Most relationships begin with transparency and honesty. At some point, these things break down. The husband and wife drift from each other. Silence ensues. Even the best intentions derail if the couple does not know how to keep the transforming power of the gospel as the animating center of their relationship.
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- Boy meets girl.
- They start liking each other.
- They soon figure out ways to spend time together.
- When they are not spending time together, they are strategizing on how to spend time together.
- They become an item.
- A thing.
They are feeling that destiny is in play. If the lovebirds are Christians, their thoughts are about sovereignty and providence: God is in this! It takes little effort to convince them how the good Lord meant them for each other. If they date for a year or less, there will probably be no major disagreements. If they date for a year or more, there will be a few disagreements, but they will persevere through the rough spots.
Any thoughts of not getting married quickly evaporate. God forbid. A bird in the hand is better than whatever may be in the bushes. To start looking for another mate is harder than making a go with the one they have.
From the time they meet until their wedding day, they have become closer and closer. Incremental one flesh advancement. Each day revealed more about the other person, and what they learned about each other made them mutually irresistible. This kind of bliss is how things ought to be. A one flesh relationship is a never-ending journey. One flesh-ness is a process of ever-increasing awareness and acceptance until death severs the love bond.
Dating is what makes dating so exciting. It’s the beginning of a unique relational adventure. Marriage enhances the journey as more of the mystery about the other person is made clear.
Marriage is like walking into a garden maze, full of beautiful flowers. Each turn reveals another aspect of the other person. The hidden becomes the exposed. Even disappointment does not last because repentance gives them another day that leads to more adventure and enchantment. Paul elevated this kind of Christ imagery in Ephesians 5:25–33, where he talked about the husband being a picture of Christ and the wife being a picture of His church. It is a high call with a great reward for any man or woman who wants to marry.
Then there is sin. Even in the best marriage stories, there is a darker side. The progression toward each other that they began during the dating season hits a few craggy rocks. Disappointment and discouragement begin to capture their optimistic hearts. For various reasons, the pursuit of symbiotic integration starts to lose speed. Instead of two people set on a course to engage and enjoy each other, they readjust, choosing to coexist rather than assimilate. It’s the dual silo-effect: twin towers standing side-by-side but never intersecting in a meaningful way.
They become roommates. Business partners. They coexist in parallel. Earlier in their relationship, they could hardly wait to find out about each other. They talked freely and listened attentively. Now the talking is selective, and the listening happens when it is convenient.
They are mostly silent partners. Their communication is no longer an adventure. It is arduous. They learn more about what is going on with each other when they are with their friends. The husband listens as his wife shares her life with her girlfriend. He vicariously “catches up” on the latest happenings because he knows once they return home, the “catching up” on her day slows down, while the frustration that is between them continues to burn.
- How did this happen?
- How could two people, who could not keep their hands off each other, grow to a place where they have a lukewarm business relationship?
It is unfortunate that few people go into a relationship with the gospel as the animating center of the lives. Without the gospel, no relationship can thrive or mature. People may coexist, but they will not grow in relational warmth. The force of the gospel is the working tandem of reconciliation and transformation. These things get lost in a deteriorating marriage.
Christ came to die so we could be with Him forever. He entered our world and became like us. He lived a perfect life and gave Himself as a sacrifice for us. The Father accepted the work of the Son, which opened the door for reconciliation to and transformation by Him.
As Christ followers, we can live out an echo of the gospel as we engage our relationships. We cannot die for people to save them, but we can die to ourselves with the hope that a selfless sacrifice can be used by God to help others change. There is no relationship where it is more important to model this kind of gospel activity than in a marriage. Paul was not squeamish about this, nor did he hold back on how he thought about a man’s responsibility in the marriage.
Paul planted a man’s marriage responsibilities right in the heart of the gospel (Ephesians 5:25). Christlike is how husbands are supposed to behave toward their wives. There is no wiggle room here. The gospel is more than a calling. It is an explanation—a definition of how you are to engage your wife.
If a man marries a woman and does not have the gospel as the defining dynamic of his marriage, it will not be long before he spins out of his covenant, ready to give up on his promise. He may stay in the marriage, but his pursuit of his wife will diminish as the years drag on to some inevitable disappointing end. The vibrant life that was in the marriage will die, and the only thing that will sustain their union will be their mutual and agreed upon responsibilities.
No Sin Plan
Without the gospel as the redemptive agent within a marriage, there will be no possibility to fend off the encroachments of sin. We have a gospel because there is sin. Without sin, there would be no need for the gospel.
