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Marriage: Dealing with differences

When we marry, very often we marry someone different to us. That’s what attracts us in the first place. That’s what makes them seem exciting—they see and do things differently.

But the difference between interesting and irritating is often just a matter of time. Too soon what intrigued us can become annoying—her planning starts to cramp your ‘go with the flow’ attitude, his high flying work life clashes with your plans for a warm family life. Tensions build around these differences, and we become ingrained into thinking that our way of seeing life is right, and that the other person needs to wise up and come around to our way of thinking. All the while they think the same, if only we would see life their way, then all would be great.

There are differences that are issues of right/wrong—moral issues—that need to be dealt with rather than accommodated. But there issues of background, culture, personality—these differences are not an issue of wrong or right, they are just differences of preference.

How do we respond to these so that they do not become irritating? We have two choices. We can either embrace the differences that God has brought to our marriage. Or, we can try to be God, trying to change our spouse into our image.

Paul Tripp in his book on marriage that we have been dipping into over these last few weeks suggests five God-pleasing ways to respond to these differences:

Celebrate your Creator. The more you acknowledge and appreciate the fact that God made your spouse exactly as you need them to be, the more you will tend to esteem and appreciate them.

Refuse to see the differences as right or wrong. When you begin to think and act as though your hardwiring makes you better, more mature, or more righteous than your spouse, you will act and respond in ways that are dismissive and disrespectful.

Determine to respond to your differences with appreciation and respect. We are used to being impatient or irritated in the face of differences, used to doing what we need to get our own way. Those responses are more about your relationship with God than about your husband or wife. You disagree with how God made your wife or your husband. Marriage is about two people creating something stronger together than they are apart—that means there are two sets of strengths, and both need to be appreciated.

Learn where your differences create difficulty and work together at these areas. Do we see our differences as an opportunity for developing deeper unity and harmony or an opportunity to fight? Will we learn to work to each other’s strengths, anticipating the conflicts of interest and working around them?

Admit where these differences challenge you to grow. God uses the differences in our spouses to expose our own flaws, pride, impatience and many other sinful traits. Too often we are so busy looking at the other half with a critical eye that we don’t see where we need to grow ourselves.

Marriage is not easy. We can either attempt to muddle through on our own strength or we can look to Jesus Christ who gives strength, help and hope for broken marriages in a broken world.

The Four Horsemen of Divorce

Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink quotes University of Washington psychologist John Gottman who studies couples and their interactions. For years he has taped couples chatting about topics and studied a whole range of indicators from the tiny facial movements to posture to tone to verbal content. Piecing it all together after watching and analysing an hour of conversation on any subject between husband and wife, he is able to predict with 95% accuracy whether or not they will be married in 15 years or not.

Watching only 15 minutes still allowed him to predict with 90% accuracy. In fact, watching only 3 minutes of a conversation contains enough clues.

That’s phenomenal—especially when you take into account that when they gave the same tapes to 200 psychiatrists and marriage counsellors they had only a 54% success rate of predicting success or failure—little better than tossing a coin.

But Gottman is able to narrow it down even further. Amidst all the welter of data about a marriage there are four key factors—Four Horsemen he calls them—that are signs that a marriage is in a critical situation.

The Four Horsemen are criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling and contempt.

Criticism—“You don’t appreciate me”, “You never do anything about this place”, “You’re stupid/ugly/lazy.” Personal generalised sweeping statements that aren’t designed to be helpful, just to hurt.

Defensiveness—It’s often the response to criticism, you know how it goes, you’re in the wrong, but you won’t admit it. She says “You never take the bin out” and you retort with “I would do, but you never put anything in it, just leave it lying around here looking like a tip.” “You’re always in a foul mood”—“That’s ’cos I’m married to you.” And so on—excuses and blame-shifting are the order of the day.

Stonewalling—Another response to either legitimate issues, or to illegitimate criticism. There is no spitefulness, just a tuning out. 85% of time it’s the husband. He hears the issue and refuses to engage—sighs and changes channel, or walks out of the room or house. It says, “I don’t rate your opinion, I don’t rate this as an issue worth my time or effort to solve. I’m done.” It’s unspoken contempt.

Contempt—The insult, the name-call, a sneer, the mocking taunt, the rolling of eyes, scorn, treating your spouse with disdain in front of family or friends. They all communicate disgust. The aim is simply to belittle, to score points.

Of the four, Gottman says contempt is the worst. You might have thought it would be criticism. Criticism is about what a person does, and will cause them to react defensively, but contempt displays disgust for who a person actually is.

Where’s your marriage at? Do any of the horsemen inhabit your home? The good news is that it isn’t too late. Hard work will need to be done—the hard work of repentance and forgiveness. But we need to start with the vertical relationship between us and God—with repentance and forgiveness from Jesus—then we find him enabling us to repent and forgive each other on a horizontal level, and our marriages transformed and relationships healed.

