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The Four Horsemen: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling

SOURCE:  Ellie Lisitsa /The Gottman Institute

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is a metaphor depicting the end of times in the New Testament. They describe conquest, war, hunger, and death respectively. We use this metaphor to describe communication styles that, according to our research, can predict the end of a relationship.

Criticism

The first horseman is criticism. Criticizing your partner is different than offering a critique or voicing a complaint. The latter two are about specific issues, whereas the former is an ad hominem attack. It is an attack on your partner at the core of their character. In effect, you are dismantling their whole being when you criticize.

The important thing is to learn the difference between expressing a complaint and criticizing:

  • Complaint: “I was scared when you were running late and didn’t call me. I thought we had agreed that we would do that for each other.”
  • Criticism: “You never think about how your behavior is affecting other people. I don’t believe you are that forgetful, you’re just selfish. You never think of others! You never think of me!”

If you find that you are your partner are critical of each other, don’t assume your relationship is doomed to fail. The problem with criticism is that, when it becomes pervasive, it paves the way for the other, far deadlier horsemen to follow. It makes the victim feel assaulted, rejected, and hurt, and often causes the perpetrator and victim to fall into an escalating pattern where the first horseman reappears with greater and greater frequency and intensity, which eventually leads to contempt.

Contempt

The second horseman is contempt. When we communicate in this state, we are truly mean—we treat others with disrespect, mock them with sarcasm, ridicule, call them names, and mimic or use body language such as eye-rolling or scoffing. The target of contempt is made to feel despised and worthless.

Contempt goes far beyond criticism. While criticism attacks your partner’s character, contempt assumes a position of moral superiority over them:

“You’re ‘tired?’ Cry me a river. I’ve been with the kids all day, running around like mad to keep this house going and all you do when you come home from work is flop down on that sofa like a child and play those idiotic video games. I don’t have time to deal with another kid. Could you be any more pathetic?”

Research even shows that couples that are contemptuous of each other are more likely to suffer from infectious illness (colds, the flu, etc.) than others due to weakened immune systems! Contempt is fueled by long-simmering negative thoughts about the partner—which come to a head when the perpetrator attacks the accused from a position of relative superiority.

Most importantly, contempt is the single greatest predictor of divorce. It must be eliminated.

Defensiveness

The third horseman is defensiveness, and it is typically a response to criticism. We’ve all been defensive, and this horseman is nearly omnipresent when relationships are on the rocks. When we feel unjustly accused, we fish for excuses and play the innocent victim so that our partner will back off.

Unfortunately, this strategy is almost never successful. Our excuses just tell our partner that we don’t take their concerns seriously and that we won’t take responsibility for our mistakes:

  • Question: “Did you call Betty and Ralph to let them know that we’re not coming tonight as you promised this morning?”
  • Defensive response: “I was just too darn busy today. As a matter of fact, you know just how busy my schedule was. Why didn’t you just do it?”

This partner not only responds defensively, but they reverse blame in an attempt to make it the other partner’s fault. Instead, a non-defensive response can express acceptance of responsibility, admission of fault, and understanding of your partner’s perspective:

“Oops, I forgot. I should have asked you this morning to do it because I knew my day would be packed. That’s my fault. Let me call them right now.”

Although it is perfectly understandable to defend yourself if you’re stressed out and feeling attacked, this approach will not have the desired effect. Defensiveness will only escalate the conflict if the critical spouse does not back down or apologize. This is because defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner, and it won’t allow for healthy conflict management.

Stonewalling

The fourth horseman is stonewalling, which is usually a response to contempt. Stonewalling occurs when the listener withdraws from the interaction, shuts down, and simply stops responding to their partner. Rather than confronting the issues with their partner, people who stonewall can make evasive maneuvers such as tuning out, turning away, acting busy, or engaging in obsessive or distracting behaviors.

It takes time for the negativity created by the first three horsemen to become overwhelming enough that stonewalling becomes an understandable “out,” but when it does, it frequently becomes a bad habit. And unfortunately, stonewalling isn’t easy to stop. It is a result of feeling physiologically flooded, and when we stonewall, we may not even be in a physiological state where we can discuss things rationally.

If you feel like you’re stonewalling during a conflict, stop the discussion and ask your partner to take a break:

“Alright, I’m feeling too angry to keep talking about this. Can we please take a break and come back to it in a bit? It’ll be easier to work through this after I’ve calmed down.”

