We have just survived our first October snowstorm. Much of the area has been without power, many beautiful trees are ruined. Their branches couldn’t carry the load of snow and ice because their leaves hadn’t dropped. It is so sad to see the wreckage. I’ve included two pictures, one from the snow storm on Saturday, one from my front yard today– the snow has mostly melted, but the damage is still here.
This week’s blog is going to answer the question, how do we handle things about our spouse that we don’t like? They may be small things or fairly large things (at least in our own mind) but not necessarily deal breakers (if we don’t let them).
Today’s Question: I just found out my husband is smoking again. I can’t believe it. I hate smoking, and I made that very clear when we met. I knew he was a smoker but he told me he would try and quit. Obviously he hasn’t. He doesn’t smoke in the house or around me but I don’t want him to smoke at all. What can I do to get him to stop?
Answer: Every married person discovers qualities and habits in his/her spouse that he/she would love to change. It might be smoking, chronic messiness, forgetting to put the ATM receipts in the checkbook, or leaving the toilet seat up when you’ve asked him a million times to put it down.
Since you’ve felt frustrated trying to improve your spouse only to fail again and again, let me suggest another approach. Instead of trying to change him, change you. Let me explain. It’s easy to love someone when he does everything we want him to do. That’s idealized love, not mature love. Having a successful long-term relationship requires that we learn how to love our spouse when he doesn’t do everything we want him to do. This kind of love is much harder. It’s not the “feel in love” kind of love. It’s the “hard work” kind of love. One of the most powerful gifts of this kind of love is the gift of acceptance.
Learning to accept our spouse’s imperfections, weakness, and yes, sometimes even sins, doesn’t mean we like a fault we see nor does it mean that we simply resign ourselves to a hopeless situation. However, true acceptance understands reality–that we are all creatures in process and that God isn’t finished with any of us yet. Acceptance doesn’t simply mean that we acknowledge our spouse’s faults, but that we stop resenting them. We stop trying to change them. We learn to be emotionally content the way he is right now, all the while asking God to mature him (and us).
Here are three (3) things that you can work to change that will empower you to give the gift of acceptance to your spouse:
1. Stop playing Holy Spirit. We can learn how to be a better wife or husband but understand this: We will always make a lousy god. God himself teaches us acceptance and why it’s so important. He says, “Accept one another, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God” (Romans 15:7). The Lord is patient with our faults, and he wants us to learn to be like him. Instead of playing god, pray that your spouse would listen to and obey God in the areas God (not you) wants changed.
2. Remember you have faults too. It’s often our pride and perfectionist tendencies that make us so impatient with the flaws of other human beings. We say things like, “I can’t believe you did that.” Or “How could you be so stupid”. We seem surprised when our spouse acts imperfectly, stupidly, or differently, as if somehow he isn’t ever suppose to do such a thing. Humility helps us accept our spouses’ shortcomings because we’re well aware of our own. We know that sometimes we too can be difficult to love and live with graciously. The apostle Paul encourages us to “be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2).
3. Focus on your mates good qualities. I often tell my clients who feel disgruntled in their marriage; no one gets all 52 cards in the deck. Every spouse has shortcomings, faults, and weaknesses. When we dwell on them continuously, we will feel angry, disappointed and gypped. If you don’t want to feel those negative emotions, then you will need to intentionally change your focus. Look for your spouse’s good qualities instead of always dwelling on his/her bad ones. Obviously he or she has them or you wouldn’t have fallen in love and married him/her in the first place. Let your mind dwell on these things, as the apostle Paul encourages in Philippians 4:8.
We’ve heard the saying God loves us just as we are, but it’s probably more accurate to say that God loves us in spite of who we are. God’s love is not a reward for good behavior, and it is not deserved or earned. Rather, his love is an extravagant gift. We too can learn to love this way even when it’s hard, because God has so loved us. It is God’s love that empowers us to love our spouse even in his or her imperfections, weaknesses and sins.
In the next few blogs, I’m going to cover other gifts of love that we can give our spouse even when we don’t feel very loving. As we’ve seen in this blog, there are times when our spouse’s behavior is so destructive to the stability of our marriage or our own safety that the gift of acceptance is not appropriate and a different gift of love is called for. In these serious situations, we may need to love our spouse enough to give him/her the gift of truth and/or the gift of consequences. I’ll cover these more in the following weeks.
Note: The gifts of love are explained in greater detail in Chapter 9 of my book, How to Act Right When Your Spouse Acts Wrong. WaterBrook (2001)