for the MCC Mothers of Preschoolers meeting, April 19, 2012I am not an expert on marriage. I am not the perfect wife or mother. I did not marry the perfect man. My only qualification is I have been married over 30 years to one man. I consider my marriage a good one and I look forward to the next season of our lives together with joy and peace. However, my situation is not the norm.
According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescence Psychiatry: "One out of every two marriages today ends in divorce and many divorcing families include children... While parents may be devastated or relieved by the divorce, children are invariably frightened and confused by the threat to their security."
I grew up watching fairy tales like Snow White and Cinderella, giving the impression that a blissful marriage can be the expectation of every woman. Instead I have found the reality of marriage to be more like the TV series Survivor. Survivor is a reality television show where contestants are isolated in the wilderness and compete for prizes. I loved the spoof on marriage that I saw in an email once. It started this way:
"The Next Survivor Series: Six married men will be dropped on an island with one car and 4 kids each for six weeks. Each kid will play two sports and either take music or dance lessons. There is no fast food. The men must shave their legs, wear make-up daily, which they will apply themselves while driving or making four lunches. They must clean up after their sick children at 3 am and then spend the remainder of the day tending to that child and waiting on them hand and foot until they are better. The kids vote them off the island based on performance. The last man wins ONLY IF he still has enough energy left to be intimate with his spouse at a moment's notice."
Honestly, I think it is better backwards, instead of playing a game called Survivor Marriage, it is better said that I am a Marriage Survivor. Like a Cancer Survivor, I have managed to survive difficulties and overcome the obstacles in marriage.
I think it is valuable to think of marriage in those terms. It is not a destination. It is not a pleasure cruise. Yes, there are many joys but often it is a difficult and dangerous trip, with pit-falls at many turns. The more we consider it in this way, the more we will be willing to do what is necessary to be a winner in marriage. Because those of us who are Marriage Survivors will tell you, it was worth all of what we have gone through.
So today we will focus on one central question: what does it take to not only survive in marriage, but to stay in love and achieve the rare intimacy that can only be developed as you grow old together?
There are three points I will be making:
- Tell him.
- Accept him.
- Love him.
During the first years of my married life, my husband Al was not available emotionally. He was not able to understand my feelings, share his own feelings, and relate to me on an emotional level. So it was my practice to share my deeper emotional issues with close girl friends. But as time went on, I found I was closer to my girl friends than I was with my own husband. It finally occurred to me that this had to stop. I started to share with him more and more, even if he didn't understand, even if he gave me no feed back, even if he ran away from the conversation. I refused to give up because I sensed how important it was to be emotionally intimate with Al.
And that is the point, typically women connect and become intimate through conversations, sharing the intimate details of our lives. If we do not do this with our husbands, we will never be truly intimate with them. Fortunately, through reading books on the subject, I discovered communication skills that helped Al listen to me. Let me share them with you.
- Men listen better when they are told the punch line, or the bottom line, first. Women love to listen to each other talk and hear their stories for their own sake, but men need to know why they are listening to the story, or they will struggle to pay attention. As with this talk, I started out with giving you my outline: Tell him, Accept him, Love him. This way of talking, giving the outline or topic first, gives men structure so they can better follow what we are saying and piece together the parts of the story. What we women think will "ruin the story" will actually help him to understand.
- Men listen better when we tell shorter stories. Especially when I first started sharing with Al more, I would tell him the abbreviated version. I left room in the conversation for dialog, allowing him to ask me questions, or to give me advice. I realized by giving advice, he was trying to help and showing his love for me.
- Men listen better when they are in the right mood. I found the worse time to talk to my husband was as soon as he came home from work. He was tired and distracted. Also, when he was in involved in a project, or watching TV, he would not be able to give me his full attention. But when I caught him in a good mood, at a time when he could listen, then he could be more patient and hear me out.
