Last week while waiting in the hall for someone from Dallas’s Criminal Court 5 to call me in, I had a long conversation with a fellow juror—a younger single woman who self-identified as a Messianic Jew (Christian). When she learned I had been married thirty-two years, she was intrigued.
“From the way you describe it,” she said, “you seem to really enjoy being around your husband.” She sounded surprised. “So what’s your secret? What made it work for you?”
My first answer was genuine, but sadly she didn’t believe me. See, I told her that having Jesus Christ at the center of our relationship was the strongest glue. And I didn’t mean it to sound spiritual or trite. The fact that my husband and I have a healthy respect for Christ means we know we must answer both to each other and to the omniscient One in our relationship. The grace we’ve received from the Father, the work of the Spirit, the knowledge of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection—these unite us as one. As the church father Tertullian wrote: “How beautiful, then, the marriage of two Christians, two who are one in hope, one in desire, one in the way of life they follow, one in the religion they practice. They are as brother and sister, both servants of the same Master. Nothing divides them, either in flesh or in spirit. They are, in very truth, two in one flesh; and where there is but one flesh there is also but one spirit.”
Despite my protestations, she couldn’t believe this was enough. She’d seen too many believers’ marriages end in divorce. (Sad, huh?) So she insisted on knowing “What else?” I elaborated on two specifics, but honestly, I believe they are part of the same answer.
First, we aren’t so sure about teaching that says women are made primarily for love and men, primarily for respect. If my husband had affection for me but refused to take my opinion seriously or consider my skills worth developing, I would feel patronized at best. If I respected but had no affection for him, our relationship would look more like a business contract than a one-flesh union. Sometimes Christians tend to focus so much on the apostle’s description of wives as “weaker vessels” in 1 Peter 3 (which I believe means “more physically vulnerable”) that we often miss the command in the preceding phrase “and treat them with respect.” God follows the admonition with a threat that he’ll shut his ears to husbands’ prayers if they diss their wives. Apparently respect in marriage is serious business. Women were made for it as much as men. And consequently my respectful husband has sacrificed himself to make sure I’ve received the education, affirmation, and opportunities needed to develop and use my spiritual gifts. He listens to me; he seeks my counsel. Conversely, I’ve sacrificed myself to make sure he’s received the education, affirmation, and opportunities necessary to develop and use his spiritual gifts. I listen to him; I seek his counsel.
And another thing—I told her that early on my husband modeled for me how to apologize. I had some growing to do in leaning to ask forgiveness when we married, because I disliked taking full responsibility for my actions. But if our relationship was going to work, there could be no more saying, “I’m sorry, if…” or “I’m sorry, but…” These I had to replace with “I’m sorry that…” We haven’t let the sun go down on our wrath, but that doesn’t mean we’ve always stayed up late at night to resolve conflict. It means we’ve mutually agreed on a time in the near future when we’ll resume the efforts to resolve things. And then we’ve kept our word. (We learned quickly that, despite good intentions, we resolved little after 1 AM.)
I could say more. But rather than talk about my own healthy (though imperfect, like all others) relationship, let me share some research-based data on marriage. The documented studies say these four destructo-patterns are most connected with marital failure: (1) Withdrawing—walking way when someone’s talking, or ignoring him or her—“talk to the hand”; (2) Escalation—“I’ve told you to take out the trash three times, and besides that YOUR MOTHER’S COOKING STINKS!”; (3) Negative Interpretation—“You bought me flowers, eh? What’d you do? Wreck the car?”; and finally, (4) Invalidation. “What do you mean ‘my driving makes you nervous’? I have a great driving record.” “It’s not cold in here—it’s your imagination.” “What a loser.”
The opposite of such patterns is both people being present and committed; giving gentle answers that turn away wrath; showing empathy—rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep; and assuming the best of someone. In short, living biblically.