The frustrating moments of marriage often show us important ways that we misunderstand love, God, and ourselves. If we’re willing to love in Christlike, practical ways then these ordinary moments can become opportunities for extraordinary change.
“Dennis, slow down! Please!” Rita pleaded.Dennis gripped the steering wheel and glared at Rita. He was fuming. It drove him crazy when she critiqued his driving. Fifteen years of marriage and it never gets any better, he thought. He’d tried it all—telling her nicely, saying nothing, giving her the cold shoulder, even yelling. None of it worked. But what makes this moment especially hard for Dennis is that it feels so familiar. It’s not just that Rita regularly criticizes his driving; he feels criticized and nagged by Rita in so many ways—from the way she watches the checkbook like a hawk and challenges the way he spends every penny—to her tendency to step in when he disciplines the kids. If he raises his voice one decibel above what’s acceptable, she swoops in to defend them like he’s a monster.
Rita feels more despair than anger. She’s so tired of begging Dennis to be careful and pay attention to how his actions affect her and the kids. Doesn’t he care if they have an accident? No, he seems to only care about himself and his own convenience. He does exactly what he wants when he wants to, and if you upset his plans then watch out. The way he yells at her and the kids when they disrupt his day frightens her.
Dennis and Rita are stuck in what I call an ordinary moment. Ordinary moments are frustrations or hurts that happen over and over again; they are patterns that play out the same way no matter how hard we try to change them. Even when we bother to fight about them we no longer really believe that things will change. But these same moments are actually opportunities for radical change if we’re willing to take a closer look. The frustrating moments of marriage often show us important ways that we misunderstand love, God, and ourselves. If we’re willing to love in Christlike, practical ways then these ordinary moments can become opportunities for extraordinary change.
The Battle for Love in the Ordinary
When we fight the same battles over and over again, especially when they stir strong emotions, we should suspect there’s more to these conflicts than we might realize. Our most frustrating conflicts are rarely just about driving, checkbooks, or the other logistics of everyday life. Strictly logistical issues are eventually either worked out or lose their importance. But beneath the surface of our most entrenched battles we are often engaged in a full-scale war over love itself.
Let’s think about Dennis. Though he is not fully aware of it, when Rita is critical of his driving, his reaction is to the many ways she criticizes him and his feeling that she doesn’t trust or respect him. To Dennis, trust and respect are critical ingredients of love. When Rita criticizes Dennis, he feels betrayed. She isn’t just being hard to live with—she’s withholding love.
To Rita, love means being cared for and kept safe. She isn’t just upset because Dennis has dismissed her pleas about his driving, but for the many ways she feels Dennis ignores her concerns. When Dennis does not protect Rita, she feels unloved.
When we realize what Dennis and Rita are really fighting for, we begin to understand how many apparently unrelated conflicts are actually battles of a much larger war. And isn’t it a war that seems worth fighting? Who doesn’t want to be trusted and respected? Who doesn’t want to be protected and cared for? One of the reasons we keep engaging in the same battles over and over again is that, at some level, we feel we are fighting for something we can’t do without—love.
But as Dennis and Rita illustrate, we usually bring very different understandings of love to marriage. Usually our understandings are constructed more out of personal experience than biblical truth. We’ve fashioned the building blocks of love out of our hope to recreate our most positive relational experiences, and to avoid reliving the negative ones. But we fail to grapple with the fact that we live in a broken world and have been loved by broken people. No matter how hard they may have tried, our loved ones have all failed to love us perfectly. In fact, some of us have been treated the worst by the very people who should have loved us best. And even some of our most positive experiences were distorted attempts to love—like when we were overindulged or sheltered in ways that felt good but taught us to be selfish or kept us from maturing in other ways. Life in a fallen world leaves us to cobble together an understanding of love out of broken pieces.
But the Bible has important things to teach us about love that can revolutionize the way we respond in ordinary moments. Perhaps the most important is that love is not fundamentally a what, but a Who. “God is love” (1 John 4:8). We’re accustomed to thinking about love as an experience, basically something that happens to you, like falling in love. But love is, first and foremost, a Person. That doesn’t mean that love shouldn’t or can’t be exciting and wonderful, but love is more certain than our emotional state at any given moment. Battling it out with each other based on our varied experiences is not our only recourse. We can truly know what love is, be transformed by love, and love each other wisely even in the most difficult moments of marriage.
