I plead guilty.
During my first major jury duty case, I learned what it meant legally to aid and abet someone. In fact, we did find the defendant guilty of aiding and abetting a murder. It was quite the case.
But many years later, I found myself guilty of the same crime (don’t worry, not the murder part). My husband and I were doing a “feeling” exercise at a marriage weekend, one which would typically not be problematic for me who feels deeply. I am comfortable with my emotions—maybe too comfortable—and wear them on my sleeve, so reviewing a list of feeling words and discussing how fluent I was in communicating them was simple.
Even my husband is pretty fluent in emotions, if for no other reason than he is wholly empathetic to my own. He had a fairly easy time reviewing that list too. Golden! We were a communicative couple who could discuss anything!
Oh, but the exercise didn’t stop there. For each emotion, we had to discuss how our families had modeled that. Either by explicit or implicit instruction, were we taught how to process these emotions? Were we taught that we were even allowed to have and express these emotions? Was is okay to feel shame? Was anger something that we saw bottled up or exploded out? Were we allowed to cry? Was celebration an outflow of joy or did it pervert itself into a bad episode of a daytime family drama?
My husband and I got through this part of the exercise too. We were surprisingly in agreement with each other’s perceptions of our emotional instruction. We even took it a step further and examined how those instructions were still dictating our emotions today or when it was that we had retaught ourselves to process them differently.
But the last step in the exercise was like a door slammed in our faces. We were to review the list another time to consider which emotions we do not allow our spouse to feel. At first I didn’t even understand this. I love my husband no matter what he is feeling.
But then I started thinking about how many times I have suggested having BJ’s pizza (his favorite) for dinner after a stressful work day for him, or how many times I have shoved dessert on his plate to cheer him up. Both he and I manage our stress largely with food. I knew that I was an emotional eater, and I knew that he was too, but it hadn’t dawned on me until then that I abetted his emotional eating so that I could cope when he was wrought with painful emotions.
As always, it’s easier to see tough stuff in someone else’s marriage. A woman I know was in a tricky season of being at home with young children while her husband was abruptly without a job. His job search was painstakingly slow due to the rough economy, so they had many months without income. All the while, they were home together looking for jobs (not a fun date), trying to hold back despair and blame while strategizing for provision, and feeling too strapped to spend a moment or a dollar on nurturing their affection for each other. It was a deeply rough season, and as it continued, her husband spiraled further into depression. He was plagued by not being able to provide for his family and by feeling undervalued and incompetent at the same time. It was the perfect storm, and no one—not even his wife—could empathize with him. He was on his own.
How does a wife respond when her husband is battling depression and is facing the daily, practical challenges of rejection in the job market? Most of us would probably respond by trying to do the job search for him and by coddling him with whatever comfort we know he would relish. But it takes a strong kind of woman to discern when it’s time to simply let him go through this season.
Not many of us are good at cheerleading our spouses from the sidelines, but often, that is exactly where God wants us so that He can actually do some penetrating work in them. We want to take away our spouse’s pain, but God knows He is using it for good. We want to rush the process, but God knows the necessary timing. We want to feel control and value in the situation, but God knows He does things better than we do and that His love for us is not dependent on our being “useful.”
So there I was giving my friend the advice to take a step back and let God deal mercifully with her husband. Let God drudge up the emotional issues of the past that are being triggered. Let God teach her husband that it is by His grace that a husband can provide. Let God revive in her husband an identity that is not based on merit but solely on the love of Christ.
Could I have taken my own advice? Doing that feeling exercise sure convinced me that I hadn’t been able to up to that point. And the reason why was prideful. Sure, I wanted my husband to be happy—that is a big motivation of wanting to distract him out of his negative emotions—but even more, I wanted to be happy.
It’s hard to have someone stress or sulk or snap and still maintain a joy and a peace in my own heart. It’s easy to feel like those emotions are directed at me because I’m the one in the room. Heaven forbid they actually were directed at me because I would be cooking up the most indulgent comfort food I could as a peace offering; I wouldn’t want to be the target of his anger. I want to be forgiven. I want to be loved. And as long as he is hurting, I am the one in the position to give him acute love.
Aiding and abetting my husband’s emotional eating when he is stressed so that I can stay happy all comes down to my selfishness, which means I can’t let this go on. With God as my healer, I have to bring my comfort to the cross and let God help my husband through tough emotions. And I have to love him through them without slapping unhealthy “Band-Aids” on his symptoms of stress.
What about you? How do you respond when your spouse is angry? Stressed? Depressed? Ashamed? Happy? Do you stifle the emotion, withdraw from it, stoke it, resent it, or embrace it? Do you allow God to be the God of your spouse, even when that puts you in a position of discomfort?
If so, join me in taking that to the cross. The bright side for those of us who want to control every situation is that each time we feel out of control by our spouse’s uncomfortable emotions, we can take control of our own sin. Perhaps that’s not the bright side you were hoping for—certainly not as bright as BJ’s pizza and dessert—but it positions us for greater joy and peace. Isn’t that exactly what we are hoping for as we abet our spouses in avoiding their uncomfortable emotions?