Mary's approach forced me to think about
my contribution to the unhappiness in our home.
Students of the human personality tell us that most men find their greatest fulfillment in their jobs. And I was finding a great deal of satisfaction in mine. But it was more than just a job for me. I had a sense of partnership with the living God. Serving Him was pure pleasure.
While I had seen no visible increase in the church in Fort Worth, the church in Huntsville began to grow almost immediately after my arrival. People came to know Christ in a personal saving relationship. Sunday school and church attendance increased dramatically from what it had been. People from the congregation said that God was using the exposition of His Word from the pulpit to change their lives and their families. It was exciting, and I poured myself into it wholeheartedly.
During the six years of ministry in Texas I had begun to wonder whether God could ever use me in any significant way. Now I was beginning to see that He not only could, but He would! The apostle Paul's exclamation of praise to the Corinthians was taking on new meaning for me: "Now thanks be to God who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and makes manifest the fragrance of His knowledge by us in every place" (2 Corinthians 2:14). I adopted it as my life's verse. I was seeing spiritual victories and triumphs in people's lives, and it was thrilling.
I only wished that I had been seeing greater victories in my own family. Things were going better. The conflicts were fewer and less intense, but they still occurred too frequently to satisfy me. I wanted a home where peace reigned supreme. I have always struggled with a tendency toward perfectionism, and I guess I wanted the perfect home. Differences of opinion were acceptable. We could work through them, or learn to live with them. But conflict was intolerable. I didn't want any of it. My desire was not very realistic, but I did not understand that at the time.
The way I had it figured, we had enjoyed about one good week per month through the years of our marriage. Mary was tense and irritable for the two weeks before her menstrual period, and she was not much better during the week of her period itself. But the following week was usually pleasant, and I wished every week could have been that good. I considered her nagging and complaining to be an inconvenience to me, and I didn't like to be inconvenienced. I rationalized my selfishness by insisting that she was hindering the effectiveness of my ministry by her complaining.
But I have to admit, the bad weeks were not quite as bad as they once had been. She didn't seem to be picking at me and scolding me quite as much as she once did. Yet every time she did, my thoughts were, Here we go again. She's never going to change. This marriage is never going to get any better. Unknown to me, those thoughts were being reflected in my attitudes and actions toward her, and she was interpreting them as a lack of acceptance and love. As much as we think we can hide attitudes like these, they manage to come out in subtle ways and further corrode a relationship. I too needed a change of attitude.
During our time in Alabama we decided to take a busload of young people to Word of Life Camp in Schroon Lake, New York, for a week. Our youth pastor rode on the bus with the young people, and we followed in our station wagon, since we planned to separate from the group after the week at camp and enjoy a brief family vacation before returning home. While only one of our sons was old enough to be part of the youth group, the kids in the group had no objection to our three younger sons riding on the bus with them. That left Mary and me in the car alone, and able to communicate without interruption for the first time in months (maybe years).
At one point I remember her sliding across the seat close to me and putting her hand on my leg. That was unusual for her, but I liked it. 'Then she said in a kind and calm tone: “Honey, I need you."
I pondered that for a moment, and then in typical male fashion I said, "Huh?"
She repeated it again: "I need you. I need your attention, I need your affection, I need to feel secure in your love, I need to know that after the Lord I'm first in your life; I need your support and help, I need you to listen to me and talk to me. I need you. "
To this day, she has no idea what prompted her to put it like that. She had never said anything like that before, and she doesn't remember reading it anywhere. I have no doubt in my mind that God gave her those thoughts.
Up until then she had always approached me from the perspective of my weaknesses and deficiencies: "You never help me when I need you. You never think about my needs. You always put other people before me. You don't pay attention to me when we're out. You don't spend enough time with the kids. All you care about is my body, etc., etc., etc." They were attacks. In many cases they were judgments of my motives. And I did not consider them to be true, so I defended myself, and we argued about it.
But here she was approaching me from the perspective of her own need, and it stopped me short. How could I defend myself against a statement of need? I couldn't tell her she didn't have those needs, or even that she shouldn't have them. Her approach forced me to think about my contribution to the unhappiness in our home.
I thought that I was probably a better husband than the overwhelming majority of the men out there. And Mary would have agreed with that assessment. But if she had needs that were not being met, then without her even saying so directly, it was reasonable to conclude that I was not meeting them. I had been studying and preaching on what the Scripture said about marriage. I knew that my responsibility was to love her as Christ loved the church (Ephesians 5:25). I had learned that love for her meant seeking her greatest good above my own, putting her needs and interests and well-being before my own, being willing to make any sacrifice for her benefit. I obviously was not doing that. And this was the first time I realized it to any significant degree.
As good a husband as I thought I was, it was obvious to me now that I was not all God wanted me to be. And I determined then and there that I would begin to lay hold of God's wisdom, His power and His grace to help me obey the Scriptures and become a man of God in my home. I wanted to grow.
Growth was slow, just as it had been with Mary. Unlearning poor habit patterns and replacing them with proper ones takes time. But God got through to me that day. The long and sometimes painful process of growing was begun.
Decide that you will not let the past destroy the future. When thoughts like, Here we go again; this marriage is never going to get any better come into your mind, replace them with positive thoughts like It's been a long time since that negative trait has been expressed. Praise the Lord; we're making progress.
Begin to approach your mate from the perspective of your own needs and desires rather than his her faults and failures.