Then take 20 minutes to do something alone that soothes you—read a book or magazine, take a walk, go for a run, really, just do anything that helps to stop feeling flooded—and then return to the conversation once you feel ready.

The Antidotes to the Four Horsemen

Being able to identify the Four Horsemen in your conflict discussions is a necessary first step to eliminating them, but this knowledge is not enough. To drive away destructive communication and conflict patterns, you must replace them with healthy, productive ones.

Fortunately, each horseman has a proven positive behavior that will counteract negativity. Click here to learn about the antidotes.

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Unrealistic Expectations Almost Destroyed My Marriage

SOURCE:  Taken fromThe Unveiled Wife by Jennifer Smith/Family Life

In the midst of my pain and self-centered complaining, I exhausted my husband and saddened God.

I had a plethora of marriage expectations that were formed as far back as early childhood. Many of those expectations were veiled, hidden in the deep places of my heart. For years I justified my notions of life and marriage, unaware of the devastating effects of those expectations if left unmet.

Entering marriage with such high expectations set my husband and me up for ruin. For example, trusting in my husband to be my everything was one of the most detrimental ways I hurt our marriage. I set my husband up for failure when I expected him to fulfill me completely.

When I wanted to feel worthy, I sought my worthiness in my husband. When I wanted to feel loved unconditionally, I sought love from my husband. When I wanted to feel comforted, cherished, validated, or encouraged, I sought those things in my husband and only in my husband. However, because my husband is human and prone to sin, inevitably he let me down and could not fulfill my needs completely. And in those times, I felt unworthy and unloved.

While some expectations are good—for example, I expect my husband to be faithful to me—when they move into unrealistic and unattainable places, they become destructive. My expectations were so lofty they hurt him. Aaron could never be my everything—he was never designed to be! And whenever I tried to make him fit that role, I unintentionally placed him as an idol above God, believing that he had the capacity to do more for me than God Himself.

With the strain Aaron and I were experiencing, we tended to be overly sensitive to conflict. It did not take much for us to offend each other, and I am embarrassed to admit I took advantage of retaliating when I felt I deserved something I was not receiving. When I became aware of any opportunity to point out fault, I didn’t hesitate to blame him. I complained about our living situation, about not having enough, about having only one car, about our finances, about our sexless life, about my husband’s flaws, about work, about anything I deemed worthy of complaint. Those unmet expectations flowed over into discontentment, which too often I nursed in my heart.

Not only did discontentment grow, but pride did as well, which grew into a sense of entitlement: I deserve better than this. And that mentality seeped not only into my marriage, but into my relationship with God. Unmet expectations of God’s role in my life lit a fire of anger within me. I believed being a daughter of the King meant that I would receive the best of everything. When it seemed as if God didn’t intervene, that anger spread like wildfire, consuming everything inside me, including my faith. I had high expectations for God to do the things I wanted, unable to grasp that God was more concerned about my character than my comfort. But in the midst of my pain and self-centered complaining, I exhausted my husband and I believe I saddened God.

After I spent several years repeating this same offense and suffering the consequences, God opened my eyes to the destruction of unmet expectations. God needed to transform me. He could do that only as I humbled myself and let go of my unrealistic and unmet expectations. Each time God humbled me, He used that experience to mold my attitude and character to reflect that of Christ and to shape my expectations to more closely align with His, which in all honesty are better than what I could ever dream of.

The transformation I underwent didn’t happen immediately. Rather, the process was spread out over time as I sought to know God and make myself known to Him—a process that continues to mature me every day.

Joy and contentment defend me from the barrage of unmet expectations. If I don’t have joy, those notions wreak havoc in my heart, turning it against the ones I love. I know because it happened countless times. It took me years of suffering and loathing in self-pity, guilt, and brokenness even to begin to understand the power of pure joy.

Joy springs up where contentment thrives, and contentment is produced through sincere thankfulness. The greatest constant I have found to help sustain me and give me strength and hope, no matter what the circumstance, is to cling to the joy of the Lord. God’s Word tells me, “Don’t be dejected and sad, for the joy of the Lord is your strength!” (Nehemiah 8:10).

God taught me how to be thankful by sharing specific things I am grateful for with God and with my husband. As thankfulness fills my heart to the brim with contentment, I find myself living with extraordinary joy, regardless of unmet expectations or circumstances or past hurts.

God showed me the value of being a wife of faith, a wife who trusts Him wholeheartedly, who is confident of her worthiness and purpose. I choose to be a wife who believes she can change and believes her husband can be transformed into the man God designed him to be, and I choose to strive to affirm him in truthfulness.

