As a beginning therapist I was energized by the opportunity to support meaningful relationship growth but also helpless through numerous episodes of miscommunication and conflict. I was recognizing the challenge of attuning to two distinct sets of perceptions and needs. Some describe this tension as the “miracle” of marriage, emphasizing the divine intervention required for two people to negotiate life together.
The optimistic view of marriage offers hope that we will marry our best friend and enjoy decades of meaningful partnership with mutual support, intimacy and growth. Starry-eyed fiancées cling to this vision, fueled by literature and romantic comedies that offer idealized depictions of passionate soulmates who live happily ever after.
In the best situations, dating relationships and marriage develop organically when we naturally adjust to someone with whom we feel acceptance, find attractive and bond over shared interests. In the worst situations, we experience betrayal in the most vulnerable parts of ourselves. Many of us remain subconsciously guarded, fearful of the tragedies observed in chronically unhappy couples who live in constant strife.
The question of how to nurture marriages fuels frequent discussion in academic research, clinical settings and churches. Many of these discussions seek to identify the most strategic steps that offer the closest approximation to a guarantee, almost like a recipe. For example, psychologist John Gottman identifies “The Four Horsemen” (criticism, defensiveness, resentment and stonewalling) that correlate with almost certain relationship failure and offers techniques (gentle approach, taking breaks to calm, repairing conflict) to retrain these behaviors that contribute to divorce.
A quick online search yields over 60,000 books focused on marriage and relationship dynamics, each offering a different spin on how to negotiate conflict and develop partnership. One of these books, Sacred Marriage by Gary Thomas, frames marriage as part of God’s plan to transform us rather than simply bring us joy or make us happy in companionship. Where else are we confronted with our covert selfishness wanting (or demanding) things our own way and hoping someone else will accommodate our needs ranging from doing dishes to intimacy? Similar to Gottman and Thomas, C.S. Lewis describes Christian marriage as a transformational process that transcends mood and requires commitment demonstrated in actions contrary to our feelings.
My wife and I have the privilege of leading a class at our church focused on building community and support for young married couples. We are humbled by the opportunity to share in their lives and hear their stories so reminiscent of our own.
Two common themes that often emerge is the challenge of accepting differences and truly understanding our need for love. Accepting differences looks and feels much more like embracing than simply tolerating. And while most of us would acknowledge a need for love, it can be a lifelong process to fully understand the ways we receive it and offer it to others.
Discovering our spouse
Many couples in the first year of marriage reflect on the process of discovery, both recognizing patterns in themselves as well as their partner. “I didn’t know what I didn’t know” rings especially true at this time of life when we are forced to confront the assumptions we made from our own family of origin.
For some of us it is shocking to realize that our own perspective on life might not be shared by someone close to us. There is no shortcut for the process of self-discovery, particularly for strong-willed individuals insistent on learning their own lessons. This process often accelerates in marriage, fueled by the vulnerability of sharing a space with someone when there’s nowhere to hide.
In some ways there’s no preparation for this except to openly anticipate the process of negotiating traditions and expectations. We hear this when we express a preference for the way our family cooked, managed money, etc. These conversations become emotionally charged when discussing our expectations live and in the moment.
We encourage young couples to be curious rather than judgmental in order to normalize this process of discovery and avoid meaningless disagreement that can lead to outrage over differences of opinion. This may sound simple—that we simply respect the differences of opinion—but it often feels supercharged in a zero-sum game when played out with our spouse. This may be one of the reasons couples often say, “I don’t remember what we were arguing about, but I remember how I felt.”
This is the challenge of managing our own strong emotions and working to balance partnership in mutual submission rather than personalizing and reacting to someone else’s preference or opinion. With the exception of direct insults or abuse, being offended requires self-importance and some level of entitlement. The mantra “no victims, no villains” reminds us to redirect drama in our relationship and resist the impulse to blame our spouse for how we feel. We are all responsible for expressing and advocating for our own needs as we respect the needs of those around us.
The TV series Friends illustrates this lose-lose scenario in Ross’ and Rachel’s fight over whether they were “on a break.” They both make valid arguments and grow farther apart as they defend their own position. Passively surrendering to the other person did not repair the relationship, nor did ultimatums or righteous indignation. Many couples act out their own power struggles when each person passionately argues for the same thing using different language. When we allow enough time to calm, we sometimes forget the emotion that fueled our fight and hear our spouse’s perspective for the first time.
Accepting differences of opinion and sharing space in disagreement exemplifies confidence in yourself and your relationship. We often unconsciously make the choice to be right or happy, and it requires confidence to let others be “wrong” and remain curious watching for our own blind spots. Managing everyday disagreements provides a context for some of the most common codependent behaviors in which we feel responsible for the thoughts and feelings of our spouse and offer unsolicited advice in our desire to “help.”
Learning to love
Marriage is also the context in which we are most likely to discover patterns of attachment that were formed in our childhood and transcend personality, socioeconomic status, and possibly every other demographic. Secure attachment tells us we are valuable as a person and that we are lovable just as we are, the way God made us.
Unhealthy attachment patterns create a shadow that clouds our judgment or amplifies emotion in our relationships. Anxious or insecure attachment leads us to doubt our value and plead for approval. We often do this by giving in to those around us in an effort to avoid their displeasure.
Avoidant or dismissive attachment can make us look self-confident but we also come across as emotionally unavailable and unwilling to engage in uncomfortable, vulnerable conversations. Disorganized attachment features dynamics of both anxious and avoidant styles and leads to exaggerated emotional reactions.
Regardless of premarital counseling, marriage becomes the proving grounds in which we learn to manage our own emotions in sacrificial love by remaining present with our “person in life,” who is trying to also meet their own needs. Tragically, secure attachment often remains elusive, increasing the likelihood of divorce or undefined partnership that seeks to preserve our independence by avoid relationship commitment.
Perhaps this is an application of Mark 10:9: “What God has joined together, let no one separate.” One therapeutic approach suggests treating the relationship as the client, with each spouse having the potential to harm the “client” by insisting on their own expectations.
Relationship and conflict resolution theories describe the delicate balance that exists between remaining emotionally engaged while not escalating the conflict. The coldly distant partner can cause as much harm as the explosively emotional partner. Studies of couples in counseling have found that participants reach heart rates similar to strenuous exercise even while both are sitting on the sofa, equally upset but with different outward behaviors.
The challenge is to remain present with self-awareness and a sense of humor about ourselves and each other. In each exchange, we choose—often subconsciously—to preserve peace or engage a problem we perceive as unacceptable.
Trying to describe the complexity of attending to the living, developing relationship of marriage in one or two counseling sessions or a 1500-word article falls woefully short. Instead, it illustrates how difficult it is to define a concise formula and offers a sketch of the themes by which we choose each day to make deposits or withdrawals from the relationship.
Similar to definitions of love and the fruit of the Spirit, we make deposits with every kind word, selfless act and shared adventure or intimate experience (praying together, continuing to “date”). While there is always the risk of hurt feelings or escalating conflict, many couples discover growth after bravely engaging in uncomfortable, critical conversations that express each person’s needs and desires. It’s uncomfortable because there is intimacy and vulnerability (requiring trust) in these discussions, dynamics that define meaningful relationship. No victims, no villains—just people seeking acceptance and love.
Matthew Gallagher is a licensed clinical professional counselor at Restoration Counseling & Consultation, P.A. in Wichita, Kansas. He and his wife, Lori, attend First MB Church with their two daughters, Maddie and Gracie.