Love Your Spouse More Than Your Marriage
By: Jeff Pipe, PsyD
If you belong to Christ and if you are striving to live out what He has called you to, then you are obligated to love your spouse more than you love yourself and more than you love your marriage. You are called to make sacrifices for your spouse just as Christ made sacrifices for you. You are called to submit all of your resources in the service of their best welfare just as Christ sacrificed all that He had in service of your best interest. Every day. And it never feels fair; your fairness meter is broken. Spouses in good marriages report - with a wink and a smile - that they do 60% of the giving in the marriage, but they don’t mind; in the room next door, their spouse is saying the same thing. It will never feel fair. In secure marriages you don’t meet in the middle; health is characterized by a resolve to give 100% to your spouse. When both couples are thinking and acting this way, it works. Often this is the obvious stuff: changing your schedule to accommodate his, stepping up to help out with child care so that she can get a break, going out for Mexican instead of Chinese, working another year in the job you hate so he/she can go back to school, giving up your hunting weekend so you can get away as a couple.
However, it’s not always the obvious stuff. Sometimes serving your spouse’s best interest doesn’t mean giving them what they want or doing what makes them happy. That indulgence and blind grace just fosters selfishness and immaturity. So, when she asks you for that European vacation and you know you can’t afford it, then you say “No” and you compassionately hold the line. And when he tries to initiate sex 15 minutes after he called you a “bitch” because its his confused and self-centered way of trying to fix things, you refuse him until there is some accounting and dialogue about what has gone on.
And it may be that at some point - when your spouse gets lost in something that by its very nature competes with the marriage - an addiction (substance, sex, work or spending) or an affair - you give them an ultimatum. You put a gun to the head of the marriage and threaten to kill it unless they stop destroying themselves and re-invest in the marriage. If they refuse, you involve others you trust and then a counselor and then a pastor; then you move toward separation and, after a while, divorce. Not because you can’t take any more disappointment or conflict or distance, but because the integrity of your love for your spouse compels you to submit everything - even the marriage - in the service of their best interest.
Love is Passion (and Commitment)
By: Jeff Pipe, PsyD
Maintaining a vital and passionate marriage requires regular adjustments, changes and growth. This won’t become clear until you’ve been together for a couple of decades.
By its very nature, passion recedes in the presence of sustained predictability and/or the absence of change and risk. So, You’ve got to keep digging in… digging into the relationship and into the layers of your own heart. Maintaining both passion and intimacy in a marriage requires change and growth - sanctification. And sanctification takes a lifetime. The beauty and horror of your heart will be progressively exposed to you across the decades of your life together. Embrace this reality and allow it to grow you; let the fear of it overwhelm you and intimacy slips away. Marriage requires frustrating, confusing, frightening, exciting and impassioned growth and change. It doesn’t stop when you hit your 40’s… or your 50’s… or your 60’s.
And can I pause here to say that it is no impressive feat to stay married. Dullards and those in denial do it quite well. Gutting it out in a bitter or empty or passionless marriage is nothing to take pride in. Doing so is neither honoring to God or loving to your spouse… it reflects a level of cowardice and dishonesty that contradicts the nature of the Gospel, the God we serve and the divine relationship marriage is meant to illustrate.
Better to divorce.
But please don’t divorce.
Show some courage and faith in the God you claim to serve. Love is a blend of passion and commitment. Every couple goes through conflictual and distant seasons where the passion empties out of the relationship and only the commitment sustains. This commitment must not be to remain married, but to nurture and sustain a marriage that reflects the passion, intimacy and sacrifice of Jesus for us. And building that quality of marriage requires ongoing risk and active pursuit of growth. There is no sitting still - not for long anyways - you are either moving deeper and closer or you are moving apart.
Marriage is Hard Work, But Good Work
By: Jeff Pipe, PsyD
Maybe, if you’re smart and have done your homework, then after the limmerance bubble pops in your marriage you figure out that your expectations were impossible. You realize that marriage was never meant to be the end-all… its just a living metaphor… to point us to the end-all. You embrace this and you start building a more realistic marriage. At a core level, you realize that your needs will only be met in Christ and - not denying your disappointment - you let it lead you toward a deeper and more immediately relevant experience of His provision. You shortcut the anger and resentment, and - not denying your spouse’s weaknesses and failures - you offer them grace and forgiveness. The demand that they come thru for you in some way dissipates and you come to experience some level of contentment.
In like manner, you recognize that you could never really meet your spouse’s needs. You come to peace with the idea that you are not responsible for their happiness or emotional fulfillment… you’re just a participant. You get to give to them and care for them, but you are not responsible for them. You recognize that you do, in fact, suck as a spouse. But its OK because you know that there is grace and forgiveness for you - ultimately in Christ, but maybe from your spouse as well. And instead of that making you lazy, you find that this grace really frees up the love and affection you have for your spouse. You don’t need to avoid them and you lean in. And when you do disappoint them, you don’t get defensive. Instead, you feel compassion and empathy for them. And, really, that’s all they wanted anyways - to know that they weren’t alone.
So, you work hard and you begin building a more sustainable sense of connection and teamwork. You figure out how to manage - maybe even enjoy - the strikingly different personalities, interests and values you bring into the marriage. You learn how to work through conflict and disagreement. Some of that earlier passion you had returns as the sense of security builds. You hit a point where you genuinely believe that your spouse is connected to you and striving to care for your welfare - even when they can’t successfully do so. Your first assumption is that they care and that they accept you for who you are… the good, the bad and the ugly. You’re “one”.
