Marriage is a Trust—Handle with Care

January 29, 2016 by cloften  
Filed under Family and Parenting

fragilePanicked cries rang out from the kitchen.  The kind that make a momma’s heart skip a beat!  “I broke it!  I broke it!  I am so sorry!  It was Maylee’s!” wailed my devastated 4 year old.  She had spent the morning playing with a china tea set which had been given to her 18 year old sister on her 3rd birthday.  (Experienced mother’s side note to well-intentioned gift givers—china tea sets are terrible gifts for anyone younger than 6.)  Maylee is headed to college in the fall and has been purging her closet of treasures such as these, making her baby sister the delighted beneficiary.

Although I had allowed her to enjoy playing with the tea set, I had also emphasized to her how breakable it is, and the need to treat it with care because it was special to her sister.  We are probably all familiar with the sense of extra-care and caution that comes when we drive a friend’s car, hold a neighbor’s baby or drink from Grandma’s crystal stemware at Thanksgiving dinner.  You listen closely to any special handling instructions, not wanting any harm to come to the valuable object while it is in your care.  Knowing that something is precious to someone else and has been entrusted to you affects the way you handle it.

You may not realize it, but if you are married, you have been entrusted with the heart of someone who is precious and valuable to God.  Furthermore, as a husband or wife, God is using the way you love your spouse to illustrate to the world Christ’s sacrificial love for His bride, the Church.  If that doesn’t feel heavy, you need to read it again because God Himself has given you a sacred trust, and that is absolutely as big a deal as it gets.

However, if we are honest we don’t view our marriages this way. On our best days we may view our marriage as a choice we made to share our life with someone we love.  And on our less than best days we can view our marriage as an agreement we made with a selfish, sinful person when we did not have all of the facts.

We doubt ourselves:  “Maybe I rushed into this.”  “What if I would have been happier with someone else?”

We doubt our spouse:  “He’s not even the same person I fell in love with.”  “If I had only known then what I know now.”

From that place “till death do us part” can feel like an arbitrary mandate to try to make something work that was a bad idea to begin with.

I doubt most of us spend time thinking on God’s stake in our marriage.  But what if marriage is God’s idea, designed to be a picture of the love Christ has for His bride, the Church.  If His interest in your marriage is not only cherishing the heart of your spouse, which is precious to Him, but also the reputation of His Son, He may have a bigger stake in our relationship than we realize.  Likewise, because our marriage is sacred to Him, He gave some instructions for it’s care.

21 And further, submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. 22 For wives, this means submit to your husbands as to the Lord. 23 For a husband is the head of his wife as Christ is the head of the church. He is the Savior of his body, the church. 24 As the church submits to Christ, so you wives should submit to your husbands in everything. 25 For husbands, this means love your wives, just as Christ loved the church. He gave up his life for her 26 to make her holy and clean, washed by the cleansing of God’s word.[b] 27 He did this to present her to himself as a glorious church without a spot or wrinkle or any other blemish. Instead, she will be holy and without fault. 28 In the same way, husbands ought to love their wives as they love their own bodies. For a man who loves his wife actually shows love for himself. 29 No one hates his own body but feeds and cares for it, just as Christ cares for the church. 30 And we are members of his body. 31 As the Scriptures say, “A man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.”[c] 32 This is a great mystery, but it is an illustration of the way Christ and the church are one. 33 So again I say, each man must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband. Ephesians 5:21-33

A good God, who does have all of the facts, created marriage to serve as a picture of self-sacrificing love to a selfish and sinful world, and planned to use regular ol’ sinners “whom God has joined together” to pull that off.  If that perspective on our spouse, on our marriage, sinks in a bit, it changes things.  The doubts, the character flaws, the “what ifs” and “why me’s” become opportunities to submit ourselves to God at work in us, and ask the Holy Spirit to love my spouse in a self-sacrificing, you-first, greater-than-human kind of way.  Rather than critiquing our spouse or evaluating his worthiness, our focus can turn to “feeding and caring for [him], just as Christ cares for the church.”