I desire to be a wife of faith who can persevere no matter the circumstance because she is full of hope, which is the foundation of her motivation. I believe as I choose to walk in the Spirit, love will pour out and bless my marriage. With God’s help I can endure. I can have a thriving marriage. But it requires faith and hope.

7 Ways to Overcome a Push-Pull Dynamic in Your Relationship

SOURCE:  Dan Neuharth, Ph.D., MFT

Intimate relationships can go south when partners get stuck in a pursue-withdraw cycle. In this push-pull dance, one partner seeks greater connection but grows increasingly critical when connection is elusive. The other partner seeks greater autonomy and increasingly withdraws in the face of complaints and pressure.

Underneath this frustrating cycle lies the differing attachment styles of partners. It’s estimated that half of all adults have an insecure attachment style that can lead to either a pursuing or distancing stance in relationships.

Pursuing partners fear rejection or abandonment, and seek reassurance from their partners through closeness and connection.

Withdrawing partners fear being controlled or crowded, and seek relief through independence and autonomy.

Here is an online quiz to help you identify if you have a pursuer-withdrawer relationship.

On some level, pursuers know that chasing a withdrawer is counterproductive. But pursuers fear that if they don’t try to increase connection it will never happen. This leaves pursuers feeling trapped in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t dynamic which can lead them to criticize their partners.

Withdrawers know on some level that the pursuer wants closeness but it can feel overwhelming or frightening to provide it. Withdrawers fear that giving in to demands for more connection will lead to losing themselves in the relationship. The withdrawer, too, feels caught in a damned-either-way dynamic: Give in and feel trapped, or resist and receive mounting criticism.

The result can be frequent conflict, a cold-war atmosphere, chaos or drama. In time, this weakens the bonds of a relationship so much that the relationship may end.

Here are seven effective ways to deal with a pursuing-withdrawing dynamic in your relationship:

1) Recognize That the Problem is the Cycle, Not Your Partner

Withdrawers tend to deny, ignore or distance from relationship problems. Pursuers tend to magnify the focus on problems. Together, they create a push-pull dance that alienates both.

To improve your relationship it helps to recognize that this cycle, not your partner, is the enemy of your relationship.

Focus on changing the dance, not on changing your partner. It helps to view problems as happening to the relationship, not to your personally. This promotes a “we” mindset rather than a “you vs. me” mindset.

2) Reckon With the Costs of the Dance

A pursuer-withdrawer cycle is costly. It leads to stress, strain, alienation, conflict, frustration and a lack of intimacy.

Few withdrawers come closer when they feel pressured or chased. By the same token, few pursuers say positive things to a partner who they feel is depriving or rejecting them. Both stances create a self-reinforcing cycle.

While it takes time and work, you can break this costly cycle. Withdrawers need to soothe their fears of engulfment, communicate and participate more with their partner, and be more transparent. Pursuers need to soothe their fears of abandonment, reality test their worst-case scenarios, and be more self-reliant.

Both individuals need to stop seeing their partners as either the problem or potential solution.

3) Honor Each Other’s Differences and Needs

Pursuers and withdrawers in the same situation can have vastly different experiences of time. For a pursuer who is desperate to discuss relationship issues, an hour talking about a relationship may provide just a taste. But to a withdrawer, an hour may feel endless and overwhelming.

By the same token, for a withdrawer, a day without contact may feel like a breath of fresh air, while to the pursuer it may feel like torture.

It helps if withdrawers reassure pursuers that there will be time to talk and spend time together. That can allow a pursuer to self-soothe.

It helps if pursuers reassure withdrawers that they can have their space, that they won’t be criticized for it, and will be welcomed when they return. This can allow a withdrawer to feel free to move closer without fearing they will lose themselves.

4) Anxiety Is the Problem, So Managing Anxiety Is the Solution

Both pursuers and withdrawers are anxious. Pursuers fear being alone and tend to believe that if only their partner would stop distancing, their anxiety would go away. Withdrawers fear being overwhelmed and tend to believe that if only their partner would stop pressuring them, their anxiety would disappear.

Deep down, both want connection, love, and to be seen and accepted for who they are.

Anxiety can bring out the worst in us, triggering primal fears and primitive coping behaviors.  In believing that the solution to the problem lies with the other person’s actions, both partners give up their power.

In truth, pursuers need to calm their anxiety by coming to know they are sufficient and okay on their own. Withdrawers need to calm their anxiety by learning that they can get close without being destroyed. These realizations give both partners the power to manage their anxiety.

