They say that the best lovers are the ones who are the best learners. The best lovers have more than sexual sizzle, since loving someone well requires that we pay attention and learn the nuanced ways of our loved ones: do they like gentle back tickles or more robust get-that-itch scratches? Should the peanut butter be crunchy or smooth? Do they need to debrief as soon as they get home from work, or do they need to decompress alone first? Love calls us to become experts in loving our spouses.
There is a dangerous down-side to becoming an expert with regard to our spouses, though. Paying close attention to our spouse’s habits can make us not just familiar with their ways, but judgmental of them in ways that are damaging. No-one knows more than I do about my husband’s sleep, eating, work, exercise, and grooming habits. I know what shows he’s watched, what car he’d like to drive, what more than a few of his favorite things are. Apart from the Spirit of God who searches all things (who else knows the mind of a man but Him, after all?), I claim the undisputed Runner-Up Crown in the People-Who-Know-Him-Best contest; and he, in turn, bears the same Title as the One-Who-Knows-Me.
But there is a fine line between familiarity breeding intimacy, and familiarity breeding contempt. Knowing the rhythms of another so closely that we become one another’s warp to their weft also provides a prime opportunity for us to pick holes at one another, and so slowly start to unravel.
It becomes easy, then, instead of just knowing our loved one’s habits, to critique them. The Beloved-Learner assumes the role of Bossy-Lecturer: you should get more sleep, you should go for a run, you should hang out more with this person and less with that one. You should do this project now, and leave that one til later. You should wear this, do that, be this, go there. You should change this. You should have said that. You should drive this way, parent that way: trust me, I know what I’m talking about. I know you.
(And yes, I know, it’s no picnic being married to someone with so many opinions. He’s a saint, I tell you: a SAINT.)
But this is what I am slowly learning in this life-long lesson in love: my spouse does not need me as a critic, although no-one knows his mistakes as well. He does not need me as a life coach, though no one else bears the consequences of his choices as much as I do. What my spouse needs from me more than anything is my encouragement, because no one else knows his vulnerability as I do. He needs me as a cheerleader on the days when he’s weary. He needs to believe in him when he’s discouraged. He needs my careful, attentive, knows-him-like-no-one-else ability to discern when he needs extra prayer, extra kindness, or extra laughter at the end of a stressful day.
This became most apparent in a tough season while we were in grad school. His data wasn’t coming together and the end was nowhere in sight. We were too far in to quit, but not even close to seeing how we would make it through.
He was discouraged, withdrawn, and under tremendous pressure. He felt the pressure to digest academic journals, maximize his course load, and churn out research papers at the same rate as his single co-worers did. But meanwhile, he was committed to serving in our church, and had a wife who expected him to come home for dinner and who got decidedly frosty if he opened his laptop within thirty minutes of finishing his meal.
What he needed, I thought, was better time-management. More fresh air. A frank talk with his supervisor. Better boundaries between his work and personal life. But a friend reminded me that the way of wise parents—and indeed the way of our Heavenly Father—is to encourage us towards growth with kindness and grace, rather than to punish and find fault at every infraction. We need someone to see our potential more than we need someone to point out mistakes.
What my husband needed, it turned out, was what all of us really, really need from our spouses: not an advisor, or an advocate, but an ally. A thick-of-thin, by-your-side, come-what-may, I’m-in-your-corner ally. That same closeness which could make me his biggest critic could also make me his biggest cheerleader.
Because, as they say, the best lovers are the best learners, and those they love lean safely into them.