The conclusion is inevitable: a weakened gospel allows sin to breach the banks of marriage until the couple succumbs to its manipulations. The first sign of sin’s advancement will happen within the first year of marriage. As a dating couple, they could not get enough of each other. As a married couple, they are learning the rest of the story—the sinful side of their lives. The things they could hide or keep discreet while dating become front and center in the marriage.
With a weakened gospel and no biblical plan to respond to the problems in their marriage, the partners become sitting ducks. Every sin, whether small or large, slows their one flesh momentum toward each other until they finally decide it’s easier to coexist than to work through what is wrong.
This “fake it until you make it” worldview is what begins to shape their thoughts about marriage. It becomes the new standard. Silence sets in and takes over their lives. At first, it becomes small pockets of silence that are between them. With the angry couple left to themselves, these little pockets react like cancer does to the body.
When the cancerous sin entered their marriage, they did not know how to take care of it. Like a stain on a carpet, they left it alone. After a while, there were more stains. They never perceived how such a small thing could metastasize into such a disease.
A Common Scenario
The most common scenario in which this happens is an angry husband. Few things will cause a wife to shut up and shut down like an angry man. The angry man is especially bad if the new wife has not seen this side of her new husband. Even if she has seen it before, there is a monumental difference between dating an angry, harsh, and unkind man and marrying one.
This scenario was Mable’s surprise after she married Biff. Within the first six months of their marriage, Biff caught her off guard several times. Mable was a quick study. She learned when she should and should not approach Biff. She learned to be silent.
She learned not to speak her whole mind. Her quietness was when cancer in their marriage was activated. She used to be 100 percent involved in their mutual communication. After the first six months of marriage, she recoiled to about ninety-eight percent. Biff never discerned this because the incrementalization of silence was imperceptible. He was shocked beyond belief when she left him after thirty-two years of marriage. Only then did she give him her full mind. Mable was finally free to be Mable.
After she had done her tour of duty with the children, she believed she deserved a break from her controlling and angry husband. Though she was not justified to leave him, she did it anyway. It was finished.
Do You Know?
Even Christian husbands are notorious for shutting down their wives, while never perceiving they are doing it. They can be too dense, too stubborn, and too righteous to see or admit the adverse effect they have on their wives. It takes a lot of grace and humility for a man to take the lead by owning his role in the deterioration of his marriage.
I have had wives come to counseling for the primary purpose of saying to their husbands what they were afraid to say to them at home. I have had scores of men tell me things they did not know about their wives until it was too late. She left, and after she was away from him, she began saying things she held in for years.
There is a cure for this?
If this is your marriage, I appeal to you. It will take more humility and courage than you have probably ever needed to change the course of your marriage. If you are willing to ask the Father for this kind of grace, you could begin laying the groundwork that could release your wife to be honest and transparent with you.
It may take months for your wife to gain the courage to trust you, especially if you have used anger as a way to keep her shut down and controlled. Even if you offer genuine repentance, she probably will not come out from hiding until she knows it is safe to do so, as evidenced by your practical and measurable transformation.
If you are seeking this kind of corrective care in your marriage, you will need help. The hurts are too deep, and the memories are too fresh. You cannot know what you cannot know, and another set of eyes could serve you well. In addition to finding qualified help, it is essential for you to create an environment of grace for your wife to speak freely. When Lucia and I began making this kind of course correction in our marriage, I asked her if she would do this one thing:
Honey, if you knew you could say anything in the world to me and I would not respond in anger or defensiveness or in any other way that would shut you down, what would you like to say to me?
Of course, this had to be proven. Over a period of months, Lucia began to be more honest with me. She was initially timid because I had tempted her to fear. As she began trusting God and as I appropriated His grace into my life, she began to share things that she would only share with the Lord.
In time, we renewed the adventure we began the first time we met. We chose to fall in love again. Rather than choosing the parallel paths of consenting roommates, we changed our marriage path. We were back on course, incrementally assimilating into each other.
Call the Action
- Do you know what your wife is thinking?
- Are there pockets of silence in your relationship?
- Wife, are you motivating your husband to be open? Are you creating a context of grace for him to be free to speak with you?
- How vulnerable and transparent are you with each other?
You’ll know where you are in your marriage by the freedom or the lack you have in discussing the content in this chapter. If you cannot freely and lovingly talk about what is in this chapter, while assessing each other, your marriage is in trouble.
If you are willing to work on a course correction, I appeal to you to reach out to your church’s leadership. Let them inside your marriage. Do not put off getting help today.
Also published on Medium.