5) Share Power

One helpful exercise is to agree to take turns calling the shots. For example, a couple can designate an hour, an afternoon, or a day in which one person gets to decide what they do and whether they do it together. The next hour, afternoon or day, switch roles. This way each partner can experience knowing their time will come to have their needs met.

6) Question Your Assumptions

Over time we create a narrative about our partners and relationships and tend to gather evidence to support our viewpoint.

If we see our partner as uncaring, we may grow self-protective, critical or dismissive. But what we view as uncaring behavior may simply be our partner’s style.

For example, if a withdrawer wears a new shirt and the partner asks, “When did you buy that?” the withdrawer, who may be used to feeling criticized or interrogated, may assume judgment rather than curiosity.

Instead, a pursuer could say, “I like that shirt, is that new?” The withdrawer then knows there is positive intent in the question and can relax.

By the same token, when a pursuer hears their partner say, “I am going for a run,” they may feel rejected or unwanted. But if a withdrawing partner says, “I love you. I am going for a run now. I look forward to our evening plans,” the pursuer can feel reassured.

7) Don’t Forget the Magic of Relationships

An intimate relationship is an opportunity to share your needs, fears and longings. Sharing your vulnerabilities is one of the key reasons we seek a primary partner. Don’t let the pursuer-withdrawer dance get in the way of this.

If you were raised in a dysfunctional family with insecure attachment styles, you may have inherited a win-lose, top-bottom, zero-sum-game worldview of people and relationships.

This may feel so familiar that you know no other model. However, the template for living that you inherited is not one that you must endlessly carry out.

Magic can happen when pursuers can tell their partners: “I feel vulnerable, lonely, and afraid but I know you are not the source of those feelings.”

Magic can also happen when withdrawers can say: “I feel irritable, trapped, and smothered but I know you are not the source of those feelings.”

Your relationship can achieve a much deeper level if you own and express your feelings without making your partner responsible for causing or fixing them.

The Wife Code: How to Really Understand What She is Saying

SOURCE:  Mark Merrill

Yes, Susan and I both speak English. But after 27 years of marriage, I’ve determined that Susan (and most other women) have a double secret female code that they completely understand, but we men don’t.

I’ve determined that it’s time to decode it. In order to do so, I’ve confidentially spoken with several female informants who have helped me to decipher just some of their secret code. Those informants have asked to remain anonymous out of fear that other wives will shun them for disclosing what has remained a mystery for all these years.

So for all the men out there who thought it was impossible to understand women, here is a key for decoding your wife’s words:

1. “I’m fine” means “I’m not fine, but I’m not ready to talk about it.”

This is a classic line that most husbands have heard. The instant you hear it, you know that everything is certainly not fine. And even though you may want to work it out right away, sometimes it’s best to just give her some time and space. Be sure to let your wife know that you’re sorry if you hurt her feelings in some way and that you’re ready to talk when she is.

2. “Didn’t you go out with your friends last weekend?” means “I know for a fact that you went out with your buddies last Friday night, and I want to spend time with you this weekend.”

Your wife is very aware of how you spend your time. And where you invest your time is one important sign of what you value. She wants to be valued and cherished. So sure, spend time with your friends, but let her know she’s always number one.

3. “How was your day?” means “I want to reconnect with you.

Most couples don’t spend all day, every day together. There are jobs and kids and things to be taken care of. So when your wife asks about your day when you get home, this is her way of trying to reconnect after being in different worlds. Instead of a one-word answer, give her a story or two that will make her feel close to you again.

4. “What are you doing today?” means “I’ve got some things that I want you to do.”

It’s Saturday morning and your wife asks the question, “So what are you doing today?” What she’s saying to you is: If you don’t have any really important plans, don’t make any because I’ve got a lengthy honey-do list that you need to get done.

5. “Do you need some help with that?” means “I want to be a part of your team.

Let’s take the time you were trying to fix the TV. In the midst of the tangle of cords and your growing frustration, your wife asks if she can help. You immediately assume she must be questioning your abilities and doubting your skills, but she may simply be trying to love you well by offering her help. So rather than push her away, let your wife support you with what you’re doing.

6. “Let’s talk about this some more” means “I don’t agree, but I want to understand and support you.

Life is full of decisions — from small, daily ones to huge, life changing ones. A big part of marriage is being able to make choices together with your spouse. So when your wife wants to discuss a decision, it’s important to recognize that she isn’t automatically disagreeing. Her intention is to be wise and find a compromise that you can both agree to.

