We were both now committed to bringing
greater harmony and warmth to our marriage.
The one thing above all others that had kept our marriage together this long was the commitment we both had made to do the will of God as best as we could understand it. We knew God wanted our marriage to succeed, and so divorce was never really an option for either of us.
Sometimes we felt the way Ruth Graham is reported to have expressed it when she was asked if she ever thought about divorcing Billy. She answered with tongue in cheek, "Murder--yes; divorce--never!" While neither of us ever seriously contemplated murder, there had been times when death seemed like the only escape from our misery, because we were committed to stay together till death do us part.
However, commitment can be a tedious, teeth-clenching chore when there is no hope. And that is what it had been for both of us during much of our married life. But from that day in the car, things started to change, because there was a new hope born of the new dimension that had been added to our commitment. We were no longer committed only to stay together because that was what God wanted us to do--we were both committed to make the specific changes in our own lives that would bring greater harmony and warmth to our relationship.
Let me explain my new commitment. I began to see that my defensiveness and withdrawal were purely selfish acts. When Mary criticized me and scolded me unjustly, I had withdrawn from her emotionally and sulked, sometimes for days. I could rationalize it beautifully:
I've been hurt and I need time to heal.
My silence will let her know how much she has hurt me.
Since it was something I said that inspired her attack, I will avoid future unpleasant episodes by not saying anything more than I absolutely have to say in order to exist in this house with her.
She doesn't deserve my warm affection after the way she has treated me.
They all seemed like acceptable excuses to me at the time, but now I was beginning to see that none of them was valid. They were all aimed at protecting myself, meeting my own needs. God wanted me to be thinking more of her needs than my own.
If I had been practicing what I was preaching--finding my sense of worth in who I am in Christ, finding my fulfillment and satisfaction in Him, finding His grace to be truly sufficient for me--then I would have been drawing on His resources to meet my needs. And feeling good about myself would no longer have depended on Mary speaking kindly and respectfully to me; it would have depended on my eternal unchanging relationship with Jesus Christ. I might not have experienced pleasant feelings when she attacked me, but my feelings did not need to hinder me from making the right choices and doing the right things. With my needs met in the Lord, I would no longer need to withdraw into my shell of protection. I would be able to reach out to Mary and minister to her needs, even when she accused me falsely, nagged me mercilessly, or argued with me over trivial things. And that is what I was now committing myself to do.
I haven't always succeeded (I probably don't even need to tell you that). But there has been growth. Mary still projects a negative and critical attitude to me periodically. And while my first impulse is to withdraw just as I have always done, it is taking me less time to begin thinking biblically. She really does want to please the Lord in the way she acts, so something has happened to get her out of sorts right now. Maybe I have been thoughtless or inconsiderate in some way of which I am not aware, or quite possibly her mood has nothing at all to do with me.
But in either case she needs my unconditional love and acceptance right now. She needs for me to show an interest in what she is feeling, then listen to her attentively and sympathetically. She needs me to put my arms around her and tell her how much she means to me. And ministering to her needs right now is far more important than licking my wounds.
When I have been able to follow through on my commitment, I have made an amazing and gratifying discovery. Ministering to her needs rather than my own has drawn us together into a more beautiful closeness and intimacy than we ever thought we could have enjoyed. I have since read it stated by other authors--intimacy in a marriage grows as we satisfy each other's needs. And it works both ways. When I sense that Mary is putting my needs before her own, it draws me to her in warmth and tenderness, a sense of harmony and oneness. And she describes the same feelings when I forget about myself and concentrate on ministering to her.
So I try to be more open in sharing my needs with her, without being manipulative and demanding. That is difficult for me to do because it exposes my weaknesses and leaves me vulnerable to her. There have been occasions when she has used my honesty against me, and she will probably do it again. But God doesn't want that to stop me. He promises that His grace will be sufficient to sustain me at those times.
But I also endeavor to be more sensitive to her needs, to discover them by listening more carefully to her, to try to understand her more fully--then to act for her benefit rather than my own. I find myself thinking more often, How can I respond to her right now in a manner that will make her feel more secure in my love, rather than in a manner that will project my selfish hurt? I have failed to do that on far too many occasions, and I shall continue to fail. But I know that is what God wants me to do, and I know that when I do it, we will continue to enjoy a progressively stronger and more intimate relationship. So, weak as I am, and fail as I shall, that is my commitment.
And Mary has known that. She says, "I never saw Richard as a hypocrite, preaching one thing but practicing another. I knew he wanted to live what he taught, that he wanted to be a man who honored the Lord. When he was in the pulpit he was not so much my husband as my pastor-teacher, and it was his preaching that God used to change my life.”
Spend about fifteen minutes in quiet meditation, asking the Lord to bring to your mind ways you can change that will add harmony and warmth to your relationship. Claim His promise of wisdom as you think about it (James 1:5).