We all have pet peeves. Further, it is inevitable in family life that our pet peeves will collide and create conflict. One wife’s pet peeve was irresponsibility; she expected people-especially her husband-to promptly do as they should. She could be quite impatient when people failed to be responsible. Her husband’s pet peeve was nagging; he hated to be pestered. He was likely to bristle if nagged. You can probably guess what their chronic struggles looked like.
One day the wife bought a load of groceries at the store including a large box of laundry detergent. Because she was pregnant, she had a store clerk help her load the items into the trunk of her car. When she arrived home, she made several trips carrying the groceries into the house. She asked her husband if he would carry the heavy box of laundry detergent into the laundry room.
He promised he would-but promptly got distracted with other tasks. She chafed at his irresponsibility. She reminded him somewhat tartly of his promise-which felt a lot like nagging to him. He resisted and again got distracted. She reminded (“nagged”) him again and he resisted again-and got distracted again.
She struck on a new plan. Each day she would go to the trunk of the car and scoop out just enough detergent to do her own laundry while leaving his undone. A few days later, as he dressed for work, he noticed that he lacked clean clothes. “Where are my clothes? Why haven’t you done the laundry?” She responded tersely: “You haven’t brought in the detergent from the trunk. I have done my laundry but not yours.”
Both husband and wife were acting in ways that made sense to them but were damaging the relationship. The wife was reasonable to ask her husband for help and he should have promptly helped her. In fact, the husband often helped his wife in many ways. In this case he didn’t treat her request as a priority; he failed to provide help when needed. Her response was to become angry and treat him as irresponsible. He then felt accused and judged which made him more resentful and resistant. Both husband and wife ended up irritated and defensive while feeling justified.
In telling this particular example, I do not wish to imply in any way that wives are more likely to be offenders than husbands. All spouses fall short of the heavenly standard. I use this story as one example of the ways that we set each other up for failure.
So what do we do when we experience marital tension with our spouses? Is there something better than resentment and polarization?
Anyone who has been married for two weeks has plenty of reasons to be irritated and resentful. The good news for early marriage is that there is such an abundance of good will that most of us forgive our spouses for the inevitable irritations. We give our partners the benefit of the doubt. We are polite. We forgive. For a period of time, kindness reigns.
But over time irritations accumulate. We chafe at offences. Rather than forgive offences, we merely tolerate them. As irritations continue to pile up, we complain or criticize. We may start to view our spouses with impatience and contempt. Ultimately we may withdraw from conversations or withdraw goodwill from the relationship.
Along the way we may wonder if we failed to discern fundamental flaws in our partners when we were courting. We wonder if we made poor decisions in marrying the people we did. Or we begin to demand that our partners change. Resentment grows. Contention increases. We move away from the early days of cooperation and toward selfish concerns: What about me? What’s wrong with you? Why don’t you act the way you should? Satan laughs and heaven weeps while we feel cheated.
We have lost sight of God’s purpose in marriage. We forget that marriage is supposed to be challenging. It is intended to teach us to develop charity in the most effective way possible: in the face of frustration and irritation.
Let’s return to the couple that was struggling over laundry. It is certainly reasonable that a wife ask her husband to bring in the detergent. It is disappointing that he got distracted-but it is not surprising. We all fall short. If the wife recognizes that her irritation is not going to inspire helpful action, she can choose charity. She can remember all the ways he normally helps and his many good qualities. She can recognize the pressures in her life that have inched her toward irritation and aggravation. Based on all the things she knows about her husband, she can look for a more inviting way to engage him in the needed task.
She might approach him, “I know you’ve been busy, but I wonder if this is a good time to help me get the detergent out of the car.” Or, after dinner, she might ask him if he was willing to make a romantic walk with her-to the trunk of the car. Or she might offer: “Why don’t I get out the ice cream while you get the detergent out of the trunk?” Because she knows her husband well, she is uniquely qualified to offer the right invitation. But she will only discern the right thing if her heart is right.
When our hearts are wrong, anything we say or do is likely to hurt and offend. When our hearts are right, we will readily find the right thing to say or do.
There is no question that she should not have to resort to such tactics to get the laundry detergent brought into the house. He should promptly and cheerfully bring it in. But the natural partner is an enemy to his spouse. As fallen mortals, we all have vast gaps in our characters and performance. Those gaps are there by divine design.
To bridge those gaps God invites us to cultivate wisdom and charity. Just as a soft answer turns away wrath, so a kind, inviting gesture sidesteps pointless conflict. We must show each other grace if we hope to receive it from God. That is the message of the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:23-35). Having been forgiven multi-million dollar debts to heaven, we must not begrudge each other our nickel and dime failings.
The same message is clear in the title passage: “how can ye, being evil, speak good things? for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.
A good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things: and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things” (Matthew 12:34-35). It is not the skill of delivery but the quality of the heart that determines the rightness of the message.
The Key to Loving Relationships
It is popular to assume that the remedy for marital tension is improved communication skills. Supposedly if one partner can express himself or herself clearly and the other partner listens effectively, we should be able to solve all our problems. But, as Douglas Brinley, an LDS professor of family relationships, wisely observed: “If all we do is stress communication skills to people without softening their hearts, we will simply make people more clever fighters.”
Careful communication is not the key. The most carefully crafted message will still convey irritation if it is not motivated by the right spirit-by “persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned” (D&C 121:41).
The great sermon on family relations was provided by Jesus as recorded in Luke 6:27-45. Let’s summarize the key elements with related observations.
Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you. (We can turn spousal enemies into beloved partners by declaring love rather than war.) And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise. (If we want to be forgiven for our failings, we must forgive our spouses for their failings.)
Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful. (We must shed the temptation to condemn and replace it with loving redemptiveness.)
Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven: (We must not forget out own desperate need for forgiveness.)
And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but perceivest not the beam that is in thine own eye? (We can become so obsessed with our spouses failings that we forget our own!)
A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil: for of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh.
Note that Jesus did not teach that we should resolve our frustrations with others by learning better communication skills. He clearly taught that we must change our hearts. More precisely, we must do those things that allow Him to change our hearts. The gospel prescribes four steps.
1. Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. When we believe that Jesus presides over our challenges and sends only those experiences that will help us grow in godliness, we welcome growth experiences as a sacred gift, including the growth experience of becoming less irritable and more charitable towards our spouses.
2. Humility. When we are humble, we do not see our spouses’ failings as frontal attacks on us. Rather than chafe at disappointments, we examine our own assumptions. We see irritation as an invitation to greater godliness.
3. Compassion. When we have compassion for our partners and their pains, struggles, and needs, we are being godlike. Compassion is a sacred gift and opens the way for charity.
4. Charity. When we look for the good and dwell on it, we are happier and so are our spouses. We can make requests but we do not attack character. We forgive each other.
No matter how right or justified we think we are, if we lack charity, we are wrong. “And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2). Even the greatest spiritual gifts unaccompanied by charity leave us spiritually bankrupt.
In my experience, the combination of faith, humility, compassion, and positivity creates charity. We have the mind of Christ. We experience the mighty change of heart. That is the key to loving relationships. No amount of communication skill can compare to a heart changed by the Prince of Peace.
Abundant thanks to Barbara Keil for her patient and insightful work on this article.
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