Becoming Your Spouse's Better Half
By Rick Johnson
CBN.com Marriage today seems less binding than a cell phone contract. The average first marriage in this country lasts seven years. The average second marriage lasts five. As if the challenges of a first marriage weren’t tough enough, anyone who has been in a blended family will tell you about the myriad of additional trials this scenario presents: two sets of kids; two separate histories; two completely different life philosophies, parenting styles, and sets of baggage. And when two sets of careers and monies are mixed in along with the obligatory prenuptial agreements, it’s almost like admitting that the marriage is doomed to fail anyway.
Because of the legacy they’ve observed from their parents’ generation, most young people today are fairly pessimistic about the chances of a marriage lasting a lifetime. If you talk to them about marriage, you can see that they yearn for the kind of intimacy possible only through a long-lasting relationship, but they have little hope of having one themselves. Couples may spend hundreds of hours and tens of thousands of dollars on the actual wedding day, but no energy, resources, or forethought whatsoever toward the marriage that follows.
Many people quickly discover that being married and staying in love are just plain hard work—too hard. Combine that intense struggle with our society’s instant-gratification
mantra, the court’s “no fault” divorce laws, and a cultural legacy of relative truth, and you have a recipe for divorce. Our Western culture does not like to suffer, so we shy away from anything that is uncomfortable or difficult. When marriage is tough, many people just think it’s broken and then go look for another mate who won’t be so much work.
Unfortunately, the problem is generally with us and therefore follows us from relationship to relationship. I recently told a friend that a first divorce we might be able to blame on our partner, but any divorces after that we need to look in the mirror to see where the problem lies. And one fact that almost no one wants to admit is that the person we fell in love with is at the same level of emotional maturity we are. Look at your spouse and know that they are probably just as emotionally mature as you are, all your protests notwithstanding.
Also, the expectations each partner brings into a relationship make a huge difference in how successful that marriage will be. Unrealistic expectations that cannot be met by either spouse can make both partners miserable. Discussing numerous relevant topics such as religious expectations, number of children, parenting styles, familial obligations toward extended family, sexual expectations, and the roles and duties of each spouse (to name just a few) before entering into marriage is a crucial factor to preventing problems later on.
So, if God ordained marriage as the way a man and woman should live together as one flesh, then there must be some way he designed that to happen. What guidelines did he provide to help us understand how to keep from killing each other or, even worse, creating families just to turn around and tear them asunder? What types of things do couples who have been married for a long time say are important, and what advice do they give to create longevity in a marriage?
In my research for this book, I discovered that men frequently operate on an objective-based, goal-oriented system, while women more often incorporate a whole-world view in their thematic approach to life. These observations can best be summed up as a husband’s “seven modes” and a wife’s “seven moods.”
Guys tend to operate in modes, which allow them to compartmentalize the different areas of their life; women tend to be driven by moods or emotions. Males are able to separate the various components of their life and forget about some while concentrating on others.
Seldom does one area of life bleed into the others. Women, on the other hand, tend to view life as an overall “whole” with every area of their lives interconnected and interrelated. These differences alone are baffling and often confusing to the opposite gender. Bill and Pam Farrel describe this as women thinking like a pot of spaghetti, where everything touches everything else, and men thinking like waffles, where each element of their life is in a separate box. Helen Fisher, in her book The First Sex, says women tend to think in terms of “interrelated factors, not straight lines,” whereas men use “compartmentalized, incremental reasoning process.”
When a husband understands and appreciates his wife’s moods, and when a wife recognizes and respects her husband’s modes of operation, marriage becomes a wonder instead of work, fascinating instead of frustrating, a commitment to intimacy instead of a settling for “just staying together.”
People want an easy marriage. They don’t want love to be so much work. Two people start out with their hearts melting as one in a natural way, but they’re living on the high of bliss-filled hormones. This will carry them for a while, but people can’t live on bliss; there will always be a “coming down,” or crash, from the high. When that happens, and they are unprepared for the daily labor of love, they will soon be hitting their heads against the walls of each other’s hearts.
When we’re willing to put forth the effort to understand our mates and help our mates understand us, this softens our hearts and opens the door to intimacy. When we don’t make this effort together, usually one partner will stop banging his or her head against the wall of the other’s heart and give up. While fighting can be a red flag, a relationship reaches a critical stage when one spouse or the other stops trying and gives up.
When you have the key, it’s easy to go in and out. You don’t have to knock the door down or break a window. You just walk in. But without the key to understanding, marriage is hard work.
Ideally, a Christian marriage begins with both parties committed to loving God and each other. But later, after the “buzz” of love begins to fizzle, communication tails off and spouses can start taking each other for granted, losing empathy, respect, and love for one another. Life is tough, and instead of working as a team, they begin fighting with each other in an attempt to get their individual needs met.
They scream at and accuse their mates and then expect their mates to want to satisfy their needs. Each spouse soon loses the desire to meet the other’s needs, and each loses sight of the fact that love is an action, not an emotion. That is why the very action of meeting the other’s needs (acting loving) can lead to feeling the emotion of love. Without that action, it is natural to slide into a state of need and self-indulgent gratification.
Harville Hendrix explains this mentality: Their partners are going to do it all—satisfy unmet childhood needs, complement lost self-parts, nurture them in a consistent and loving way, and be eternally available to them.
These are the same expectations that fueled the excitement of romantic love, but now there is less of a desire to reciprocate.
After all, people don’t get married to take care of their partners’ needs—they get married to further their own psychological and emotional growth. Once a relationship seems secure, a psychological switch is triggered deep in the old brain that activates all the latent infantile wishes.
Eventually, husbands and wives allow their neediness—their lack of understanding, empathy, and respect for each other—to pull them away, instead of using their differences to glue them together. If lack of understanding and loss of respect happens over a span of years, the intimacy that could have been created through a couple’s differences becomes a chasm that is often too wide to bring them together again as one flesh.
A chain reaction or vicious circle is the inevitable result: Lack of understanding and respect lead to hurt, confusion, anger, and frustration, which lead to contempt, hate, or resignation.
Those feelings then lead to physical escape (oftentimes sinful behavior) and/or emotional divorce, with the appearance of marriage but not the intimacy, and finally end in legal divorce, with all of the ramifications that this has to future generations.
Anyone who has been through a divorce will tell you what a painful, gut-wrenching experience it is. And we are only just now recognizing the devastating effects to children whose families have been ripped apart. Perhaps now is the time to start trying to understand how to turn all marriages, good or struggling, into a satisfying lifelong commitment. Previous generations did it. Why do we struggle so much?
To read more, get a copy of Rick Johnson's new book, Becoming Your Spouse's Better Half.
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