up the sin-burdened woman as a moral model for Simon.
And he turned to the woman, and said unto Simon, Seest thou this woman? I entered into thine house, thou gavest me no water for my feet: but she hath washed my feet with tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head. Thou gavest me no kiss: but this woman since the time I came in hath not ceased to kiss my feet. My head with oil thou didst not anoint: but this woman hath anointed my feet with ointment. Wherefore I say unto thee, her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little (verses 44–47).
For all the inhabitants of the eternal worlds, Jesus set the example of graciousness. “And he said unto her, Thy sins are forgiven. . . . Thy faith hath saved thee; go in peace.”
As if the contrast were not already perfectly clear for us mortals, there is one concluding irony. “And they that sat at meat with him began to say within themselves, Who is this that forgiveth sins also?” Even in the face of perfect graciousness, they did not recognize it. They judged it as foolish and presumptuous.
What a great message for marriage. By nature we follow the lead of the Pharisee. We hoard our good will and measure each person by the measuring rod of our own remarkable rightness.
In marriage we may make our expectations and needs into the standard of judgment. Being “honest” with our partner always presumes that our version of reality is the right one, best one, true one. It does not show the humility to honor our partner’s unique view and experience of the world. Our anger and indignation spill out as a rebuke to those who are not as committed or fine as we.
Jesus is different. He knows that the injuries of mortality are healed by love rather than diagnosis. He knows that the weaknesses of the flesh are strengthened by compassion and mercy rather than by autopsy. The only person in the universe who has the right to judge us and condemn us chooses instead to redeem us and justify us. He who might be our accuser chooses to be our Advocate (D&C 45:3–5).
John Gottman has done revolutionary research on marriage. Based on his work in his love lab in Seattle, Washington, he recommends that couples find the glory in their marital story. He observes that
In a stable marriage . . . the partners tend to view each other through “rose-colored” glasses. They assume that each other’s positive, admirable characteristics are an intrinsic part of their personality rather than occasional flukes. . . . The good things about their relationship are considered stable and far-reaching while the bad patches or areas of tension are considered to be fleeting and situational (pp.118–19).
A successful marriage is based on the choice to see a partner with love and compassion. The Lord gives very clear instructions to govern our relationships.
No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood [or, presumably, by virtue of parenthood or husbandhood or wifehood], only by persuasion, by long suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;
By kindness, and pure knowledge [a very special kind of knowledge: pure knowledge. “Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God,” perhaps even in their marriage partners], which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile (D&C 121: 41–42).
When I was teaching a marriage class for the university, a young woman in the class asked, “My husband had a very painful childhood. Whenever I try to bring up any problems in our relationship, he retreats. He won’t talk. What can I do?” What she might not have known was that she was already doing the most important thing: She was seeing him with compassion and love.
Of course compassion, by itself, does not solve all problems. It is worth remembering, as Wile, a wise marriage counselor, observes, that every marriage has unresolvable differences. Some of our differences simply will not be set right in mortality. That is not cause for alarm. It may be cause for amusement or patience or charity, but not alarm. Fortunately many of the irritations in relationships are not so hard to bear when we are peaceful and loving.
There will also be times when that sweet young woman can gently invite counsel from her husband. In a time when things are peaceful, she can ask, “Sweetheart, will you teach me how to get your input when I am perplexed? I want your counsel. Yet I’m not sure how to bring up my problems. Will you teach me how to do it?”
The greatest revolution in research on marriage may have been the movement from communication and problem-solving orientations to a kindness orientation. As Gottman observes:
Even in strong relationships, too often people focus on the negatives in an effort to make the relationship all the better. But by dwelling on what is wrong in your marriage, it’s easy to lose sight of what is right. This is a primary reason that admiration is often the first thing to go. . . . Nor do bad times wipe out all the good times . . . look through picture albums from past vacations, or reread some old love letters . . . you need to become the architect of your thoughts. It’s up to you to decide what your inner script will contain. You can habitually look at what is not there in your relationship, at your disappointments, and fill your mind with thoughts of irritation, hurt, and contempt. Or you can do the opposite . . . If you can learn to think empathetically rather than negatively about what your spouse is going through, and maintain your admiration for your spouse’s good qualities, you will not be plagued with overwhelming distress-maintaining thoughts that trigger defensiveness and harm your marriage . . . Make a list of your partner’s positive qualities . . . Memorize this list and think about how much harder life would be without these positives. When you find yourself following a critical train of thought about your mate, use elements from the list to interrupt your thinking. Make a habit of this process and the change can be [a] dramatic . . . “rethinking” [of] your marriage (Gottman, p.183).
Good marriages are not built so much on “honesty,” disclosure, and frankness as they are built on kindness, patience, and love—just as the Lord has always said.
A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.
By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:34–35).
When we have learned to love as Jesus loves, we are likely to rejoice in our marriage partner.
Gottman, J. (1994). Why marriages succeed or fail. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Wile, J. (1988). After the honeymoon. New York: John Wiley & Sons.