7. “We should go out this weekend” means “I want you to take initiative and make the plans.

I can’t put enough emphasis on the importance of continuing to date your spouse all through your marriage. While some couples have a weekly date night, Susan and I found that a date every other week was more realistic when our kids were growing up. So when your wife mentions the coming weekend, this is a very planned comment. She is trying to give you a clue that she wants to feel special and loved by going out with you. So take the hint and plan something romantic for the two of you. For some creative date ideas, check out my blog 8 Outside-the-Box Date Ideas.

8. “Is there something you’re forgetting?” means “There’s definitely something you’re forgetting.

Your wife knows there are certain days when you have a busy schedule ahead of you and are more apt to overlook things. So when your wife specifically asks if you’re forgetting anything, the answer is most often a big “Yes!” Whether it’s your lunch on the counter or a goodbye kiss for her, be sure to stop and pay attention when your wife mentions this.

9. “You don’t have to get me anything for my birthday” means “I do want something, but I want you to put time and energy into picking it out.

The important thing to realize is that all thoughtfulness and specialness is taken away the moment your wife has to tell you what to get her for her birthday. Instead, a gift is a great way to show her how well you know her and love her. So put some thought and energy into giving your spouse a present she won’t forget. If you have no idea what to get, try asking one of her friends.

While there is so much more to decode, I hope this helps you to better understand your wife. And, by the way, please don’t let her know that you know some of the secret code.

Learn to Speak Your Partner’s Love Languages

SOURCE:  Katereina Fager/The Gottman Institute

After many years of being in a relationship, you might find yourself not fully understanding and communicating well with your partner. You might wonder what’s wrong with the two of you, and you might feel confused. You’re both speaking the same literal language, but when this kind of disconnection happens between partners, you aren’t speaking the same love language.

There may not be anything wrong with your relationship other than the differences in your ways of communicating and expressing love. You might just be speaking a love language that your partner doesn’t fully understand, or your partner speaks a love language that you have yet to learn.

According to Dr. Gary Chapman, author of The 5 Love Languages, there are five ways to “speak” and understand emotional love. But many couples don’t know about love languages and are often surprised when they learn about them. Chapman describes those five love languages as:

  1. Words of Affirmation
  2. Quality Time
  3. Receiving Gifts
  4. Acts of Service
  5. Physical Touch

As a child, you probably learned to receive and give love in specific ways. Perhaps your parents regularly hugged you and told you how much they love you (Physical Touch, Words of Affirmation). Or, instead, they showed their love by always driving you to and from soccer games and cheering you on (Acts of Service, Quality Time), even if they weren’t the hugging types.

Simply put, that’s how your parents expressed their love for you, and you may have adopted those love languages as your own.

But, later in life, you began a relationship and perhaps got married, and eventually the message you are trying to express to your partner is not received or acknowledged as an expression of love, even if that is your intent.

The reason for that disconnect is that both of you probably show and express love in different ways, or have different love languages. You might question the depth and strength of your love, or you may feel uncared for, which can cause tension. Unfortunately, this can lead to emotional and physical disconnection between you both.

But the best way to find and examine your love languages is to look closely at how you express your love to each other. Maybe you like to be touched and need to hear words like I love you, you are beautiful, you look great, and so on. Therefore, your love languages would be Words of Affirmation and Physical Touch.

But maybe you don’t get that from your partner. Maybe, in the past, you asked for a nice massage but your partner declined to give you one. This could make you feel upset, sad, or angry and, over time, you simply give up and stop asking.

Maybe your partner is expressing their love by doing little things for you here and there, such as folding the laundry or bringing home your favorite snack, but you don’t recognize it or acknowledge it. But Acts of Service and Receiving Gifts might be your partner’s love languages, and your partner might expect the same expressions of love from you.

In this predicament, it’s important to have a calm, in-depth discussion about the ways in which you both like to express and receive love. Try asking open-ended questions about what kinds of words or actions indicate love for your partner, and how they like to express their love for you. See if you can learn why they have a particular love language, where that might come from, and what it means, physically and emotionally, for them.

When you start exploring your love languages with your partner, you might think, wow, why didn’t I know this before?

Being loved in the way that you understand and appreciate is important to any relationship, so it’s in both of your best interests to learn how to speak each other’s love languages. This can help you overcome frustration and disconnection and bring you closer to feeling loved and secure in your relationship.

