It's discouraging," Marc said of his 24-year marriage. "We disagree on everything. We're both bull-headed, which has created conflicts and a coldness about our relationship." His wife, Marsha, chimed in, "Over the years we've both piled on the resentment. There's been more effort on my part than his. He's so critical. We hardly spend time together and we rarely touch or affirm each other."
While some people enjoy winter sports such as snowmobiling and skiing, no couple enjoys a winter marriage. Winter marriages, such as Marc and Marsha's, are characterized by coldness, harshness, and bitterness. The dreams of spring are covered with layers of ice, and the weather forecast calls for more freezing rain.
What brings a couple to the winter season? In a word: rigidity—the unwillingness to consider the other person's perspective and to work toward a meaningful solution. All couples face difficulties and have differences. Couples who fail to negotiate these differences will find the marriage growing cold. When one or both spouses insist on "my way or not at all," they move toward winter.
In winter, attitudes turn negative. Sarah and Will have been married 19 years. She told me, "I tried to work on our marriage, but it seemed as if he interpreted everything I suggested as nagging. Nothing worked, so I shut down. I don't care about his needs at this point. I'm waiting for him to put some energy into our marriage."
"It makes me feel like we're never going to make it. It just keeps getting worse," Will said. "We fight 24/7. I can't go on like this, and I don't know what else to do." In winter we perceive the problems as too big and our positions as too entrenched. We think that disagreements have gone on too long and can never be resolved. We blame our spouse for the decline in our relationship.
Most couples experience winter from time to time. It may last a month or 30 years. It may begin three months after the wedding or hit in the mid-life years. If your marriage is in winter, it may appear beyond hope. But don't give up. Just as most people wouldn't lie down in the snow and wait to die, there's no reason to accept passively the coldness of a wintry marriage. There is a way out, and it begins with a change of attitude.
A winter marriage often makes couples desperate enough to break out of their silent suffering and seek the help of a counselor, pastor, or trusted friend. Those who seek help find it.
Thawing the ice of a winter relationship requires the courage to admit one's own failures in the past, first to God and then to one's spouse. Apologizing and asking forgiveness is the first step.
The second step is choosing a positive attitude. Ask God to help you turn from seeing the worst in your marriage to seeing the potential. Instead of believing your situation is hopeless, believe in the power of God to change you and to touch your spouse's heart. When you ask him to let you be an agent for helping your spouse become all God has designed him or her to be, you begin to move out of winter.
The third step is to speak your spouse's love language. Find out what makes your spouse feel loved (your biggest clue is what he or she has complained about through the years). Ask God to help you love your spouse. The Bible says, "Love covers over a multitude of sins" (1 Peter 4:8).
The fourth step is to maximize your differences. Differences were never meant to be divisive. Ask God to show you how your differences can be an asset to your relationship. When this happens, you'll know spring is near.
Working through winter may not be "fun" or "exciting," like sledding down a steep hill or a ski trip to Vail. But when couples persevere and take positive steps to improve their marriage, they emerge stronger, more committed, and better able to work through their differences. By extending peace, even in the midst of pain and alienation, countless couples have discovered deep healing and even deeper intimacy. When two people choose to love again, the melting ice of winter will water the seeds of spring.
Gary D. Chapman, Ph.D., is author of The Four Seasons of Marriage and co-author of It Happens Every Spring, a novel to be released January 2007 (both Tyndale).
Win!Want an autographed copy of Gary Chapman's book The Four Seasons of Marriage? Go to marriagepartnership.com/contest for rules and entry form. All submissions must be received by January 15, 2007. Three winners will be chosen January 31, 2007.
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