How to Waste Your Marriage…and Your Life

 

I’m currently in a season where it’s hard to get everything done I need to get done. (Know how that feels?) So I thought, rather than not deliver anything, I would rewind a post from 3 years ago. It’s especially pertinent in our current times and I hope you find it helpful. – Bret

It’s easy to waste your marriage on things that don’t benefit you or your spouse. The problem is, you often don’t realize you’re doing it until it’s too late. So below are five contributors to a wasted marriage that you need to watch for. (To help you remember them, they form the acrostic – W.A.S.T.E.)

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The List – Insist on Doing Things As Your Family Did

My wife and I had only been married for six months, and it was Christmas eve. We had finished dinner, and I was preparing to watch some Christmas specials when it happened. She asked me a question that jarred me. It came out of nowhere. I hadn’t expected it. I couldn’t even believe she was asking it. But there, on Christmas eve, she had the nerve to ask me…”So, you want to open presents now?”

“What do you mean, ‘you want to open presents now?!’ It’s Christmas eve! You don’t open presents on Christmas eve! You open them on Christmas morning! That’s the way I’ve always done it!” It was quite the scene. But to be fair, she was just as incredulous when I suggested she cook a full breakfast of ham, eggs, bacon, sausage, biscuits, gravy, etc. on Christmas morning…because that’s the way my mom always did it.

Suddenly I realized that we grew up in families that did things very differently.

You don’t have to be married long to realize this. Perhaps…

  • Your mom cooked every evening, but your wife wants to go out and eat.
  • Your dad was handy at fixing anything, but your husband can’t do anything but call a repairman.
  • Your family went on nice family vacations, but your spouse’s family never went anywhere.
  • You were raised to pick up after yourself, but your spouse wasn’t.

You probably have other examples you could share, but when it comes to marriage, these are the types of things that dampen the relational magic and make things seem more like work.

WHY IS IT BAD TO INSIST ON DOING THINGS LIKE YOUR FAMILY?

Whether it’s holiday traditions or everyday ways of doing things, both you and your spouse come into marriage with different memories and experiences. Some of those memories and experiences you want to hold onto and recreate, while others of those you would rather change. But I can tell you that insisting that your spouse do things like your family did will hurt your marriage.

Maybe you’re just trying to recreate special moments from your childhood so your family can experience them too. There’s nothing wrong with that desire, but insisting on doing things as your family did is not good for the following reasons…

It’s disrespectful and belittling to your spouse and their family.

You come across sounding like the way your family did things was right and the way your spouse’s family did things was wrong. This is hurtful to your spouse and won’t win you any points.

You come across as dictatorial.

Insisting on getting your way is never endearing to your spouse. And it’s especially hurtful when you’re dictating against some of their traditions or ways of doing things. This will leave your spouse with only two options: (1) They can roll over and be subservient, but this is going to create hurt and bitterness on their part. Or, (2) they can become rebellious and refuse to do things the way you want. This will create anger and resentment on your part.

It keeps the two of you from forming new ways that are uniquely yours.

Many wedding ceremonies involve the lighting of a unity candle. The bride and groom each take a candle symbolizing their family, and together they use those two candles to light a candle that symbolizes the start of a new family. Scripture calls it, “the two becoming one.” This involves more than just consummating the marriage. It involves the two of you melting and merging your ways and approaches into something new and unique to the two of you. Insisting on doing things the way your family did is the opposite of that.

SO WHAT CAN YOU DO?

It’s easy to say that the two of you should stop insisting on doing things as your families did, and instead find new ways to do things. But just how can you do that without becoming a doormat or a bulldozer?

Well, it will probably be a little different for each couple, but here are some general principles you can follow:

  • Don’t make fun of the way your spouse’s family did things. Even if your spouse makes fun of something they did, refrain from doing that yourself. Just think about how it stings when they do that to you.
  • Ask yourself if you want things a certain way because you think it’s best, or just because it preserves a special memory for you. So often, we want to do things the way our family did because we’re trying to preserve a memory or share it with our spouse or family. But often, those memories were for that time and that family, and now’s the time to make new memories with this family.
  • Each of you identify the things that are not so special to you and you’d be willing to change. Just because you have some special memories about something in your family doesn’t mean that everything was critical to that memory. Both of you figure out what you could do without and offer that up to your spouse.
  • Take what’s left (the things you want to keep) and see if you might be able to fit those together somehow. Maybe there’s a way for the two of you to take the things that are really special to you and join them together into something that fits both of you.

Let’s go back to my Christmas example. After applying the above steps, some possible solutions might be:

  • You each open one present on Christmas eve and then the rest on Christmas morning.
  • One year you open presents on Christmas eve and the other year you open presents on Christmas morning.
  • You have something different than you usually do for Christmas breakfast, but not as elaborate as a four-course meal.
  • You have an elaborate Christmas breakfast, but a lite and easy Christmas lunch.

The options are many, depending on whether you have kids, how close you live to family, etc. The thing is to not get stuck in insisting the old way, but instead, move on to creating new ways.

