Developing a Stronger Relationship with Your Spouse
On our bedroom wall hang the words of the marriage covenant my wife and I made with each other almost twenty-five years ago:
I, Dan, take you, Marie, to be my lawfully wedded wife.
I promise to always love, honor, respect, and esteem you, and
I will lay down my life for you.
I will seek God first in all things and make Jesus the Lord of our marriage.
I desire to be all that God would have me be as your husband...
These were bold promises. I could only make them by trusting in the grace that comes with the sacrament. And the number of times I have had to ask my wife's forgiveness for not living up to them would run into the hundreds, if not thousands!
Forgiving your spouse is easier when you see them changing the behaviors, actions, or attitudes that you find irritating or problematic. But how do you keep a marriage alive and full of hope when your husband or wife seems unwilling or unable to make the changes you think are necessary?
As a licensed professional counselor who has met with numerous married couples, I see many spouses who were attentive to one another initially, during courtship, but now seem deaf to one another's wishes. What they once saw as a new mate's charming habit is now viewed as an irritating fault. As one man said to me frankly, "This is not the same person I married."
The Speck or the Log?
Depending on their personality, communication skills, frustration level, and the quality of their prayer life, spouses adopt varied ways of dealing with a mate who won't change. Some ignore the problem. This is like hearing a thumping noise in the car engine and pretending it's not there—until the car finally breaks down on the highway. As a counselor friend said to me once, "People don't seek counseling until the pain is so great it can no longer be ignored." This is not to say that there is no help for a marriage that hits a crisis. But the spiritual and emotional cost and difficulty would have been much less if the problem had been addressed earlier.
Some couples fight it out; their relationship deteriorates into a continual round of blaming and accusing. Others just give up. I don't mean that they get divorced. Rather, they settle for a level of marital life that I call an arrangement: "You leave me alone in this area, and I won't mess with you in that area." But since Christian couples are supposed to reflect the unity that exists among the Persons of the Trinity, as well as Christ's love for the Church, this is a far cry from God's original purpose for marriage.
There is something I've learned in relating to my wife that has assisted me tremendously in helping other couples to have a healthier, holier marriage. I see it as a secret to releasing the sacramental grace given to us on the day we made our wedding vows. The premise is this: You can't change your spouse. Only God can do that. You can only change yourself. The scriptural principle for this approach is expressed in Matthew 7:3-5, where Jesus says:
Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, "Let me take the speck out of your eye," while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor's eye.
Learning to Listen
Marie and I were moving toward our fourth anniversary when I began to make this discovery. We had the perfect marriage, I thought—except for the fact that she frequently disagreed with me and my opinions! I recall sitting on the sofa with her in tears for what seemed like the hundredth time saying, "You don't listen to me." And I was defending myself for the hundredth time saying, "Of course I listen to you." I can't recall the specific disagreement we were having that day. It was probably about our family's finances or about my not doing enough around the house. But I do remember that Marie wasn't even able to finish a sentence without my interrupting and defending my position.
Finally, as we sat there, by the grace of God I became open to the thought that maybe, just maybe, my wife could be on to something about me. Without telling her what I was doing, I decided to write out a prayer—just a few sentences—asking God to make me a better listener. I stuck it in my Bible and earnestly prayed it every day.
About two months later, Marie approached me and said, "You've changed. For the first time in our marriage, I'm beginning to feel listened to." To this day, I still don't know how God did it, but I became a better listener—a good listener, says my wife. By the grace of God, I have learned to stop interrupting her in mid-sentence and to decrease my defensive posture. Consequently, our communication and ability to work through daily problems increased dramatically.
My advice: If your spouse tells you that you have a particular problem, don't get defensive and stubborn. Humbly go before the Lord, ask for help to see what needs correcting, and beg him to change you. It can also be helpful to seek counsel from a wise friend or spiritual director. The fact is, God will work in you if you really want to change and persevere in prayer.
Choose Your Approach
Even in situations that are not very promising, doors seem to open when spouses exchange their "spouse focus" for a "self focus." One couple from my parish that I counseled many years ago seemed to have no chance of making their marriage work. They were two very strong-willed people who couldn't even agree if the color of their mini-van was red or green. I am ashamed to say that I saw no hope for them and even suggested that divorce might be their only option. Thankfully, they did not take my counsel.
For many years, I watched from a distance, wondering how much longer their marriage would last. Then one weekend, my wife and I found ourselves on a couples' retreat along with them. At one point during the retreat, the wife stood up and gave a profoundly moving testimony of how God had intervened in their marriage. She and her husband had experienced a dramatic turnaround—and, she said, it had all started with a crucial realization: "My marriage didn't get better until I stopped worrying about how to change my husband and began to focus on my own personal holiness."
When something about your spouse is driving you crazy, you have a choice about how to deal with it. Will you react with nagging, sarcasm, or the cold silent treatment? Or will you sink your roots deeper into the wellspring of God's love and presence through prayer? If you choose the second path, you will find that this area of difficulty can actually lead to a deeper relationship with the Lord and with your spouse.
Called to Gospel Love
Please don't misunderstand me. I am not advocating that husbands and wives push conflict issues under the rug. They should do what they can to develop good communication skills and resolve problems. Sometimes, marriage counseling is necessary and can assist with major insights and breakthroughs. And it's critical to draw the line of respect with one's spouse and refuse to tolerate major sin or abuse. Putting up with outrageous behavior may be a sign of a "doormat" spirituality that looks like tolerant love and humility, but is really a counterfeit born of fear and low self-esteem.
But within the normal range of difficulties that couples encounter are those that arise because we all come into marriage with "issues"—conscious or unconscious fears, defenses, and habits that surface when we enter a marital union. Discovering our spouse's personality differences and ways of thinking can make us second-guess whether we married the right person.
As I said, husbands and wives should work together to resolve their differences. But if we take on the Holy Spirit's job of producing change in one another, we will get stuck and perhaps make matters worse! Unless we surrender our spouse to God, we are likely to miss what the Lord is saying to us: "Will you allow me to develop my love in your heart?"
In his video series, "Community Transformed," Fr. Thomas Dubay gives this definition of the gospel love that we are invited to cultivate: "self-sacrificing, willed concern for and giving to another, even if attraction and feeling are absent and even if little or nothing is received in return."
Perhaps you can recall sometime of difficulty when the Lord called you to grow in this way. I experienced a period like this after the birth of one of our six children, when my wife went into a depression that lasted several years. Trying to change her was pointless and futile; what she needed was unconditional love. During that season, I learned to pray and cling to the Lord as never before. I made a more serious attempt to sacrifice my personal agenda and needs for the sake of my wife and children. When the depression eventually lifted, we found that our marriage was that much stronger, and full of God's presence.
Endless grace for the marriage journey
Endless grace flows from the Sacrament of Marriage—grace that can transform every area of your marriage to better reflect the Lord's love. Consider talking with the Holy Spirit about your difficulties, and be open to what he shows you. Nothing is beyond his grace and power.
And next time you find yourself trying to change your spouse, seek the Lord with all your heart and ask him to change you. You just might end up with the plank removed from your eye, as well as the splinter from your spouse's.