Just as we might give someone instructions before caring for our child or borrowing our car, God has given us instructions for carefully and lovingly handling our spouse.

  • Consider and value your spouse’s needs as you do your own.

Submit to one another. No one hates his own body but feeds and cares for it.

  • Unite yourself to your spouse. There is no longer “me” and “you.” Just “us.”

For a man who loves his wife actually shows love for himself. Acting in the best interest of the unified team is also in the best interest of each party.

  • Treasure your marriage as a sacred trust from God

This is a great mystery, but it is an illustration of the way Christ and the church are one. God using imperfect people to love one another in a manner that exceeds their own capacities as an illustration of His perfect, self-sacrificing love.  A mystery indeed.  A treasure He has entrusted to us.

More than a bad idea you may have had once upon a time, marriage is a God idea.  And your spouse is a gift you have been entrusted to handle with love and care.  Feel the weight of that responsibility.  At the same time I hope you will feel overwhelmed by His grace and power which are most glorious in areas where we are messy and broken. This is bigger than you.  It is bigger than your spouse.  It is as big as a great God who is writing a beautiful love story and in His beautiful, mysterious, we can’t fully comprehend it way, wants to include your chapter.  His love story is one of self-sacrifice, undeserved kindness, and unending forgiveness.  My prayer is that I will take His instructions to heart and allow His Spirit to write such a beautiful love story in my marriage.

Become a Student of Your Wife

October 28, 2015 by cloften  
Filed under Family and Parenting

Men spend a lot of time whining.  I feel like I could make that an application point for every post that I write that is directed toward men—Stop whining about it already and do something about it!

studying-man-9596702Nowhere is this more evident than in our inability to understand our wives.  We do not understand how they think or why they do the things that they do.  Our response to that is whining.  We whine to each other.

Idiot 1:  “Man can you believe my wife?  She asked me if she looked good in that dress and I told her what I thought.  She then started crying for no reason.  Don’t ask the question, if you don’t want the answer, I always say.  Am I right?

Idiot 2: “Yeah man, I know.  My wife asked me about my day and I told her that I didn’t want to talk about it.  She asked again later and I told her not to ask me again.  Now she’s mad at me for no reason at all.”

Idiocy chased by whining is a disastrous combination.

Instead of whining, allow me to suggest what I will call becoming a student of your wife.  We have told ourselves that women are impossible to understand.  They make no sense.  Even if that is true,  instead of complaining about it what we need to do is make a conscious decision to do everything that we can to learn everything that we can about our wives.

Trying to understand “women” is not what men should be trying to do anyway.  Instead what  a husband needs to do is understand his woman.  Those are two very different things.  One is a theoretical idea about similarities among women and what, if any, stereotypes are true and how they can inform us about the way relationships can best work in general.  The other is a husband figuring out what his particular woman needs and wants and how he can best love and serve her.

The illustration that I use to describe this is a complicated mental spreadsheet.  (Disclaimer: my wife does not like this illustration.  Your wife might not either. ) A complicated mental spreadsheet is my mental, not physical (WARNING: do not write this stuff down!), list that I have of what Heidi likes and doesn’t like.  It’s how she responds in certain situations.  She responds differently at different times, in different moods, at certain (gulp) times of the month.  I can say something in one context and it is received well, and in another it is received poorly.  Her attitude, my attitude, the circumstances  can all dictate different responses.  All of those responses and situations go into the mental spreadsheet.

I grew up with only a brother and my parents so the only woman I really knew was my mom.  My mom loved (loves) having knickknacks and little decorative things in her house.  She also loved being given those as a gift.  So, I start dating Heidi and I give her a ceramic cat.  She liked cats, and girls like things like that, so I knew it would be a win.  Guess what? It wasn’t a win.  She thinks stuff like that is a waste of money.  After years of calculated study, I have determined that she values practical gifts more.  One of her favorite gifts that I have ever given her was a vacuum cleaner…on Valentine’s Day.  Every stereotype in the world says that is wrong, perhaps the worst thing that a husband can do.  My complicated mental spreadsheet tells me something very different.