- Men listen better when we use a respectful tone. When I was critical or angry with Al, he would be turned off and conversations were non-productive. Also, I can have a tendency to talk in a belittling tone. I learned the hard way that no grown man can listen productively and compassionately when I am speaking with the kind of language and tone that I would use with a 5-year-old. And that is a problem with moms, as we spend the majority of our time with kids! It was a struggle to consider my attitude and my tone before I spoke, but when I managed to use this skill consistently, it worked much better for me.
In the early years of my marriage, I would often keep things inside until I exploded in anger. Anger made Al pull back, get defensive, and because he tends to be stubborn, stand his ground more strongly, even if I was right. Anger made me ugly and my concerns seem not sympathetic or compelling. Then I learned that anger was a secondary emotion, which means, another emotion was fueling my anger -- usually fear or hurt. I learned to reflect on my anger and determine what that primary emotion was, and then express the primary emotion in a way that was not threatening. In other words, I started to own my feelings, and instead of demanding change from Al from a place of anger, I would just put my feelings out there and ask for his help and compassion. The results were much better. Instead of polarizing the relationship, as anger can often do, we were both addressing the problem as a team. Anger is a powerful emotion and can make us feel powerful, which is why it is an attractive weapon to use. But any weapon can work against us in marriage because we tend to attack each other and not the problem. Instead of putting the problem between us, we need to put the problem in front of us, and this way we can work on it together.
So tell him -- share your heart and the details of your life to gain intimacy -- share your hurts with him to solve your problems together.
I probably watched too many Disney movies and I definitely was reading too many romance novels, because one of the first things I notices after I got married was my expectations were not being met.
This is what I wanted:
When I first got married, all was fine...
but then after a while things began to change...
and it felt like...
this was what I got:
There was a gap between what I thought was reasonable to expect in my marriage, and what I was actually experiencing. One huge problem was my husband's work hours. When we met, he was working nights, starting at 2 am and coming home in the morning. So 5 nights out of 7 I was sleeping alone. Was it too much to expect to sleep with my new husband?
Another huge issue was about the house we were living in. My husband owned a house when I met him at age 24, a huge accomplishment and asset, or so I thought. However, he bought it in partnership with his father and had just decorated it to his liking. When we got married, he was not open to redoing any part of the house so soon. And his younger brothers considered it as a family house and I never knew when they would be stopping by, sometimes not to visit, but to use the garage to repair their cars. Was it too much to expect to decorate my new home and to have some privacy with my new husband?
These two issues, and some others, created such distance between us that we eventually separated after only three years of marriage. I felt there was something wrong with my husband because I wasn't getting what I expected. Let me be perfectly clear: in retrospect, I do not blame my husband for the separation--it was me. I was not telling him what I needed and how important those issues were to me. And also, I had unrealistic expectations of what marriage would be like.
Here was the lesson I learned the hard way: There will always be a gap between what we expect and what we actually experience. And in that gap, we get to choose: Will we accept him or reject him?
I needed to tell Al how I felt, and eventually I did. And obviously we got back together. We did buy another house that we decorated together. But I found I couldn't win all the battles. Al still works nights, after 30 years, we still sleep together 2 nights out of 7. But I needed to be realistic too. Al had to work because we all like to eat. Most men have some difficult hours. I am thankful Al was always home for dinner. There are other men that miss dinner every night, or who have to travel for their jobs. And then, especially in current times, there are men who can't find work at all. My attitude improved when I began to be thankful for the good parts of Al's job, and that he had a job. As I began to focus on thankfulness, I had a lot more peace.
Then there are issues, some we are currently facing, where he is doing something that is wrong. He admits he is wrong, but keeps doing the same thing over and over. He is struggling with being patient with our twenty-something daughters who still live in our house. When he gets impatient and frustrated with them, he reacts in a way that is hurtful. We have talked about how he needs to be more careful with the fragile hearts of these young women, and he understands, asks forgiveness but does the same thing next time.