A FINAL WORD…

I know that all of this can sound rather trivial. Who’s going to lose their marriage over whether they open presents on Christmas eve or Christmas morning? But it’s not just about holiday traditions. It’s about how you decide to do life. It’s about a failure to create your own marriage because one or both of you keep trying to live by old family patterns.

Continuing to insist that you and your spouse do things like your family did them will hurt your marriage. And in the long run, it can cause you to lose your marriage. And so…It’s on the list!

The List – Wait for Your Spouse to Go First

Note: We are currently in a series called “The List.” The list refers to a list of ways you can lose your marriage, and is based on information gleaned from over 20 years of counseling records and watching marriage fail.

“You go first.” “No, you go first!” “Why should I be the one to go first? You go first!”

Parents hear this from their kids when those kids are facing something challenging, scary, or something they just don’t want to do.

But this also occurs between spouses. It just sounds different. It sounds more like, “Well, it would be a lot easier for me to do what you want if you would just ___________.” Or, “How can I do that when you’re still doing this.” This is the married version of “You go first.” “No, you go first.”

SO WHO GOES FIRST?

So many marital disputes boil down to who’s going to go first. We usually know what we need to do. We just don’t want to go first. We want our spouse to make the first move toward making things right.

But waiting on your spouse to make the first move makes things worse. And doing that long enough can cost you your marriage.

You should be the one who goes first in trying to make things better.

Now some of you are thinking, “Why should I be the one who goes first! You don’t even know the situation! You don’t know what my spouse has done! How can you say I should be the one who goes first to make it right?!”

Well first, let’s talk about why it’s so difficult to be the one who goes first.

WHY IS GOING FIRST SO HARD?

If you push back against going first, that’s perfectly natural and understandable. Going first is difficult. Here are some reasons why going first is so hard…

Hurt.

Maybe the reason it’s hard for you to go first is that your spouse has hurt you. Maybe they’ve hurt your feelings, or your pride, or your sense of fairness. And just like any wound, burn, or broken limb, that hurt has made you very sensitive and guarded.

Fear.

Perhaps it’s hard for you to go first because you’re afraid of being taken advantage of. Maybe you’re afraid of getting hurt again. When you’re hurt by your spouse, it can make it harder to trust them going forward, for fear that they’ll do it again.

Pride.

This is a subject none of us what to admit, but pride can often get in our way of going first. Our pride causes us to think things like: “Why should I go first? They’re the ones who messed up!” “If I go first, they’ll think I’m weak.” “I can’t go first. Then they’ll think they can get away with anything!”

Stubbornness.

And finally, we often let our stubbornness get in the way of going first. We’re convinced that we’re right, and we’re going to stick to our guns no matter what. We’re not going to compromise our principles…no matter what.

WHY GOING FIRST IS SO IMPORTANT.

I know going first is hard when you feel you’ve been wronged. I struggle with it all the time. But despite how difficult it is, going first is important for the following reasons:

It breaks a stalemate and gets things moving.

When there is hurt or disagreement in a marriage, it creates an emotional and behavioral log jam. Just like a log jam in a stream, love can’t begin to flow between spouses until someone makes a move to remove a log and get the love and behaviors flowing again. It’s within your power to get things flowing again, by going first.

Going first also makes it easier for your spouse to respond positively. You may be thinking, “It’s not my job to make it easier for them. They should do what’s right, even if it’s hard!”  But that’s a two-way street. If you want them to do what they should do so it will be easier for you to respond to them, then you have to be willing to do the same.

It starts to change attitudes.

We feel like our attitude needs to change before we can take the right action. But it’s actually the other way around. When you do the right thing, it starts to change your attitude…making it easier to do the next right thing. When you do the right thing, it not only positively affects your attitude, it positively affects your spouse’s attitude also.

And when you lovingly go first and do the right thing, it makes it harder for your spouse to blame you for their actions. In effect, going first takes away their ammunition.

It’s a tangible expression of love.

Love is expressed more in what you do than in what you say. If you say you love your spouse, but then wait for them to go first, your words of love mean little. You’re basically saying, “I’ll love you, only if you do what I think you need to do.” That’s not love, that’s bartering. Love sacrifices what you want for what your spouse needs.

It makes logical sense.

You can’t force your spouse to change. Trying to force them to do something (like going first) is disrespectful, offensive, and insights resistance. Don’t you feel the same way when they’re trying to force you to do something? So it’s illogical to try to force them to do something they don’t want to do and expect it to make things better.

Any change made in a marriage…no matter who makes it…will have an effect on the marriage as a whole. So, even if you believe your spouse should go first you ging first, will change things.

It’s a spiritual principle.

And finally, if you’re a person of faith, the idea that you should go first is backed up in the Scripture.

Matthew 5:23-26 says that if your “brother” has something against you, you should go and make things right between you. But later in Matthew 18:15, we’re told that if you have something against your “brother,” go and try to make it right with them. If you sum up these two passages, I always should be the one who goes first.

