Making Marriage Work

By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.

Conflict between man and woman standing on either side of a doorAs a marriage and family therapist I have learned techniques to help marriages and family relationships work. The one that works best by far is the unconditional love of Christ. How that works out in the marriage is my next question.

One thing I’ve noticed is that when I would have an argument with my wife, we would have spirited discussions about the same old topics. Often for us, it was about the use of time. We have lots of kids and a lot of work falls on her. We also have lots of bills and that weight falls on me. For you, you might argue about something that happened that you are having a hard time forgiving.

So what does unconditional love do? I turn to Paul’s description of marital love in Ephesians 5:21-33:

21Out of respect for Christ, be courteously reverent to one another.

22-24 Wives, understand and support your husbands in ways that show your support for Christ. The husband provides leadership to his wife the way Christ does to his church, not by domineering but by cherishing. So just as the church submits to Christ as he exercises such leadership, wives should likewise submit to their husbands.

25-28 Husbands, go all out in your love for your wives, exactly as Christ did for the church—a love marked by giving, not getting. Christ’s love makes the church whole. His words evoke her beauty. Everything he does and says is designed to bring the best out of her, dressing her in dazzling white silk, radiant with holiness. And that is how husbands ought to love their wives. They’re really doing themselves a favor—since they’re already “one” in marriage.

29-33 No one abuses his own body, does he? No, he feeds and pampers it. That’s how Christ treats us, the church, since we are part of his body. And this is why a man leaves father and mother and cherishes his wife. No longer two, they become “one flesh.” This is a huge mystery, and I don’t pretend to understand it all. What is clearest to me is the way Christ treats the church. And this provides a good picture of how each husband is to treat his wife, loving himself in loving her, and how each wife is to honor her husband.

This approach would be consistent with the humility Jesus called being “poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3). Philippians 2:13 says, “Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves.” My relationship with my wife started by being selfish, thinking about how the qualities of my wife would benefit me. Then I gained my wife’s love by impressing her. However, this is not unconditional love. I cannot depend on a love that depends on my ability to impress. Certainly, it is not the kind of love that can last.

Turning toward our own ability to humbly and unconditionally love someone, have you felt, as I have, that there are moments where you just do not feel like you have love to give? Often when I feel this way I criticize my wife and defend myself, or I act like a victim and run away. Then I dwell on what is right and wrong in order to think of a way to get my needs met. Then I present my argument to my wife, but it seems to have the same impact as if I am saying to her, “I don’t love you.” I am not saying that, but I wonder how if this is what she feels when I argue with her.

I remember the time my wife was telling me about the frustrations of her day and I was tired but attempting to be empathetic. I recall an instant turn in my emotions when she unexpectedly added, “And if you were around, this would not have happened.” It ignited an anger in me, so I retorted, “Do you really want this to blow up?” Luckily I came to my senses enough to walk away. “Empty” is the word that came to mind as I retreated. “I’ve got nothing more to give.”

Greg Baer in his book Real Love compares arguments to feeling attacked while drowning. When someone is drowning they lash out. In fear, someone drowning may hit you or grab onto you and pull you under, resulting in two victims. When we are arguing, we are drowning and lashing out. Research shows that similar events are occurring in our brain when we argue as when we are drowning.

When I realize that I feel like I am drowning when I do not feel loved, and I am feeling empty and alone, how can I respond with unconditional love?

First, I remember that my wife may also be drowning, feeling empty and alone. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 2:7-8 that when someone is drowning, we are urged to reaffirm our love. If I view my wife who at times lashes out at me as drowning, my anger at her is reduced. I feel less interested in criticizing her and defending myself, but I still feel like a victim and want to run away. I am drowning and need to get back on solid ground myself.

To get back on solid ground I remember that love as described in 1 Corinthians 13:6 rejoices with the truth. I recall how David was fleeing for his life when he wrote that Psalms 139 asking God to search is own heart so that he can admit his own faults. I also remember that 1 John 4:18 says that love casts out fear. If I speak the truth about myself, my struggle, and my weaknesses, what does unconditional love do? The Bible says that love embraces the truth and is accepting. When we confess, love offers help and hope. Jesus did not confess his sins, but in the garden before the cross he did confess that he was crushed in sorrow.

My wife nor I may be able to unconditionally love at any moment. If someone was overwhelmed and upset, or stressed, or maybe has had a lifetime of not feeling loved, there will be times that person will not be able to love. So it falls on me to search myself and speak the truth about myself to God, and to someone that He provides to love me. I would never recommend that this be a person of the opposite sex.

