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Playing for Keeps

Stop playing these mind games and start strengthening your marriage.

When my niece, Carye, was young, she'd frequently ask me to play a board game with her. If I agreed, Carye would reappear, game in hand, exclaiming, "Now this is my game, so I'm going to win!"

Carye's now in her twenties; we still laugh over how she always had to win at her own games. But it's no laughing matter that many adult women still play games, insisting on winning at all costs. I'm not talking about board games; I'm referring to the mind games women play in marriage. Many of us subconsciously assign roles, make up rules, and attempt to win so we feel better about ourselves or get our needs met. Some of these mind games can cost a woman her husband's respect and affection—or worse, her marriage.

What follows are some of the most common games wives play in their marriages. If one of these has been a flame-killer in your relationship, take heart. You can begin to inspire, rather than require, intimacy in your relationship.

The "Mommy/Child" Game

As women, one of our greatest attributes is our natural mothering instinct. We're not afraid to roll up our sleeves and dive into sibling squabbles, slumber parties, field trips, vomit, poop, blood, or anything else for the benefit of our children. After all, we're responsible for their well-being until they're able to take responsibility for themselves.

However, your husband is already grown up—and he doesn't appreciate being treated like a child. As one spouse, Peter, explains, "It's unnerving how my wife harps on me like she harps on our kids about doing something around the house. She can't just ask me once and trust I'll do it. She keeps bringing it up until I do it out of exasperation. I feel as though she has no more respect for me than she does for our preschoolers. When she treats me like a child instead of a man, the last thing I want to do is have sex with her. That would feel like having sex with my mother."

There have been times when I've fallen into the mother role with my husband, Greg, too. I've insisted he be home from work at a certain time rather than trust he'll come home as soon as he can. I've attempted to control what he eats and how often he exercises, as if he's clueless about living a healthy lifestyle. I've created "honey-do" lists a mile long with the dates by which I needed things done, as if his free time were completely mine to control. Like Peter, Greg admits it's unnerving to have a wife micromanage his life.

Women frequently admit to me they feel more like their husband's mother or boss than his partner. If this sounds familiar, remember, while you can't require your husband's cooperation, you can inspire it. If you want him to be internally (rather than externally) motivated to help out around the house, for instance, encourage him with a nice comment. When you see him doing a particular chore, say, "I'm so thankful to have a guy who's willing to do that!" He'll feel more like your hero than your rebellious child; chances are good he'll want to play that heroic role more often in the future.

We'd all do well to remember only children, not grown men, need a mother. Strive to be your man's loving peer, not his parent.

The "Spoiled Child/Sugar Daddy" Game

I couldn't help but feel sorry for one woman's husband when she told me, "I can get anything I want from Dan, within reason, of course. All I have to do is cross my legs and stop cooking, and he'll cave in after a couple of days." Translation: I'll withhold sex and starve him until he caters to my every whim.

When a woman emotionally manipulates her husband to get her way, she creates an unhealthy dynamic. Maybe you've played the spoiled-child role in more subtle ways than the woman above. Do any of these words sound familiar?

"You didn't mind wining and dining me when we were dating, so why won't you splurge on me now?"

"I'd much rather stay in a nice hotel on the beach than with your relatives. Aren't I worth it to you?"

With the invention of the credit card, unmanageable debt is as easy as a magnetic swipe and a signature. Money (or the lack of it) is one of the most common sources of marital strife, so it's important not to place more of a financial load on you and your husband than you can reasonably carry. To avoid unnecessary stress on your marriage, use a "cash, check, or debit card only" system, especially if you're prone to spending borrowed money with a credit card.

Regardless of how much money either partner earns, a husband tends to carry most of the responsibility for making sure the family's provided for because that's how men are wired. A wife only increases that burden when she demands things she doesn't really need.

The apostle James says desires battling within us often are the source of quarrels, and that we often don't have something because we fail to ask God for it or because our motives are wrong (James 4:1). The next time you want to make a purchase that might have a major impact on the family budget, pray about whether it's really something you need. If it is, talk about it with your husband and consider what sacrifice you can make to shoulder some of the burden so your husband isn't overwhelmed by the request. Regardless of your prayers' outcome, keep your relationship a priority over any purchase you wish to make. Nothing you can possess will ever be as valuable to you as your marriage.

The "Holy Spirit/Wretched Sinner" Game

I don't want to minimize any woman's pain if she's living with an avowed nonbeliever; however, legalism and self-righteousness are two things Jesus spoke against more often than any other issue. Many of us have to admit we often assign the "bad guy" role to our husband while we wear the angelic halo.

Every Christian woman longs for a strong spiritual leader at home. But sometimes it takes years for a man to mature into such a role. Unfortunately, many women stunt that process with their self-righteous indignation. You only can model the abundant Christian life for your husband, not force him to experience it. As much as you may desire your husband to become more committed to spiritual things, remember there's only one God—and you're not him. Deep, heart-felt change is possible only through the real Holy Spirit, not the one you try to be for your husband. Simply pray for your husband, lovingly encourage him when appropriate, and let the Holy Spirit do what only he can do in your husband's life.

The "Patient/Therapist" Game

Like many women, I find it helpful to talk things aloud. When your problems are easily solved, your husband can make a great sounding board. However, problems that can't be easily identified or remedied can become a wedge between husband and wife, causing frustration and confusion.

Such was the case with Wendy and Jeremy, who'd been married six months when Wendy told him about the sexual abuse she'd experienced as a child at the hands of a neighbor. Jeremy was very understanding at first. He told her he'd work overtime to pay for counseling if Wendy would go. But she didn't want to burden him with the expense, so she told him she was OK. Yet Wendy was rarely interested in sex because it reminded her too much of the abuse. Instead, she'd ask Jeremy to hold her while she talked about how she felt about it.

Eventually, her husband got so tired of hearing the bitter memories that he said, "Look, I don't mind listening to you, but unless you want me to go find this guy and beat him up, maybe it's best you not tell me all this stuff." Although it wasn't what Wendy wanted to hear, it actually was a turning point in their relationship.

"For a while I took Jeremy's response as rejection," says Wendy today. "But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I was trying to get him to counsel me even though he'd never taken a psychology class! While I'm still honest with Jeremy, now I don't tell him gory details about things he can't do anything about. Those I take into my counselor's office instead of my bedroom."

As Wendy discovered, men are problem solvers by nature. But when your problems are incredibly complex and deeply rooted, your husband can feel overwhelmed and frustrated by his inability to fix things. So if you need a problem solved and your husband can solve it, feel free to look to him. But if you need therapy to overcome an ongoing issue your husband isn't trained to handle, do yourself and your husband a favor, and go to a therapist.

Of course, the reverse is also true. If your husband needs to work through deep-seated issues, it's unrealistic to think you're all the counselor he needs. Encourage and support him, but don't try to fix him. You're his wife, not his therapist.

Game playing is never the answer. The only way you'll truly experience relational fulfillment is by simply loving your husband for whom God made him to be rather than trying to make him play the role you want him to play. With God's help, you can learn to recognize and verbalize your needs in a way that respects your husband rather than manipulates him. And that's how you set the stage for you both to feel like winners.

From Every Woman's Marriage by Shannon & Greg Ethridge. ©2006. Published by WaterBrook Press. Used with permission.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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