A FINAL WORD…

In marriage, both spouses should strive to go first. But I  know it’s hard to be the one to go first in trying to do the right thing; especially if you’re feeling hurt or fear being taken advantage of. But going first can make a real difference in your marriage. It can get things moving again, change your attitude, and make it easier for your spouse to respond in kind.

But here’s a caveat… I’m not saying if you always go first, everything will always be great in your marriage. It takes two people, working together, to make the marriage work well. You going first and doing the right things does not ensure that your spouse will do the same.

 

But, Romans 12:18 tells us…“If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” That verse infers that it may not always be possible to live peaceably with someone. But it is possible for you to do what “depends on you.” And that involves going first to try to make things right in marriage.

Because if you consistently wait for your spouse to go first, it will be detrimental to your marriage. That’s why…IT’S ON THE LIST.

The List – Let Your Personality Override Your Responsibility

Note: We are currently in a series called “The List.” The list refers to a list of ways you can lose your marriage and is based on information gleaned from over 20 years of counseling records and marriage failures.

Has there ever been a time when your spouse was wanting you to change in some way and you thought, “This is just the way I am. You knew this when you married me.”?

The question is…does your inherent personality relieve you of a responsibility to change?

PERSONALITY DIFFERENCES

There is no doubt that spouses can have different personalities. Personality differences between spouses are common…

  • One spouse can be an introvert, while the other’s an extrovert.
  • One spouse can pay attention to details, while the other ignores the details.
  • One spouse can be a saver, while the other is a spender.
  • One spouse can be very cautious, while the other is full-steam-ahead.
  • One spouse can be quiet and reserved, while the other is boisterous and fun-loving.

It’s all a part of marriage.

PERSONALITY POSITIVES

Now, there’s nothing wrong with such personality differences. In fact, personality differences serve three purposes in a relationship:

  1. They draw us together. – Many couples feel they were attracted to one another because they were so much alike. But actually, it’s our differences, more than our similarities, that attract us to one another. When we’re dating, those differences feel refreshing and add spice to the relationship.
  2. They round us out. – Because our spouse is different than us, they help to provide what is lacking in our personality. Introverts need extroverts to get them out of their cave, while extroverts need introverts to help them learn how to be still and content with themselves. Spenders need savers. The cautious need the bold. Detail people need broad brush stroke people. You get the picture. Our personality differences help to round out the relationship.
  3. They grow us up. – Our spouse’s differences force us to approach things differently. An organized spouse can help a disorganized spouse learn to better organize their life. A spender can help a penny-pincher learn they can loosen their grip on money without being irresponsible. Our spouse’s personality serves as a tool to grow us in ways we might be deficient.

PERSONALITY PROBLEMS

But it’s this last reason that can aggravate us. Typically, we don’t want to change. It’s too much effort. Besides, we think we’re fine the way we are. So we say something like: “This is just the way I am. You knew this when you married me.” But, there are two problems with these statements…

Just because you were this way when you were dating doesn’t mean you were showing it.

When we’re dating, we tend to show our best selves. We try hard to be what we think the other will like and want. Consequently, we reign in the parts of ourselves we feel might be undesirable.

But after we’re married, we stop trying so hard. We relax, and more of our true self begins to leak out. Consequently, as our spouse starts to see this, they try to get us to go back to the way we use to be. When that doesn’t happen, our spouse feels like they’ve experienced a bait-and-switch in the relationship and they get frustrated with us.

Just because this is the way you are doesn’t mean you should stay that way.

The statement, “This is just the way I am” confuses a right to be who you are with a responsibility to change for your spouse.

If our children were being unkind or unhelpful we would not let them get away with it because “it’s just the way they are.” We would fully expect them to tweak and change who they are and grow into something better. The same should be true for us as spouses.

PERSONALITY ADJUSTMENTS

It’s true that we all have a personality that is God-given, genetically based, and family influenced. And at its core, that personality will be fairly fixed. But, that doesn’t mean you have to be a slave to that personality. Just because you have a certain personality bent doesn’t mean that personality can’t be bent in a different direction. Everyone can make changes in who they are and how they act. It’s failing to do so that increases the odds of losing your marriage.

So the question is…how can you keep your personality from overriding your responsibility to love your spouse…and still be you?

Elevate their needs.

If you want to keep your personality from overriding your responsibility to love your spouse, elevate their needs ahead of yours. Note: I didn’t say in place of your needs. Your needs are important also. Just treat theirs as a little more important.

Some are afraid that if they do this, their spouse will take advantage of them. That is a possibility. But more often than not, your spouse will feel so special by you putting them first, they will want to make sure your needs are met also.

Subjugate your rights.

We each have rights in marriage. But too often, we spend more time fighting for our rights than we do fighting for our spouse’s rights. It is only when we sacrificially subjugate our rights for the sake of our spouse’s rights that we understand and demonstrate true and deep love.