Pretty soon, you may not feel like you’re speaking different languages at all. You’ll stop feeling confused or like something is wrong, and, in time, you’ll learn how to express love for each other in ways that are more impactful and meaningful for you both.

It may take a few conversations to fully understand each other’s love languages, and it will take practice and patience to put those expressions of love into action, but the end result—feeling loved and secure in your relationship—is worth the effort.


Marriage Isn’t About Your Happiness

SOURCE:  

What true love will you teach you about you.

Did you ever think someone could show you love through a bologna sandwich?

I didn’t think so either.

Until I found out that my then-boyfriend-now-husband (a poor, broke, medical school student at the time) spent close to two months eating bologna sandwiches every day in order to cut down his grocery budget to $10 a week, just so he could save up enough money to buy me an engagement ring.

The truth is, marriage will cost you.

When you think of the cost of marriage, what comes to mind?

According to recent statistics, the average couple today spends $26,444 on a wedding. That’s a lot of money, but it’s nothing compared to the real costs of marriage. Because like it or not, marriage will cost you more than money. It will cost you something great. It will cost you a price much larger than the money you spend on a ring or a wedding or a honeymoon—it will cost you yourself.

I heard a married man on TV say (regarding whether or not he was going to stay in his own marriage), “I shouldn’t be with someone if I’m not happy.” It’s an attitude many people have, and hearing it made my stomach turn.

What an accurate reflection of the self-centered society we live in, everyone believing their main goal in life is their own personal happiness. What a small and shallow way to live.

If you’re getting married with your own happiness as your main goal, you will be disappointed in a severe way.

Marriage is not about your happiness, it’s not even about you. It’s about love—which is something we choose to give time and time again. It’s about sacrifice, serving, giving, forgiving—and then doing it all over again.

No wonder we choose divorce overcommitment. Because often, we’re choosing “personal happiness” over real commitment, over real love.

They say marriage teaches you more about selflessness than you ever wanted to know. I have definitely found that phrase to be true in my relationship with my husband. Because at the heart of it, real love is all about sacrifice. About the giving of yourself, in ways big and small.

It’s about offering forgiveness when you’ve been hurt.

It’s about giving your time though it’s not always convenient.

It’s about sharing your heart when you’d rather hold back.

It’s about cleaning the kitchen after a long weekend, even if it’s your least favorite job.

It’s about choosing to respond with love when you’d rather respond in anger.

It’s about offering a listening ear, when you’d rather tune out or go to bed.

It’s about putting someone else’s needs and desires before your own.

It’s about giving up that last bite of cake, just so your spouse can enjoy it.

It’s about laying down your rights, to make way for the rights of another.

The list could go on and on, but it always ends with the same formula: You before me. And we before I.

We live in a world that despises the sacrificial side of marriage and tries to wish it away. They teach to strive for power, control and the upper hand in a relationship. They tell us to do what feels right, and not to tolerate anything less. They fool us to thinking that love is about doing what makes us happy. And the second we feel less than happy, they encourage us to bail, to abandon ship and to stop investing.

But they’ve got it all wrong.

Because the more we give, the better we become. Real love is not self-seeking, and it will always cost you. It will cost your heart, your time and your money. It will cost your comfort, your rights and your pride. It will cost you to “lay down your life” for the life of another. And only those who learn to die to themselves are the ones who get to experience the resurrection power that comes with it—resurrection into real love, into real life, and into meaningful relationships.


This article is taken from an excerpt of Debra’s newest book, Choosing Marriage: Why it Has To Start With We > Me

Does a Good God Want Me in a Bad Marriage?

SOURCE:  Sabrina Beasley McDonald/Family Life Ministry

Editor’s note: As the author states early in this article, her intent is to address unhappy marriages in which there is no unrepentant adultery, abandonment, or repeated physical abuse. As she writes, “They were simply struggling with what most marriages deal with: miscommunication, financial disagreements, selfish attitudes—the things often excused as ‘irreconcilable differences.’” These are the conditions in most problem marriages—and our desire is to encourage these couples to seek reconciliation. However, if you are married and are suffering from physical abuse, this article is not for you. You need help. We suggest reading Dennis Rainey’s article, “Responding to Physical Abuse,” which lists several practical steps to take.

A friend of mine finally walked out on her husband. She was tired of his excuses and irresponsibility. She was finished with his criticisms and cutting remarks. In her mind, enough was enough, and it was time to end the marriage.

