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Couple Counsel

We're Both the Boss!

Q. My wife and I have problems agreeing on many things. For example, even though my wife is ready to have kids, I don't want to because we disagree on child rearing and financial responsibilities. She wants to have the authority to discipline our children without calling me at work first. I don't think it's too much to have her call me before disciplining the children. My wife wants to be in charge of bill paying. I think we should sit down every month and do it together, like my parents did. She thinks this is impractical. What can we do to start agreeing?

A. While it may seem as if your problem is about not being able to agree, the real issue is that you and your wife are experiencing a continuous power struggle. Marriage is a place where two people come together, bringing their history, background, upbringing, gender, personality, bad habits and good habits, gifts and talents. In other words, marriage is a coming together of many differences. God then says we are to become one. Easier said than done! The good news is we have the lifetime of marriage, the promises of God's Word, and the power of the Holy Spirit to help us accomplish that.

Whenever there is a conflict, our immediate response is to try and solve it—which means we want our spouse to see things the way we see them. Rather than focusing on agreeing, we would encourage you to focus on learning how to listen to each other.

Power struggles come out of insecurity and are about the need for control. Giving up control for some people seems risky because it feels unsafe. Building intimacy is risky business! We'll make mistakes, we'll get hurt, and at times we'll fail. Having control will never prevent failure but we guarantee it will prevent intimacy. Decide right now to let go of some of your control. It takes two to have a power struggle.

Then choose to listen and understand your mate. Do you really hear and care about the concerns of your spouse? Researchers tell us that we listen five times as fast as someone speaks, so when someone else talks, it's easy for us to get distracted. The most effective listening involves making eye contact with the person and letting her talk without interrupting to make suggestions or to help her finish a sentence. When you really listen, you don't think about what you are going to say when the other person stops talking.

What would it look like for you to develop a "couple" view of some of the issues you argue about? Both of you seem to be holding on to what you learned growing up, and certainly there is value to that experience. But becoming one means taking a look at how you and your wife can create your own unique ways of making decisions and setting policies in your marriage. Becoming one is a process that takes time and energy, and requires giving up control to be truly loving and understanding. And there are few things God has called us to do that pay greater dividends throughout our lives than a strong, healthy marriage relationship.

My Husband Annoys Everyone

Q. My husband has extremely annoying social behaviors that turn people off. I have tried to start friendships with other couples that seem promising, but when they meet my husband the friendship fizzes. He's a nice guy who just has a horrible sense of humor, and it's impossible to have a conversation with him that doesn't sound as though he's patronizing you. I know he doesn't realize how irritating his mannerisms appear to others. I've tried to mention in subtle ways some things he might do to adjust his behavior, but he gets defensive and angry. How can I help him?

A. It must be discouraging to love your husband, to know that he has strengths, and that when you've tried to help him he rejects that help. At the outset, realize that you will not be able to change your husband's behavior, so giving up that notion and releasing that responsibility to him will be helpful to your emotional, mental, and relational health.

You say you've tried to talk to him but he gets defensive and angry. Unfortunately, that is a common male response to a wife's loving attempts to "help" her husband. Before you get too upset at him, you should know that most men follow this pattern. This is in part because many men feel threatened by anything that looks like criticism because that makes them feel inferior or inadequate.

Given this male tendency, your direct attempts at "helping" him may not be the most productive. However, you have nothing to lose by bringing up the subject again with your husband—in some different ways. Ask him what he enjoys about friendships with other couples. Ask him what he enjoys about his friendship with you. Take his side and discuss how the two of you could become more successful at developing friendships.

How you interact with his irritating behavior may begin to shape it in ways that might eventually be helpful to him. Perhaps an effective approach might be to notice what's different about the times when people respond positively to him. In other words, work on catching him doing it better. Does he do something different during those times? Is it with certain people or while discussing certain topics? Is it in a certain social setting? Look for every opportunity to reinforce and encourage the more positive relational behavior.

Does he have any male friends or acquaintances, perhaps your pastor or a men's group leader at your church, who might be willing to talk with him? If they have any kind of a relationship with him and have personally experienced his obnoxious side, they might have the courage to "speak the truth in love" to him. Frequently a man will be more likely to hear something from an objective third party than from his spouse. We would also encourage you to pray for and with him. When you pray be sure to give God thanks for the strengths your husband does have.

Racist In-Laws

Q. I am in an interracial marriage, and we have just had a baby. My problem is my wife's family. Before our marriage they were cool toward me because of my race, but since we've been married, they've become openly frozen. I know they are trying to separate us, and now they won't acknowledge our baby. I feel I made a mistake recently by voicing my displeasure with their treatment of us. But what can I do? I'd like for my child to know his whole family.

A. The first few years of any marriage are challenging. But interracial marriages pose a unique set of challenges, and you are facing one of the biggest ones. It's painful to be rejected by family members, especially when you try to love them and desire to be accepted by them. It's even more difficult when your child is rejected.

Obviously, you can't just ignore their behavior, and it is impossible for it not to affect you and your marriage. At the same time you don't have to let it control you. We've seen many interracial marriages where the couple allowed God to use the adversity to draw them closer to himself and to each other. Your primary concern is your marriage and your child. According to Ephesians 5, your job is to love your wife as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her.

One word of warning: Be careful about getting angry with your in-laws and allowing that anger to control you. If you spend more time focusing on how they treat you rather than on how, with God's help, you can respond to them, you will be much more likely to allow the hurt to become bitterness, resentment, and unhealthy anger.

You can't change years of racial prejudice and hardened hearts. You also can't allow other people's fears and unkindness to determine your character. You can choose to function biblically. You can choose to find a group of men who will support you, encourage you, listen to you, and pray with you. You can choose to repay coldness with kindness. You can see this as an opportunity to learn and grow. During the next thirty days you can choose to read Matthew 5–7 (The Sermon on the Mount) daily and ask God to give you the wisdom and strength to apply at least one principle from that passage to your relationship with your in-laws.

If your wife's parents choose to be cold to you, it's their problem. Their behavior need not determine your level of joy and happiness. You can choose to love them regardless of their behavior toward you. You will need to let go of your expectations of what this family should look like. You simply cannot control that. If you need to grieve the loss of a loving extended family, do so, but keep your heart hopeful for the possibility of change.

Gary J. Oliver, Th.M., Ph.D., is the author of numerous books and is executive director of the Center for Marriage and Family Studies and Professor of Psychology and Practical Theology at John Brown University. Carrie Oliver, M.A., is a licensed professional counselor at the PeopleCARE Counseling Centers, specializing in marriage and family and women's issues. She is a seminar leader and co-author, with Gary, of Raising Sons and Loving It! (Zondervan).

We are not able to respond personally to readers' letters. But if you have a marriage question you'd like us to address in this column, send your question to:

Couple Counsel
Marriage Partnership
465 Gundersen Drive
Carol Stream, Illinois 60188

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Friendship; Interracial marriage; Marriage; Parenting
Today's Christian Woman, Summer, 2002
Posted September 30, 2008

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