And in that gap, I get to choose: Will I forgive him and find peace? Or will I stay angry and become bitter? Will I continue to believe the best of him, that he really does want to change, and stay hopeful, or will I give up on him and expect the worse?
Here is the truth we need to accept: It is hard to change. Here is a great example: Who wants to lose 10 pounds? Who wanted to lose 10 pounds last month? Why didn't you? Because it is hard to change. We need to give our husbands a break. I found as I continue to forgive Al, as I continue to tell him -- gently and firmly -- about his shortcomings, especially those that hurt me and my daughters, as I continue to be patient but hopeful, Al does change. It is much slower than I want, but is does happen.
So what do we do with the problems in our marriage? Let's think of our problems as a pie. In my home, the problem pie looks something like this:
If Al could only straighten up, if he could work on his issues, our lives would be so much better! Sure I have issues, but they always looked so much smaller and less consequential compared to his!
Then I learned something that made all the difference in my marriage, but I had always missed it because it seemed so counter-intuitive. I learned when I focused on my slice of the pie, when I put aside his issues and worked on mine, he actually started to change. I found I could not MAKE him change. I can share my feelings, I can pray, but I can't make him. But I can change me.
Let me challenge you for a moment to think about your slice of the problem pie. Are there things your husband has been asking you to do, or areas he is asking you to change and you keep blowing him off? Maybe you think it is smaller and less consequential compared to areas where you want him to change. Or maybe, you want him to go first. Maybe you think you do enough in this marriage and it is definitely his turn.
That may be true, but remember, we want to be marriage survivors. It is not about fairness. It is about survival, for our sakes, for the sakes of our children. Work on your issues, even if they are small. It is important to sweat the small stuff because the small stuff can become the big stuff!
One pet peeve of my husband was late dinners. He really wanted to eat at 5 pm. He kept repeating it. And so, to the best of my ability, I did this even though it was not always easy because I worked when my daughters were in school and had to drive them to their after-school activities, so I often came home at 4:30. But I learned to use my crock pot, made sure I planned the meal the night before, and I creatively used left-overs. It was just one way of saying I love you to my husband, and I avoided a lot of fights and hard feelings.
What issue does your husband keep bringing up? Can you work on that for the good of your marriage?
Another important choice for me was what to do in those gaps of time, when my husband was not available for me. As my children grew, and I had more time for myself, and picked things to do to fill my time. I found that even things that seem benign could be harmful to my marriage. I gave up the romance novels and steamy TV dramas because they fueled my unrealistic expectations of what married life was supposed to be. I stopped spending time looking through store circulars and shopping out of boredom because I found myself buying stuff we didn't need, didn't even have space for, and could not afford.
Instead, I purposefully filled time with volunteering at my children's elementary school so I could get to know their friends and teachers. I volunteered at church and attended study groups where I met women of faith and good character, who would be an encouragement and a good example for me in mothering my daughters. When my daughters got older, I limited the outside activities they had to curtail the stress on them and on me. These choices helped my mothering and my marriage.
How about you? Where are you spending time? Are these things breathing life into your marriage or just making your life more complicated?
Here is the important point: often I have felt victimized by the behavior of other people, especially my husband. I thought: If he would only change, life would be so much better! But I began to realize this very freeing principle: The choices I make is what has the most impact on the quality of my life.
There will always be a gap between what we expect, what we hope and dream for, and what we actually get. No man is perfect. But you have a choice to make. What will you choose in the gap?
- Accept him or reject him?
- Forgive him or stay angry and bitter?
- Believe the best and stay hopeful or expect the worse?
- Work on your issues or focus on his inadequacies?
- Choose good and wholesome life-giving activities that will enrich yours and your children's lives or fill your time with stuff that just makes life more complicated?
