Why marriage books can cause more harm than good
January 19, 2011 3 Comments
Jesus called us to live the narrow way. It is narrow, I think, because it is easy to fall off one side or the other. In the theology we think of examples such as balancing God’s sovereignty against man’s responsibility. Or how about these two verses:
- Ephesians 2:8-9 (ESV) For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
- James 2:17 (ESV) So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
Or these two—both from the Sermon on the Mount:
- Matthew 5:16 (NIV) In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.
- Matthew 6:1 (NIV) Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
Or these back-to-back verses from Proverbs
- Proverbs 26:4 (NIV) Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself.
- Proverbs 26:5 (NIV) Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.
But, this is not a book about theology, it is a book about marriage, and marriage is often about finding the narrow way.
A lot of marriage books go like this:
Marriages are in trouble today. The reason? Men. Men are buffoons. They are clods. They are unromantic. They are emotionally unavailable. They don’t do their part around the house. If men would shape up, women would respond. What do men need to do? Buy flowers. Take their wife out on a date. Listen to her. Watch the kids so she can go out and do. Don’t work so much. Take out the trash without being asked. That “without being asked,” thing comes up a lot.
Well, there may be some truth to that. But let’s apply this to a particular situation—namely, mine. Mine, that is back in the day when my first wife didn’t want to be around me. She was on the edge of leaving me for years and years and years. I read a lot of those books. And, on good days I would get dialed up and take their advice. It didn’t work. In fact, it made things worse. Here is why.
Imagine a bonfire. You Google, “How to have a big roaring bonfire” and find these instructions: throw a big log on the fire. You try it; it works.
Now imagine you fall asleep and wake up six hours later. The fire is barely a glowing ember. You are freezing and you think about the instructions from Google. So, you take another big log and smash it on the embers, snuffing out what little bit of life there is.
I am not exactly sure how clear this metaphor is, so let me spell it out. If your wife is in love with you and you lay on her with the 2 dozen roses and the let’s take a romantic weekend away, she will eat that up. That is like throwing a big log on the fire.
But, if your wife has one hand on the doorknob ready to leave and you say, “But wait sweetie, I have two dozen roses for you!” She is likely to throw them back at you and yell something like, “Don’t you get it? I don’t want your flowers. I don’t want your expression of love. I want space. I want outta here!”
This is why marriage books, wrongfully applied can actually do more harm than good. What is good advice in one situation is bad advice in another. I often found myself reading advice in marriage books, putting it to work, only to find that things got worse. This was really discouraging.
If you have some smoldering embers you don’t need to pound them with a big log. You need to gently set some pine needles, then twigs, then small branches and so forth.
If your marriage is in trouble you might have tried some lavish expressions of love and they didn’t work. You tried the flowers and it just made her mad.
Find the narrow way. Find an expression of love that is appropriate to the stage of the relationship. It may be what she needs is space and the best thing you can do is let her go and leave her alone.
The same would be true with a beginning relationship. Imagine you go out on a first date. Things go really well. You have a lot of fun and there is a real chemistry. You walk her to the door, give her a hug, look her in the eye and say, “I love you. Will you marry me?” How does she feel now? She is likely to slap you. This expression of love was not appropriate to the relationship.
I gave this advice to a friend not too long ago: don’t call; don’t text; don’t drive by; don’t ask her friends how she is doing. Don’t try to help her. Don’t check up on her. Pretend like she fell of planet earth. Ignore her altogether. This is your best shot at having a future with her.
Harriet Lerner talks about this in the Dance of Intimacy. The idea is that relationships are like a dance where we move toward each other and then away from each other. (Is this the two-step?) Relationships are that way. They breathe. They move toward each other for a season, and they distance for a season.
And here is the rub: if she is distancing and you are pursuing, here is what happens. You never catch her. She just runs faster, and you pursue faster and she runs faster and did you really want someone in your life that you had to chase the rest of your life? Sooner or later she as to come toward you or you need to let her go. Another great book in this topic is James Dobson’s Love Must be Tough.
The principle applies in very day-to-day situations.
Question: would it be a good idea to say to my wife, “Sweetie, let’s talk. How is your day going? Tell me how you are doing, really. Let’s catch up.”? It might be at certain times. But there are a lot of times when it would not be: like when she is reading, or when she is working, or when she is in the mood for a nap. All these situations might be described as a distancing time for her. She is not in the mood for closeness; she is in the mood to get something done. I do well to stay out of her way and let her alone.
Imagine the opposite. Imagine you fall in love with a guy and you just love spending every waking minute together. You get married. Six months later you find him following you from one room of the house to the next. Everywhere you go, there he is. At one point you get a call from an old girlfriend and you mention to your hubby that you will be going out with her alone—just the two of you. He will have none of it. “Sweetie, I can’t bear the thought of spending the evening without you.” That sentence might sound good at first, or for a time, but if he lives his whole life that way? I don’t think so.
I love Harley’s book His Needs Her Needs. But, I think he goes too far in this case I think he misses the narrow way:
My Policy of Mutual Appeal covers that situation: Engage in only those recreational activities that both you and your spouse can enjoy together.
It’s a tough rule, but one that I insist must be followed by couples who come to me for counseling. Not only does it rule out some activities that you may be doing together, but it also rules out all recreational activities that you are doing apart that only one of you enjoys.
You can probably imagine the abuse I’ve taken to even suggest such a thing! It means, for example, that a husband might have to give up “Monday Night Football.” Men who thought I was trying to help them out by encouraging their wives to join them in their favorite activities are faced with the prospect of abandoning those activities entirely. I’ve lost the respect of many potential converts on this one. Many have felt that I’ve gone too far.
I, for one, do think Harley has gone too far here. I play a little tennis. Missy isn’t into tennis. She has tried it and she just doesn’t like it. I am praying for her about that, but so far, heaven is of brass. I’d be bummed if she required me to give up tennis. I like watching tennis; she doesn’t. I like snow skiing; she doesn’t. She likes watching Cake Boss. I like watching O’Reilly. She goes out some times with her girlfriends. She participates in a ladies Bible study. She is into cake decorating. I don’t think Harley would approve of any of this.
Harley does have a good that I think is really good. He calls it the 15 hour rule. The idea is that a couple should commit to spending 15 hours a week in quality time together. This is time actually conversing, not doing things like watching a movie together. If you accomplish this goal, you won’t have time for a lot of outside individual activity, but I think to rule out individual activity is excessive. We must find the narrow way.
It is always easier to teach by rules. This is good Old Testament thinking. New Testament thinking is to observe one day of rest, unless your ox falls in the ditch. Then work. Find the narrow way.
We all want intimacy and we want space. We want closeness and we want independence. We must find the narrow way.
A second example of this narrow way principle is found the first two chapters: lavish and simple. Love in a lavish, excessive way, but do it simply, in a way you can sustain. Find the narrow way.
Harley says “she needs to trust him totally.” I say you can trust too much. Trust and inspect. Find the narrow way. Trust, but notice. If he is going to lunch with his secretary every day, it might be time to distrust. If he has tons of unaccounted for hours, distrust. But, don’t go nuts.
Missy was telling me about a time when Chris went and played racquetball with a friend. This guy’s wife called him three times during the hour-long session of racquetball, just to check in. The last time she called she said it was an emergency and he needed to come home. There was no emergency. She was just clingy. They are not married any more. She missed the narrow way.
I’d like to share one other example of finding the narrow way, but this one might take a little more time.