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The Marriage Tightrope

How balanced are you? Here's a quick way to find out

No marriage is perfect. That's because wherever there are two people, there tend to be imbalances. As a couple, you need a good sense of balance in five major areas. Take the following Quickquizes to determine whether you and your spouse are achieving a workable sense of equilibrium.

The Power Struggle

"Everything turns into a power struggle with Ronnie," says Jill in frustration. "No matter what, it's his way or no way."

Jill and Ronnie have an imbalance in power—one of them is trying to control the other. That's a big red warning flag, since healthy individuals don't need to control others. Sometimes both partners fight for control—and those are some real battles! But in most power struggles, one spouse is dominating, as Ronnie is.

"I need his permission to do anything," Jill complains. "He'll intimidate me to get his way!" Worst of all, she says, "I don't even like myself anymore." A power imbalance gradually takes its toll on the self-esteem of the one who is being controlled. Love can't thrive under domination.

So how can Ronnie and Jill regain some balance? Sometimes it's a matter of waking up the controller, who may be clueless about how his domination affects his marriage. Jill could bring Ronnie's attention to the process of his insensitivity (the pattern, not a specific instance): "Honey, have you ever noticed that you seem to be the one who makes all of the decisions around here? That makes me feel unimportant."

Ronnie really wants to be a great husband with a loving marriage, so Jill's wake-up call might be enough to push him toward the needed adjustments. More extreme instances of power imbalances, however, may require outside professional assistance.

The Power Quickquiz

  1. Are there times when either of you feels afraid in your relationship?
  2. When you disagree, does either of you try to win through intimidation?
  3. Does one of you have "more rights" than the other?


"Janice and I have a give-and-take relationship. I give and she takes!" says Brett. When their love was young, Brett noticed that Janice typically gave her needs priority over his, but back then it was pretty easy to overlook. Over the years, the pattern got clearer—and much less acceptable.

"Janice doesn't figure me into her formula of decision-making," he explains. "She just gets frustrated if I tell her what I need or expect." Janice is probably a person who knows what she wants and gets things done. When Brett's "interferences" get in the way of her goals, it annoys her.

Brett and Janice have an imbalance in mutuality. In a mutual relationship, each partner willingly puts himself out for the other. This willingness communicates, "I care for you." Brett has put himself out for Janice and gone the extra mile. So far, Janice hasn't recognized the need to do the same for him. But what could happen when Janice learns that being in a relationship actually costs something? It could be great for their marriage.

Whether Janice's insensitivity is a case of oversight, the product of a driven nature, an underdeveloped level of maturity or a misperceived sense of her own importance, Brett should make her aware of his hurt. If she can see how her priorities push Brett aside, Janice can take responsibility for changing her behavior.

The Giving Quickquiz

  1. Is there an inequality in the give-and-take in your marriage?
  2. Does either of you seem unwilling to "go the extra mile" for the other?
  3. Does either of you feel your need are seen as less important, or even ignored, by your spouse?

Too Much, Too Little, Too Late?

"I'll raise three kids—but not four!" Mary really only has three children, but her husband, John, isn't a dependable partner. During ten years of marriage, John's held down a job only about half the time. Mary knows the pattern well. A "problem at work" is followed by John being laid off. He then files for unemployment and does nothing until it runs out. He begins to look for some other kind of work only after a great deal of prodding from Mary. John evades responsibility at home too. If he helps out with the housework, it's only because of Mary's insistence. Mary doesn't even dare to leave the kids with him. "I just can't count on John!" she says.

Don't panic. A little imbalance just means it's time to talk.

Mary and John have a responsibility imbalance. Mary is tired and overwhelmed, and she feels hopeless. Actually, there are two sides to this imbalance: one partner's doing too little, while the other is doing too much. Both Mary and John could make changes that would improve things. As they identify the pattern and talk about it, Mary could adjust her expectations to more realistic ones and try not to "handle" everything. John would clearly need to begin taking on more tasks and get serious about providing for the family. But they could start by negotiating some small changes. What is John willing to commit to? What is Mary willing to settle for? Mary's tension may relax as she controls her own over-responsible actions and encourages John in his attempts at responsible behavior.

