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Handling Hidden Differences

The way you resolve your tensions now can build a better marriage for years to come.

For a young, insanely busy couple, the idea of marriage and family life one day slowing down sounds attractive. Someday, you tell yourselves, we'll have time to take long walks and have long talks.

Wait a minute. We'll have time to take long walks and have long talks?! That could mean ….

Yup. All those uncomfortable conversations, those squabbles you didn't bother to resolve over the years, might show up again.

All those times she ran up the credit card bill without telling you … and then you never really talked it out? His preoccupation with sports on tv when you needed help with the kids … but you got tired of fighting about it? If either of you got angry about something—1 time or 100 times—and then didn't resolve it with your spouse, guess what? That anger is still there—in the form of a time bomb, with the clock set for the second half of your marriage.

To find out how couples at any stage of marriage can defuse those time bombs, MP talked with the experts among experts: Gary and Norma Smalley. Gary's one of America's best-known authors and speakers on marriage and family relationships. His numerous books—including Making Love Last Forever—and videos about marriage have touched millions of couples. He and Norma also founded the Smalley Relationship Center in their hometown of Branson, Missouri, both as a base for their worldwide ministry and as a counseling and research center. Much of what Gary and Norma say about making a marriage work comes from the ups and downs of their own 38-year marriage. Here's what they had to say.

MP: They say that the longer two people are married, the more alike they become. Has that been true for the two of you?

Gary: We have the kind of personality differences that make the experts say it's impossible for us to work together. Norma is detailed, organized, and tense, and I'm just the opposite. The experts who work for us now, who do the personality tests, say there's no way on earth we should even be married or stay married, and we'll never be able to work together. So it's been only by the grace of God that we're still together.

Norma: One of the reasons we're still married is that we vigilantly maintain a friendship. We make sure we have a consistent weekly date night. When I talk with people who are going through their second half of marriage and experiencing such a difficult change when their kids are gone, I notice they didn't protect their friendship with each other.

MP: They've been so busy they didn't work at growing their marriage over the years?

Norma: Right. With some couples I've known, I've thought, Wow, why are you getting divorced? If you've made it for 15 or 20 years, can't you hang on? Well, in the second half of marriage, especially when the nest is empty, unresolved anger will probably surface. Let's say a husband and a wife both have a tendency to withdraw. They've just swept things under the carpet and moved on. Then, all of a sudden, the kids are gone and now all that "stuff" surfaces because they have more time to focus on it.

MP: Are there warning signs for couples who might unknowingly be planting seeds for those kinds of problems?

Gary: There are four reasons—I call them relationship germs—that cause more than 90 percent of divorce in America: withdrawing, escalating, belittling, and developing negative beliefs. They all have to do with negotiating your differences. All four of those relationship germs produce anger. So if you monitor anger every day, and clear it up, you stay emotionally out of the dark and more connected with each other.

I didn't know about these four relationship germs until Norma and I had been married more than 30 years. So I can look back over our marriage and realize, Wow, we were caught in those four things lots of times. But the way we negotiated our differences kept us out of those four relationship germs that could have killed our satisfaction, our love, and our marriage.

MP: How did you negotiate your differences?

Gary: Way back, starting about five or six years into our marriage, when we'd get stressed out and have a major disagreement, Norma and I would take a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle. On one side, we would list all the reasons we ought to do this thing, such as buy a new car. On the other side, we'd list all the reasons we shouldn't. Then after we had all the facts down, we'd look at the list and say, "You know what? This makes sense. What do you say we do this?" And we were able to come to an agreement, one way or the other, and move forward.

MP: What else has helped you handle conflict?

Norma: About 20 years ago, we were in a couples' small group through our church. That was probably the greatest thing for us. We'd learned some skills trial-and-error, but when we got into a small group, we worked specifically on marriage skills.

Later in our marriage, when we moved to Branson, we created what we call a "9-1-1 group." This is a more intensive group than a couples' small group. For us, a 9-1-1 group consists of three couple friends—all mature Christians—whom we really could trust and say anything to. When we'd have a problem we couldn't resolve, we'd call this group in.

MP: For example?

