Jill walked into my office with a slight smile on her face. After we exchanged greetings I asked the question, “And what is on your mind today?” At that point, the smile departed and she started crying.
“I don’t know,” she said. “There are so many things. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed. It’s my marriage. Bob and I can’t seem to understand each other. We spend a lot of time arguing. Some days I feel like giving up.”
“What are the issues over which you argue?” I asked.
“Lots of things,” she said. “I just don’t feel that Bob is willing to meet me halfway. He gives me very little help with the children and does almost nothing around the house. He says his job takes all his energy, but I work all day too. On Saturday he says he needs to play golf so he can recuperate from the week. Well, maybe I need to do something too, but I can’t. Someone has to take care of the children and clean the house. If he would help me, then maybe we both could have some free time.”
Two weeks later I was able to talk with Bob. I asked the question, “How would you describe the problems in your relationship with Jill?”
“She is so demanding,” he said. “I thought when we got married I was leaving my mother, but she is worse than my mother. I can’t ever do enough for her. If I vacuum the floors, she wants to know why I didn’t fold the clothes. According to her, I’m a no-good husband, so I’ve almost quit trying. Besides all of that, we have almost no intimacy.”
“You mean sex?” I inquired.
“Yes,” he said. “Since the kids came, it’s maybe twice a year. I just don’t think that’s what marriage ought to be, but I can’t seem to get her to understand that.”
Jill and Bob have serious problems in their relationship. But each describes the problem in terms of their mate’s behavior. They each believe that if the other would change, they could have a good marriage.
The two are essentially saying the same thing: “My problem is my husband/wife. I am basically a nice person, but my partner has made me miserable.”
When I counsel couples, I often give them paper and pencil and ask them to write for me the things they dislike about their partner. You should see the lists. Some have to request additional paper. They write furiously and freely. Then, a bit later, I ask that they list for me what they feel to be their own weaknesses.
Their response is amusing. Usually they can think of one weakness right away, so they write that one down. Then they have to really think to come up with that second one. Some never find it. Is that not amazing? Only one little thing wrong with me (or at most three or four), but my mate has dozens of failures.
Finding Fault—In Yourself
If my spouse would just get straightened out, we could have a happy marriage, we reason. So we nag, we fuss, we demand, cry, withdraw, despair—all to no avail. My spouse does not change, and therefore I am destined to misery.
Do not believe it! Your marriage can improve, and improvement can begin today, regardless of your partner’s attitude.
There is a strategy for improvement, spoken by Jesus and recorded in Matthew 7:1-8. In the following quotation, I am substituting “partner” for the word “brother” so that we may see the principle at work in marriage.
Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged. . . . Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your partner’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your partner, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your partner’s eye.
Now, please, do not misunderstand. I am not calling anyone a hypocrite. I am simply quoting a principle taught by Jesus. Jesus is saying that if one partner tries to improve their marriage by getting their spouse to change, energies are being expended in the wrong direction. The place to begin is with one’s own failures.
I am not suggesting that the partner does not have weaknesses or faults. What I am saying is that trying to deal with the faults of the partner is not the place to begin. The first question for any of us when we are in a marital storm is, “What’s wrong with me? What are my faults?” Even if you are only five percent of the problem, the key to improvement lies with you. Jesus said, “First take the plank out of your own eye.”
A Clear Conscience
What are the mechanics for doing this? I suggest that you get alone with God, preferably in a place where you can talk aloud, and simply ask, “Lord, what’s wrong with me? What are my faults? What are my sins? I know that my mate has many, and I have already written those down, but right now what I want to know is: What are my sins?” Get your pencil and paper ready, for that is a prayer God will answer.
You may find the sin of bitterness, which is condemned in Ephesians 4:31: “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.” Certainly your partner may have triggered your negative attitude, but you are the one who allowed bitterness to develop.
You may find the sin of unkindness, which is in violation of the command in verse 32: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” But my mate has not stimulated kindness from me, you reason. True, but you are the one who decides to be kind or unkind.
You may discover lack of love toward your mate. Love as described in 1 Corinthians 13 is an act or attitude more than an emotion: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs” (vv. 4-5).
