Sometimes the over-consumption of books can lead one to mistake knowledge for wisdom. This was surely the case for me when we decided to attend a home group on the topic of marriage at our church, Harvest Cathedral, in Macon, Georgia. We attended the group on the strength of our fondness for our pastors, Steve and Debbie Sawyer, though without any high expectations.
I remember asking a fellow professor once how his marriage was. It was an appropriate question in the context of our conversation. His response was disarmingly honest. He called it, “functional”. I was still in the throes of our honeymoon at the time so I remember feeling some sympathy for him. Years later, I was to recall those words with a bit more humility.
Our marriage was functional, but after five years of one catastrophic loss after another, neither of us was happy.
It wasn’t that we were making each other unhappy, but more that we had forgotten how to be happy individually.
We had lost our joy, so our expectations of yet another marriage seminar were pretty low.
The course, a series of lectures, notes, tests, and of course, the book by Willard F. Harley, Jr. was originally designed to help marriages where infidelity was the primary issue. This was not the case for us or any other of the couples in the group. But our pastors urged us to look past this emphasis, and so we assembled weekly in their lovely home and proceeded to learn two incredibly important marital lessons.
- We ignore the emotional pain of the other’s unfulfilled needs, usually because our own are so pressing. This hit me hard, I will admit. I am generally considered an empathetic person. In fact, my empathetic tendencies are my greatest strength and weakness. So how had I missed my husband’s pain?
Harley makes this point clear, actually. The needs of men and women are often quite different. Because we don’t feel the same needs, we then have difficulty entertaining the notion that our spouses really need what they claim to need.
For my husband and me, the challenge was in part, defining exactly what our needs were. I am not by nature introspective. So when I asked myself what I needed from my marriage, I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Spencer, on the other hand, is much more introspective but he had a very difficult time owning to his needs. He grew up a middle child in a family where emotional needs were rarely if ever, met.
Harley defines a good number of basic feminine and masculine needs. That really helped us both articulate what was missing. I was so used to trying to fill what I thought were Spencer’s needs, that I lost sight of my own. Additionally, I wasted a lot of time giving him what he didn’t need.
- The primary goal of a marriage is to cooperate in building a lifestyle that brings emotional satisfaction to both partners. This one concept helped reframe how Spencer and I saw our marriage. Harley provides an extensive list of activities and lifestyles that help narrow down our choices.
We had each been laboring under the illusion that self-sacrifice was the way to make a marriage work. I gave up the things that made me happy in favor of the things that made him happy and vice versa. The only result we came up with is that we were both dissatisfied. Out of several hundred possible activities, we only ranked four or five as bringing us both satisfaction.
So we embarked on a campaign of learning how to have fun with each other again. It is so easy to forget the profound effect that fun can have in a relationship. As we began to build a catalog of good memories, we moved together out of a time of loss and pain.
I suppose what I appreciate most about this particular series is that it is practical. So many of the books on relationship, discipleship, and theology are largely theoretical. Everyone is an expert on telling their readers what their problem is and what their life should look like. In fact, books that are filled with observations of what life should look like often make things worse, I believe.
Holding up unrealistic ideals only adds to the guilt and shame one already feels, knowing that our lives fall short of our own ideals, much less someone else’s.
Nowadays, my husband and I talk about what we want our lives to look like. We go to museums and read books together. We take little trips together. Now that we redefined what looks like fun for the two of us together, we have the grace to give more time to the other in activities we merely tolerate. I will watch the occasional thriller. He will sometimes go on errands with me.
Most importantly, however, we have relearned to enjoy our marriage.
Now when I read articles about how we must give up our expectations and needs in order to make our marriages ‘functional’, I feel sad.
Of course, some marriages fail on the basis of serious character issues or the refusal of one mate to engage in the process of learning to love that marriage truly is. But barring these, most marriages could stand a little reorientation, a little more joy, and a lot more fun.
This post hits only the surface of what the actual course offers. In fact, Harley has a website with hundreds of resources for the couple serious about making their marriage not only work but be a deep source of enjoyment for both husband and wife. This is a new message, I think, for Christian couples, in a religious environment where marriages sometimes represent crosses to bear. I believe Harley’s focus is closer to what God intended when He created the institution of marriage.
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