But…I’m not suggesting you need to be a doormat. Nor am I suggesting that you have no rights in the marriage and your spouse can treat you however they want to. A marriage that is abusive, dismissive, and demeaning should never be tolerated.

Redefine a win.

In times of conflicting wants and needs, spouses tend to act like they’re on opposing teams and they easily fall into a win/lose mindset, where either their spouse wins and they lose or they win and their spouse loses.

Don’t forget that you and your spouse are on the same team. If you can facilitate a win for your spouse, you win also. The team wins! Is this always possible? No. But it’s more possible than you think. So help your spouse win and you will win in the process.

A FINAL THOUGHT…

All of this is summarized in the words of the New Testament from Philippians chapter 2, verses 3-4…

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:3-4 ESV)

Did you hear it? “Look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” It’s a “both/and” approach. This is extremely important because if you let your personality override your responsibility to love your spouse, you stand a chance of losing your marriage. It’s one of the things “on the list.”

How to Love Two Spouses

No, this post is not about polygamy or sister wives. It’s just that sometimes it can feel like you’re married to two spouses at the same time; the one you fell in love with, and the one you didn’t.

Let me explain by using a story from the ancient book of Genesis…

A STORY

Starting in chapter 27 of Genesis, you read about a man named Jacob. Jacob is ambitious and cheats his brother out of his inheritance. Consequently, Jacob winds up on the run. He runs to the far country and begins working for his uncle Laban.

Now Jacob’s uncle had two daughters. One was a rather plain-looking girl named Leah and the other was a beautiful girl named Racheal. One course, Jacob falls head over heels for Racheal and strikes a deal with Laban, to work seven years for Racheal’s hand in marriage.

At the end of those seven years, there’s a wedding ceremony. But, the next morning Jacob wakes up to find that Laban had somehow switched daughters and Jacob was now married to Leah instead of Racheal. (Don’t ask me how that happened!)

Laban gives Jacob some excuse and tells him that if he will agree to work for another seven years, he will go ahead and give him Racheal as well. Jacob agrees and suddenly He finds himself married to two spouses…the one he wanted and the one he didn’t!

A TRUTH

In some ways, this is true for almost every marriage. We all get a spouse we want and one we don’t. It’s a package deal!

When we’re dating, we become convinced that this is the person we want. We like their looks, their personality, and the way they make us feel. So we become convinced that they are the one for us.

But sometime after we’ve married, we wake up to discover we’re also married to a second spouse…and it’s not the one we chose. This spouse does things we don’t like. They correct us when we don’t want them to. Sometimes they take an attitude with us. This spouse doesn’t always look good or act appropriately. And sometimes, they’re just hard to get along with.

Now, occasionally, we still see the spouse we wanted; the spouse that’s easy to love. But then the other one shows up and reminds us that we got more than we bargained for.

AN APPROACH

So, you have to learn to love the spouse you don’t want. But how do you do this?

Here are some things you need to do in order to live with and love the spouse you don’t want:

Quit trying to change the one you don’t want.

Understand that you need the spouse you don’t want as much as the one you do. The spouse you don’t want brings gifts, helps, and perspectives that are much needed…even if they don’t feel good.

You would not be able to become the person you need to be if it weren’t for the spouse you don’t want. So quit trying to change them into the one you do.

Learn to appreciate the spouse you don’t want.

When you realize that the spouse you don’t want actually helps to make you and the marriage better, then it’s easier to appreciate them for what they do.

And…when you appreciate people for who they are and what they bring, they tend to rise to the occasion and become better than they would normally be. Isn’t it true that when your spouse shows you appreciation, it makes you want to be better and do more? If so, then do that for the spouse you don’t want.

Serve the spouse you don’t want.

It’s easy to serve someone who’s saying what you want to hear and acting the way you want them to act. It’s also easy to stop serving someone who’s not saying what you want to hear or not acting the way you want them to act.

But when you stop serving your spouse because they’re not the one you want, you usually get more of the behavior you don’t want. Remember…the way you treat them actually trains them on how to act toward you. So serve them like they’re the spouse you want.

IN SHORT…

Treat the spouse you don’t want as if they’re the one you do, and you might just find out they really are!

And finally, you’re reading these words to figure out how to live with the spouse you don’t want. But remember…they’re also reading these words to figure out how to live with the spouse they don’t want.  Because you’re not the only one who got the spouse they wanted and the one they didn’t.

Not Another Marriage List!

We’ve all seen them. They’re in the magazines that line the grocery store check-out aisles. They’re scattered throughout our social media feeds. They are written by academics, psychologists, and freelance writers. And they have titles that dare us to see how we measure up.

What are they? They are those lists of characteristics that supposedly make up a healthy marriage.

As a pastoral counselor, I might glance over such a list to see how practical and realistic it is. But I don’t spend a lot of time with such lists, because…

  • Marriage is not lived by checking off boxes on some list.
  • Lists are nice and neat, whereas marriage is complicated and messy.
  • No two marriages are the same.
  • We tend to focus more on where we don’t measure up to the list, than on where we do.
  • Once you hold such a list up to your marriage, how do you grade yourself?

