Several years ago, I witnessed a parent in the corner of a family playroom, sitting on a three legged stool and lecturing his child about some misbehavior. All of a sudden, one of the legs broke under his weight, and he went tumbling backward, banging his head on a Lego structure sitting on the floor behind him. Thinking later about this event, as a marriage therapist, it struck me that such an experience could serve as a rather useful metaphor about relationships.
Though it was highly doubtful that the child (or, for that matter, the parent) saw that incident as reminiscent of marital collapse, it’s nevertheless true that relationships can fall apart in a similar manner to that stool. In other words, it can be said that marriage is like that three-legged stool: there are three essential qualities that a marriage needs to remain healthy and vibrant. Should one of them be missing or deficient, the long-term viability of the relationship is in peril.
These three qualities are love, humility, and honesty. Love bring grace to the relationship, especially during times of conflict. Humility inspires selfless giving to one another. The third leg, honesty, provides transparency of the heart and mind. Like any three legged stool, if one of these legs is missing or broken, the marriage cannot remain standing for long. Under the weight of conflict, the bond between two people inevitably begins to fray if one of these legs is missing.
Each quality, in its own way, provides glue that holds the relationship together. Genuine love energizes the ability to forgive—to show mercy in the hard times, as well as passion in the good times. Humility, on the other hand, not only admits to personal fallibility, but also prompts listening before speaking. It doesn’t matter so much whether you agree with your mate’s ideas or not. What is important is that you each know that your ideas, preferences, and opinions mean something to your mate, if you are to feel a significant part of the relationship.
These three qualities are love, humility, and honesty.
God hardwired us to want to matter to someone, and when we don’t feel that way, we lapse into despair and resentment. That’s why the Bible uniquely stresses God’s message to us, namely, that we matter to Him: so much so, that He gave His only Son to die in our place so that we might live eternally in his presence. This message of God’s personal interest in us through the offer of a relationship is found only in Christianity, which explains the special appeal it has to those who yearn for connection, for purpose and meaning.
If a couple is capable of consistently communicating this same kind of interest in one another, it means that they each must also possess a level of self-esteem that frees them up to look outside of themselves. While low self-esteem promotes the kind of negative self-preoccupation that often blocks others out, high self-esteem enables us to reach out to those very same people. Since self-acceptance is not shackled by the inward obsession of self-rejection, it enables us to serve others more effectively and more authentically. It’s no coincidence, then, that such “other-centeredness” is a key characteristic of happy and fulfilling relationships.
To achieve this level of fulfillment, we must first be honest with ourselves, and then with our mates. When we treat ourselves with cruelty or self-imposed deprivation because of imagined worthlessness or inadequacy, this will inevitably translate into a dysfunctional marriage. We end up attacking our partners just like we already attack ourselves.
Self-hatred breeds both outward rage and inward dishonesty. We often carry alone the secrets of our abiding pain, and the darkness of our lonely and unhappy histories, while, at the same time, coping the only way we know how with the challenges of the present. If we do not share these secrets with our spouses, the result will be an emotional chasm that will only widen with time.
Honesty will relieve the burden of secrets, which only trouble the mind and corrupt the soul. It brings a transparency that corrects misperceptions, equips a couple to generate more useful solutions, and, more generally, prevents toxic resentments that slowly destroy a marriage. Without honesty, the wounds of life cannot be lanced and, therefore healed.
In his book, “Caring Enough to Confront”, author David Augsburger speaks of honest self-disclosure as an expression of respectful and compassionate desire for the other person to know us from the inside out. The idea of “confronting” someone often carries, in the minds of many, aggressive connotations. But Augsberger reshapes its meaning to confer a refreshing cleansing effect that potentially blends two longing hearts together. He emphasizes the importance of honest dialogue in providing the conditions for creative problem-solving and, therefore, for relationships that stand the test of time.
From this view, conflicts—not destructive arguments—are the quite natural consequences of interactions between two unique people with different feelings and opinions. Such conflict has profound significance in God’s plan for us to grow in companionship with one another. This is the essential thrust of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount when he said, “Blessed are the pure in heart…”. The word translated, “pure”, comes from the Greek word, “cartheroi”, from which we get the English word, “catharsis”. As a psychological term, catharsis means the emotional release of pent-up thoughts and feelings associated with secrets that have, at last, been revealed to someone we trust. (Incidentally, this can also happen with someone we’ve wronged, which explains why a spouse who has been caught in an affair sometimes paradoxically experiences relief that the dark secret is out, even though such a revelation may imperil the marriage).
Jesus explained that when we are transparent to those we love, we will be blessed. In other words, God honors our honesty with one another: It builds intimacy in our marriages and, more importantly, intimacy with him. It’s not surprising, then, that the Bible likens marriage to our relationship with God. We are the bride and Jesus is the bridegroom; the same behavioral principles apply to both horizontal and vertical relationships. This simply reflects the fact that we were created in his image.
Being truly honest with each other is hard to do. We naturally want to protect ourselves; so we easily (and falsely) believe that keeping certain information is in our best interests. We often don’t want to encounter potentially negative reactions to our thoughts and feelings—instead, we think it’s better “to go along to get along” rather than have to deal with opposition from our mates. Admittedly, it takes more work to hash out our differences; but in the long run, it leads to far better outcomes for our intimate relationships than merely suppressing them.
As a marriage therapist, I have encountered far too many couples who are afraid to honestly share their thinking with one another. Instead, they merely drop “hints” about what they want (or don’t like), hoping their spouses will somehow pick up on their importance. In fact, they often actually think they have spoken up about their feelings, which is why they so profoundly resent their spouse’s failure to respond or acknowledge their significance. However, in reality, they have never really sat down with their spouses and explained, not only how they feel about something that’s bothering them, but also its significance to the happiness of their marriage. Not surprisingly, this significance is frequently lost on their mates. The defensiveness that commonly follows only underscores the failure of the two of them to really connect.
God yearns to set us free from this past, to build a new future based on his transforming work on the cross. If our history is particularly convoluted, it may take one of God’s servants—such as a Christian therapist—to help sort out the factors inhibiting greater progress toward the goal of a healthy marriage. To this end, James’ emphasis on becoming doers of the word and not hearers only (Jas. 1:22) finds, perhaps, its greatest practical importance in our cultivation of lasting intimacy. To many, that means the courage to shed the secrecy of their thoughts and feelings and to discover the growth that comes with actually valuing the challenge of differences between one another.
Wisdom is found, after all, in understanding which characteristics are assets and which are liabilities in a relationship, and knowing the difference between the two.
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