But that is over simplified.  Sometimes she wants an impractical gift.  Sometimes she wants emotional permission to buy something for herself.  Sometimes she wants a getaway without the kids.  Who knows?  Answer is I do, or at least I’m trying to.

My awesome wife is constantly changing, in part because we are older and our season of life is changing.  The spreadsheet is always being updated and corrected, and just when I think something is solid, I learn that it isn’t.  This doesn’t frustrate me, it actually makes her more intriguing.  I’m boring and simple.  She asks me what I want for my birthday.  I tell her there is only one thing I ever really want on my birthday(makes awkward face).  Heidi rolls her eyes. (If you don’t understand that ask your husband or anyone’s husband.)  I eat the same thing at restaurants.  I’m boring.  My wife is a beautiful mystery.  Rather than wasting all my time being frustrated that “I don’t understand her,” I channel that energy into learning everything that I can.

The reason why Heidi doesn’t like this illustration is that it seems to her that I am trying to “figure her out.”  She doesn’t want to be figured out.  However, she does want to be known.  She wants a husband who will go to great effort to learn about her and her intricacies.  Someone who will love her the way that she wants and needs to be loved.  She is complicated and to love her means that I will do all the work necessary to love her and lead her in what can seem to me complicated ways.  I’m not trying to win or put her in a box.  I am trying to admire and learn about the beautiful awesome woman that she is.

Spiderman’s Words to Wives

October 14, 2015 by cloften  
Filed under Family and Parenting

I have become convinced of something over the course of our years of counseling couples.  Although most men would never say “words of affirmation” is their love language and may even take offense to the notion of needing words of praise and encouragement, their souls are starved for such words.

spider wife

Usually when I throw out an idea such as this, I encourage ladies to discuss it with the men in their lives—ask them to weigh in.  However, I am encouraging a different approach here.  Asking a man if he needs or wants affirming words from you will be received much like you asking him if he would like for you to have fresh flowers delivered to him at work each week.  Nope, few guys can or will admit to needing something as un-masculine as verbal affirmation.  Don’t ask him.  Just start saying what he needs to hear.  You, more than anyone else in his life, have the power to offer your man something he is desperate for.

With great power comes great responsibility. –Spider Man

Your man is desperate to hear you say the words he longs to believe about himself.  But the same reason he can’t admit that he needs it is the reason he is longing for it.  Verbal affirmation is often not on the list of things parents feel boys need in their formative years:

  • learn to bait a hook
  • learn to tie a tie,
  • learn the value of hard work
  • · hear Mom or Dad say, “You are a great young man.”

Consequently, your man probably came into your relationship with his encouragement tank near “E.”  Even if he had parental love and support, he likely didn’t hear the words he needed to hear enough.  And if he had a hard relationship with either of his parents or an abusive or neglectful childhood, then there is a hole in his tank that may need to be mended in order to ever allow his gauge to leave “E.”

Your encouragement, your words of affirmation, mean verbally communicating to him:

I believe in you.  I think you are a great man.  I love watching you be a great dad. I am so proud to be with you.

Perhaps you are thinking, “I can’t say those things out loud.  He knows I feel all of that.  If I said that stuff, it would make him uncomfortable.”  You may have to get over feelings of awkwardness in order to actually verbalize such sentiments, and he may even seem uncomfortable the first time you say something along these lines, but push through all of the awkwardness and speak the words he needs to hear.  Need a running start?  Write him a love note and put those words on paper.

Because he is so starved for words such as these, they hold great power to affect him.  He needs them so desperately that his ears are perked, and he is ready to receive them wherever he can get them.  Let the most affirming words he hears all day come not from his boss or a coworker but from the lips of the one he loves most.

When we are counseling a couple, I will frequently suggest to the wife that she verbally affirm her husband.  Ladies, I kid you not…when I begin speaking examples (such as those listed above) of verbal affirmations, the husband in the room inevitably responds like a dog to the smell of bacon!  I am not his wife.  I am not even saying things that are true about him.  I am giving examples of the types of things she should try saying–yet his ears perk up and his tail begins to wag!  Whether he can admit it or feels like he can even respond well when you offer it, your man is hungry for you to tell him you think he’s awesome!

