If you're feeling dissatisfied with the love in your marriage, give your life a reality check. It could be you've been buying into these four common myths:
- My state of mind is determined by my environment.
- People can't change.
- When you're in a bad marriage, you'll either have to resign yourself to a life of misery or get out.
- Some situations are hopeless.
If you read these four statements with a niggling sense that, yes, these falsehoods have crept into your own thinking, get ready to clear your mind with reality.
Exposing Four Myths
First, your environment certainly affects who you are, but it does not control you. If you believe myth #1, you've got a victim mentality.
The second myth fails to reckon with the reality of human freedom. Your local library is filled with accounts of people who've made radical changes. Consider Charles Colson, the Watergate criminal who later began an international agency to offer prisoners spiritual help. People can and do change—sometimes dramatically.
As for the third myth, why limit your horizons to two devastating alternatives? I've seen couples come to counseling, convinced they'll end up divorced, only to amaze themselves and each other by building love between them again. You're only a prisoner by your own choice; you can dismantle a prison without leaving your spouse.
The fourth myth flies in the face of God's truth, which insists that there is always hope because he is all-powerful.
It's time to throw out the myths and get ready to accept these six positive realities.
I am responsible for my own attitude
Trouble is inevitable, but misery is optional. Sometimes when two people are in a troubled marriage, one curses while the other prays. The difference is attitude.
Focus on how terrible the situation is and it'll get worse. Focus on one positive thing and another will appear. In the darkest night of a troubled marriage, a light always flickers. Zero in on that light and it will eventually flood the room.
Wendy's husband hasn't had a full-time job in three years—not that she's whining about it. "Now that we can't afford cable TV, we've done a lot more talking at night," she says. "We've learned a lot. It's amazing how many things we can do without that everybody else thinks they have to have. It's been a challenge, but we're making the most of it."
Three weeks after I met Wendy, I encountered Lisa, whose husband had been out of work for ten months. Lisa had been frantic with worry the whole time and had reached a point of mental and physical exhaustion. She was certain they'd lose everything. She moaned about having to drop cable TV and not being able to have a second car. She lived on the edge of despair.
Similar problems, completely different attitudes.
A "positive mental attitude" might sound like pop psychology, but the injunction to pursue "the bright side" is as old as Paul's letter to the Philippians: "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things" (Phil. 4:6-8).
Attitude affects actions
You may not be able to control your environment (sickness, irresponsible or addicted spouse, teen on drugs, an abusive or absent parent), but you choose what you'll do within your environment. Your attitude will greatly influence your behavior. If you've got a pessimistic, defeatist attitude it'll be expressed in negative words and behavior.
Wendy built her marriage during the stressful years of her husband's unemployment. She affirmed him when he got discouraged and assured him they'd make it until he got a full-time job. They both got part-time jobs. She came up with an idea to collect aluminum cans so they'd have "fun" money. They got so creative—from picking up pop cans on their evening walk to collecting regularly from local businesses and restaurants—that soon they were able to eat out and go to the movies every week. Wendy's positive attitude led to positive action.
Meanwhile, Lisa criticized her husband for ten months, telling all her friends—while her husband could hear her—how disappointed she was in him. She refused to work herself, and she spent most of her time sleeping or watching TV. No wonder their marriage was in serious trouble. Her negative attitudes and actions compounded the original problem.
I can't change others, but I can influence others
It's widely assumed that you can't change your spouse. But don't overlook the less obvious truth: that you still have great influence over him or her. Because we're relational creatures, we're influenced through our relationships.
I don't mean manipulation. That never works, because the moment your spouse realizes you're trying to exert control, there'll be rebellion. Nobody wants to be controlled.
But all married couples influence each other every day. When a guy comes home, kisses his wife and says, "I missed you today," he's influencing her in a positive way. But when a guy comes home and walks straight to his computer room without acknowledging his wife's presence, he's influencing her negatively. A woman would respond differently to those two different approaches.
This radical reality can bring about amazing changes in a spouse when one partner is willing to choose a positive attitude that leads to positive actions. One woman told me, "I can't believe what's happened to my husband. I never dreamed he could be so loving and kind."
