Recently, I (Dr. Townsend) had two separate dinners with two married couples who are friends of mine. These two couples are in their later years, and each of the couples has been married for more than four decades. They are in what we call the “Golden Years,” the period of marriage in which all the love and work over the years culminate, we hope, in a deep and satisfying connection.
However, I was struck by the huge difference between the two couples. With Harold and Sarah, I enjoyed a buffet dinner where you get a ticket for various parts of the meal and you have to leave the table with your ticket and go get your item. The dinner was winding down; we were ready for dessert. Harold reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out his dessert ticket. Tossing it in front of Sarah, he said casually, “Sarah. Dessert.” Not “Please, Sarah, will you get my dessert for me?” And certainly not “Can I get your dessert, honey?” Harold was assuming Sarah would obediently comply with his two-word command.
I didn’t know what to say, so I sat there and watched. Sarah was clearly embarrassed by Harold’s public display of control. She sat there for a couple of seconds, apparently deciding what to do. Then she seemed to gather up her courage and quietly but forcefully said, “Why don’t you get your own dessert?”
Harold looked surprised. Evidently he wasn’t used to her refusing to obey his commands. However, he recovered, made a weak joke about uppity women, and left the table to redeem his ticket. While he was gone, Sarah said to me, “Sorry, I just couldn’t let it go this time, with my friends here.” I felt so sad for Sarah, realizing that her reaction to her husband tonight was the exception rather than the rule. I also realized that, on a deeper level, while Harold and Sarah were legally connected, they were emotionally disconnected. Their hearts were not knit together.
Frank and Julia were different. I was traveling, and they were hosting me. We went to their home after dinner. After a while, it was time for me to return to my hotel, and I needed a ride. Julia, a counselor like me, was primarily responsible for my trip and had been chauffeuring me to various speaking engagements and meetings. So clearly she was the person to take me back.
However, Frank looked at his wife and said, “You look tired, honey. I’ll take John back to his hotel.” I could see the conflict in Julia’s face between her duty to me and her need for rest. Finally, she said, “Okay, thanks.” And Frank drove me to the hotel.
The next day, at the conference, I talked to Julia. I remarked on Frank’s kindness in offering the ride and on her struggle with taking the offer. She said, “It wasn’t always that way. In our twenties, he wouldn’t have offered, and I wouldn’t have taken the offer. But we worked on this issue a lot during those days. I had to put my foot down on some issues, and we almost divorced. It was a difficult period, but it has paid off. We can’t imagine not being each other’s soul mates.” During my time with them, I had observed that Frank’s and Julia’s hearts were knit together, that they were emotionally connected.
Though both couples had many years of marriage experience, each couple’s love and relationship had taken very different turns. Harold and Sarah were unable to love deeply and relate to each other, because Harold controlled Sarah and Sarah allowed him to control her. They had what are called major boundary conflicts, in which one person crosses the lines of responsibility and respect with another. When one person is in control of another, love cannot grow deeply and fully, as there is no freedom. Frank and Julia could have very likely ended up the same way. From what I could tell, they started off similarly in their early married years. Frank dominated, and Julia complied. However, she confronted the problem, she set limits and established consequences, and their marriage grew. Clearly, both couples were reaping the results of how they had conducted themselves in the earlier seasons of marriage. The first couple harvested a sad result; the other, a joyous one.
Your Life Begins Today
If you are reading this book, most likely marriage is important to you. You may be happy in your marriage and want it to keep growing. You may be struggling and dealing with major or minor problems. You may be single and want to prepare for marriage. You may be divorced and want to prevent the pain you went through if you remarry.
Most of us have no greater desire and prayer than a lifetime of love and commitment to one person with whom we can share life. Marriage is one of God’s greatest gifts to humanity. It is the mystery of living as one flesh with another human being (Ephesians 5:31 ? 32).
Marriage is first and foremost about love. It is bound together by the care, need, companionship, and values of two people, which can overcome hurt, immaturity, and selfishness to form something better than what each person alone can produce. Love is at the heart of marriage, as it is at the heart of God himself (1 John 4:16).
Yet, love is not enough. The marriage relationship needs other ingredients to grow and thrive. Those ingredients are freedom and responsibility. When two people are free to disagree, they are free to love. When they are not free, they live in fear, and love dies: “Perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:18). And when two people together take responsibility to do what is best for the marriage, love can grow. When they do not, one takes on too much responsibility and resents it; the other does not take on enough and becomes self-centered or controlling. Freedom and responsibility problems in a marriage will cause love to struggle. Like a plant without good soil, the marriage relationship will struggle in an unfriendly environment.
From Boundaries in Marriage, Copyright © 2004 by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend and published by Zondervan. Used with permission.
Dr. Henry Cloud is a popular speaker, and cohost, with Dr. John Townsend, of the nationally broadcast New Life Live! Radio program, and cofounder of Cloud-Townsend Clinic and Cloud-Townsend Resources. His bestselling books include the Gold Medallion Award-winning Boundaries books and Making Small Groups Work.