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The fix-it mindset
When I follow the natural man’s method for marital change, I set out to tell my partner in fair, balanced ways what she is doing that irritates me. Then she can change herself based on my input, and we will both be happy.
Elder Joe J. Christensen taught us in General Conference about the problem with this approach:
As a newlywed, Sister Lola Walters read in a magazine that in order to strengthen a marriage a couple should have regular, candid sharing sessions in which they would list any mannerisms they found annoying. She wrote: “We were to name five things we found annoying, and I started off…I told him I didn’t like the way he ate grapefruit. He peeled it and ate it like an orange! Nobody else I knew ate grapefruit like that. Could a girl be expected to spend a lifetime, even eternity, watching her husband eat grapefruit like an orange! After I finished, it was his turn to tell the things he disliked about me…He said, ‘Well, to tell the truth, I can’t think of anything I don’t like about you, Honey.’ Gasp. I quickly turned my back because I didn’t know how to explain the tears that had filled my eyes and were running down my face…” Whenever I hear of married couples being incompatible, I always wonder if they are suffering from what I now call the Grapefruit Syndrome.[i]
As Marleen S. Williams observes, “each [spouse] believes the other is the cause of the dispute and that convincing the spouse of his or her guilt will then solve the problem.”[ii] The problem is that when we are accused, we dig in our heels. When we approach our partners as spousal renewal projects, they are likely to respond in kind. We get caught up in an endless and hopeless tangle of accusation and recrimination.
In fact, any time we feel irritated with our spouses, that irritation is not an invitation to call our spouses to repentance but an invitation to call ourselves to repent. We are irritated because of our own lack of faith and humility.
In contrast, when we have the “mind of Christ,” we see our spouses in a new way. We, like Jesus, look upon the injured, erring, and downtrodden—the whole human race—with compassion. The Prophet Joseph Smith challenged us: “The nearer we get to our heavenly Father, the more we are disposed to look with compassion on perishing [spouses]; we feel that we want to take them upon our shoulders, and cast their sins behind our backs. . . . if you would have God have mercy on you, have mercy on [your spouses].” [iii]
We can see our spouses with compassion rather than with irritation.
Flat tires in our relationship
Appreciating is more powerful than correcting. Appreciation inflates the tires on which we travel. Criticism is a slow leak in those tires.
The marital dialogue in the movie “Accidental Tourist” brilliantly illustrates the problem. None of us wants to be seen as a problem to be fixed.
Sarah: “You know, Macon, the trouble with you is…”
Macon: “Sarah, look, don’t even start. If that doesn’t sum up everything that’s wrong with being married: ‘Macon, the trouble with you is…I know you better than you know yourself, Macon.'”
Sarah: “The trouble with you is you don’t believe in people opening up. You think everyone should stay in their own little sealed package.”
Macon: “Okay. Let’s say that that’s true. Let’s say for now that you do know what the trouble with me is, that nothing I might feel could suppress, and that the reason I don’t want to hear about this specific thing is that I can’t open up, if we agree on all that, can we drop it?!”
President Hinckley describes this miserable cycle of correction and paybacks in strong terms: “Is there anything more weak or beggarly than the disposition to wear out one’s life in an unending round of bitter thoughts and scheming gestures toward those who may have affronted us?”[iv]
This is a fitting place to recall that God commands us to repent ourselves and to love others–especially our spouses: “Thou shalt love thy wife with all thy heart, and shalt cleave unto her and none else” (D&C 42:22).
The key to repentance
When we study those in the scriptures who were most dramatically or powerfully changed by repentance, we find an interesting commonality in their mantra.
The scriptures are replete with those who called on God for mercy. In fact, the context for Amulek’s directive to pray in all times and places is “to call upon his holy name, that he would have mercy upon you; Yea, cry unto him for mercy; for he is mighty to save” (Alma 34:17-18, emphasis added). A whole-souled acknowledgment of our dependence on God is a very good working definition of humility. This is where the miracles begin. This is where despair is replaced with growth.
When we humbly turn our minds, our lives, and our purposes over to God, He will refine us. We begin to see with new eyes. We feel with new warmth and goodness. We gladly give our time and energy to bless those around us—especially those with whom we have made covenants.
Two processes were named above for dealing with our natural human narrow-mindedness: getting heaven’s perspective and being open to our partner’s point of view. This chapter deals with humility and repentance as keys that unlock heaven’s perspective. Humility and repentance also open us up to our partner’s perspective. That will be discussed more in Chapter 7 on charity.
