Q: My wife comes from a wealthy family, and every Christmas each adult family member spends scandalous amounts of money buying gifts for one another. On the other hand, my family is content to share inexpensive gifts. My wife and I earn a modest salary, but she thinks it's okay to exhaust our December budget on her family while spending a pittance on mine. What would you do if you were in my shoes?
A: Try again to talk with your wife, expressing yourself the way you have in this letter. Discuss with her what makes gift-giving meaningful. What does your wife feel is being accomplished by giving lavish gifts to members of her family? If she feels the gifts convey that she can "keep up," she is actually buying the gifts out of her own need to appear successful and not to meet the needs of her family.
She should realize that her relatives probably have a fair idea that those expensive gifts are too big a stretch for your family budget. They may feel embarrassed, or even a little guilty, over receiving the gifts. Scaling back on gift-giving might make them feel better, since they would know you were spending within your means.
Or it may be that your wife honestly feels these expensive gifts are the best way to show her relatives she loves them. If that's the case, help her brainstorm creative gift ideas that will demonstrate love without costing an arm and a leg—perhaps something handmade; a meaningful card or poem; or some unique, inexpensive item that shows you thought a lot about the recipient's interests or talents. Investing yourselves makes a gift far more meaningful than investing your limited cash.
Q: Before I got married 20 years ago, I was engaged to another woman. She broke it off because she wasn't ready to make a commitment. A few months ago this woman called me and said she still loves me. I told my wife about the conversation, but not about the inner turmoil I've been feeling. I keep thinking about all the "what ifs"—how my life would be different now if I had married the other woman. My marriage is good, but it could be much better. Now that my old girlfriend has shown up, I'm tempted to rethink my commitment to my wife. What's the answer?
A: The temptation you describe is one of the most common, the most subtle and the most dangerous that married people face. It has the potential to destroy your marriage and your happiness.
Everyone has opportunities to rethink major life decisions. But once you've made a decision that involves another person—and your relationship with God—no good can come from looking back. When you married, you entered into an unbreakable covenant with your wife and with God, and second-guessing can lead to serious sin.
When you think of your old girlfriend or feel tempted to turn your back on your marriage, turn your heart toward God instead. Thank him for the good opportunities and choices you had as a young person. And thank him for the choice you made to marry your wife.
Beyond that, it is crucial that you cut off all contact with the other woman. You can be kind, explaining that long ago, the two of you shared strong feelings and good experiences. But tell her unequivocally that your marriage is now your priority. Like a moth that flies too near a flame and then finds its wings destroyed, you risk your marriage and happiness if you agree to talk occasionally on the phone or maintain "casual" correspondence with her. The Bible's commands for confronting temptations of this kind involve words like "flee" and "avoid"—there's no gray area here.
Think of it this way: If your dog kept begging for food while you were eating dinner, you'd be a fool to think, "Oh, he'll go away if I just give him a little bite of something." The only way to keep the dog away from the table is to stop feeding him when he begs.
This "what if" game you mention is a game of dangerous fantasy. It seems this other woman is playing it too. During the 20 years you have been apart, she has no doubt been involved in other relationships. Perhaps she recently lost a man she loved deeply. Now she thinks of you and the past—a past uncomplicated by the daily realities and problems of living with another person. You're doing the same thing. You say your marriage could be better, and you contrast it with the fantasy of what life might have been with this other woman. None of that fantasy is real, and God is calling you to fulfill the real promise of your real marriage.
Q: My wife has many talents, so she's called on to fill more and more roles. She helps out at our son's school, teaches piano, directs the choir at church and holds down a part-time job. The problem is I feel like everyone else gets the best of her energy, and I only get the little that is left over. I'm facing some uncertainty at work, and I've tried to talk with my wife about it. But I get the impression she's willing to pay attention to my troubles only when it fits into her schedule. I feel squeezed out of her life just at a time when I really need her input. What should I do?
A: It's astonishing how easily work and other outside concerns encroach on the relationships we value most. I got my own wake-up call the morning I saw my son's name on my daily appointment list. When he arrived at my office, I asked him, "Why would you make an appointment? We can talk at home." And he told me, "You're so busy, Dad. But I noticed you always make room for anyone who has an appointment. I want as much time as you would give one of those people." I realized then that my family needed more than just "equal time"; they needed to be a primary focus. It changed my life.
Go to your wife and express, with humility and vulnerability, how much you need her. And tell her you feel "squeezed out" by her many activities. She'll probably understand how you feel. In the early years of marriage, it's common for women to feel what you are describing. When the husband is happy, busy and fulfilled in his work, he often becomes preoccupied and doesn't feel an urgent need for his wife's partnership. As a result, a pattern of independence, rather than healthy interdependence, develops. Acting in self-defense, a woman may fill her life with fulfilling activities separate from her husband. Then, when her husband realizes how much he needs her closeness and support, he becomes resentful of the many facets of her life that sap her time and energy.
As you talk with your wife about your desire for her companionship, be prepared to listen carefully. And be ready to humble yourself and admit that you needed her all along—even if you didn't show it. Remind each other why you got married in the first place: because you loved one another and wanted to build a lifelong partnership. Then be patient as the two of you work together to build a real partnership.
Jay Kesler is president of Taylor University in Upland, Indiana. He was formerly a pastor and also served as president of Youth for Christ. Jay and his wife, Janie, have been married 39 years.
Jay is not able to respond personally to readers' letters. But if you have a marriage question you'd like him to address in this column, send your question to:
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Copyright © 1996 by Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership Magazine.