The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.

Proverbs 18:21

I will take it a step further and say that your words have the power to affect who your man becomes.  Speak words of life and tell him what you think is awesome about him, and he will aspire to live up to your view of him.  Likewise, offer words of death and destruction and he will believe he is as worthless as you say he is.  Of course there are many factors in play in a man’s life, but to large degree:

He will become what you say he is.

If that feels heavy…you are hearing me.  Your words have power, ladies.  Choose them wisely.  Offer words of life and encouragement freely and frequently and watch your words begin to unlock the greatness within your man.

If He Cried, You’d Understand

October 9, 2015 by cloften  
Filed under Family and Parenting

Ladies, lean in here.  I am about to share with you an insight into the male psyche that could possibly revolutionize your relationships with Y chromosome carriers.

Men often respond to hurt with anger.

05-cryingman-290212-deIf you were in a discussion with your friend/sister/mom and she began to cry, you would probably rightly conclude that she was upset.  You may have to ask “what’s wrong?” to get to the root of what had upset her, but you would have a category for her emotion.  You would know to move towards her with compassion.  Her tears would likely disarm any hostility you were feeling towards her as empathy kicked in.

However, if you were in a similar discussion with your boyfriend/husband/son and he began to raise his voice and that vein in his forehead began to throb, your response would likely be very different from the compassion and empathy that you feel for a crying girlfriend.  Rather than diffusing hostility, as tears might do, his anger probably fuels your fire.  If he is getting angry, you likely feel that you can or even should take it up a notch yourself.  “If he’s gonna yell, then I’m gonna yell too!”

Cue insight into male psyche slide here:

Men often respond to hurt with anger.

The angry male in the scenario is feeling the same emotion as the crying female—hurt.  However, because we receive his anger as aggression towards us, rather than responding with compassion to his hurt, we become aggressive ourselves, causing more hurt.

This common misunderstanding is made worse by the fact that most guys, even if you asked them “what’s wrong?” would have a difficult time identifying, much less verbalizing, why they were hurt.  Now rather than understanding his anger as hurt and trying to figure out what has caused the hurt, we are wrongly assuming he “got all mad for no reason.”

So, ladies, allow me to try to fill in some of the gaps between what we are thinking they are thinking and what they are feeling but not communicating.  And gentlemen, if any of this rightly expresses what you wish you could communicate to the women in your life, you can now just point at it and say in your best caveman voice, “This. Yes.”

  • His hurt is probably rooted in feeling disrespected.

What does that even mean?  Good question.  All people have a desire to be respected (have their rights and needs matter), but for men the issue of respect goes much deeper.  God has wired men to shoulder the responsibility for providing and protecting.  We can strengthen their sense that they are man enough to rise to great responsibility through our respect.  Likewise, when they feel at all that we don’t trust them with those great responsibilities, it often echoes the ugly voices of insecurity in their heads:  “You can’t do anything right.”  “You are not man enough.”  Even if our intention is not to “disrespect,” that is what they feel when our words seem to agree with their greatest insecurities.

  • To respect a man you must trust him and believe in him.

Particularly in a marriage relationship, it is as important to a man that his wife respect him as it is that she love him.  Any inkling that you do not trust him or believe in him can make him feel disrespected and hurt.  You may think that you are just reminding him of something he should be doing, pointing out a better way to tackle an issue, or pointing out a character flaw he really should address.  However, when heard through a man’s ears, words you may have meant to be helpful may feel very hurtful.

  • I cannot overemphasize, ladies, how much more sensitive he is to this than you realize!

Open your eyes and ears to the men in your life and their need for respect.  Begin to notice when they get angry.  Take that as an opportunity to replay the conversation or events up to that point and see if you can find the disrespect trigger.  As you are learning to recognize disrespect triggers in the men in your life, help them learn to talk about them.  When the anger response comes, resist the instinct to respond in anger.  Instead try, “I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean any disrespect.  Can you tell me what I said that made you feel that way?”  Even if you did not mean disrespect, if that is what he feels, compassion is in order.