The Holy Spirit may bring many sins to your mind. Write each one down until you can think of no others. Then go back over the list and agree again with God that these are wrong and, at the same time, thank Him for Christ’s death on the cross and therefore forgiveness. In your own words you are saying, “Father, this is wrong—so wrong. How could I be so foolish? But I want to thank You for the cross. Thank You that Christ has paid for this sin so I can be forgiven.”
After the acceptance of God’s forgiveness, there is a second step toward a growing, God-honoring marriage. The apostle Paul states it in Acts 24:16 as a basic principle in his own life: “So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man.” I believe that in this statement we have the most important principle of mental health and, consequently, of marital health.
Paul is not saying that he never did anything wrong, but rather that, having done wrong, he has also cleared his conscience, first toward God and then toward people. We empty our conscience toward God when we confess our sins. We empty our conscience toward a spouse when we go to him or her and confess our failures.
You can say to him or her in your own words, “God has dealt with me today, and I now realize that I have been wrong in so many things. I have confessed them to God and want to ask your forgiveness. I have been very selfish in demanding that you _____. I have not been very kind in _____. I have failed in meeting your needs for _____ And I want to ask, will you forgive me?” Be as specific with your mate as you have been with God. Give him or her a chance to respond.
What will happen when you do this? It may be the dawning of a new day. On the other hand, your spouse may say, “Oh, yeah, I’ve heard that before, and I don’t believe it.” What you do at this point will determine whether you must have another confession session with God, or whether you will go on to improve your marriage. If you explode with tears, words, or flying saucers, you will need to retreat to ask God’s forgiveness for another failure.
Why not respond by saying, “I can understand your feelings. I know that I have confessed before, and I know that I have failed many times to be what I want to be. So I understand that you find it hard to believe that things will be any different this time.”
Do not make rash promises about the future. Right now, you are dealing with the past. Seal your confession with an embrace and a kiss if your spouse is willing. Smile even if you are pushed away.
Changing Your Marriage By Yourself
Do not worry about your spouse’s response to your confession. Do not think they should fall on their knees and confess their wrongs. They may, and if so, great! You will have a tender evening. But negative feelings may not capitulate that easily. Personal pride stands as a hurdle for all of us. Allow time for God’s work in your mate.
When you have confessed your wrong and emptied your conscience toward God and your partner, you have done the greatest thing you can do for your mate. They may not respond in like manner, but you have made it easier for them to admit wrong, and your marriage will be better even if your mate never confesses their wrong, because now you are free to move out to be a positive stimulus for good in the relationship. You are now free to be a part of the solution instead of a part of the problem.
Many couples are at a stalemate because they have allowed a wall to develop between them. Walls are always erected a block at a time. One partner fails in a particular matter. It may be as small a matter as failing to carry out the garbage or as large as failing to meet sexual needs. Instead of dealing with that failure, we ignore it. We excuse ourselves, thinking, “After all, what do they expect? I’m doing my part! Why don’t they think of my needs?” Communication grinds to a halt, and only resentment remains.
How is such a wall to be destroyed? By tearing down those blocks of failure, one by one. As we admit our failure as specifically as possible, we destroy the barrier to growth. Once the wall is destroyed by confession and forgiveness, we must practice immediate confession of subsequent failures. We must never allow the wall to be erected again. Confession must become a way of life.
Granted, the walls must be torn down from both sides if the relationship is to be ideal, but if you will tear down your side, you make it easier for your spouse to begin demolition. You can change your marriage for the better even when your partner has no desire for improvement. Even if your partner never changes, you can see substantial growth in your marriage. If you will take the kind of action suggested here, you will be taking the first and most strategic steps toward a healthy, growing marriage. Who knows what God will do with your mate if you serve as a helper instead of a hinderer?
Condensed from chapter 2, “Why Won’t They Change?” (pp. 24-30, 38) of Dr. Gary Chapman on The Marriage You’ve Always Wanted by Dr. Gary Chapman, copyright ©2005, published by Moody Publishers. All Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®, copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.®. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.