So I reflected on my own emptiness and thought about ways I can restore my energy for unconditional love. This may involve self-care, for which we are responsible, and seeking care from others. I thought of this acronym, “ACES” to remind me of ways to restore energy for unconditional love.

“A” stands for a sense of accomplishment, which I see as God working in and through me.

“C” stands for the connection I have to God, family, and friends, that I need to seek out to feel loved enough to love my spouse.

“E” stands for God-given enjoyment, the “small” parts of life, often overlooked, that I need to remember in gratitude to God.

“S” stands for self-care, sleep, diet, exercise and other needs for which I am responsible to meet.

Most importantly, I needed to confess to someone my struggle and feel their acceptance. If I am loved for what I do for others, what is that? That is a performance-based love. That is how we got married in the first place. But I need the kind of love the Bible describes as “agape love,” or “grace:” someone who sees me for who I am and then accepts me. I need this kind of love in order to love others.

I may have seek this out on a regular basis. It takes courage. Who wants to talk about their struggles and faults? I would rather talk to someone and they tell me I am in the right. But that is back to performance-based love. So I turned to my “ACES,” and turned to a friend to whom I can admit my faults. He still liked me, and accepted me as I am. With time I was ready to understand and give to my wife.

What are some ways I can unconditionally love my spouse? Here are common needs for men and women, as highlighted in Shaunti and Jeff Feldhahn’s research-based books on relationships, For Men Only and For Women Only.

Women need to be pursued. They are wired for relationship. Women feel it when something is missing here. They write, “Pursuit is likely to make you a great husband in her eyes.” Relationships need energy like anything else of value. A little time can yield big dividends. Perhaps consider “The Five Love Languages” by Gary Chapman.

In the movie, Parent Trap, Nick asks his ex-wife. Elizabeth, how their relationship died. He said, “It ended so fast. So about the day you packed, why’d you do it?” She replied, “Oh, Nick. We were so young. We both had tempers, we said stupid things, and so I packed. Got on my first 747, and . . . you didn’t come after me.” After a period of dead silence, Nick admitted, “I didn’t know that you wanted me to.”

A common need for a man is to feel their spouses’ respect. They are wired for accomplishment. Men feel it when something is missing here. The authors write, “What is at stake isn’t his pride as much as his secret feelings of inadequacy as a man.” Many unmarried men described feeling inadequate as a major barrier to getting married in the first place. They do not want to feel inadequate the rest of their lives.

Let me conclude by asking if love is the goal in marriage, and unconditional love is what makes marriage work, then what is unconditional love look like for you? Everybody may have a different definition. For some, unconditional love may mean that they set boundaries so that sin does not continue. Proverbs 10:10 says to not “wink” at sin. For others, love is characterized as giving without getting. Immediately, when I hear this definition, I think, “But what about me? What about my needs?” I guess the better question is, what is the best way to meet my needs? If I am angry or disappointed in my partner, I am thinking of myself and my needs. I may be feeling empty, overwhelmed or drowning. The Bible offers a lifeline: confession. It is speaking truth to someone who accepts and loves us as we are, faults and all. I think that is better than finding someone who agrees with you that you are in the right. I do not know about you, but being right has not inspired me to be more loving. Feeling loved has inspired me to be more loving. This is how I see the unconditional love of Christ fuel our love for our spouse.

“We, though, are going to love—love and be loved. First we were loved, now we love. He loved us first” (1 John 4:19).

Real Love in Marriage by Greg Baer explains the principles that will make dramatic changes in your marriage.

In their groundbreaking classic, For Men Only, Jeff and Shaunti Feldhahn reveal the eye-opening truths and simple acts that will radically improve your relationship with the woman you love.

The man in your life carries important feelings so deep inside he barely knows they’re there, much less how to talk about them. Yet your man genuinely wants you to “get” him—to understand his inner life, to know his fears and needs, to hear what he wishes he could tell you. In her landmark bestseller, For Women Only, Shaunti Feldhahn reveals what every woman—single or married—needs to know.

Falling in love is easy, but maintaining healthy relationships is a lifelong pursuit. Once you understand “love languages,” you’ll be able to nurture not only a romantic relationship, but also casual, business, and familial relationships effectually. With more 8 million copies sold, Dr. Gary Chapman’s The 5 Love Languages will help you succeed in having joyful, enduring relationships.

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