However, here is the disclaimer. There may be some of you who are married to a man who hurts you. Maybe it is physical wounds. Maybe it is just with words, but the words hurt so bad, you would have preferred him to just strike you. And you hate to admit it even to yourself, but you are afraid and it is getting worse. He says he is sorry, but then it happens again and again. You too have a choice. Sadly the choice is to get out and stay safe or stay there and get hurt. Yes forgiveness is still important but in this case, you need to do it from a safe distance and wait from there until he changes. If this is you, please seek help. Take the first step in getting to a safe place today. Don't wait because aggressive angry behavior does not just go away, it escalates and gets worse.
In today's society, we often think of relationships in terms of ourselves: what we want to get out of the relationship, our goals, our desires, our needs, and then, later those of our children. Let me challenge you today to consider the needs of your husband. The bonus is loving your husband in the way he most feels love is the strongest motivator in closing this gap. When he feels loved and respected, he will more likely respond with love towards you. If there was one Disney princess that most resembled real life, it was Belle from Beauty and the Beast. In that story, Belle's love for the Beast transformed him into a prince. I found it worked well with my prince too!
All men are different but here are some things that have worked for me:
After the birth of my first daughter, I found I was so exhausted and tired of being touched all day, my need for affection and sex was greatly diminished. I'm not the only one who has felt that way, right? But Al's need for affection and sex had not changed, and it made things, well, tense between us. We talked about this recently and as he remembers it in retrospect, he felt less loved during that time. I found that I didn't need to be "in the mood" to participate in or even to initiate sex, because I would find I would become "in the mood" after we started. Have you started to drift away from him in this area? Let me I encourage you to shower him with affection and be an enthusiastic and willing sex partner.
Remember dating? I found out how important it was to continue dating even after we got married and especially after we had children. We didn't need to be spending a lot of money, and often we traded with friends for child care. We needed to spend time playing together. I would encourage you to try for a date night at least once a month and if you can swing it, a weekend away once a year. For Al, it didn't even need to be that complicated. He just wanted me to spend time with him doing things he likes to do. Sitting outside and chatting with him while he worked on the cars felt like love to Al. Recently, we spent a weekend painting. I hate painting and working with Al is exasperating for me because I like to get right down to work first thing in the morning, and he prefers to linger over breakfast and coffee and start a few minutes before noon. But I let him lead this time and not only did we get all the work done, but we actually bonded in the process. My being with him helped him feel valued and appreciated. So work along side him, play with him. It will make him feel loved.
The world is a hard, cruel place. Our homes should be havens of love and care. Encouraging Al and telling him how much I appreciate him and that I have confidence in him is so vital to his emotional health. So I tell him he is wonderful as often as possible. I look for things he does right and remember to compliment and thank him. It is hard to do, because I tend to not notice the everyday mundane good things and complain about the things that are wrong.
So what are some things you can do to make your husband feel you love and respect him? Let me encourage you to try at least one this week.
So, one more time, to review:
What does it take to not only survive in marriage, but to stay in love?
- Tell him.
- Accept him.
- Love him.
Having daughters was very different from having boys, those of you who are mothers of both sexes know that. Watching my daughter raise my grandson, Giovanni, I had this revelation. Deep inside, all men are boys, looking for approval, love and respect. No matter what they look like on the outside, they look like my grandson on the inside. It made me look Al differently.
As I considered my 30 year marriage, what really stands out for me is how much we needed God in each season of our lives together. Remember when Al and I were separated? As I considered my life at that time, I can only credit the power of God, unleashed by the passionate and faithful prayers of my father, in the reunion and future success of my marriage. No matter what I have tried and what I have done, ultimately all glory goes to God, and I thank Him every day. In His great mercy, God has answered my frequent prayer for my husband, which is, Lord, make Al the man You always wanted him to be.
Marriage is not for sissies. We need to pray always and have hope. We must be willing to do what is needed to keep our marriage strong, not only for ourselves, but also for our children. When we do, and when it works, and sadly there are no guarantees, we will be rewarded with a joy and peace beyond anything written about in fairy tales.
Let's pray for the Spirit of God to help us, for with God, nothing is impossible.