Dr. Gary Bell
Marriage, when it is not working, can be the loneliest place in the world. The covenant of marriage requires us to love, honor, trust and cherish. If we don’t do that, then we have no foundation to stand on. Every argument we ever have is a trust issue. When we violate trust, to any degree, then we are telling our partner that our love is not important and they are not important.
You can love someone and not trust them, but when you trust, the love will always follow. In Christian marriage counseling, we work on trust. There is nothing we can do about love because it is an emotion.
The safety of hearing each other and validating each others perceptions does not require agreement. It is a true act of love. It gives us a place to work through the tough issues with empathy and respect. No secrets are needed when both parties are safe to hear each other and validate (“I understand,” “I hear what you are saying,” “What you’re saying is…”).
Men’s Needs Versus Women’s Needs
In general terms, men and women have different fundamental needs.
Women fundamentally take the temperature on the marriage based on how much they feel “cherished.” Cherished means: “She is my best friend,” “I don’t know what I would do without her,” “I’m so lucky to have her.” When women don’t feel cherished, they begin to wonder who you are cherishing. They also feel a violation of trust, because you promised to cherish in your vows.
To all husbands: If you want to be nagged until the end of time, don’t cherish your partner.
Men take the temperature of the marriage based on feeling respected (heard). If a man feels he is not being heard, then he will shut down or blow up. He feels de-masculated because his voice does not count. He resents his wife and battlegrounds begin to form.
She stops listening and he stops sharing. They begin to resent and hurt each other by breaking down their marriage piece by piece. Their intimacy fades and they begin pushing their personal energy elsewhere (work, kids, activities, friendship). Their conversations become trivial and detached. Their time together becomes boring and uneventful (outside of arguing).
Once they start saying the word “divorce,” the other (in their mind) begins to plan on what divorce looks like and shape their emotions and life for the possibility. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
If you are going to be married, you need to be humble and accept your partner for who they are. If you are looking to change them, give up because that is God’s job. You may torture your partner by trying to change them, but they will build walls around themselves to protect themselves from you.
Forgiveness in Christian Marriage
Forgiveness comes from the ability to examine intentions rather than outcomes. So many would rather attack bad outcomes instead of the process that led to the bad outcome. To be able to forgive, you need to give up “Why?” and start asking “How?” or “What?”
“Why?” is a motive-based question and usually invites a defensive reaction. “How?” or “What?” means you are willing to listen and maybe forgive. In marriage, we often see the best and the worst in each other. To be able to heal with forgiveness gives the marriage an ability to trust in telling the truth.
To get to trust, we must be accountable for what we do and have done to selfishly and thoughtlessly hurt each other (consciously or unconsciously). To regain trust requires that apology and then to ask your partner to have faith in you to not do it again.
Faith is the bridge to trust. At first you are not asking for trust, only faith. Once you consistently show that you have learned and changed consistently over time, your partner may choose to trust. Faith is the only way there.
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Christianity is for all people, but most of the fundamental values the Bible teaches is how to be married, raise children, gather as friends, and help others, instilling values and becoming a person of love and integrity. The convenant of marriage requires us to be a good Christian. If we mess up the marriage and let it drift into madness, then we are reflecting on our own relationship with God.
Get right with God and reflect on your own life. Practice your faith in your marriage and great things will happen. They say, “Couples who pray together, stay together.” That is so true. If you want good things to happen in your life, you have to get outside of yourself and accept your partner for who they are. Pray for them and ask God to make changes. Even better, do it together.
Another core truth is that marriage is not only a covenant, but a legal contract. You don’t do the vows, then you don’t do the contract. That means everyone and everything that comes in contact with this marriage will have to adapt to two people unwilling to do “hard.” Commitment means we do what we think consistently without feeding and doing what we feel.
