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There is one little ploy that is at the center of much of the world’s work on marriage. It is called active listening. It involves re-stating what your partner has said until he or she is fully satisfied that you understand. Only then can you express yourself. After you have had your say, your partner must re-state your feelings until you are satisfied.
Most prominent marriage programs and untold numbers of marriage books have active listening as their centerpiece. Marriage training programs drill the skill endlessly in the hope that it can become second nature and rescue marriage from a slide into rancor and divorce.
If you take potato salad that has been left out in the hot summer weather for a full week and try to reclaim it by putting a fresh layer of egg slices and a sprig of parsley on top, the salad is still rotten. It is almost certain to make you sick. In similar fashion active listening cannot cover up malicious intent. For people who are basically good and earnestly committed to marriage, active listening may help them understand each other. But if the potato salad is permeated with salmonella, no amount of garnish will make it good for you.
A soul is like potato salad. When our souls are permeated with accusation and self-centered demands, there is no skill that can cover our malice and meanness.
Terry Warner poses a question that invites us to think in an entirely different way than we usually do. He suggests that the key to happy relationships is not finding gentle-sounding ways to request change. Instead, “what would happen if we dropped all charges against those around us and, for their sakes, happily sacrificed all bitter satisfaction, all retribution, all demand for repayment, all vengeance without regret or second thoughts?”[i] I like his question.
Catherine Thomas observes that we often get it all backwards: “Much of the emotional pain that we have does not come from the love that we were not given in the past, but from the love we ourselves are not giving in the present.”[ii] For our marriages to succeed, we must be willing to give more love.
We need more than a set of skills for expressing discontent and requesting changes. We need a change of heart. The only way to build a truly healthy marriage is by being a truly good person—to be changed in our very natures: “And now behold, I ask of you, my brethren of the church, have ye spiritually been born of God? Have ye received his image in your countenances? Have ye experienced this mighty change in your hearts?” (Alma 5:14).
Unfortunately this is an elusive goal for mortals. We become good in fits and starts. In fact as we conquer one errant habit, a flock of others gets away from us. Self-improvement is an unpromising enterprise.
There is only one way
King Benjamin described the only way to get to goodness: “And moreover, I say unto you, that there shall be no other name given nor any other way nor means whereby salvation can come unto the children of men, only in and through the name of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent” (Mosiah 3:17).
We may have failed to apply to marriage wise words quoted by President Benson: “You do change human nature, your own human nature, if you surrender it to Christ. Human nature can be changed here and now. Human nature has been changed in the past. Human nature must be changed on an enormous scale in the future, unless the world is to be drowned in its own blood. And only Christ can change it.”[iii]
There is the simple truth.
The formula for change
Jimmy Townsend has joked that “marriage teaches you loyalty, forbearance, self-restraint, meekness and a great many other things you wouldn’t need if you had stayed single.” The truth is different. We need those qualities whether married or single, but marriage is God’s finishing school for the godly soul. Marriage is ordained to stretch and refine us.
Christ is the great change agent, and His process for change is described by the principles and covenants of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is the formula for change, growth, and goodness, the only formula with an ironclad guarantee. I have tried to capture the essence of those principles and covenants in the chapters of Drawing Heaven into Your Marriage.
Please study the table and think about God’s purposes for marriage. (You probably will see vital principles that I have missed. I hope you will add them.)
It seems that God’s objective for marriage is not merely to provide us companionship through the treacherous journey of mortality—though it often does that wonderfully well. Marriage is not merely for populating the world—though it can accomplish that.
God has loftier purposes. He wants to make us like Him. Phew! Like Him! “Unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ!” (Ephesians 4:13)
If you are like me, you resist the possibility on the personal level: He may be able to turn Brother or Sister So-and-so into beings like Him—but I am far too weak and imperfect.
One particular experience challenged my resistance. When I was serving as a bishop, a new member of the ward approached me after sacrament meeting and asked for an interview. We made an appointment for that afternoon. At the appointed time she came. We prayed together.
Then she launched into the tragedy of her life. She told of abuse and immorality and ugliness and betrayal that stretched from her childhood to her current life. I sat with a peaceful facade but inner horror and disbelief. I had never heard such a tale of awfulness. What could I tell her? How could her life ever be straightened out? What hope could she ever have of healthy relationships and a productive life? She had never been more than a marginal Mormon and she had no apparent resources. It almost seemed that suicide was her only hope.
The dreaded moment came. “Bishop, what can I do?” I was amazed to hear myself saying, “There are three things the Lord would have you do.” I had no idea what those three things were.
I took a blank piece of paper from the desk drawer and said, “Number 1 is . . .” and the Lord dictated the first item of hopeful and specific counsel. In like manner the Lord dictated the second and third items. We discussed them and sent her on her way with a hope she had never before known.
After she left the office, I closed the door behind her and fell to my knees. “Lord, I didn’t know. I just didn’t know how much you love your children. I had no idea you could make something fine out of the mass of confusion that is our lives. I never comprehended your commitment to us.”
That is His greatest miracle. He can make us divine. I no longer remember the three items of instruction that He gave to that burdened woman that day. But I could no longer resist Him. I realized that, if the Lord loved that woman with her terrible life, He also loved me with all my failings. So I simply surrendered to His love. I could not comprehend why He would love me—but I knew that He did. I accepted it without understanding it.
You, dear reader, may be wiser than I was. You may have already accepted that life-changing love. If so, you know that He works with us line-upon-line shaping us into something holy. If you have not yet accepted that love, I beg you to open your heart to it. Accepting His love makes all the difference.
Stay tuned for the next installment of Drawing Heaven into Your Marriage.
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[i] Quoted by Catherine Thomas, Zion and the Spirit of At-one-ment, Provo, UT: FARMS
[ii] Zion, 5.
[iii] Ezra Taft Benson, “Born of God,” Ensign, Nov. 1985, 5-6.