But, having said all that, I’m about to eat my words. Because I’ve come across a healthy marriage checklist that’s practical and fits with much of what I see in my counseling office.

THE LIST

I wasn’t looking for a list, but I found it while reading the book, Disarming the Past: How an Intimate Relationship Can Heal Old Wounds, by Jerry M. Lewis, M.D. and John T. Gossett, Ph.D.

I’ve taken Lewis and Gossett’s list on the essential characteristics of a healthy marriage and reworded it as follows to fit my more casual approach to things. But the list is in essence, theirs.

According to Lewis and Gossett, healthy marriages have these things in common:

Power is shared.

Both spouses hold power equally in the relationship. Neither feels dominated and neither dominates. Both can speak into issues and both have equal say in decisions.

There is a good balance of togetherness and separateness.

Both spouses enjoy and even prefer being together, but neither is threatened when the other has outside interests, activities, and friendships. Each spouse has their own identity, along with some healthy autonomy.

Opinions and perspectives are respected and welcomed.

Each spouse is encouraged to share their views, and their views are not dismissed. They are listened to, understood, and respected. To ignore a spouse’s opinions and perspectives is disrespectful to them and destructive to the relationship.

Feelings are welcomed and encouraged.

It’s easy for spouses to get uncomfortable when feelings are brought into the mix because feelings can make things seem highly charged and difficult to control. But, as spouses, we are a package deal, and you can’t welcome your spouse without welcoming their feelings. But remember…feelings must be expressed appropriately and safely in order to be accepted.

Conflicts do not escalate or get out of hand.

Conflict is a normal and necessary part of marriage. It’s a part of two people learning to live and work together. In fact, a marriage without some conflict is not healthy. The health of a marriage is not found in the absence of conflict but in the ability to channel conflict in ways that are productive and helpful to both spouses. This means that: differences are tolerated, the conflict is not generalized or personalized, and resolution is typically achieved.

Spouses share basic values.

This does not mean that spouses are clones of one another, agreeing on everything. What it means is that the couple tends to have the same values when it comes to what they feel is important in life. These couples agree on things like how to raise a family, religion and its place in the family, financial security, morality, etc.

There is flexibility.

Life never goes the way we plan. It tends to throw us curve balls. Children come, jobs change, finances ebb and flow, children leave the nest, illnesses become severe, and retirement becomes a reality. The couples that can anticipate change, roll with the punches, and realign with the current reality will do better than those who can’t.

WHAT TO DO WITH THE LIST

You may be the kind of person who says, “I don’t need to live by no stinking list!” If so, feel free to ignore it the way I do other lists.

But there’s something basic about this list. It’s practical and adaptable, and it makes sense. So don’t toss it out without some thought.

Then, if you believe the list has some merit…

  • Put a check beside the ones that apply to your marriage.
  • Once you’ve done that, pat yourself on the back and celebrate those.
  • Then, put a star beside the ones you still need to work on.
  • Next, pick one of these and talk to your spouse about it.
  • See if the two of you can come up with one thing you could do to make it better.

A FINAL THOUGHT…

And if you’re still having trouble with the idea of a list for marriage, try thinking of it as a recipe. A recipe for cooking up something good.

If Things Are Getting Heated…

Perhaps you’ve been there. You and your spouse are “discussing” something when suddenly you realize things are getting heated and going south. If it goes much further, you’ll hit a point of no return and it won’t end well.

This is normal in marriage. It happens to everyone from time to time. But how you handle these times can either hurt or help your marriage. So it’s important to recognize when things are getting heated so you can handle them well.

What Are the Signs That Things Are Getting Heated?

When things heat up, it seems to hit us with little warning. It feels like we’ve gone from zero to sixty instantly. But, there are actually warning signs that things are heading south. Here are some signs that your “discussion” is getting heated:

  • You’re getting tense.
  • Your pulse is rising.
  • You feel offended.
  • You feel defensive.
  • You’re getting angry.
  • You’re raising your volume.
  • You want to withdraw.
  • You want to go into attack mode.
  • You’re thinking or saying things you wouldn’t normally think or say.
  • You no longer remember or care what started it, you just want it to end.

When you’re experiencing these things, your “discussion” is heating up and heading south.

Why Do Things Get Heated?

As I said, it’s normal for things to occasionally get heated between spouses. There are some really normal reasons for this. It can happen when the “discussion”…

  • Comes at a time when you’re tired and spent.
  • Happens at the end of a day full of difficulties.
  • Touches something about which you’re especially sensitive.
  • Addresses an area about which you’re especially passionate.
  • Criticizes your personality differences.
  • Keeps repeating and never gets solved.

Whatever the reason, there is something about this “discussion” that tends to move things from a spark to a wild fire.

What Can You Do When Things Get Heated?

So many marriages remain distant and frustrated because they don’t know how to handle these critical, heating up moments.

