Keith has made me a better person because I am married to him.
First, there’s the little things. I notice that when I’m alone for several days, for instance, I tend to cocoon and just do whatever I want, which tends to consist of a lot of time wasters. When he’s here, I’m much more intentional about eating well, spending my time well, doing things with other people.
But then there are the bigger things. There’s the time I had to sit down with him about 12 years ago and tell him that I thought he was pushing Rebecca away because he was being too harsh with her. That was about 6 years after he had to sit down with me and tell me that I was being too easy on Katie, and she was wrapping me around her little finger (she was, too!).
I’ve helped him get more organized in his personal life. I’ve helped him make better food choices. He’s helped me stick to exercise goals and encourage me to keep up friendships when I’d rather cocoon.
We make each other better people by being married, and that’s what’s supposed to happen.
This year, in 2020, I want to get even more practical about how to grow your marriage and your sex life in the right direction.
I want to start the year with this January series: Iron is supposed to sharpen iron.
As iron sharpens iron,
so one person sharpens another.
It goes along with the verse that I pray over marriages all the time–my kids’ marriage, my own marriage, whenever I’m at weddings:
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds
That verse has to do with Christian community as a whole, but I think it applies even more in the richest and deepest of communities: Marriage. We’re supposed to be spurring one another on to love and good deeds. We’re supposed to be making each other better people.
However, marriage does not universally make people better people.
The purpose of marriage may be to help us grow, but that doesn’t mean that marriage always does. In some marriages, people get more and more selfish, and even potentially verging on emotionally abusive over the years. In some marriages, people get lazier and lazier. In some marriages, spouses disconnect from kids and each other and focus only on work.
That’s what I want to talk about this month. And to do that, I want to propose two big truths (and one caveat!):
CAVEAT While SOME spouses come into marriage with bad character and narcissistic tendencies, and will likely never grow to be good people absent an extreme work of God, MOST spouses are good-willed people who want the best for their spouse and want to make their marriage work. HOWEVER, even good people can develop bad habits in marriage and can learn to treat each other badly because of these two truths:
- Actions which are encouraged tend to be repeated.
- People tend to keep traveling in the road of least resistance–so the direction that they are going will continue, and even accelerate, unless something stops them and causes them to change course.
When a marriage goes south and people treat each other terribly, sometimes it’s because of a controlling and manipulative character. But it can also be because of marriage dynamics that fostered the wrong type of behaviour.
I do believe that many abusive marriages cannot be saved.
BUT–and this is a big “but”–I also believe that we can get into negative patterns early in marriage and fail to address small things, and those small things can then become big things.
Emotional abuse is sometimes about bad character and can’t be changed. But it’s also sometimes about relationship dynamics, and that often can be changed–or, more importantly, can be prevented.
Let me tell you the story of Dave and Susan (not their real names), and how marriage reinforced bad behaviour.
Susan was a wonderful woman. She ran a home daycare, and all the neighbourhood kids loved her. She ran the Sunday School at her small rural church. She was the mom to 5 kids, and her house was the “hangout” house for the neighbourhood. She was the first to bake a casserole when someone had a baby. She was just a lovely, lovely woman.
She was also very, very soft-spoken, and never had a harsh word for anybody, including her husband. And her husband had some addictive tendencies. So when they got married, he kept going to the bar. Over the years, as the kids came, it became too loud at home, and he spent more and more time at the bar. He became a full-blown alcoholic, with frequent angry outbursts.
Then, out of nowhere, Susan contracted a brain tumour twenty-two years into their marriage. She died within 7 weeks of diagnosis.
Her husband fell apart.
But within a few years, Dave had met another woman, that we’ll call Trina. Trina was also a lovely woman, but she was confident and loud. When they married, she immediately put her foot down and let it be known that there would be no going out to bars.
Within 6 months Dave was completely sober, and had become a teddy bear of a man.
Why was Dave a terrible husband to Susan and a great husband to Trina? I do think, from observing the situation, that part of it was certainly because Dave had regrets and grief from his first marriage and didn’t want to repeat that. But I also think it was partly because Trina didn’t tolerate certain behaviour, and made that known early in their marriage.
Now, Susan was not responsible for her husband’s alcoholism. Her husband was the one responsible for his choices.
But I do think that we can encourage bad behaviour without meaning to.
Nigel married Julie when she was already pregnant with someone else’s child, and Julie was so grateful to Nigel that she tended to push down her own needs. Once the baby was born and eating solid food, Julie wanted to start having family dinners at the table. So one night Nigel came home and Julie had the table set and the food all out in serving bowls.
Nigel sat down at the TV, and said, “I’d rather eat here.” So Julie filled up a plate of food and brought it to him.
From then on, Nigel ate at the TV every night, and Julie grew more and more unhappy and resentful. He’d come home and instead of connecting with the family, he went off in his own little world–and he expected Julie to wait on him. He would sit there and wait for her to bring him dinner.
