Terri’s first husband had an affair. She came home one day to discover he had packed his stuff and moved in with a woman half his age. The fallout from this rejection was almost more than she could handle. But with the help of a supportive church family, Terri and her eight-year-old son survived.
Bill made her feel good again. They met through a mutual friend and hit it off right from the start. He listened to her anger, supported her through the custody battle, and helped her son with his homework. Terri found herself trusting him with more and more of her life.
After the wedding, though, Terri would ask questions if Bill didn’t come home on time. When they talked, she shared her thoughts, but not quite everything. She often felt it wise to watch her step and not become too transparent. After all, look what happened last time. When they made love, Terri offered her body to Bill, but not her passion. In other words, she was willing to meet his basic sexual needs but guarded her heart. A year into the marriage, she deemed it wise to put money in a secret bank account, just in case everything went wrong. Terri was haunted, and her marriage was slowly being sabotaged by her guarded heart and cautious love.
What’s ironic about being haunted by the ghost of marriage past is that it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you treat someone as untrustworthy in spite of his/her efforts to love and please you, frustration is sure to set in. Bill found himself repeatedly trying to change his wife’s mind about his being untrustworthy; she saw this as him being defensive.
Do you know what your ghost is? Can you recognize its voice and the fear it imposes? Maybe you have more than one. If you’ve experienced a divorce, here are some common ghosts to which you might relate:
Protect the kids.This ghost seems to have the children’s best interests at heart, but in reality, it’s protecting you. It says, “What does he/she know? He/she’s just a stepparent to your kids. You better watch out or your kids will experience even more pain. Protect them when you can.”
Keep your eye on the money. Especially after experiencing a tremendous loss in income, this ghost urges you to watch every dime. It says, “You better keep a little money stashed away just in case. You don’t want to get stuck holding the bag again.”
Who’s in our bed? This ghost is concerned that sex this time around might pale in comparison to previous sexual relationships. It urges couples to “check for compatibility” before marriage and plants seeds of fear within the marriage. It says, “I wonder if he/she is thinking of someone else right now; I wonder how our lovemaking compares.”
Trust not, want not. This ghost says, “Avoid vulnerability and the dangers of ‘wanting.’ Better make sure they want you more than you want them.”
Fear factor. This ghost says, “You better watch your back. You never know what’s really going on with your spouse or when the other shoe will drop. Remember, marriage is not forever.” A thick emotional shield is this ghost’s best protection from further harm.
You know what that means. This ghost is quick to interpret the meaning of words and actions in a negative light. It says, “Did you hear that? That sounds just like what old so-and-so used to say, and you know what that means.” Defensiveness and judgment are this ghost’s friends.
Your ghost, of course, might not sound exactly like these common examples. And that’s the point – you have to find your ghost(s). Jennifer’s first marriage was physically and verbally abusive. She never knew what to expect. “My ghost says, ‘Is he going to snap one day and become the angry man? Keep your guard up and be ready to run.’” She continued, “I still live with fear from the past. It really haunts me even thought my current marriage is peaceful. I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
Becoming a Ghost Buster
For many people, having an open, trusting posture toward your new spouse and treating him/her fairly requires becoming a ghost buster. Here are some tips for recognizing your ghosts and then busting them.
Recognize that sometimes you negatively interpret your spouse’s motives and behavior. It’s not a given, but if a husband or wife says, “Why are you overreacting to this?” or “Wait a minute. I am not your ex!” you may be haunted. When that happens, take some time to reflect. Examine whether your past is still part of your present. Then replace your reactive behavior with more appropriate responses.
Write down your ghosts and what they whisper in your ear. Become very familiar with this so you can recognize the voice.
In contrast, strive to recognize the voice of Jesus and what he is telling you do do. Jesus said he is the Good Shepherd and his sheep follow him because they know his voice (John 10:1-14). Even when there is risk involved in loving your spouse (and there always is), following the voice of Jesus will lead you toward acts of service, a gracious attitude, kindness, patience, gentleness, and self-control. Moving toward his voice and away from the ghost’s is how you bust a ghost.
Ask yourself, If I’d never been hurt before, how would Jesus have me respond in this situation? If I weren’t afraid of being abandoned, hurt, or controlled again, how would I love? The answers to these questions are a great start toward how you should act and what you are trying to become.
You may struggle with matters of forgiveness as difficult emotions and memories surface. Recognize that the work of forgiveness can be an ongoing part of busting ghosts.
Admit your ghosts to your spouse and enlist his/her help as you change your behavior. Ask your partner to pray for you and be patient with you as you strive for change. Admitting to a ghost is an act of vulnerability. While difficult, this in and of itself can be healing. It not only invites prayer and compassion from your spouse, it overtly tests your belief that the marriage is fragile. If you discover your spouse to be caring and comforting, your ghost has been prove wrong. Confidence in your marriage should go up.
What If Your Spouse Has a Ghost?
Here’s how you can help him/her bust it:
Spot a ghost. If you feel like something unseen is infiltrating your marriage, say so, but do so carefully. If you are feeling unfairly attacked or prejudged by your spouse, softly say something like, “I’m pretty confused about why this subject sets you off the way it does. I’m wondering if it reminds you of anything.” Let your spouse process your observation over time. If he/she hasn’t spotted the ghost yet, he/she may need time to make the connection.
Be patient. Naming the ghost is an important first step toward change, but don’t
expect your spouse to corral that thing immediately. Because change is difficult, you will see it haunting again and again, as your mate strives to move out from under its influence. Offer support, not quick judgment.
Don’t take responsibility for his/her ghost. Ultimately you cannot do enough to bust it; he/she must do the work to manage it.
Pray with and for your spouse. Taking ghosts to the Father together as a couple and asking for his wisdom and power to overcome can bring powerful healing. Besides enlisting the power of the Holy Spirit, praying together reminds you that you are a team attempting to chase, face, and displace the ghosts. Prayer strengthens your resolve and unites you.
Focus on improved behavior before softened emotions. The process of change for your partner requires him/her to “act better than he/she feels.” Don’t be discouraged when you noticed negative emotions set off by the ghost. Instead, focus on efforts to change responses toward you. Offer encouragement by saying, “I’ve noticed you trying to (identify the positive behavior), and I appreciate your commitment to our relationship. Your effort is bringing us closer together. Thank you.”
The risks of marriage are vast. But so are the rewards for those who keep God at the center of their relationship and love like they have nothing to lose. Ghosts are hovering, irritating pests; they are about the past. Love and service are about the present and future. That’s where you’re headed. Follow God, and he’ll take you there, ghost free.
Adapted from The Smart Stepfamily by Ron L. Deal. Used with permission of Bethany House Publishers.