Choosing to Disengage

“The beginning of strife is like letting out water,

so abandon the quarrel before it breaks out”

– Proverbs 17:14

Sometimes the best argument is the one that never happens. I don’t know if it is our competitiveness, selfishness, or the pressure from countless marriage books to resolve conflict, but it seems to be a trend to try to overanalyze even the most minute details in our marriages. I make this point to myself first of all. As a therapist, I spend a great deal of time helping people resolve conflict and I will admit to being hypervigilant to any unresolved conflict in my own marriage.  There comes a point, though, when an issue just needs to be forgiven and dropped.

Some of this can be blamed on an understandable overreaction. The American church has had a history of encouraging superficiality and ignoring issues in the name of peace and “making Jesus look good.” In those cases, conflicts and resentments grew as well-meaning Christians bowed to pressure to appear like they have it all together. There is still a great deal of this in the church today. However, there has been a groundswell in the past several years, of which I have been a part, to emphasize transparency and healthy conflict resolution. This emphasis, though, can lead to an overreaction that puts our marriages under a microscope, analyzing it for any infinitesimal flaw.  There is a time and place for overlooking a matter.

Proverbs 17:14 warns us of the danger of a conflict and I think the metaphor is apt. It portrays the beginning of a disagreement as being similar to water beginning to escape from a dam. What starts as a slight leak  can break out into a torrent. Trying to hold back the water or effectively trickle it out is unwise. The thing to do is run! It is a wise thing in marriage to know when to just drop a conversation that is only going to lead to a damaging and destructive fight. So how do we know when we should and shouldn’t address something?

In my experience, there are two indicators that an issue needs to just be dropped or avoided. Both require insight and a searching into your own heart. First, if you will have forgotten about the issue and no longer be upset about it in the next day or two, it is probably not that important. Important issues linger and grow with silence, developing resentment. The small ones go away. Everybody has pet peeves that are triggered by their spouse. Most of them are trivial things and need to be overlooked or forgiven. Second, if you sense the conflict will inevitably lead to a disproportionate emotional response, it is probably best to step away. In that case, there is obviously another bigger issue looming behind the dam that needs to be addressed first. Step back, calm down and deal with the real problem. Otherwise, you are just going to make  the problem worse and the issue you started with will likely not get resolved anyway.

There can be wisdom in knowing when to avoid something. It takes great restraint to choose not to complain or point out fault, but to forgive and choose to accept our spouse, faults and all. Choose to love. Choose to forgive. Choose to disengage and live to love another day.

Mike Sorenson, LPCMH

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The Practice of Rejoicing

“Let your fountain be blessed,

And rejoice in the wife of your youth.”

– Proverbs 5:18

Who doesn’t want to be ridiculously happy in their marriage? We all start off with that in mind. Engaged couples can be annoying to be around because they are just so enamored with each other. Something gets lost, though, for many as the years of living life together take their toll. When the enjoyment of the relationship is gone, most husbands I talk to blame either the circumstances or their wives. When they do this, I think they miss the opportunity that is right in front of their faces and are in danger of justifying destructive choices.

The “father” of the early part of Proverbs warns the “son” of the dangers of falling into the trap of adultery, painting a picture of a life squandered and riddled with regret. His career, marriage and reputation could all be destroyed for the fleeting passion of the “other woman.” How could he avoid this pitfall? The seemingly simple but wise advice is to indulge himself fully in enjoying the wife that he has. He is told to rejoice in her, to be satisfied with her and to be exhilarated or intoxicated by her. If he is able to be this enamored with his own wife, the allure of chasing something else (whether it is a career, lust,  or another “more fulfilling” relationship) is lost.

I can almost hear men reading this and saying, “I would love to enjoy my wife, but (insert wife’s faults here).” You see, we tend to see happiness as a product of external circumstances, rather than cultivating a joyful heart and attitude. In this section of proverbs, the verb translated rejoice is a command. It is assumed, then, that it is something we should be able to do. So, how do you make this a practice in your life when you are living with an imperfect wife? Rather than spending your time lamenting your wife’s faults or regretting the decisions you have made, spend some time meditating on some of her great qualities. There is a reason you fell for her in the first place. Make a list of these qualities and how they have made your life better. Imagine how your life would suffer without them.

It should go without saying, but as you begin to appreciate some of the good qualities you see, take the time to make sure your wife knows how valuable and precious she is to you. The Hebrew word for rejoice could also be translated celebrate. Take the time to celebrate your good fortune in being married to someone so wonderful. As your attitude changes, you will likely find you are a great deal more satisfied with your marriage. In addition, I would be willing to bet your wife’s demeanor would change as well. What woman doesn’t like the idea of being adored, appreciated and celebrated?

Mike Sorenson, LPCMH

How Do I Know I’ve Tried?

Like many counselors who do a great deal of marital therapy, I get a large number of couples who are facing the prospect of divorce. The most common expression I hear from couples in this situation is, “I just want to know that I tried.” I will admit to feeling a bit discouraged whenever I hear this, because it is usually code for “I want to ease my guilt about filing for divorce.” Many people think that by merely showing up a number of times in a counselor’s office they have given their marriage a legitimate opportunity to turn around. When this effort inevitably fails, they feel more justified in giving up on their vows. In many of these scenarios, the truth is that neither spouse has really tried at anything except pinning the blame on the other and reducing their own feelings of guilt.

I am a perpetual optimist and I am all for last chances. It is just that my standard for trying in a difficult marriage is a bit different. Showing up for a counseling appointment is a good first step, but that is the equivalent of showing up for your job in the morning. The fact that you were in the building doesn’t make you a hard-working and effective employee. Fixing a marriage that is near divorce requires a great deal of work and showing up is just the beginning. So, what kind of work really counts if you are going to be able to say you tried?

Divorce can sometimes be inevitable if one spouse is determined to move on from the marriage, but that does not mean that there is no work to do, even for the other spouse. As I see it, the primary responsibility for each spouse going into a round of marital counseling is to identify his or her contribution to the relationship breakdown and to work on the character issues that contribution reveals. Every spouse comes in knowing their partner’s problems. Very few are able to identify their own, and these people have a much higher success rate.

Have you neglected your marriage because you are consumed with your job? Have you been overbearing and controlling? Have you failed to say ‘no’ or truly express your feelings to your spouse? Have you been selfish or failed to show any appreciation to your partner? We all contribute something to a broken relationship and if we are not looking for it, we are not allowing counseling to do the job it is designed to do. Even a really bad marriage has the potential to show you difficult things about yourself and help you to change. Don’t pass up this opportunity God has provided for you. Whether your marriage survives or not, use this as a chance to face the depths of your heart and embrace deep change. That will definitely give your marriage the best chance of turning around. At least you are getting out of your own way. At the very least, the system cannot stay the same if one of its members changes their role. Things will change, and if that means you end up divorced, you will do so with no regrets.

Your marriage may seem hopeless, and there may seem like no other option but pursuing a divorce, blowing things up and starting over. If you are at that point and caught between the desperate pain of your marriage and the guilt-ridden sense of failure that divorce would bring, stop looking for a chance to say you tried. Ask yourself whether you have changed. Once you can affirm that, you will move forward with no regrets no matter the outcome.

Mike Sorenson, LPCMH