My actions are not controlled by my emotions
Pop psychology pushes the myths that "you are what you feel" and that authentic living is being "true to your feelings." It's a short leap from that kind of thinking to "If I don't love my spouse, I might as well get out. It would be hypocritical to stay married."
People are more than their emotions. Human beings respond to life in four ways: with thoughts, feelings, desires and actions.
Thoughts interpret experience. You see dirty dishes in the sink at 10:30 p.m. and interpret that your wife is lazy. You see and hear your husband mowing the grass and interpret that he is a responsible individual.
Emotions accompany thoughts. If you think your wife is lazy, you might feel disappointment, anger or frustration. If you think your husband is responsible, you might feel grateful, encouraged or happy.
Your desires respond to your thoughts and feelings. Those dirty dishes may create a desire to give your wife a lecture. Seeing your husband hard at work on the lawn may give you a desire to take him lemonade or to express your thanks when he's done.
Either way, eventually you take action. If you let your negative emotions and desires control your actions, you'll make the situation worse with a negative action—and that stimulates a negative response in your spouse.
But you've got a brain. You can reason, "What's the best thing to do?" How about washing the dishes yourself and saying, "I love you. I didn't want you to have to face those dishes in the morning"? How about handing your husband a glass of lemonade with a word of thanks instead of "It's about time you mowed that jungle!"
Ultimately, your actions are far more important than your emotions. In fact, your actions will affect your emotions. If you're depressed and a friend calls to ask you out for a root beer float, you could deny your desire to mope and instead choose an action that will get you out where you can experience other, more positive emotions.
Don't buy the myth that your emotions dictate your actions. You're in charge of what you do, and positive actions hold the potential to bring healing to your relationship.
Admitting my imperfections doesn't mean I'm a failure
You know what I hear from most couples when they come in for counseling? He says, "She's critical of my job. She puts me down in front of the kids." She offers, "He's married to his job and has no time for me. He expects me to be a slave." Each points a finger at what the other has done to make the marriage miserable.
Over the years, their blame habit has built up a stone wall between them, a monument to self-centered living and a barrier to marital intimacy.
Then wall can be demolished, but it requires both partners to admit that they've failed each other. Many times, one spouse is more at fault than the other, but neither is perfect. Your spouse knows you've failed, and you know it. Acknowledging your imperfections is simply admitting you're human.
Then get free. Asking for forgiveness of past failures is one of the most liberating of all human experiences. Even if you're the only one acknowledging your imperfection, you begin to tear down that wall.
Hang in there. If you've hurt your spouse deeply, he or she may question the sincerity of your plea for forgiveness. He or she may not express forgiveness at first, but you've done the best thing you can do with a failure of the past and you've planted the idea that the future is going to be different.
Admitting your past actions doesn't mean you're accepting all the responsibility for your troubled marriage. It means you're no longer using your spouse's failures as an excuse for your own. You're taking responsibility for your own actions and you're paving the road of hope for a new future.
Love is the most powerful weapon for good
French novelist Victor Hugo wrote, "The supreme happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved." Sigmund Freud said, "Love is the first requirement of mental health." Everyone agrees that love holds a central place in our search for meaning. But somehow we've ended up focusing more on receiving love than on giving it.
Folks who come to me for counseling say things like, "If she'd just be a little more affectionate, then I could be more responsive to her." See how this husband waits for love before he'll give it? In a relationship, someone's got to take the initiative. Why do we always expect it to be the other person?
To put love to work as the most powerful weapon for good, you've got to stop thinking of love as an emotion. Love is an attitude followed by appropriate behavior. Love says, "I choose to look out for your interests. How may I help you?" Then love is expressed in actions.
And the good news is that, because it's not an emotion, love can be chosen and learned. The apostle Paul wrote to husbands, "Love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her" (Eph. 5:25). In another letter, Paul challenged the older women to "train the younger women to love their husbands" (Titus 2:4).
Reality Living, Reality Loving
When you throw out the four myths and get real, love has a chance to flourish. Your attitudes and actions can stimulate positive emotions and even actions in your spouse. As you behave with real love and your spouse responds, you'll find your love growing—in both actions and emotions.
So even for a marriage that has grown cold, there's always hope—because there's always the option of reality love.
Gary Chapman is a pastor and counselor based in North Carolina. He is the author of several books, including Toward a Growing Marriage (Moody).
1999 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.