Mental Health in Christian Marriage
If we want depression, anxiety, and a deterioration of the relationship, then feed the emotions and forget who you are logically and your integrity. People who are inconsistent and flaky often become depressed and self-destructive by doing what they feel. They wait to do something they know they have to do by waiting for a feeling.
In marriage, to have a depressed partner who is led by their emotions is vastly difficult. The ability to trust then erodes because their actions and commitments don’t come together. They become inconsistent. The partner receiving this begins to resent because their partner is making them work harder and it reflects as if that partner is endorsing the depressed partner’s way of life. They are being forced to support something they do not want to support due to the marriage.
We have a responsibility to tend to our mental health needs for our partner and our family’s sake. That is our responsibility and not our spouse’s. No one makes you feel anything, you do that all on your own by how you choose to react to life.
Secrets are also a destructive symptom. We owe each other the truth at all times. I am not saying that we must tell our past up to the commitment for a future. What we owe each other is an open book at all times after you make the commitment to be together. This also means we owe each other truths that may affect our partner or marriage from the past. We do this out of love and for us to share our problems and work on them together.
Finances in Christian Marriage
Finances are another area that cause so much tension. People who live paycheck to paycheck often struggle in a marriage. The idea is as we grow older, we should have an easier time surviving and making our way through life. People who don’t save money often have deep insecurities because they are not prepared for emergencies or opportunities. They are stuck with limited choices and life can become stale.
When you have a spender in the relationship who has no boundaries while the couple is on a fixed budget, they are borrowing from the relationship and taking away from security. Finances are our means to survival. People who feast for a day will famine for a month. That month will be long and difficult and full of emotion. Spenders who guilt the other out or keep their spending a secret are destroying the trust and foundation for growth. We must agree on finances and keep the books open at all times in order to maintain a healthy relationship.
Passive-Aggressive Behavior in Marriage
Another area of difficulty in marriage is passive-aggressive behavior. Why get married if you hate conflict? To be in a relationship, you must get really good at safe and respectful disagreements. What this means is that we assert what we think and how we feel without a Broadway production.
People who are passive-aggressive have low emotional intelligence. They stuff their feelings until the teapot blows. Then some small incident turns into an emotional outburst that validates the person they are angry at by looking like a lunatic. Marriage requires us to be patient and validating listeners, even if we think our spouse has lost their mind. Once we hear, we have a better chance of being heard.
To stay strong in marriage, you need to get really good at fulfilling your partner’s love language, even if it is the weakest part of you. If you are with someone who needs validation, give it. That is money in the bank. If they need time together, receiving gifts, good communication, or kindness, give it! Make it your full time job! That brings peace to your life.
A happy partner makes a happy life. These are unspoken truths that you need to know about each other and accept. Acceptance is peace. To learn a love language ask your partner what you have ever done that made them feel you truly loved them. Bingo! That’s their love language.
Support systems are also important for the relationship and individually. Find people who are different, but who love God like you do. Having that one thing in common is universal for all. It gives you a place to work from. You can find this support in gatherings of different types, including marriage, men’s, and women’s groups. When we do not have strength, we can borrow from others. When our role models are terrible, get new ones.
Many people end up doing what their parents did because that is all they learned. Those parents grew up in another age. Some of what they did was likely unhealthy. Most of what they did likely does not match the day and age we are in. If their marriage had to do with working the vows, then they are good models (even if selective).
Christian Marriage Counseling
People who struggle in marriage need to seek professional counseling. Make sure the therapist matches you in a way that you are both responsive. If they are not a match, move on and find someone who offers you something.
If you want to learn more, tune into my podcast on VoiceAmerica.com. It is called Dr. Gary Bell’s Absurd Psychology on the Empowerment channel.
“Lovers Bike Ride”, Courtesy of Sabina Ciesielska, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “There is Always Hope”, Courtesy of Whoislimos, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; Cliff View”, Curteys of Joao Silas, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Bright Horizons” Courtesy of Alex Iby, Unsplash.com, CC0 License