What repentance does and doesn’t look like
We have a good friend who has a keen mind and was trained as a professional. In midlife he set up a business to practice his profession. But the business failed. He took part-time work as a custodian. The disappointment and humiliation were painful to him. He became increasingly irritable and gloomy. His health declined and his marriage suffered.
We talked regularly. I thought I saw a trend over time. For a while he talked about a few challenges he and his wife faced as they tried to manage their large family and their small income. Over time these concerns and irritations grew into judgments. He began describing his wife as selfish. He provided an example of her selfishness. The wife complained about the damage his little dog did to the crowded house. He bristled that she didn’t care about his canine companion. (But he didn’t work with his wife to address her concerns.)
Over time his complaint grew more global. “I think she may be the most selfish person I know.” Yet that was not the end. Satan is not content until he has fully re-written our history removing every ember of warmth and goodness. “I don’t think I ever loved her,” he said.
My heart ached. He had thrown away decades of heavenly blessings because of his current unhappiness. He had re-written history with wifely disappointment as its theme. Satan had robbed him of past, present, and future. At the center of Satan’s mischief was pride—that enmity that makes us enemies to each other.
Brother Kent Brooks condemns not only the way we use weapons of war against each other but that we also keep studying and magnifying each other’s offences. “To bury our weapons of war yet continue to rebroadcast a ‘wide-screen’ version of old battles and old wounds, complete with ‘instant replay,’ ‘slow-motion,’ and our own exaggerated form of ‘special effects,’ undermines the process of healing and the prospects for growth—for both spouses.”[v]
Many of us grew up dreading humility and repentance. They felt like an unhappy encounter with humiliation. But, as we mature spiritually, we come to recognize humility and repentance as heavenly blessings. We cast off the tattered ways of the natural man and put on the robe of righteousness. It is sweet.
It is true, as Elder Neal A. Maxwell has observed that “the enlarging of the soul requires not only some remodeling, but some excavating. Hypocrisy, guile, and other imbedded traits do not go gladly or easily.”[vi] Yet that excavating is not painful when we see the glorious purposes behind it.
The whole script of the husband and his “selfish” wife could have been rewritten with a very different journey and outcome if God had been given the stylus. The husband could have humbly turned much of his pain over to God. The wife could have rallied support and compassion for her burdened husband. And both could have drawn on the tradition of growth, goodness, and faithfulness that filled their earlier marital history.
Using repentance to change our marriages
How do we use repentance to make our marriages stronger? The first step is the humility to know that our perceptions are very limited. We rarely know our partner’s heart or God’s purposes.
Then we learn to call on God. Every day. Every hour. We cry out with all great repenters: “O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on my fallen and troubled soul. Fill me with Thee. Soften my heart. Give me healing peace.” There is power in submission. As Paul astutely observed, “Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong” (2 Corinthians. 12:10, emphasis added).
Very often our self-sufficiency gets in God’s way. In the spirit of humility, we listen to our partner and we listen to God. We replace despair with an enlarged openness to Christ-like goodness.
Examples of repentance
Let me provide some simple examples. For reasons that I cannot explain, I like kitchen counters to be tidy and free of clutter. (Oddly, this strong preference does not seem to apply to my desk and my other work areas.) For years I wondered why Nancy occasionally sinned in this area. Why did such a decent person leave things on the kitchen counters?
After years of simmering irritation, it finally occurred to me that this was not Nancy’s problem. It was my problem. If something on the counter is bothering me, I can put it away. I can wipe away crumbs.
That is repentance, glorious repentance. It is very liberating.
There are other examples. Nancy is the kindest, gentlest, and most considerate human being I have ever known. I love being with her! But there is a price to be paid for Nancy’s kindness. She is not especially decisive. When I am hungry or in a hurry I can work up a very good case of irritation when she vacillates while the restaurant server waits. I can get quite angry when she changes her mind about something we have discussed and jointly decided.
Or I can repent. And there are many dimensions to repentance—including the willingness to set my partner up for success. For example, I can help Nancy think through the restaurant options. “You have always liked chicken salad.” She and I can even discuss her food mood on the way to the restaurant.
We can also make allowances for our partners. I can allow Nancy a little more time for making decisions. I can expect some wavering. (As tightly wound as I am, this is a real sacrifice. And this is just as it should be. I cannot truly repent without sacrificing some of the natural man!)