Beginning to grasp how greatly the men in your life need your respect may feel a bit like learning a foreign language at first.  But I encourage you to tune your ears to this new language and you will begin to hear it all around you.  Your efforts to understand your men will lead to better communication, less anger and fewer tears.

THE Reason Why Marriages Struggle

September 23, 2015 by cloften  
Filed under Family and Parenting

I hesitate to say that this is the ONLY reason why marriages struggle, because as a mathematician, it’s hard to say 100% of the time to situations.  I also hesitate because of course there are some extreme cases of abuse, neglect, etc. that are the central issue to marriages struggling and/or ending.  However, in every encounter they we have had with dozens of married couples over the last 15 years,  the problem between the couple came down to one issue.  The presenting problems have been vast, ranging from infidelity to pornography addiction to money problems.  We have seen a lot.  However, at the core of all of these presenting problems is a deeper rooted problem that is a part of all marriages that are struggling:

The husband is not loving his wife, the wife is not respecting her husband, and they lack the ability to communicate about it well.

However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.  Ephesians 5:33

This is Paul’s summary statement about what a marriage relationship needs to look like.  He is describing what wives’ and husbands’ greatest needs are in marriage and how the other spouse is supposed to meet them.  When we can understand what this verse is asking from each of us, learn to implement it well and begin to have healthy conversations with our spouse about it, then we will see God produce healthy marriages in our homes.

What you are about to get is a relatively brief summary of the piece of advice that Heidi, my wife, and I have given countless times to numerous couples.  One of the hardest things that people say to us when we are counseling them is “We’ve been married _____ years and no one ever told us that.”  This idea is what the Bible says is the key to marriages working, our experience has backed it up numerous times and people don’t know because they haven’t heard.  That is why we talk about this in premarriage counseling all the time and why we share it with you today.  We don’t want you to struggle because you don’t know.

1)      The husband is called to love his wife. This is an unconditional command and the primary responsibility that a husband has to his wife.  The key to success is understanding what does love mean in the context of a husband’s relationship with his wife.  We have found that it comes down to 2 things.  First, a wife needs to feel cherished and valuable to her husband.  She needs to know that more than anything he values her.  He values her more than work, sports, time alone, money, other relationships.  Everything.  When she believes that there are areas or people in his life that he values more, the relationship breaks down.  Second, a wife needs security, both relational and financial security.  She needs to know that no matter what, he is not leaving.  She also needs to know that the family is going to be OK financially.  He will do whatever it takes to make sure of that and won’t do anything stupid to wreck the family.

2)      The wife is called to respect her husband. This also is an unconditional command.  “Wait, wait, wait.  Love is unconditional, but respect is earned.”  False.  That is not what the passage says.  Both commands are given without condition.  Just as a wife would say that she needs love the most when she feels unlovable, a husband needs respect when he feels unrespectable.   This also breaks down into 2 parts.  First is words of affirmation.  He needs to hear from you that you think that he is a great man and a great husband.  He needs to know that you believe in him.  Second is sexual responsiveness.  (Yep, I just said that.)  You being into him physically like he is into you makes him believe that you fully trust and respect him.

3)      Learn to talk about this well. Understand yourself well enough to know why you are getting angry.  You aren’t angry with your husband because he is messy with his dirty laundry.  You are angry because he is showing you that he doesn’t value you or your time enough to pick up his stuff.  Who cares about socks on the floor? You care about how he values you.  You also aren’t angry with your wife for asking too many probing questions about your day.  You are upset because you feel like she doesn’t trust you and is checking up on you.   Knowing why you are upset and being able to communicate that makes a huge difference.  The same goes for understanding why your spouse is upset.

Again, this is just a primer.  There is much more that could be said.  You can anticipate a lot more in-depth analysis on how we can understand and live out these three principles well over the coming weeks and months.  I leave you with this to think about.  The issue that has you so upset right now—chores, money, golf, personal space—is that really why you are upset? If not, what is it really?  What is it about those specific problems that triggers such a big response from you and how can you communicate that better to your spouse?