Sitting with my husband at a seminar on love and respect in marriage, I squirmed. Some of what I was hearing hit close to home. It seemed that what one spouse sees as "helpful," the other might consider disrespectful. I turned to Charles, wondering what he was thinking as he listened to the same message. The more I heard from the presenter, the clearer it became that I had some work to do.
For example, that very week I had laid out his vitamins and prescription meds at breakfast every morning even though he's perfectly capable of doing this himself. In fact, he knows the routine better than I do. After all, they're his pills, not mine. But I assumed that unless I took charge he'd ignore or forget them. I also "suggested" what foods would help him lose weight and coaxed him into eating a salad each day. And I took over researching some facts he needed for a speech he was writing because it would be faster if I did it myself.
Taking Care or Taking Charge?
Some might see these actions as helpful, even loving things to do for one's mate. But in my case, they weren't about help or love—or respect. They were about control, my trying to manage and direct my husband in matters that are his business. I thought my way was better, so I imposed it without giving thought to how it might affect him.
One time when I offered my point of view (without being asked) on a dilemma he faced with one of his grown children, Charles said in a firm tone, "You're treating me like a 5-year-old. Please back off."
I was stunned—and hurt—until I realized he was right. He rarely steps into my space and takes over. He doesn't lay out my vitamins, tell me what to eat, or impose his will on my relationship with my children. In fact, he respects my abilities and often tells me how much he admires what I accomplish.
We returned home after the seminar, equipped with a book, pages of notes, and a commitment to talk about what it means to each of us to love and respect the other. That event occurred ten years ago. Our relationship has changed considerably since then—for the better.
Charles now has a vitamin case and takes care of filling it or neglecting to do so, and I stay out of it. He voices his food choices. And when issues arise about his kids, I listen with interest but comment only if he asks for my opinion. Of course I slip now and again, but mostly I show love and gratitude for who he is and what he does, and my life (our life together) is so much happier, easier, and pleasant because of this.
When You Get Off Track
It's one thing to learn a new way to behave. It's quite another to practice it. Following the seminar, we joined six other couples once a month for prayer, discussions on topics related to marriage, and refreshments. These meetings made a huge difference to all of us. When things got rough at home, we knew we had a safe place to go where people would hear, love, and support us. Here are some of the challenges couples encountered and the changes we made.
Old Behavior: Answering a question directed at our spouse.
New Behavior: Remaining silent while our mate replies and learning something new about him or her.
Old Behavior: Giving advice without being asked.
New Behavior: Listening with interest, trusting our mate to find his or her solution, and supporting that discovery.
Old Behavior: Explaining our partner's point of view for him or her.
New Behavior: Waiting eagerly to hear his or her viewpoint and encouraging it.
Old Behavior: Making financial decisions without consulting our mate.
New Behavior: Presenting investment opportunities and talking them over as a couple.
Both husbands and wives admitted to feeling embarrassed, judged, put down, and angry when their spouses stepped into their zone and answered or made decisions without asking them.
One man I know quite well does everything for his wife, from driving to shopping to cooking, and then complains that she's not much of a partner. How can she be? The moment she lifts a finger, he steps in and tells her to relax; he'll take care of it. None of us deliberately sets out to diminish our husbands and wives, but this effect occurs over time when we keep our eyes focused on what they don't do well or fast enough to please us. Then to make ourselves feel better, we claim we were "just trying to help."
The Difference Between Authentic Help and Manipulation
Everyone needs real help at times. If you're sick, you welcome a cup of hot soup and someone to fluff your pillow. If you're behind on a deadline at work, you could use a hand with typing or filing or mailing. If you have to be in two places at the same time, it's nice to know your spouse can step in and cover for you.
That kind of help goes with the territory of being married and is something we all treasure. But crashing our mates' boundaries and manipulating the outcome to our satisfaction in order to look good, deal with our emotions, or gain favor is something else. When we are anxious or uncertain about when to step in and when to step aside, we can pray for instant guidance. "For the LORD grants wisdom! From his mouth come knowledge and understanding" (Proverbs 2:6).
True help includes humility and respect:
- Allowing our spouses to be who they are—created by God—flaws and all. My elderly friend Mabel told me years ago to bring my hurts and feelings to God first, then "ask him to minister to both of you before you hurt one another with damaging words or regrettable actions." I have treasured that advice.
- Respecting their opinions even if different from ours. Barbara Jean told me she was married for nearly 50 years before she realized that her husband's point of view is as valid as hers. "At that moment I gave up my right to be right," she quipped.
- Permitting our mates to make mistakes without our interference. Hank and Joan agreed that a sense of humor has led to healthy respect even when one of them messed up. They laugh and forgive rather than punish and sulk.
The next time you wander into your spouse's territory, ask yourself if you are helping or hindering, respecting or disrespecting. And if you're not sure, ask. Your husband or wife may be more than happy to tell you.
Karen O'Connor is a freelance writer and writing mentor from Watsonville, California. You can reach her through her web site: http://www.karenoconnor.com/.