So I want to give you a simple approach that will help avert things before they reach the point of no return. Here it is…

If things are getting heated…take a time-out.

We do this with children, but it turns out that adults can benefit from a time-out also.

How Do You Do It?

Now I know that when things are getting heated, taking a time out can be easier said than done. So let me give you some rules for engagement for taking a time-out:

  • Talk about a time-out before it’s needed. If you call a time-out before you’ve discussed this tactic with your spouse, it could come across as a way of shutting them down or getting around the issue. So when things are good between the two of you, bring up the idea of time-outs as a way of not getting into hurtful fights. (Who doesn’t want that?)
  • Signal a time out. Agree upon some sort of signal to use when you need to call a time out. You can use the “T” sign used in sports or any other sign you want. (Make it something fun…no middle fingers!)
  • Explain why you called the time-out. Let your spouse know that the time out is about you. Tell them that you are getting to a point where you’re afraid you will say or do something that would hurt them, and you don’t want to do that.
  • Give them a reconnect time. This is important. Without giving your spouse a definite time when you will come back and address the issue, it will feel like you’re blowing them off to get them off your back.
  • Keep your promise to reconnect. This is equally important. If you don’t keep your promise to finish the discussion at the set time, your spouse will not trust any further time-outs and will keep pressing you. Be true to your word and reconvene when promised.
  • Repeat as needed. You will need to repeat this approach from time to time. But, the more you effectively use time-outs, the less you will need to use them.

The next time things are getting heated between you and your spouse, try taking a time-out. I promise you will get further with less damage using time-outs than continuing to let things heat up until someone gets singed.

If Your Approaches to Parenting Differ…

When people come into my counseling office with marital problems, I always ask them, “When did these things start to be a problem?” The majority of people trace it back to when they started having kids.

This makes sense. When kids come along…

  • You have to share your spouse’s attention with a very needy child.
  • The demands of parenting, leave you with less energy for marriage.
  • Money is tighter, leaving less to spend on the relationship.
  • Free time becomes a thing of the past and things like dating often go by the way-side.

But there’s another reason why kids disrupt a marriage as surely as pulling the pin on a grenade. When kids come into a marriage, we become parents. And although we’re parenting the same child/children, our views on parenting often differ. These different views on parenting can create a lot of conflicts.

DIFFERING VIEWS ON PARENTING

Where do we get our views on parenting?

Gender differences.

There are distinct differences between the genders. Some of these differences are the result of genetics and some are the result of socialization. But the differences are there and they affect our views and approaches to parenting. Men and women will always view parenting differently on some level.

Family of Origin Differences.

But most of our views on parenting come from how we were parented. You and your spouse had different parenting experiences growing up, so it makes sense that you would have different views on parenting now. Let me give you an example…

One of the biggest disagreements between my wife and me centered on how our teenage girls kept their rooms.

Walking into our girls’ rooms was like going on a safari in the jungles of Africa. There were so many clothes on the floor you needed a machete to cut a path. Bras and scarves desperately hung from mirrors as if they were afraid of falling to the floor and getting lost in the undergrowth. School books were scattered around the room as if their book bag had suffered from projectile vomiting. And there were drinking glasses and dishes that had been there so long, I had forgotten we had them.

My wife and I responded very differently to the girls’ rooms. I would look in their rooms and shake my head, much like you would when you see someone pushing on a door that says “pull.” Then I would shrug my shoulders and keep moving. But my wife would look in their rooms and respond so heatedly it would set off the smoke alarms and send the kids into a duck-and-cover mode.

Why did we react so differently? Because we were raised by different parents.

As a boy, I shared a very small and well lived-in bedroom with two other brothers. My mother sensed it was futile to expect it to stay neat all the time, so she gave us our space…asking only for an occasional cleaning.

But my wife was parented differently. Her parents believed that children showed respect by keeping everything neat and in its place. To do otherwise was considered disrespectful. So she always kept her room neat and clean.

You can see why we reacted differently to our girls’ messy rooms. We viewed room cleanliness based on how we were parented.

WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN YOUR APPROACHES TO PARENTING DIFFER?

I can sum up the answer to this question in one statement…

If your approaches to parenting differ…you must parent differently.

It took us a while to come to a mutual agreement on how our kids should keep their rooms. I wanted an approach in which the kids were not always complaining about living with a room nazi. My wife wanted an approach in which the kids respected her enough to keep their rooms from looking like a toxic waste dump.

To find a solution, we both had to change our approach. We both had to parent differently.

We came up with a solution that was different from what we each wanted but had enough of what we each wanted to satisfy us. Here is what we came up with…

Six days a week, the girls could keep their rooms pretty much the way they wanted, with two exceptions: they couldn’t leave food lying around, and they had to keep their door closed so their mother didn’t go into cardiac arrest each time she passed by their rooms. But one day a week, they had to clean their rooms to pass mom’s inspection…and mom’s inspection could be tough! And if their rooms didn’t pass her inspection, then they lost privileges.

