We all know that this life is a test. Yet, when we run into a difficult situation, we are surprised. Maybe we even feel unfairly treated. “Yeah. This life is a test, but I didn’t expect it to be brutal. I’m a good person. I studied for this test. Why should I get beat up so badly by life?”
I wonder if Adam was surprised after his Garden of Eden experience. He was accustomed to a profusion of glorious life. Yet, after departing Eden, he was surrounded by thorns, thistles, briars, and noxious weeds that afflicted and tormented him. He might have felt quite cheated.
The same can be true in marriage. Dating is a veritable Garden of Eden. Two people work very hard to appreciate and accommodate each other. At some point, they dress in white and meet at the altar to make covenants. Time passes. There is an occasional irritation—but nothing that accumulated goodwill can’t cover. More time passes. Yet over time we don’t try quite as hard. And the irritations mount up.
Then the big day comes. It may be at five years, ten years, or twenty years. But, at some point, we just feel indignant. “How could my partner do something that is so fundamentally hurtful to me? This is wrong! I don’t have to stand for this.”
And then the great irony. We complain to our partners. We tell them what they need to change to make things right. We tell them with great emotion, a few veiled threats, and many repetitions.
Do you spot the irony? When my partner hurts my feelings or inconveniences me, my partner needs to change. Part of the irony is the pure egocentrism of that reaction. Do we assume that our way is the right way? Do we suppose that our own needs should mandate how our partner behaves? But there is more. The crowning irony is the assumption that, when I’m being a good person, things are supposed to be like the Garden of Eden with spontaneous profusions of fruits and flowers.
Let me give you a personal example.
Nancy and I built a new house some years ago. And we hired a landscape architect to design our yard. We were delighted with the landscape plan! We contracted with a local nursery to install the plants and trees. As we carefully examined the plan, we wondered if the three fruit trees shown in the plan would be too much for the corner of our property. We walked around the area and tried to visualize the trees fully grown. We took measurements. We weren’t sure but we finally decided to trust the plan.
When the nursery people came, I was at work. When I got home from work, Nancy took me on a tour of the yard. It was lovely! But there were only two fruit trees where the plan had shown three. I asked Nancy about it. “Well, the nursery man suggested we go with two trees. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I told him to install just the two.”
I felt immediately indignant. “Why didn’t you call me so we could talk about this? Why did you go contrary to our decision?” Nancy stammered out her answer—but it did not diminish my indignation.
“Nancy should have called me before changing a decision we had agreed on.” I fumed for several hours.
I see the situation differently now. Decades have passed and I have realized a couple of things. One: I don’t like being left out of family decisions. And that can be my problem. And two: Nancy’s kind, gentle soul which has blessed my life immeasurably is connected to a certain measure of indecision. She trusted the nurseryman and made the best decision she knew how to make while being under pressure.
In the decades since that landscaping tension, I have learned additional lessons. I don’t always have to have my hand on the steering wheel. While I can make the case that a joint decision should not be undone without proper discussion, maturity teaches me that fruit trees matter less than loving relationships. And, as the decades pass, I am ever more grateful for Nancy’s kind, gentle soul.
Daniel Wile, a clinical psychologist, has wisely observed that, “there is value, when choosing a long-term partner, in realizing that you will inevitably be choosing a particular set of unresolvable problems that you’ll be grappling with for the next ten, twenty, or fifty years. Each potential relationship has its own particular set of inescapable recurring problems” (After the Honeymoon, pp. 12-13). Its own particular set of inescapable recurring problems!
My experience in coaching couples agrees perfectly with Wile’s observation. Most partners want some particular thing—order, thrift, control, a humble apology, etc.—more than they want a good marriage. I see wonderful, dedicated saints who turn their particular preference into a fundamental law. “I can’t be happy without tidiness!” “I can’t go on when he won’t apologize for his mistake.”
My experience is that we can be right, or we can be happy. We have a choice. When having our way is more important that forgiving and accommodating, we are saying that our preference matters more than covenants or relationships.
Sure. There are some actions that are absolutely deal-breakers.* But they are not the garden variety challenges that most of us face.
Elder Dallin H. Oaks (2007, pp. 71–72) gave wise counsel:
Now I speak to married members, especially to any who may be considering divorce. I strongly urge you and those who advise you to face up to the reality that for most marriage problems, the remedy is not divorce but repentance. Often the cause is not incompatibility but selfishness. The first step is not separation but reformation. . . . Under the law of the Lord, a marriage, like a human life, is a precious living thing. If our bodies are sick, we seek to heal them. We do not give up. While there is any prospect of life, we seek healing again and again. The same should be true of our marriages, and if we seek Him, the Lord will help us and heal us. Latter-day Saint spouses should do all within their power to preserve their marriages.
So, what do I recommend?
- Recognize that every earthly relationship has some thorns, thistles, or briars. That is a mortal reality. They can become the focus of our mortal experience. Or we can put them in eternal perspective. I recommend the latter.
- Recognize that feelings of indignation are almost always tied to some personal preference rather than a sacred and eternal law. Anger narrows our thinking and brutalizes our compassion. I recommend that we choose to recognize that indignation is rarely a truth-teller.
- Find ways to manage indignation. Take deep breaths. Choose gentle humor. Allow time and distraction to settle us. Don’t let problems become your focus.
- Be grateful that, along with thorns and briars, there are roses and raspberries. God provides apples, cherries, tomatoes, olives, beans, corn, and broccoli. Rather than curse the thorns and caterpillars, we can thank God for the fruit. We can cherish the good qualities in our spouses even though they come with challenges that provide occasional scratches or irritations.
God designed both mortality in general and marriage in particular to challenge us. Those challenges are our opportunity to show God that we value charity and covenants more than convenience and comfort.
When we forgive our spouses for being human and appreciate their many qualities, our lives are richer, our marriages are happier, and we open up the space for God to bless and enable the covenants we made.
Invitation: Learn how the gospel of Jesus Christ combines with good research to chart a path of personal happiness and family effectiveness. My latest book, Discoveries: Essential Truths for Relationships, is available at LDS booksellers or Amazon. Get a copy for you or for someone you love.
*If you think your relationship may be irretrievably broken, read Hawkins and Fackrell’s summary of the brethren’s sensible guidance: https://latterdaysaintmag.com/should-i-keep-working-on-my-marriage-perspectives-and-tools-at-the-crossroads-of-divorce/
Thanks to Barbara Keil for her insightful suggestions.
Oaks, D. H. (2007, May). Divorce. Ensign, 37(5), 70–73.