What do children really want?

How do you satisfy that small person who just doesn’t seem to be happy? “What more can I give them?” the frustrated parent cries when they feel they aren’t doing enough. Phrases like “You never wanted for anything” ring out from parents to ‘unappreciative’ youngsters.

A UNICEF report on the well-being of children delivered a shock for UK parents last week as the UK came in bottom of a league of 21 nations for happiness among its children. The BBC summed it up succinctly: “Our children need time not stuff”.

Although it’s about the UK, I wonder how much of these home truths apply to Ireland too. We may have come a little late to the economic prosperity party, but we jumped in well and truly once it arrived. Suddenly there were jobs, more hours, more work. Let’s work more, buy bigger houses, go on better holidays. Now they are gone, but the mindset lingers.

We are caught up in a world where we get our sense of identity from our work, or what we purchase with the money we earn, and we impose these values on our children—expecting them to be satisfied with possessions too.

We come home from work, tired and frustrated because we didn’t get any deep sense of satisfaction from it, we feel deeply in need of some time to ourselves—after all, “We’ve earned it”. And there is a little person, whom we brought into the world, who is hardwired for time with us, waiting—and all we can see is an interruption, a nuisance, another person needing our attention. So we send them to play with the expensive toys we bought them, or to park themselves in front of the TV to watch another DVD we purchased for them, not really because we love them, but because we love ourselves and want some time for ourselves.

UNICEF paints a picture of a country that has got its priorities wrong—trading quality time with our children for cupboards full of expensive toys that aren't used.

Dr Tessa Livingstone writes on the Daily Telegraph’s website:

‘The average 10-year-old can name-check 400 brands and is increasingly likely to use them to measure self-worth. British children are inundated with presents. There is £7.3 billion worth of goods in children’s bedrooms.

‘I remember talking to an unemployed father whose wish was to be able to give his son a games console and other presents. I asked whether he played with his son: “I only want to give him something. It’s my job to give the kids what they want, not to do anything else.” That’s what being a successful dad was to him.’

UNICEF found that Spanish and Swedish children have more contact time with their families and rarely buy into the consumerist dream. Sadly we give less time and buy more.

“What more can I give you?”—the answer is ‘Yourself’.
“You never wanted for anything”—yes, in fact, they wanted, but didn’t get time with their parents.

“Children are an inheritance from the LORD, offspring a reward from him.” (Psalm 127:3) One day we will have to give account of what we did, and how we raised the children God has given to us.

Love is…

Do you remember those cheesy cards that had the little cherubic boy and girl looking slightly wistfully at each other and slightly embarrassed, with the slogan “Love is…”?

I’ve been reading a book on marriage recently and came across a list of definitions of the kind of love that marriage requires. We live in a world where people believe that the emotional feelings they mistake for love are enough to hold a marriage together. Instead marriage is a commitment of the will (although not devoid of emotion!) to the good of the other—for better, for worse etc.

Here are some of Paul Tripp’s definitions of the love that is called for both in husbands and in wives. They’ll probably not make it as far as the card shop, or grace a range of fridge magnets, but they will doubtless help form the basis of lasting marriages.

“Love is being willing to have your life complicated by the needs and struggles of your husband or wife without impatience or anger”—Is your marriage just about having someone there for you when you need them, or are you prepared to serve them and their needs?

“Love is being unwilling to make any personal decision or choice that would harm your marriage, hurt your husband or wife, or weaken the bond of trust between you.”

“Love is the willingness to make regular and costly sacrifices for the sake of your marriage without asking anything in return or using your sacrifices to place your spouse in your debt”— Love requires us to say no to our selfish instincts, and to look for specific ways to serve, support, and encourage, even when busy or tired, without saying “look at all I’ve done for you”.

“Love is staying faithful to your commitment to treat your spouse with appreciation, respect, and grace, even in moments when he or she doesn’t seem to deserve it or is unwilling to reciprocate”—Lovey dovey conversation is all fine over a romantic dinner, but what is the conversation like when the dinner is burnt, the car has a fresh dent, and tempers are running high? Love means speaking kindly and gently, even in moments of disagreement, refusing to attack your spouse’s character or assault their intelligence.

“Love is being unwilling to flatter, lie, or manipulate, in any way in order to co-opt your spouse into giving you what you want or doing something your way”—The foundation of a marriage is where both partners trust that the other loves them enough to want what is best for them.

“Love is always being willing to ask for forgiveness and always being committed to grant forgiveness when it is requested.”

It’s a high standard, and one we have drifted far from. But it’s not possible simply to try harder in order to improve our marriages. We need more—we need to have experienced ourselves what unconditional, sacrificial, forgiving, servant love is like. And the only place to find that is in Jesus Christ.