You see, my wife and I had to parent differently than we wanted to accommodate each other’s parenting views.  We had to find out what was important to each other when it came to parenting, and then find approaches that honored us both.

It’s easier said than done, but there’s no other way. You each will approach parenting differently, which means you must each parent differently.

On a side note: both girls survived. They grew up to have kids of their own and now have to fight their own room battles. There is some poetic justice in life! 

If You Find it Difficult to Deal With Your In-Laws…

“It’s only for a couple of weeks. Just don’t say anything!” These were the words of caution/threat that my wife delivered to me prior to her parents’ arrival. And she drove those word home as if she was driving a three-inch nail through my forehead.

In all fairness, she had good reason to be concerned. You see, I didn’t have a good track record of getting along with my mother-in-law.

Maybe it started the first night I took her daughter out and brought her home at 3:00 in the morning. (Not a good start, I’ll admit.) Perhaps it’s because when we were dating, my hair was past my shoulders and I spent my weekends playing guitar in bar bands. Maybe it was because I would show up at her door dressed in eclectically breath-taking Goodwill attire. Or maybe it was because I would eventually be guilty of taking her last child from the nest.

Whatever the reason, my in-laws were coming and I was being warned to be on my best behavior.

Hopefully, you have a great, trouble-free relationship with your in-laws. If so, be thankful to the dealer for the cards you’ve drawn. But too often, friction with in-laws is a common issue in marriage.

WHY DEALING WITH YOUR IN-LAWS CAN BE DIFFICULT.

How is it that you can love your spouse, but struggle with ones who birthed them and raised them? Why can your in-laws punch your buttons so easily? There can be a lot of small and specific irritants, but globally it has to do with some things you’ve probably felt, but never really stopped to think about.

Influence.

I often tell couples in premarital counseling, that when they climb into bed on their honeymoon night, there will actually be six people in the bed…the two of them and both their parents. After the premarital couple finishes gagging over that visual picture, I go on to explain the following.

We forget that when we get our spouse, we’re not getting a blank slate. We’re getting someone who for twenty-some years has been imprinted and influenced by their parents. And rarely is that parental imprint the same as yours.

And so, there will come times when you get frustrated because you feel like your in-laws have more influence over your spouse than you do. What’s really happening in these times is that your pride and insecurity are getting bruised. Which leads to another irritant…

Loyalty.

On the day we got married, my wife and I moved from Illinois to Oklahoma, where we both had jobs waiting on us. In the first year or two of our marriage, we would try to go home for most holidays. But I noticed something about those trips. Even though things were great between us when we arrived, by the time we left, I was frustrated and angry.

It took me a while to figure out what was going on, but it finally dawned on me. On our way there, I felt like she was my wife. But the minute she stepped across the threshold of her childhood home, it was like she switched from being my wife and became their daughter again. And me, being the stupid young husband that I was, didn’t understand that it could be both/and.

So, like a dog marking my territory, I took every opportunity to play the “she’s my wife more than your daughter” card. This didn’t win me any points with them…or my wife. You need to learn that it’s not disloyalty for your spouse to hold loyalties to both you and their parents. When you feel those loyalties are in conflict, then don’t get mad or withdraw. Talk it out.

Commitment.

The big problem is that we tend to misinterpret both our in-laws’ influence over our spouse and our spouse’s loyalty to their parents as a lack of commitment to us. In fact, nothing could be further than the truth. Just as showing love and commitment to one child is not a slight to the other child, your spouse’s loyalty to their parents in no way diminishes their commitment to you. Don’t put your spouse in the bind of having to choose between being committed to you or being committed to their parents. Help them in their commitment to both.

When these issues of influence, loyalty, and commitment come up, you need to remind yourself that your spouse has already chosen you over their parents. They left home, married you, and crawl in bed with you each night…unless you snore. You’ve already won them. Quit worrying that you’re going to lose them to their parents.

HOW CAN YOU BETTER DEAL WITH YOUR IN-LAWS.

Just in case you’re wondering, I have a good relationship with my mother-in-law now. It took a while, but we got there. How did that happen? Here are some things I wish I had been quicker to learn…

Give Them the Benefit of the Doubt.

Despite the way it feels, your in-laws are not trying to subvert your spouse, undermine your authority, control your finances, or over-rule your parenting. When you feel like they’re too involved, put your pride in check and give them the benefit of the doubt. They really just want to help in any way they can. Accept it for that.

Show Them the Honor They Deserve.

Do you know how hard it is to work, manage finances, and hold a marriage and family together? Well, your in-laws have been doing it longer than you have. And though you may not see eye to eye with them on everything (or anything), you would not have the spouse you have…the spouse you chose…without their input, hard work, and sacrifice. For this, and more, show them honor.

Love Them for Your Spouse’s Sake.

I use to bristle when my wife would tell me, “Please, just don’t upset my mom.” I could come up with a long list of reasons why she shouldn’t put such restrictions on me. But the one thing I couldn’t argue my way around was this: her parents were important to her, so they should be important to me. If for no other reason, I need to love my in-laws for my spouse’s sake.