The Responsibility Quickquiz

  1. If something gets done, is it because only one of you takes charge and gets it done?
  2. Does either of you sometimes feel overwhelmed because you constantly "pull more than your share of the load"?
  3. Does either of you seem less like a partner and more like a parent, constantly acting as a motivator?

Spouse Wars

"I don't intentionally try to hurt Tina's feelings, but I'm only human. Then, when I have hurt her, she never deals with me about it. She just stuffs it away." Jerry is concerned about Tina's feelings, but he's even more worried about what will happen to their marriage if they keep avoiding conflict. "I never can tell at the time that Tina's mad," he says, "but it always comes out later." Jerry's right to be concerned. Unresolved anger leads to resentment—and resentment wreaks marital havoc.

Jerry and Tina have an imbalance in dealing with conflict. Jerry honestly deals with Tina about dissatisfactions that come up, but Tina avoids that kind of discussion. Ultimately, those little resentments build up a wall that separates; Jerry and Tina will no longer feel so close.

To achieve a better balance, Tina will have to start talking to Jerry about her hurts and frustrations. But first they should focus on Tina's feelings and her attitude. Why does she avoid dealing with Jerry? Is it something she's learned to do? Does she want to protect Jerry's feelings? Does she think a Christian wife is not supposed to express her disappointment or anger? Jerry and Tina really need to talk—and they should choose a time when neither of them is upset. As they discover why they're not dealing with the conflicts in their marriage, they can create a game plan. What can they both do to help Tina deal with problems?

The Deal-with-It Quickquiz

  1. Are there times when one of you feels too uncomfortable to talk to the other about dissatisfactions?
  2. Does either of you sometimes "stuff" a problem because you don't want to hurt your spouse's feelings?
  3. If you don't deal with things directly, is either of you getting the message of your disappointment or dissatisfaction across in other, subtler ways?

How Purple Is Your Passion?

"If Ken were a color, he'd be beige," says Carla, describing her husband of 15 years. She still loves the man of her dreams—sort of. "How can I stay connected to a man who won't talk to me?" Ken and Carla talk, of course, but Ken never seems to get past the superficial events of his life while Carla aches to hear about what's really going on inside him.

Ken is a dutiful husband, a dependable father, a responsible provider. He's so good Carla feels guilty for having complaints. But her loneliness is painful. "I just need more than he's willing to give," she sighs.

Ken and Carla are unbalanced in emotional investment. Carla wants to share who she really is with Ken. Ken feels more comfortable keeping his inner life of feelings and dreams to himself. And that's the quickest way to stifle intimacy.

Things can change for Ken and Carla, but Ken will have to recognize the legitimacy and intensity of Carla's desires. He needs to take the risk of sharing himself more. While reaffirming her love and commitment to Ken, Carla can help by being specific: "It would really help if we could talk right before bedtime," for example. Instead of getting discouraged and giving up, she should keep opening up with Ken herself because she's modeling for him the kind of interaction she'd like. Ken will find that some small changes can make a world of difference in their relationship.

The Emotional Investment Quickquiz

  1. Does either of you feel lonely in your marriage?
  2. Does it seem that if one of you stopped sharing, nothing of depth would ever be communicated?
  3. Does one of you feel like the sole emotional cheerleader in your marriage?

If you had a few "yes" answers to these Quickquizes, don't panic. A little imbalance just means it's time to talk. A check-up on these five areas can be an encouragement to each of you to go the extra mile, pull your fair share of the load, deal with dissatisfactions, let go of control and share who you are. As you work toward balance in your marriage, you'll reap the relationship rewards.

Donald Harvey is associate professor of graduate psychology at Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville and a marital therapist in private practice. He and Jan have been married 26 years and have two grown children.

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

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Balance; Control; Marriage
Today's Christian Woman, Spring, 1999
Posted September 30, 2008

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