Walk with the wise and become wise, for a companion of fools suffers harm.
As newlyweds, June and Brad often feel like they’re “brailing their way through each day.” Having been raised by dysfunctional single parents, they’ve struggled with finding relational models that inspire romance and the kind of connection they both long for. They feel like they’re leading each other along in the dark. Their stressors, like most of ours, result in part from the pictures their parents imprinted on their brains. Without new mental models, June and Brad will find it increasingly difficult to take charge of their words and behaviors, and they’ll end up, like so many of us, becoming prisoners of their pasts.
Having what psychologists call, “positive mental models” can help us take control of our behaviors and draw closer. What Rich and I like to describe for couples is a way to develop a mental model of what normal looks like.
A Model of Normal
Several years ago, my (Rich’s) wife, LouAnna, began experiencing severe abdominal pain. After an hour of misery, it was apparent that something unnatural was happening. As soon as we arrived in the emergency room, the medical staff began a battery of tests. They drew blood, scanned her abdomen, and palpitated the sore area. No one could figure out what was happening! She had no temperature. Her white blood cell count was normal and the associated differential which should have shown some indication of infection was normal. Her scan was normal. Everyone was frustrated.
After 6 hours in the emergency room, one of the doctors made a strange request. He asked LouAnna to slowly raise her right leg. The pain was so intense, she nearly fainted. They rushed her to surgery and removed a diseased appendix that was moments from rupturing. No one could explain why her lab work, scan, and temperature were fine. But one doctor had a mental image of what normal should look like and even though everything pointed to a healthy appendix, he saw something abnormal in the scan, so he pursued her pain until he identified and removed the problem.
Creating a mental model of what normal looks like for our individual marriages is as critical as an ER physician using one to save lives. The development of a mental image of normal is one of the goals of medical education. But who trains us in our marriages? How do we know how to recognize disguised danger before it ruptures our relationships?
1. Recognize patterns
Forming a mental model starts with learning to recognize the presence of patterns. Any of us can have a bad day. When a bad day becomes a bad week, a pattern begins to emerge. Too often we think our spouses are “just working through something,” and our inclination is to give them space. Our relationships demand a level of intimacy that pivots around open communication, so we need to ask about perceived patterns, without making our spouse feel judged. This might involve meeting with a mentor, a pastor or a counselor. Studying patterns and graciously discussing potential relational health risks together can protect us from infection and raise our marital satisfaction levels.
2. Envision a Process
In many ways, marriage is like any organization. Good organizational leaders know that being prepared, before negative things happen, makes a difference.
“I want us to envision the first thing we’ll do if there’s a problem.”
Captain Richard Champion de Crespigny
The captain’s words are just as true for our marriages. When we agree on a way to discuss how we’ll handle negative patterns, we add the right process to our new “mental model” for marriage.
3. Choose a New Normal
This can be extremely difficult, because we’re often convinced that the current normal is good enough. When I (Rich) was in health care, a new test for cholesterol was developed. In order for our lab to offer the test to the medical community, we had to first establish “normal” cholesterol levels. We asked thousands of patients to submit blood samples. After a month of testing we determined that the “normal” cholesterol levels for this Northern California community was 250 – 350 mg. Later we discovered that this level was normal only because of this community’s extravagant life-style. We soon determined that a healthy normal was below 200 and that the “normal” in our community was unhealthy!
Our marriages are similar. Without a trustworthy normal to compare our marriage levels to, we tend to gauge our relationships by what we see in the marriages around us. Instead, we should compare our relationship to one that has stood the test of time.
God has set the type of marriage everywhere throughout the creation. Every creature seeks its perfection in another. The very heavens and earth picture it to us. Martin Luther
4. Start Singing
The Song of Songs was written to help us understand what a healthy normal looks like, but Rich and I have noted through the years that few couples ever study it together. Here’s an example from the text:
Like a lily among thorns is my darling among the young women. Song of Songs 2:2
What Solomon’s wisdom describes for us here is that God’s normal for marriage is a relationship where all other members of the opposite sex are like “thorns” when compared to the one we love. If we ever feel differently, we need to identify that new feeling as abnormal, like an infection – a marital health risk. In other words, we need to take our relational sickness seriously. We need to get any pastoral or other professional help we need to get our marital cholesterol back to healthy levels. This is one short insight from the deeply rewarding Song of Songs. Learn to sing its wisdom together as part of your new normal.
5. Adopt a New Testament Model
The cultural norms for marriage reflected in the media do not promote healthy marriages. We need to change the pictures that flash through our minds. The fifth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians reveals God’s normative model. If applied to our marriages, it can promote vibrant relationships that illustrate for the world the love of Jesus.
Husbands love your wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her
. . . . and the wife must respect her husband. Ephesians 5:25-33
Like the ER doctor, we need to know what to look for. When we don’t see self-sacrifice and respect in our marriages, it should be viewed as an abnormality in the scan. If we talk honestly and openly about what is lacking and seek counsel when talking doesn’t work, we can have the kind of deep romance and love that points people to God. If we ignore the abnormalities, the least that could happen is that we would miss out on the happiness we see in those rare marriages – the happiness we sometimes, ironically, try to downplay to make ourselves feel better. The worst that could happen is that this relational denial could cost us our marriage.
6. Create a New Partnership
Although the wisdom literature of the Old Testament and the letters of the New illustrate the marriage model God intended for us to enjoy, we cannot focus our attentions there on our own. June and Brad are finding this out. Without a successful, flesh and blood partnership, it will be so difficult to develop a new way of thinking, a new mind, for their marriage.
Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do. Philippians 3:17
My (Marty’s) wife, Linda, and I require our pre-marital counseling couples to list the names of older couples in their church who still hold hands. We ask them to observe these couples so that they can befriend those who are believable Christians, those who model Jesus in their relationship. By connecting with such a couple, young couples can build a mental model, one like the ER physician possessed – a model that intimately operates from the normal described by God. Like the ER doctor, the couple with the right mental image will spot irregularities that could be lethal.
7. Give Permission
The ER physician was successful in saving LouAnna’a life because she gave him permission to “check it out.” We learned, like married couples who stay together learn, that even though the doctor’s questions didn’t make sense in light of the collected data, no stat should ever cause us to ignore relational pain or other symptoms.
As pastors, we have met with many couples who, after separating, confess that the symptoms that led to their breakup were never honestly discussed because they never gave each other permission to be honest about the relationship. Giving permission is an act of respect that communicates commitment and compassion – an act that can heal a marriage.
So much of marriage is in the mind – fleshed out from the pictures we created in the past. When God’s picture of a happy, fulfilling marriage begins to replace the cultural or conditioned images in our minds, we can begin to enjoy the security and satisfaction He intended.