I observed another interesting opportunity for repentance in a capable couple we knew in Alabama. The wife loved ice cream. Every once in a while she would have a scoop or two. For her it was a special treat. Her husband apparently had ambitions for her slimness. Any time she thought about ice cream, he tried to talk her out of it. Every time she ate ice cream, he grimaced like a man in pain.
I feel quite certain that if he gave up his effort to regulate his wife’s ice cream consumption, she would regulate it much better than his brow-beatings were regulating it. He could repent of his effort to micromanage his wife. He could appreciate her natural beauty. He could love her and let her be in charge of her ice cream decisions.
The media provide a very specific image of the perfect man and woman. Our culture would have us obsess about perfect proportions, firm muscles, and flawless skin. But plastic surgery and relentless exercise are not the answer. Charity is. We can repent of our narrow, trivial, superficial demands. We can recognize that a person is beautiful because we choose to love her or him—and not because the luck of genetics compels our love.
I love Irving Becker’s observation: “If you don’t like someone, the way he holds his spoon will make you furious; if you do like him, he can turn his plate over into your lap and you won’t mind.”[vii]
Love is not a happy accident; It is a choice.
The blessing of irritation
Irritation can be our friend. It alerts us to the risk of blisters when we sense a pebble in our shoes. In marriage, irritation serves the vital function of alerting us that something we are doing (or feeling, or saying) is creating a sore.
While the natural man is inclined to think that the problem is our partner, the man of Christ knows that the irritation is probably the result of some faulty thinking—some troublesome assumption and expectation nested in our unconscious. We can remove the judging even if we cannot track down the troublesome assumptions.
Some years ago God taught me an ironic truth. I don’t have the right to correct anyone I don’t love. You see the irony! I am inclined to correct my partner when I don’t feel loving. When I do feel loving, irritations roll off my soul like water off a duck’s back.
That is not to say that I should never make my wishes known to my wife. We certainly have the right to express preferences and make requests. It would be foolish to leave my partner in the dark about my preferences. “Honey I enjoy your other soups more than the celery soup. Which are your favorites?”
But expressing preferences is not the same as dwelling on irritations and cultivating grievances. I should use irritation as an invitation for me to repent. “Behold, this is not my doctrine, to stir up the hearts of men with anger, one against another; but this is my doctrine, that such things should be done away” (3 Nephi 11:30).
There is a popular quote attributed to J. Golden Kimball: “I’ll never go to hell. I repent too damn fast.” Whatever the merits of the expression, the sentiment is right. Any irritation can prompt us to immediate humility and immediate repentance. We do not have to let irritations accumulate and form ruthless gangs that will savage our love.
For those evil judgments that will not go easily, we can invoke the prayer of all repenters, “O Jesus, Thou Son of God, have mercy on me and my poor, narrow soul. Fill me with Thy graciousness.” This is the way to cast out evil spirits in our souls.
I think the statement posted in front of a country church in Arkansas is true: “A happy marriage is the union of two forgivers.”[viii]
If, as you read this chapter, you found yourself thinking how much your partner needs it, I encourage you to re-read the chapter with yourself in mind.
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Creating Your Own Story
Think of a time when you have turned irritation into a blessing by repenting of judgments and assumptions. How did you do it? How can you make that a more regular part of your relationship?
Will you institutionalize the plea of repenters (“Oh, God, have mercy on me, a sinner!”) in your life in order to draw more heavenly goodness into your life? Note that Amulek’s invitation to pray in our fields houses, closets, secret places, and wilderness are all prefaced with “cry unto him for mercy for he is mighty to save” (Alma 34:18). Cry for mercy in your marriage.
Rather than be bothered by the things we want to change in our partners and marriages, we can learn to accept humanness and flaws in our partners. We can laugh at the foibles that bedevil all of us. We can pray for mercy for ourselves and our partners. Because each of us desperately needs mercy, we can offer mercy to each other.
[i] Ensign, May 1995, 64-66.
[ii] Covenant Marriage, 84.
[iii] Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 241.
[iv] Gordon B. Hinckley, “Of You It Is Required to Forgive,” Ensign, June 1991, 4.
[v] Covenant Marriage, 111.
[vi] “Endure it Well,” Ensign, May 1990, 33.
[vii] Reader’s Digest, Pocket Treasury of Great Quotations , 19.
[viii] Batesville, AR church, Aug. 25, 2003.