I told their story in my first book, Bare Marriage. It was largely because of them that I wrote that book. I saw Nigel treating Julie worse and worse by the day, and Julie growing more and more sad. But I also saw her putting up with his behaviour and even enabling it.
What would have happened if, on that first night, she had said, “I’d prefer we eat dinner together as a family, so why don’t you join us here?” What if she had spoken up? What if she hadn’t brought him his dinner on the couch? What if, had Nigel continued to eat dinner on the couch, she had announced, “I want us to be together as a family and eat as a family. I have no problem making a family dinner. But if you don’t want to be with us, then I’m going to just make dinner for the baby and me and we’ll eat before you get home.”
Are you struggling with how to draw boundaries in your marriage?
I talk a lot about boundaries on this blog, but I’m not sure that many of us understand practically what they look like.
So this month, I want to take us through how iron should sharpen iron in marriage. We should make each other better people. And when we start with small things at the beginning of the marriage, we often prevent descents into selfishness like the ones that I’ve talked about.
This has been a passion for Rebecca, so I’d like her to have the last word on this one and share her story, too:
When Connor and I were first married, within the first few months we both had to draw some boundaries with each other.
Connor had been living with 4 other amazing guys (they were all his groomsmen, actually) who were still living with each other after our wedding, since we were the first in our little group to get married. When Connor had lived with them, they would all often stay up until 2 or 3 in the morning gaming together and having a great time.
So when we got married and Connor went over for the first time and didn’t tell me when he’d be home, we ran into a bit of a problem. Because now his staying out until 2 in the morning was affecting more than just him.
I sat at home waiting up for him since we didn’t live in a great area of town (and I legitimately was concerned for his safety biking around late at night since there’s some major crime activity where we lived–we ended up leaving because a guy was stabbed literally right outside our apartment door in the hallway, to give you a picture) and when he finally came home at 2:30 we went to bed and I told him, “I’m glad you’re home, but we’re talking about this in the morning.”
In the morning I told him I had no problem with him going out with the guys periodically, but he couldn’t impact my night like that by doing something that would make me worry. So he always had to tell me when he’d be home (or update me if the plan changed) and then either had to be home by midnight or he could just crash at their place–either was totally fine to me. He agreed, and we didn’t have any other issues.
Similarly, I got frustrated when he’d start online games he couldn’t pause in the evening.
It was cutting into our time after school/work together and it meant he was completely unavailable for minimum of 45 minutes at a time. So I told him I wanted to make sure gaming wasn’t getting in the way of us and we agreed that he wouldn’t start any game he couldn’t pause after 9:30 PM.
But Connor got frustrated, too–and had to set boundaries with me.
As many of you may have guessed, my mom and I are really close. About a year into our marriage, Connor started working more and I was working from home. As a result, it was a lot easier to talk to my mom about things than to talk to Connor, who wouldn’t be home for a few hours.
Connor realized after a few weeks that my mom was becoming the person I told everything to first, not him. And so he sat me down and said, “I need you to tell me things first before you tell your mom so that it truly is OUR life and we don’t start living lives parallel to each other.” It was exactly what I needed, and he was entirely right, and I made a concerted effort from that point on to make Connor my primary emotional support.
As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.
Does iron sharpen iron in your marriage?
But what if we hadn’t said anything?
What if I hadn’t said I wasn’t comfortable with him walking home so late, or if I hadn’t spoken up about the bad gaming habits? What if he hadn’t confronted me about how I wasn’t turning to him for emotional support and thereby creating distance in our marriage?
- I’d be experiencing a lot more resentment and irritation towards Connor’s friends and towards him. Connor would not be as considerate about how much time he’s spent away from home or understand the impact that has on me.
- Connor would not be as emotionally available if he were addicted to video games (which he does have a tendency towards) and our marriage would not have gotten such a great start if we didn’t have our evenings together
- I would not feel as secure and safe with my husband because I would not have given him the opportunities to be my emotional support if I were still turning to family instead of to him.
In short, our marriage would be a lot worse and both of us would be crappier people.
By speaking up, both of us were able to put our spouse back on a path that was healthy and beneficial for both of us.
And that’s why speaking up in the moment is so important: because whether we want to admit it or not, we do have the ability to influence each other, providing we married someone of good character. So let’s take that influence we have over each other seriously, and not resign ourselves to resentment, disappointment, and bad behaviour from our spouses.
Thanks, Becca! And this month, as we work through this series, we’ll look at how practically we can speak up, how confronting our spouse can be a positive thing, not a negative thing, and then, finally, what to do if things still don’t change.
How do you sharpen iron with iron? What ways do you make your spouse better? Let’s talk in the comments!
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Founder of Bare Marriage
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