Yet as she described their relationship, I couldn’t help but think that this marriage didn’t need to end in divorce. There was no unrepentant adultery, abandonment, or repeated physical abuse. They were simply struggling with what most marriages deal with: miscommunication, financial disagreements, selfish attitudes—the things often excused as “irreconcilable differences.”

When I later talked with her, I asked if she knew that God said, “I hate divorce …” (Malachi 2:16). Or that Jesus specifically addressed divorce in Matthew 19:8-9 saying, “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

My friend said she heard this before and added, “But I cannot believe that a good God wants me to suffer in a bad marriage. He wants me to be happy.”

It was a response I’ve heard a dozen times from other women in similar circumstances, and it’s a question that plagues the hearts of many marriages today: If God is good, could He possibly want me to be unhappy? Doesn’t He see that staying in my current marriage would cause me a lot of pain? Can I call God “good” if He allows me to suffer in a bad marriage?

Does God want me to suffer?

No one enjoys pain. Quite the opposite—we long for contentment. The “pursuit of happiness” is so valued in America it’s an unalienable right in the Declaration of Independence.

It’s not wrong to desire pleasure. As a matter of fact, the Bible teaches that God delights in doing good things for His children. Jesus said, “What man is there among you who, when his son asks for a loaf, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, he will not give him a snake, will he? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!” (Matthew 7:9-11).

The problem is that God also calls us to righteousness, and often that requires giving up our personal happiness for the greater good. This is referred to as sacrifice, and it’s never easy, fun, or “happy.”

The apostle Paul reminds us that part of the Christian life is suffering for the sake of the cross. “… We are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him in order that we may also share in his glory” (Romans 8:16-17, emphasis mine).

As Christians we are even called to rejoice and be glad in our trials because troubles are valuable to our character and spiritual growth. Romans 5:3-5a says, “… We also exult [rejoice] in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint … .”

So does God want us to suffer? Suffering for the sake of pain is not His desire, but there is a reason why we go through it.

You may be wondering how anything positive could possibly come from your hurting marriage. The apostle Paul wrote, “We know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28, emphasis mine). Christian marriage is not exempt from this principle. Just as we are called to sacrifice in our spiritual walk, we are also called to endure suffering in marriage for the sake of righteousness.

Even though we seldom can see how God is using present trials for our future benefit, He has promised to use them for good, and He is faithful to keep His word. Here are just four of the ways He can bring about His purposes:

First, God is conforming you to His image. Jesus said, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). Voluntary self-sacrifice is a necessary part of the Christian life. It is often praised on mission fields or behind pulpits, but in marriage, it’s far less glamorous. Nevertheless, self-sacrifice in marriage is just as Christ-like in God’s eyes.

Staying married isn’t always easy. It often requires that you give up the right to win, stifle your pride, and defer to the needs of your spouse. But the more you practice these principles, the more you become like Christ.

Ephesians 5 explains this phenomenon by referring to the relationship between Christ and the Church. “As the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her …” (verses 24-25). Christ loved the church so much He died for her. It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it. In the same way, as these verses explain, when you give up your life for your spouse, you are conforming to the image of Christ who gave up His life for you.

Second, God is using these sufferings to bring you to deeper faith and repentance. Difficult times always bring us to our knees. They remind us that we are not in control, and only God is. During this experience you should be asking yourself, “How much of my suffering in this situation is caused by my own sin?”

In addition, prayer and reading Scripture will deepen your relationship with Him as you learn to trust in His sovereign control. These hard times can even give you a greater compassion for others going through tribulations.

Third, God is using these sufferings to teach your children how to resolve conflict. God has given you the responsibility to exemplify a godly marriage to your children. Psalm 78:5-8 declares:

For He established a testimony in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel which He commanded our fathers, that they should teach them to their children, that the generation to come might know, even the children yet to be born, that they may arise and tell them to their children, that they should put their confidence in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep His commandments … .

God set up the family so that His principles could be passed down through generations. Your struggles give you the ability to demonstrate how to keep a promise through better or worse, how to give and receive forgiveness, and what sacrifice looks like.

Fourth and most important, God desires for you and your spouse to be reconciled. Our God is a God of reconciliation—He shows this over and over again throughout Scripture as He extends grace, mercy, and forgiveness to His people. When we reconcile a broken marriage, it is a picture of His relationship with us, His bride.

