My blogging friend Cheri laughs about how naive she was before she married. “I still have a letter I sent home when we were dating, in which I told my parents he was the male version of me.” Yet she couldn’t have been more wrong. Once they married, she soon realized he wasn’t just “a best friend you had sex with.” He was actually more like Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory. Though undiagnosed at the time, her husband had Asperger’s. He was brilliant and fascinating, but he had little understanding of most human emotions.
Right after their honeymoon, the two of them were arranging their furniture in the married student housing complex, and they could not agree about where to put the couch. Cheri had definite opinions, but her husband had logic on his side.
“A friend would have said, ‘Whatever you want is fine,’ but my husband didn’t like to lose an argument. He went to the mat for the couch,” she said.
That was the first in a long line of arguments that her husband won over the next decade because he was so logical that she couldn’t refute him. Instead, she often burst into tears.
And so they grew further apart.
Soon Cheri found herself showing contempt, the prime predictor of divorce, according to marriage researcher John Gottman. She nagged, she questioned his judgment, and she emasculated him. When he did something she didn’t like, she’d roll her eyes. She’d use a condescending tone of voice. If he mispronounced a word, she’d jump on it, just so she could show him up. And their children started following her lead.
Finally she packed her bags, but she stuck them in the closet. She decided she wouldn’t actually leave until the next big blowout, so she could blame him for forcing her out.
In the interim, though, she experienced a turning point. Cheri realized she had been sad, and she had been lonely, and she had cried — but she had never actually done anything to mend the rift.
So she gave God a year to change things. She was still hoping that God would take the lead and change her husband, but over the course of that year she started to be open to what she needed to work on too. She realized much of the problem was her own expectations, her own attitude, and her own behavior. “I realized I had been asking my husband to rescue me from myself, and I had put him in the place where only God can be.” So Cheri decided to run to God instead. And ultimately she stopped trying to change her husband— and thus stopped showing him contempt. And she let God meet her needs. In the end, Cheri and her husband found that fun relationship she had always yearned for.
Changing the marriage dynamic
Relationships naturally find their own resting place. Like a teeter-totter, they come to rest where you each play your role. That resting place isn’t necessarily healthy. He may be taking all the weight of the teeter-totter by being too controlling, or you may be taking not enough weight by being too timid. But there are two ways to change that teeter-totter’s balance: either you move, or he moves. When one of you moves, that teeter-totter will shift and find new balance. That’s how you end up changing each other. You don’t need to try to change your husband; you simply change yourself, and that creates a new “normal” in your relationship.
Let’s look at four ways we can change the dynamic in our marriage — not by trying to changing our husbands, but simply by changing ourselves.
There are two ways to change that teeter-totter’s balance: either you move, or he moves. When one of you moves, that teeter-totter will shift and find new balance.
- Ask for What I Want Everyone has expectations going into marriage. But rarely do we realize there are expectations. We forget that his world may have been different from our world, and thus he may not have the same assumptions about life. When he doesn’t put his laundry in the hamper, we often interpret it as a personal slight and think, He expects me to pick up his stuff. Perhaps he just doesn’t particularly care about dirty clothes being on the floor, doesn’t notice when they’re there, and doesn’t realize that it’s bugging you. How could he be that obtuse?In The Good News About Marriage, Shaunti Feldhahn shared the statistic that in 82 percent of marriages in which at least one spouse is unhappy, the other spouse doesn’t know there’s anything wrong. You may be seething inside and you may be hurt, but your spouse may not even realize it.We may think it’s too rude to order our husbands around. We often don’t ask because we fear it’s demeaning, yet most men would far rather be asked than hinted at. In asking directly we treat our husbands like grown-ups. They can choose to refuse but at least they know what we want. Hinting is like asking them to read minds, which is disrespectful.
- Pursue Things That Bring Me Happiness.