Gary: One time, about 17 years into our marriage, we were negotiating our will, to distribute things to our children if we were ever, say, killed in a plane crash. I disagreed totally with what Norma wanted to do. And we could never talk about it because we offended each other. Norma would say, "I won't sign that. That's it." And I'd say, "Well, we have to do something."

Norma: That was probably the first time I really stood firm with him over something I believed in.

MP: So what happened?

Gary: We decided to discuss it with our 9-1-1 group. The morning we were scheduled to meet with them, I said something really stupid to her. I said, "I'm embarrassed for you today." And Norma said, "What do you mean?" I said, "They're going to hear your thinking on this issue and they're going to know it's faulty and that I'm right."

When we got there, we did the sheet of paper with the line down the middle. We both wrote all our reasons we thought this was what we should do, and why we didn't agree with each other's ideas. The group listened—it's kind of like a grand jury. Then they gave their opinions. After we were finished, the solution was closer to her ideas than mine.

Norma: No, admit that they were all mine. (Laughter.)

Gary: Pretty close. But I listened to the group, saw the logic in their opinions and in Norma's, and I agreed with the solution. After I agreed, Norma became nervous, because she thought I would lecture her on the way home, saying, "I can't believe we're doing what you wanted to do." But I explained, even during the meeting, that I liked their advice and I agreed.

That was a lesson that taught us to respect each other's opinions. We might totally disagree. I didn't have to like what she said or her solution. But I had to listen, understand, and consider it in the negotiation process. That way, we would both be comfortable with the solution.

In marriage, the way two become one is that you take your disagreements, your different opinions about an issue, and you weave them together into a solution. It's like blending two colors. I'm blue, Norma is yellow. And we get green solutions.

MP: How can you reach a point where you're comfortable bringing others into those negotiations?

Norma: I understand there may be some insecurity, the feeling you don't want others to see your marriage weaknesses. Gary and I felt that way. But I think we would have avoided some hurt and angry feelings if early in our marriage we would have brought friends, whom we both trusted and felt good about, into our confidence. One thing that helps is to recognize those friends want to see your marriage succeed. But at first, it can be a scary proposition.

Gary: It also helps to look at what the Bible says about bringing in a third party. Proverbs 15:22 says that "plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed." There's safety in a multitude of counselors.

MP: What can a couple do to protect their spiritual relationship down the road?

Gary: It goes back to anger. Norma and I have grown spiritually at different rates and different times over the years, but we've discovered a big factor in protecting our spiritual relationship: If you don't regulate and manage your anger, that's what will kill your spiritual life—as well as your marriage.

MP: So what should we do with that anger?

Gary: The way we've managed our anger is to look for it, to recognize it in each other and ask, "How are you doing? What's up? What have I done? What has your boss done? What have the kids done?" Norma and I are always talking about our level of anger. That keeps us in check.

MP: That seems like a good relief valve, to keep the pressure from building.

Gary: It is. You never bury anger dead; you always bury it alive. And then it grows tentacles. The apostle Paul tells us to get anger out of our life before the sun goes down, because it gives Satan an advantage in our life (Ephesians 4:26-27). Anger moves you into darkness. And when you're in darkness, you're not growing spiritually, and you're not growing emotionally toward each other; you're tempted in a dark world.

MP: So let's say my wife and I see one or two of those four warning signs you mentioned earlier. What do we do?

Norma: Get involved in a small group. Early in our marriage, Gary and I were involved in church ministry in Waco, Texas. We'd learned about the importance of small groups and started our first small group. But I was also expected to be at everything at church, which caused me to feel overwhelmed with all the good things I should be doing. At the same time, I knew my children had to be a priority. That was tough to stay committed to all these things I thought I should be doing. Yet that small group was important to my marriage.

Gary: You get two major things in a small group. First, you get accountability—friends who will ask, "How's your marriage this week? You said at the beginning of our small group that you two wanted to grow in this specific area. How are you doing?" That's so valuable, because if you're not working on it, you have to say, "We're doing terribly."

The second thing is, you're getting support. You get energy. You get the flesh of other people hugging you and praying for you. You get the knowledge that they're there for you, applauding and cheering for you. That's so important.

Jim Killam, an MP regular contributor, teaches journalism at Northern Illinois University.

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

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Challenges; Differences; Marriage
Today's Christian Woman, Spring, 2003
Posted September 30, 2008

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