How can I get my husband to love me as much as I love him?” This was the basic question I heard from wife after wife who came to me for counseling during the almost twenty years I pastored a growing congregation.
My heart broke for wives as they wept and told me their stories. Women are so tender. On many occasions I sat there with tears rolling down my cheeks. At the same time I became irked with husbands. Why couldn’t they see what they were doing to their wives? Was there some way I could help wives motivate these husbands to love them more? I felt all this deeply because I had been a child in an unhappy home. My parents divorced when I was one.
Later they remarried each other, but when I was five, they separated again. They came back together when I was in third grade, and my childhood years were filled with memories of yelling and unsettling tension. I saw and heard things that are permanently etched in my soul, and I would cry myself to sleep at times. I remember feeling a deep sadness. I wet the bed until age eleven and was sent off to military school at age thirteen, where I stayed until I graduated.
As I look back on how my parents lived a life of almost constant conflict, I can see the root issue of their unhappiness. It wasn’t hard to see that my mom was crying out for love and my dad desperately wanted respect. Mom taught acrobatics, tap dance, and swimming, which gave her a good income and enabled her to live independently of Dad’s resources.
Dad was left feeling that Mom could get along fine without him, and she would often send him that message. She made financial decisions without consulting him, which made him feel insignificant, as if he didn’t matter. Because he was offended, he would react to her in unloving ways. He was sure Mom did not respect him. Dad would get angry over certain things, none of which I am able to recall. Mom’s spirit would be crushed, and she would just exit the room. This dynamic between spirit would be crushed, and she would just exit the room. This dynamic between the two of them was my way of life in childhood and into my teenage years.
As a teenager I heard the gospel—that God loved me, He had a plan for my life, and I needed to ask forgiveness for my sins to receive Christ into my heart and experience eternal life. I did just that, and my whole world changed when I became a follower of Jesus.
After graduation from military school, I applied to Wheaton College because I believed God was calling me into the ministry. When I was a freshman at Wheaton, my mother, father, sister, and brother-in-law received Christ as Savior.
A change began in our family, but the scars didn’t go away. Mom and Dad are now in heaven, and I thank God for their eternal salvation. There is no bitterness in my heart, but only much hurt and sadness. I sensed during my childhood, and I can clearly see now, that both of my parents were reacting to each other defensively. Their problem was they could offend each other most easily, but they had no tools to make a few minor adjustments that could turn off their “flame throwers.” While at Wheaton, I met a sanguine gal who brought light into every room she entered. Sarah was the most positive, loving, and others focused person I had ever met. She had been Miss Congeniality of Boone County, Indiana. She was whole and holy. She loved the Lord and desired to serve Him only. She should have had a ton of baggage from the divorce that had torn her family, but she did not let it defile her spirit. Instead, she had chosen to move on. Not only was she attractive, but I knew I could wake up every day next to a friend.
THE JEAN JACKET “DISAGREEMENT”
I proposed to Sarah when we were both still in college, and she said yes. While still engaged we got a hint of how husbands and wives can get into arguments over practically nothing. That first Christmas Sarah made me a jean jacket. I opened the box, held up the jacket, and thanked her. “You don’t like it,” she said. I looked at her with great perplexity and answered, “I do too like it.” Adamant, she said, “No, you don’t. You aren’t excited.” Taken aback, I sternly repeated, “I do too like it.” She shot back. “No, you don’t. If you liked it, you would be excited and thanking me a lot. In my family we say, ‘Oh my, just what I wanted!’ There is enthusiasm. Christmas is a huge time, and we show it.” That was our introduction to how Sarah and Emerson respond to gifts. Sarah will thank people a dozen times when something touches her deeply. Because I did not profusely thank her, she assumed I was being polite but could hardly wait to drop off the jacket at a Salvation Army collection center. She was sure I did not value what she had done and did not appreciate her. As for me, I felt judged for failing to be and act in a certain way. I felt as if I were unacceptable.
The whole jacket scenario took me by complete surprise.
Sarah and I discovered that “those who marry will face many troubles in this life . . .”(1 Corinthians 7:28( NIV) During the jean jacket episode, though neither of us clearly discerned it at the time, Sarah was feeling unloved and I was feeling disrespected. I knew Sarah loved me, but she, on the other hand, had begun wondering if I felt about her as she felt about me. At the same time, when she reacted to my “unenthusiastic” response to receiving the jacket, I felt as if she didn’t really like who I was. While we didn’t express this, nonetheless, these feelings of being unloved and disrespected had already begun to crop up inside.We were married in 1999 while I was completing my master’s degree in communication from Wheaton Graduate School. From there we went to Iowa to do ministry, and I completed a master’s of divinity from Dubuque Seminary. In Iowa, another pastor and I started a Christian counseling center. During this time, I began a serious study of male and female differences. I could feel empathy for my counseling clients because Sarah and I, too, experienced the tension of being male and female.
YOU CAN BE RIGHT BUT WRONG AT THE TOP OF YOUR VOICE
For example, Sarah and I are very different regarding social interaction. Sarah is nurturing, very interpersonal, and loves to talk to people about many things. After Sarah is with people, she is energized. I tend to be analytical and process things more or less unemotionally. I get energized by studying alone for several hours. When I am with people socially, I interact cordially but am much less relational than Sarah. One night as we were driving home from a small group Bible study, Sarah expressed some strong feelings that had been building up in her over several weeks. “You were boring in our Bible study tonight,” she said, almost angrily. “You intimidate people with your silence. And when you do talk, you sometimes say something insensitive. What you said to the new couple came across poorly.” I was taken aback but tried to defend myself. “What are you talking about? I was trying to listen to people and understand what they were saying.” Sarah’s answer went up several more decibels. “You need to make people feel more relaxed and comfortable.” (The decibels rose some more.) “You need to draw them out.” (Now Sarah was almost shouting.) “Don’t be so into yourself !” I didn’t respond for a few seconds because I was feeling put down, not only by what she said but by her demeanor and her tone. I replied, “Sarah, you can be right but wrong at the top of your voice.” Sarah recalls that our conversation that night in the car was life-changing for her. She may have been accurate in her assessment of how I was acting around people, but her delivery was overkill. We both dealt with things in our lives due to that conversation. (We still sometimes remind one another, “You know, you can be right but wrong at the top of your voice.”) Overall, I think Sarah has improved more from that conversation than I have. Just this past week she coached me on being more sensitive to someone. (And this is after more than thirty years in the ministry!) That early episode in our marriage planted more seeds of what I would later be able to describe and articulate. I knew Sarah loved me and her outburst was caused by her desire to help me. She wanted me to appreciate her concern and understand that she was only doing it out of love, but the bottom line was I felt disrespected, attacked, and defensive. Over the years, we continued to grapple with this same problem. She would voice her concern about something I was not focusing on as I should. (“Did you return so-and-so’s phone call? Did you jot a note to so-and-so?”) I would do my best to improve, but occasionally I would slip back, making her feel that I did not value her input.
This is part one, of this blog post follow us in our next post.