A bad marriage in the Bible

The Bible isn’t silent on the issue of tough marriages. The Old Testament tells the story of a righteous man named Hosea who was called by God to marry the prostitute Gomer. Even though Hosea was a kind and loving husband, Gomer left him over and over and ran back to her old lifestyle. Hosea’s marriage was not under the best circumstances. I certainly wouldn’t say it was “good,” but nevertheless, God told Hosea to go get his bride and bring her home.

I can imagine that there were times when Hosea wanted to give up. Why would he stay married to a woman who didn’t love him? Why should he rescue her from the world she loved? Why not move on to someone else who deserved his love?

Hosea was committed to Gomer because he loved God more than he loved comfortable circumstances. More than anything, he wanted to please God, instead of himself. As a result, God used Hosea’s marriage as an example of His unconditional, covenant-keeping love. God told Hosea, “Go again, love a woman who is loved by her husband, yet an adulteress, even as the Lord loves the sons of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love raisin cakes” (Hosea 3:1, emphasis mine).

Because we are in a covenant with Him, God has said He will never leave us nor forsake us (Hebrews 13:5). In the same way, choosing to stay married to your spouse despite the circumstances shows a love that is unconditional, long-suffering, and reflects the nature of God (see 1 Corinthians 13). If you have no other reason to endure the suffering in your marriage, do it because you love God. Do it because He asked you to.

Restoring your relationship

If you are in a bad marriage, the answer is not to dissolve the relationship, but it is to restore your relationship the way God has restored our relationship with Him through Christ. Stick through the hard times and work on the tough issues. Even though your present suffering is being used for your good, God has not left you without hope—He desires for your marriage to be restored. Here are five suggestions that will help during your journey to reconciliation.

First, look at yourself. No one is perfect (Romans 3:10). It’s easy to see the mistakes and annoyances that our spouses have. It’s much harder to look inward and identify the ways we contributed to the problems. Think through your marriage and seek the areas where you said or did something wrong. Then ask forgiveness from your spouse. You will be amazed how this small step could eventually turn your bad marriage into a good one.

Second, identify your real enemy. At FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway, we are reminded that our spouses are not the enemy—Satan is. Ephesians 6:12 says, “We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” One of his greatest weapons is to trick you into blaming someone else, usually your spouse, for problems. When you start to bicker and quarrel, remember that your true enemy is the one who seeks to destroy your marriage.

Third, meditate on God’s Word daily. The proper way to battle Satan is with the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God (Ephesians 6:17). You won’t know how to use a sword if you’ve never handled one. The same is true for God’s Word—you won’t know how to wield its power if you don’t read and study. When Satan attacks, the Word of God will give you wisdom and the power to withstand his fiery darts.

Not only is God’s Word a weapon, it is also a guide for life. There are dozens of Scriptures regarding wisdom in everyday living—conflict resolution, handling money, roles of husbands and wives, parenting. You can find the answers you need if you will only look for them. Supplement your reading with Christian authors who can help you understand biblical concepts.

Fourth, appreciate your spouse. Proverbs 15:1 says, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” Perhaps you’ve forgotten that your spouse has good qualities. At one time you were attracted to him or her in some way. What were those things that made you fall in love? Once you’ve thought of something, verbalize it or put it in a letter. You’ll be amazed at what a kind word can do for your relationship.

Fifth, pray for your spouse. It’s difficult to harbor bitterness against someone when you’re praying for that person. The more you pray, the more God will change your heart, and you will see a dramatic difference in your attitude. If possible, begin praying together. In his book Two Hearts Praying as One, Dennis Rainey says, “When you pray together, you multiply your joys, divide your sorrows, add to your experiences with God together, and help subtract your haunting past from your life.”

Finally, take action to restore your marriage. What makes a marriage good is hard work and a resolve to stay married. No matter how easy it seems for other people, no marriage can work automatically. Don’t let Satan fool you into thinking that no one else experiences problems or that yours aren’t solvable. If you remove divorce as an option, you’ll find that there are ways to build into your relationship: Attend a Weekend to Remember®, read articles from Christian marriage websites, read books and materials from Christian marriage experts. And then apply these biblical principles to your life.

Pursue all avenues of reconciliation before divorce: professional Christian counseling, intervention with your pastor, and personal forgiveness. Read “Finding a Christian Counselor” to help you find the assistance you need.

There’s no secret formula to dealing with a difficult marriage. Just because you are suffering now, don’t give up on the blessing that God is using to mold you and your spouse into His image. It may not seem like a good marriage at this time, but wait and see what God has in store for you … I’m willing to bet you’ll be glad you did.

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