Unfortunately, asking for help doesn’t work in every marriage. My friend Jeannie tried asking her corporate executive husband to stay home for more family time, but he refused. He loved her, he loved the kids, but his job took precedence. She was angry and sad and worried the kids would grow up without knowing him. They never had any fun as a family. They just stayed around the house, hoping Daddy would walk in the door in time for dinner.Finally Jeannie realized she faced a choice. She could accept the fact her husband would always work long hours, or she could grow bitter and make the kids miserable in the process. She decided acceptance was the better route. But it didn’t end there.She had dreams of trips she wanted to take with the kids — camping and Disneyland and even picnics in the park on a Sunday afternoon. She had put all these dreams on hold thinking that it wasn’t right to do them without her husband. But she decided that if these things would make her happy, she should stop waiting for her husband to bring her that happiness.As Jeannie started to plan fun things for her and the children, she also noticed her husband made more of an effort to be home for some of them. Home wasn’t as stressful for him because he didn’t feel condemnation when he stepped in the door. Yet even if he hadn’t come home more, she still would have been happier. And that happiness brought a lightness to her marriage. Her husband didn’t feel responsible for fixing things in the same way, and that gave him more freedom to join them guilt-free.If there is something you desperately want that your husband doesn’t seem to share, add it anyway. Doing so is part of creating the happiness that benefits everyone, and it relieves your husband of the obligation to fix your dissatisfaction.
- Quit Overfunctioning
Geri Scazzero, author of The Emotionally Healthy Woman, was a mom of four with far too much on her plate. Her idea of a Perfect Christian Wife was someone who had it all under control. Her house was perfect, her kids were her center, and if anyone from church ever needed anything, she dropped everything to help.One day she couldn’t take it anymore. She resented that she was always so busy while her family seemed to have an easy life. And she realized they wouldn’t ever start functioning until she stopped doing everything for them. It finally hit Geri: “If I want my husband, Peter, to stop underfunctioning at home, I needed to stop overfunctioning.” She didn’t try to control Pete or tell him what to do. She simply put limits on herself, deciding what she would do and what she would no longer do. Then the others had the choice of how they would respond.
- Allow Others to Reap What They Sow
Part of living out God’s purpose, according to Isaiah 6:8, is to “act justly.” That means pursuing justice within our relationships. In Galatians 6:7, Paul expanded on God’s plan for justice: “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.” In Boundaries in Marriage, Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend named this “the law of sowing and reaping.” We are supposed to bear the consequences for our actions.Adeline was a busy homeschool mom of six kids. She loved God, volunteered at children’s church, and mentored young wives. She felt valued everywhere — except in her marriage, where she felt constantly belittled and hurt by her husband, Cole, who would yell, criticize, and say cruel and crude things without every apologizing. For twenty years Adeline read books on how to be a better wife, listened to sermons on forgiveness and having a gentle spirit, and prayed unceasingly for God to make her a peaceful and loving partner who wouldn’t cause such strife.Finally, Adeline decided to start letting the law of sowing and reaping take effect in her marriage. If her husband criticized her, she would remove herself from the room, saying, “I won’t listen to you while you speak like that.” She told him that she could not be physically intimate with him when he was cruel without repentance.
If you are in a marriage like Adeline’s, please understand it isn’t God’s best that your husband disparage you. What’s best is if both spouses learn to truly love each other intimately. So if you are committed to loving your husband, committed to honoring the marriage, and committed to seeing that marriage become healthy, you have to make changes. Whatever you tolerate will continue. If he’s doing something wrong, not just something that’s irritating, you need to stop tolerating it.
This is not the same as trying to change him. It simply means that you change how you react to him. As Drs. Cloud and Townsend said, responding in this way gives husbands like Cole an opportunity to reap the loneliness they’ve been sowing — and gives them impetus to treat family members with more kindness.
But here’s the other lesson: Even if he doesn’t change, you have still made life better for yourself. You are removing yourself from a painful situation while still respecting your husband. You’re telling him, “You have the right to be angry, but I also have the right not to listen when you yell.” You accept him as a child of God who can make choices, but you realize that you also are a child of God with the ability to choose. That’s what Adeline did, and she’s finding that after years of trying to win her husband’s favor, she can finally experience and feel God’s favor.
Your husband is not a piece of clay for you to model, but you are a piece of clay that God wants to mold. Isaiah 64:8 says, “Yet you, Lord, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.” As we accept our husbands, God will start changing us— and that may involve learning to stand up to bad behavior, or it may involve accepting our own responsibility for making the marriage difficult. But the only one capable to truly changing anyone is God. Let’s not try to do God’s job. Let’s lean into God and let him do his work in us.
Excerpted from 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage by Sheila Wray Gregoire. Copyright © 2015 by Sheila Wray Gregoire. Excerpted by permission of WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.