Remember You’ll Be an In-law One Day.

If you’re not already, one of these days you will find yourself in the devalued position of being an in-law. Some day, some young man or young woman may view you as some sort of intrusion upon their marriage. So treat your in-laws in the way you want your son-in-law or daughter-in-law to treat you. It’s just a good rule of thumb.

One final note: Perhaps there will there be times when you need to set some gentle and loving boundaries with your in-laws? If and when that time comes, do so in concurrence with your spouse, then let your spouse be the one to explain it to their parents. This will work better for both of you.

So to simply sum things up…

If you find it difficult to deal with your in-laws…get over yourself and give them some grace.

If You Disagree on Spending… (Part 2)

In the last Normal Marriage Post, we began looking at a topic that can be so problematic in marriage it ranks right up there with sex and communication. The topic was money.

In the last post, we looked at the two issues that make money and spending so difficult in marriage: money deficiencies and spousal differences. (If you haven’t read that post, take a second to check it out.)

In this post, we want to get practical.  Whether your problem is too little money or too many differences, what can you do to make things better in the area of money and spending? How can you solve conflicts over money?

In order to solve our money conflicts, we must know how to solve conflicts in general.

SOLVING CONFLICTS IN GENERAL

Don’t do this…

When there is a conflict in marriage, a spouse will usually default to one of two positions:

  • They will apply pressure to get their spouse to cave.
  • They will fold and let the other spouse have their way.

Neither of these is a good way to solve a conflict in marriage. It makes one person a winner who feels superior and the other person a loser who feels dominated.

Do this…

A better way to handle conflict in marriage is to look for a plan where…

  • Both spouses get some of what they want.
  • Neither spouse gets everything they want.

Some call this compromise. I prefer to call it a plan. And when it comes to how a couple spends their money, you need a plan.

THE PLAN

Every marriage is different; with different circumstances, different resources, different desires, and different personalities. So it’s impossible, in a brief post, to give you a specific and detailed plan on how to spend your money.

But there are three general principles to help you develop a plan for spending your money. The three principles are:

1. Establish your percentages.

A good start for a spending plan is to aim for these percentages…

  • 10% – Savings. This begins with saving for emergencies but moves on to saving for retirement and saving for personal goals.
  • 10% – Giving. Generosity is its own reward. It not only helps others, but it breaks selfish anxiety within us that keeps us chained to our stuff. You’ll be surprised how generosity does more to increase what you have than decrease what you have.
  • 80% – Living. First, this includes the fixed expenses that you currently have little control over…like: mortgage, rent, utilities, car payments, insurance, etc. Secondly, this includes discretionary spending over which you have more control…like eating out, vacations, entertainment, etc.

Reaching these percentages and goals may not be possible at first, but commit yourselves to do whatever you have to do to move toward these initial targets.

2. Create your proposal.

This is where we need to talk about the dreaded and dirty word “B” word…budget. Many of you winced, flinched, and maybe even threw up in your mouth a little when you read the word “budget.” To you, a budget feels as constricting as living with your parents. I get it. I felt the same way. But exchanging the word “budget” for the word “plan.” A budget is simply a plan that you make to help you get where you want to be.

My wife and I started budgeting, back when we were in grad school. I mentioned in the last post how difficult those years were for us financially. One day, while we were in a mad panic to figure out how we would pay the car insurance, I had a revelation.

I thought, “What’s wrong with me? I know car insurance comes around every six months. This is a simple math problem! I take the amount of the car payment, divide it by six, and that’s the amount of money we have to put away each month to cover the car insurance. So we started with just the car insurance. But the first time the car insurance came due and we weren’t running around in a panic, I thought, “This feels great! I wonder what else we can do this with.” And little by little, item by item, we developed a budget.

Now you don’t have to do this item by item as we did. You can create a complete spending plan all at once. And to help you with this, check out this worksheet I use when counseling couples.

3. Maintain your persistence.

Persistence may be the most important principle of all.

Things will not go smoothly at first. In the beginning…

  • You may not have enough money to fund every budget category.
  • Unexpected and unplanned expenses may come up.
  • There might be expenses you planned but haven’t had enough time to build up the necessary reserves.
  • Some of your categories will have to go unfunded, while you get other things paid off.

There will be times in the first 6-12 months of trying to implement your spending plan that you will feel it’s not working and want to give up. But if you will persist for 12-18 months, you will see things gradually start to come in line. When it comes to implementing your spending plan, persistence is your biggest ally.

We said in the last post that if you disagree on spending…it’s normal. But you still have to do something with it. So…

If you disagree on spending…make a plan and stick with it.

This doesn’t come easy for everyone. It didn’t for my wife and me. But I guarantee you can do it. Follow this basic plan. Seek out others who can help you with this. Take a class. Do whatever you have to not only agree on your spending but to align your spending habits to reach your goals.