Beneath the surface of our most entrenched battles we are often engaged in a full-scale war over love itself.
To know what love truly is, we look to Jesus. The Bible teaches that to “see” Jesus is to see God—Jesus is love in completely human form. When we begin to understand how Jesus has loved us, then we can understand how we are to love one another. In fact, this is exactly what Jesus commands us to do, “Love each other as I have loved you” (John 14:9, 15:12). To love one another as husband and wife, we must follow the teaching and patterns of Christ’s love rather than simply reacting to our past experiences.
As we look to Jesus, we don’t just learn something surprising about love, but about ourselves. If we’re honest, we admit that we don’t find love as exciting as we thought it would be. In fact, we simply don’t like some of the things Jesus says or does. But how can this be? Jesus is love. Even so, we still sometimes find ourselves unimpressed, bored, turned off, or angry. This was certainly the case when Jesus first came to Jerusalem—one day the crowd sang out “Hosanna!” and, by the end of that same week, they demanded that He be crucified. The point is that we need to step back from our battles. We must question any sense of confidence we have that believes we are the ones fighting for what’s right, and that we have the only just cause. Without denying that there’s probably something right about what we want or how our spouses are failing us, we also have good reasons to suspect that sin has distorted our perspective. We’ve bent both the facts and our understanding of love to fit the contours of our own hearts. In fact, we should expect to find that there are elements of love that we simply don’t like and will resist. In other words, broken, sinful people did not only love us poorly, but we too are broken, sinful people who love others poorly. Sin inclines us to serve ourselves and war against God and neighbor.
Learning Extraordinary Love from Christ
Learning love from Christ means more than looking to Him for examples of how we should love. We need Him to forgive and cleanse us from the ways we both blindly and willfully distort love in order to serve ourselves. We need Christ to empower us to love our spouse as we ought. To do this, our relationship with our spouse must be founded on a relationship with Jesus.
How can Jesus change the way Dennis and Rita love? Let’s begin by simply noticing the general direction and momentum of Jesus’ life. Jesus always moved away from the safe and easy things and into the messiness of relationships. Jesus certainly has known how joyful and fulfilling love can be—He has experienced perfect love in fellowship with the Father and Holy Spirit from all eternity past.
One of the reasons we keep engaging in the same battles over and over again is that, at some level, we feel we are fighting for something we can’t do without—love.
But God’s Triune love has an outward momentum. Divine love is not something privately enjoyed by God. He gives His love to others, and invites them to share in it. Paul points the Philippian church to this truth as he urges them to love one another: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves … . Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Philippians 2:3-7). Jesus left what was safe and comfortable to do something supremely unsafe and uncomfortable. He did this in love to redeem us, and thereby demonstrated that love means moving away from what is easy for me and moving toward the struggle and need of another person. Rather than simply fighting for how they want to be loved, Dennis and Rita need to consider what the other needs.
It is in the sacrificial act of putting one’s own interests to the side and moving toward the other that we see ourselves more clearly. For example, as Dennis tries to heed Jesus’ call to put his desire for trust and respect to the side and approach Rita, he runs into an obstacle: he simply doesn’t want to. One reason Dennis doesn’t want to is because his desire to be respected and trusted is really a camouflage for the more pedestrian desire that yearns to live in comfort and convenience. Often his angry responses to Rita are really a way of saying, “Don’t bother me!” rather than pleas to be respected or trusted. For Dennis to follow Christ and love Rita, he has to not only let go of his demand for trust and respect, but also repent of his demand for comfort and convenience.
As Rita begins to move toward Dennis, she encounters an obstacle as well. Beneath Rita’s pleas for consideration and care is nagging anxiety that catastrophe is just around the corner. Rita’s desire to be cared for by Dennis is understandable, but she isn’t dealing honestly with the fact that she is very afraid of car accidents, financial ruin, her children’s well-being, and life in general. When she criticizes Dennis, she’s trying to ease her own fears by managing his behavior. She isn’t treating him like a person to be loved but as a security blanket. Transforming the ordinary moments of marriage for her will mean knowing God’s love in the midst of her fears, and speaking and acting in wise and loving ways when she moves toward Dennis.