(Quotes taken from Paul Tripp “What did you expect - Redeeming the Realities of Marriage”)

Christianity and Culture

We live in a so-called Christian culture. What precisely does that mean? It’s not simply a statement about our religious beliefs. Witness the recent shootings in Norway where the assailant claimed he was a Christian, but stated that he had no personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Rather than being a religious Christian, he saw himself as a cultural Christian—ie. he liked the morals (apart, apparently, from the command not to murder) and the Christian heritage of Europe.

In his, as in many others’ minds, Christianity is far wider than a set of religious beliefs—so wide in fact that it could even be disconnected from the religious beliefs themselves.

What has this got to with Ireland? We have our own set of cultures—Catholic and Protestant—both claiming Christianity. It strikes me that both have broadened out their definition from their initial religious one to a much broader cultural one.

To be a Catholic or a Protestant is much more than a set of religious beliefs. It is a whole cultural package made up of different strands—from politics (nationalist or unionist), to our view of history (invaded or rightful settlers), right down through to sport (GAA or rugby) and music (uillean pipes or flute bands). And somewhere occasionally in the mix there is our religious belief (Catholic or Protestant). I’m generalising of course, but generally that’s the case.

But it is the religious labels that have become the focal point of crystallisation of these cultures—every strand of the culture hangs on either one of these labels. The religious component has become the dominant label even when it is not the main component. It was not always so, nor is it helpful on many levels. But the level that concerns me is the spiritual level.

We have simplified society in Ireland into these two categories, such that to be a good protestant or a good catholic is less about what you believe religiously and more about your politics, your clan, and your social preferences. There are plenty of people who consider themselves Protestant or Catholic who know exactly where they stand on history, politics and culture, but have little concept of what they are meant to believe religiously.

This is a tragedy because eternity hangs, not on our political or cultural preferences, but on the content of what we believe—the very area where we assume the most, but perhaps question or even know the least.

True Christianity is above culture. To be a Christian isn’t making a statement about our politics, or history, or culture—although Christianity will impact these areas for good. It is simply about our relationship with God.

You can have a right relationship with God and retain your politics, history, music, sport etc. We Irish people, whether from Protestant or Catholic backgrounds, need to look beyond the confines of our culture, and make sure that our relationship with God is based on God’s terms not our culture’s.

Forgotten English, Forgotten Man

Chankings - What are ‘chankings’? Or what about a ‘coffee-wit’? Or ‘roorback’? I got a ‘Forgotten English’ desk calendar one Christmas, and it has been a source of all sorts of weird and wonderful knowledge.

So many words have fallen out of use. ‘Chankings’ turn out to be the parings of apples or other fruits. ‘Coffee-wit’ is a wonderfully descriptive phrase for someone who gossips over a cup of coffee. A ‘roorback’ is a false allegation for political purposes - perhaps we should resurrect the term!

This ties in with a programme I saw one night about a man called William Tyndale. He was the man who brought the Bible into English so that the ordinary man and woman could read it for themselves. It was fascinating. Tyndale lived in the 1500’s when the dominant church of the day had forbidden people to have the Bible in their own language—apparently God’s word wasn’t for everyone, just the spiritual elite. Tyndale translated it from the original Greek and Hebrew—no easy task in itself—all the while being pursued across the Continent.

He was a brilliant man who had great command of the English language and a profound effect on it. We all quote Tyndale's words without knowing it. He was a master of the pithy phrase In his Bible translation, Tyndale coined such phrases as: “let there be light,” (Genesis 1); “the powers that be,” (Romans 13); “my brother's keeper,” (Genesis 4); “the salt of the earth,” (Matthew 5); “Eat, drink and be merry,” (Luke 12); “signs of the times,” (Matthew 16); “a law unto themselves,” (Romans 2); “filthy lucre” (1 Timothy 3); “fight the good fight”(1 Timothy 6).

Several times he had to invent new words to convey the meanings; “scapegoat,” “peacemaker,” “mercy-seat,” “loving-kindnesses” “tender-mercies,” “long-suffering.” These words didn’t exist in English until conceived by Tyndale.

For this great work Tyndale was hounded and eventually captured, tried and burnt at the stake by the Church authorities. In 1856, the three hundred and fiftieth anniversary of his death, the Times newspaper editorial described him as a figure seldom remembered. Today he is largely a forgotten man. Although his impact on the English language is still visible to this day, that is not what Tyndale wanted. He gave his life so that “the boy that driveth the plough would know more of the scriptures”. Not only is he a forgotten man, but the book he worked on, the Bible, is largely forgotten too. Having given his life to get the Bible into the language of the ordinary man, what would he think of us today who have Bibles and yet seldom open them?