Q: My husband is the king of last-minute gift shoppers, and every Christmas I find that I have to struggle past hurt feelings to feel thankful for the things he chooses. The gifts are nice, but they're things any woman could receive—perfume, slippers, bath oils—not things that show he really knows me. I know he's busy, but would it kill him to make more of an effort?
A: This is one of those "Mars and Venus" subjects. Hard as it is for women to believe, it's true that most men don't know what to buy their wives. The reason you end up with perfumes and bath oils is that those things seem feminine and expensive—and because that's what the sales clerk suggests to your husband, who may very well be feeling "mall panic."
I know you feel taken for granted, but try not to link his shopping ineptitude with his appreciation for you. You say he's not stingy; that's a clue that he's trying in the only way he knows how to give you something meaningful.
As much as you hate to do it, you'll have to drop hints—and not too subtly either. It somewhat defeats the purpose, since you want him to be creative on his own. But if you get him started in the right direction, perhaps he'll catch on. Dream out loud, specifically: "I'd really, really like a getaway weekend at a bed-and-breakfast at the lake; it would make a good present sometime." "That garnet necklace is stunning, but it's beyond our everyday budget. Honey, maybe some holiday or birthday you could surprise me with something like that" (mark the catalog and give it to him). "More than any present, I'd like an evening out with you at a really nice restaurant." Or if you collect something, suggest that he find pieces that you don't already have.
Meanwhile, keep buying gifts for him that require the kind of creativity and spontaneity you're looking for. Maybe he'll notice, and your talent will rub off.
Q: My mother-in-law seems to have so much sway with my husband, more than I have sometimes. Recently we were considering a career move that would have taken us hundreds of miles away. My husband's mother told him, "What's really important to you, career or your family?" The guilt trip she laid on him made the decision for us. How can I tactfully tell her to back off?
A: You can't, so don't try. A friend once told me, "A word to the wise is unnecessary." The only person (besides herself) who can tell this woman anything might be your husband (her son). But even that could be a lose-lose scenario if your mother-in-law gets the idea that you're behind it. So don't have a conversation that could alienate the two of you for the rest of your marriage.
Another reason to avoid telling her off is that you don't want to force your husband into a painful choice. His loyalty to you could cause him either to distance himself from his family or to have to endure his mother's punishing remarks for years. He's bound to resent that wedge driven between you and his family and even resent you, who in some ways caused it.
Ideally your husband should respond to his mom's "suggestions" tactfully and firmly with a comment like, "Mom, I hear what you're saying. Nancy and I will talk and pray about this. These are decisions we make together." In this way he's doing what the Bible says—"leaving" his father and mother and "cleaving" to his own wife.
Your role as daughter-in-law is a tough one. It may sound old-fashioned to suggest that you must have a deferential, even submissive, attitude toward your mother-in-law, but it's a biblical pattern. Ask God to give you patience and grace to respond lovingly in the face of her tyrannical behavior, and ask God to soften her heart toward you. Who knows how God will use your gracious behavior in this woman's life? I've heard of wretched mothers-in-law who, when facing tragedy or illness, turn to the in-law who has shown grace and strength over the years. This is "turning the other cheek" and "doing good to those who despitefully use you." It's loving your enemy. It sounds like a weak response, but it takes a lot of strength to respond in a Christlike way.
Meanwhile, build your teamwork with your husband so he gets accustomed to making decisions, big and small, with your good input. Maybe part of his problem is that he's still learning how to work as a partner with you. You can't do much about the mother-in-law, but you should do everything you can to be a solid teammate with your husband. As his comfort level grows, he will be more likely to make decisions that are informed by your input, not his mother's.
Q: My wife is a Christian, but she feels uncomfortable praying out loud, even a standard written-down prayer. I've asked her to pray with me, but she won't. How can we be spiritually connected if she won't pray with me?
A: This is a question I've heard hundreds of times. For many people who have no trouble praying as individuals, it's almost impossible for them to get past their feelings of privacy, feelings that there's a "sanctity of soul" between a person and God that can't be breached, even by a spouse. Give up your expectation that your wife will pray out loud with you. There are other ways you can be spiritually connected. If she's a believer, she is praying on her own, so go ahead and share prayer requests with her. No doubt she'll be happy to pray for you, if not with you.
A devotional book could be a useful tool, as well—either to read out loud together or for both of you to read at different times of day. (Sometimes Janie and I buy two copies of a book so we can read them at the very same time.)
Perhaps your wife would feel comfortable having a devotional time in the same room, but separately. Janie and I do this every morning, she being one of those folks for whom it feels forced to have a quiet time together.
Work on your conversational give-and-take as you discuss movies you go to and books (even novels) you both read. Reacting to what you see and read as a Christian brings up spiritual topics for discussion. Connecting at the head is a short step to connecting in spirit.
Don't be afraid to create a pattern for sharing your spiritual lives that suits the two of you. It's a cultural, not biblical, mandate that you must pray out loud with a spouse. If anything, the Bible points out the danger of public prayer in the story of the loud-spoken Pharisee (whose prayer sounded holy but whose heart was hard) and the sinner whose quiet repentance was the real thing.
Perhaps as your wife becomes comfortable with other ways of sharing spiritually, she will begin to pray out loud. But even if she never does, it's not a failure in your marriage.
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 is not able to re spond personally to readers' letters. But if you have a marriage question you'd like him to address in this column, send your question to:
Q & A, Marriage Partnership
465 Gundersen Drive, Carol Stream, IL 60188
1999 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.