Love in the Details
When we see Jesus’ love in fresh and relevant ways we begin to have renewed hope and energy for our marriages. When couples feel stuck there are several basic, critical acts of love that we miss. One is carefully listening to and caring about our spouse’s experience rather than rushing to problem solving. In the book of Romans, Paul explains how Christ’s love ought to be practiced by God’s people: “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another” (Romans 12:15-16a). In these verses, harmony isn’t the result of problem solving, but taking the time to both experience and express what the other is feeling.
There are many practical things that Dennis and Rita can do to love each other more wisely: Dennis can watch his temper and learn to be more patient. He can slow down in the car and be more careful with finances. Rita can be careful of her temptation to be critical and try to be encouraging instead. But these well-intentioned efforts will likely fail if they haven’t heard and cared about the other’s experience.
Dennis should start by praying to find Christ’s love more compelling than his own comfort and ease. He can ask God to help him know that he is deeply loved in those moments when he feels criticized or put down. Then comes the hard part: he should move toward Rita by asking her what’s going on inside of her when she says something critical. When he does this, he can expect to hear more criticism, at least at first. But if he listens well, and holds fast to God’s love for him rather than becoming defensive, he might also notice Rita begin to soften because she is finally being heard. Dennis might also begin to catch glimpses of Rita’s fears that lie beneath the criticism. That’s when Dennis has the opportunity to sow Christ’s love deeply within Rita’s heart. At that moment, instead of trying to fix her, he has the opportunity to communicate that he understands and cares.
Broken, sinful people did not only love us poorly, but we too are broken, sinful people who love others poorly. Sin inclines us to serve ourselves and war against God and neighbor.
He can say any variety of things, but if he is growing in wisdom and love he might say something simple and sweet: “Rita, I can really see and hear how scary this is for you, and I get it. I’m sorry that you’re so afraid. I really do care.” If Dennis is full of the Spirit we might imagine him repenting by saying: “Rita, I’m really beginning to understand just how scary being married to me has been. I can see how when you’ve needed me to show you that I’m taking care of you and instead I’ve just shown you my frustration. Please forgive me. I want to do a better job of loving you and I’m asking the Lord to help me grow.”
But we don’t have to depend on Dennis to get the ball rolling. Rita can love Dennis in very similar and simple ways. Rita can say: “Dennis, I can see how frustrated and angry you get with me. I’m not trying to make you angry. I want to understand how I can love you better.” We can expect more anger from Dennis as these kinds of conversations get started, but eventually Rita would probably hear her husband share that it hurts to believe that she doesn’t trust him. Then Rita too will have an opportunity to speak more about her own struggle with fear: “Dennis, I know that I’ve been very critical of you at times and I want you to know that I’m sorry that I’ve hurt you. The truth is that I really wrestle with a lot of fear and sometimes I take it out on you instead of turning to the Lord. Will you forgive me?”
Sound impossible? It’s not. But it’s not easy either. It isn’t the result of a few easy-to-learn techniques but of God’s work in the hearts of husbands and wives who are willing to ask for more than an immediate payoff. It means organizing our hearts and our marriages around Christ rather than asking for a strategy to get what we want.
In the most frustrating moments of marriage, wise and loving responses—if we think of them at all—can seem pointless. And that would be true if Jesus had never come. But Jesus came to offer us so much more than happy marriages. He came to make us and our marriages part of His plan to redeem the world by His love. In His plan, little acts of love always make a difference. In one of His parables, Jesus likened the kingdom of God to a mustard seed that, though it is the “smallest of all your seeds,” ultimately becomes the “largest of all garden plants and becomes a tree” (Matthew 13:31-32). Every act of love sown in our marriages in Jesus’ name will never go to waste. It may grow slowly, but it most certainly will grow.
Winston T. Smith, M.Div., is the author of Marriage Matters: Extraordinary Change Through Ordinary Moments. He’s also a faculty member and counselor at the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation, and the author of several minibooks, including: Divorce Recovery: Growing and Healing God’s Way; Help for Stepfamilies: Avoiding the Pitfalls and Learning to Love; and Who Does the Dishes? Decision Making in Marriage.