And then something changes… maybe you have a kid… maybe you graduate a kid… maybe you get a new job… maybe you lose a job… maybe a parent or friend or sibling or child dies… maybe you move… maybe you realize that your sex life has become predictable… or maybe you’re not as happy in the marriage as you were before.
But something will happen and it will disrupt what you’ve built. Maybe it all blows up and you’re starting from scratch. Or maybe it’s not so dramatic.
Then you go back to work.
A Word on Addiction and Infidelity
By: Jeff Pipe, PsyD
Maybe your avoidant/withdrawn/detached coping strategy has left you disconnected from your own emotional experience - your insecurities and longings. You haven’t yet recognized that you’re in a state of emotional need in the marriage. You’re on auto-pilot and just coasting through marriage and family life. Maybe work or some hobby has captured your attention. Perhaps you won’t wake-up until mid-life - or as the kids age out of the house. Suddenly you realize that you’ve lost a decade or two. And then there’s a sense of urgency.
Maybe you are painfully aware of the deficits in your marriage but you have some little addiction to help you cope. Porn, alcohol, sexual acting-out, weed, over-eating and/or spending can all medicate the emotional turmoil of a difficult marriage. They can also sate the underlying relational/spiritual needs. In my profession, we call all of these activities “competing attachments”. Like someone parking their car in the handicapped space, they illicitly fill the emotional/relational/spiritual space inside of you that your relationship with your spouse and your God were meant to fill. Once that parking space is filled, there’s no space left for your spouse. Although only a temporary salve that is ultimately self-destructive, they are often more reliable and more predictable than the challenge of engaging your spouse at a meaningful level.
Even worse (though not by much) you meet someone else along the way who shows you attention… or compliments you… or touches you… and your heart leaps in a way that it has not in a long time. You can’t help but fantasize that you could be happier with someone else. This idea is alluring enough that when this someone else seems to understand and accept you… to have more in common with you…. to genuinely make you feel enjoyed, known, wanted and happy again… you lean into them when you know you shouldn’t. You get too close, say too much and your heart or your body gets swept away. You jump in and ride the limmerance wave again. It is an awesome ride… not all that different from a cocaine high, but all natural. Strong threads of shame and guilt are woven through the relational euphoria this time, but as long as you are focused on them it’s manageable.
Eventually, you will find that the shock-waves of your affair reach further into your heart, mind and world than you had anticipated. It effects you, your spouse, your children, your extended family, your friends, your church and your community. It will impact your children directly - and their marriages - and probably the generation beyond that. The damage to your own heart alone - even if no one ever finds out - is breath-taking in its extent and subtlety. The effect on a spouse - even if they don’t find out - is profound. The emotional distance necessary for one spouse to sustain the secret of an affair is disorienting and crazy-making to the other, altering their view of themselves and their way of relating.
If the affair comes out and your spouse stays - and if you work hard - it will take a couple of years to recover from the relational trauma. If you don’t do the work, the damage of the trauma is like a toxin that will eventually kill your heart and the marriage. Deception is ultimately more destructive than infidelity and even if you divorce, it will take your spouse years to recover from the betrayal of trust.
You Probably Married the Wrong Person
By: Jeff Pipe, PsyD
If you’re not sure, then you’ve probably married the wrong person. If you’ve not yet realized that the Gospel - and not your marriage - is the solution to what ails you, then you are probably lost in your disappointment or your shame and feeling like you married the wrong person. After all, things aren’t working in the marriage…. and you can see that you weren’t really ready to marry when you did…and you didn’t really know what you wanted and needed then… you were too young… and now it seems clear that you married him/her for the wrong reason - you felt pressure from your parents, you got pregnant, you wanted to get away from your parents, you were just stupid. You weren’t a good fit; you’re not compatible. You don’t share the same interests or values - he’s just not as thoughtful or sensitive as you are; she’s so anxious and inhibited; he can’t appreciate your creativity; she’ll never be adventurous; he doesn’t… she can’t… Your building frustration and pain and shame are compelling evidence for the idea that you married the wrong person.
It’s a reasonable conclusion. It’s not true, but it’s reasonable. You just don’t have the perspective yet to realize that everyone marries the wrong person at the wrong time for the wrong reason. It’s not about who you marry, but what you do with the relationship. In spite of the differences you and your spouse have, you are as well-suited for each other as any other couple out there. You are no more socially attractive, physically attractive, intelligent or emotionally/relationally mature than your spouse. “Crazy marries crazy.” You don’t know that trading one spouse for another is, at best, trading one set of problems for a different set. “Its six of one or a half-dozen of the other.” Though your relationship problems are unique to you in their quality, they’re no different in quantity from the challenges and conflicts other couples are confronting. But, until you’ve burned through a couple of marriages, you really can’t see that.
Perhaps if you find someone more suited to you, the second marriage will be easier. It won’t - it will likely be harder… but you won’t be able to scapegoat your spouse and you will be more motivated. Nobody wants to divorce twice. You can kick the can down the road for a little while longer with a second marriage, but you’ll eventually have to do the work you avoided in the first marriage. But how could you know
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Legacy Strategy Blog
Legacy Strategy, Inc. is a private counseling practice in Kennesaw, Georgia.