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Two amazing people were struggling in their marriage. In desperation, they went to see a therapist. He told them to go home and each spend the week until their next visit creating a list of frustrations with their partner. He promised to help them discuss those frustrations at their next appointment. All week long their lists and their irritations grew. By the time they returned to see the counselor, each had a soul-full of exasperation. And that is what they discussed during their sessions. Each accused. Both felt hurt and defensive. Any hope for their marriage disappeared. They divorced.
A different therapist took a different approach. When a couple came to see him, each partner anxious to confess the spouse’s sins, he asked if he could first get to know their history. He asked if each of them would tell what first attracted them to each other. They thought back and began telling their stories. Both softened as they recalled the good qualities that had brought them together. Good feelings returned. Problems seemed more manageable.
John Gottman, the preeminent marriage scholar, observed: “In a happy marriage couples tend to look back on their early days fondly. When they talk about the tough times they’ve had, they glorify the struggles they’ve been through, drawing strength from the adversity they weathered together. But when a marriage is not going well, history gets rewritten—for the worse” (p. 42).
Our stories are not objective facts. They are personal creations. We choose to forgive or not, to appreciate or not, to work together or not.
Without realizing it, during times of marital dissatisfaction, we “re-script” our memories of our marriages. Perhaps we think: “Now that I think about it, he has always disappointed me.” Or, “As I look back, I’m not sure I ever really loved her.” We re-script the history of our relationship to align with our current unhappiness. This causes us to think our unhappiness is more “real” than earlier times when the marriage flourished. And so we justify our thoughts of abandoning the marriage.
Gottman’s research shows that couples whose marriages are less likely to survive make the assumption that their dissatisfaction is permanent. They assume that their unhappiness is the new reality that likely cannot be changed.
In contrast, couples whose marriages are more likely to survive view their dissatisfaction as temporary—they hold onto the belief that, with patience, compassion, and commitment, they can weather the current winter storm and the marriage will blossom again.
Let’s add gospel perspective to the scholarly view.
- Don’t let pains harden your perspective. We can let pains turn into positions. We can move from frustration or hurt to resentment to recalcitrance. That is the natural course of relationships in a fallen world. Paul offers the remedy: “Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). Rather than offer condemnation, we can offer mercy and kindness to those who hurt and frustrate us—even those who are closest to us.
- Cherish good times. Notice, remember, and cherish your good experiences. We look at each other “with kindness and pure knowledge” (D&C 121:42). Gottman observed: “I’ve found 94 percent of the time that couples who put a positive spin on their marriage’s history are likely to have a happy future as well. Despite what many therapists will tell you, you don’t have to resolve your major marital conflicts for your marriage to thrive. In other words, [successful couples] are constantly working it out, for the most part good-naturedly. These couples intuitively understand that problems are inevitably part of a relationship, much the way chronic physical ailments are inevitable as you get older” (pp. 64, 131).
Marriage is intended to stretch us toward being more like the Savior: gracious, forgiving, helpful, and encouraging—even redemptive. We can welcome our irritations and differences as an invitation toward godliness.
Caveat: Some marriages are too destructive to survive. To see if your is one of those, read Hawkins’ and Fackrell’s excellent Meridian article, Should I Keep Working on my Marriage?
Invitation: Set your mind and heart to think differently about irritations. Choose to be gracious and generous. Also, track through your relationship history looking for the “glory in your marital story.” Make a record of the great moments in your marriage.
Recommendation: Gottman’s quotes in this article are drawn from The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work which is the classic marriage book. My book, Drawing Heaven into Your Marriage, provides a gospel perspective on marriage.
Thanks to Barbara Keil for her insightful edits to this article.