Author’s Note: The principles in this article can help improve any marriage, but are not meant to be a solution to all marriage problems. For situations involving abuse, professional help is strongly encouraged.
When I was 17, I decided to skip school and head up to our local mountain for a day of sun and spring skiing. This was quite the departure for me—breaking the rules was simply something I did not do. Simply getting caught speaking out of turn by my teacher was enough to keep me silent for days afterward, just to be safe. And yet, this day, the life of crime I found myself barreling toward seemed more appealing than lectures on math and history, so I swallowed hard and headed for the hills.
I was hot on the heels of a large Dodge diesel truck as I headed up Trapper’s Loop toward Snowbasin Ski Resort. Eager to speed on by and make the most of my day of delinquency, I pulled into the passing lane and noticed a group of four dogs running onto the road ahead of me. I slowed to avoid hitting them, but the man in the diesel truck plowed on through, running over the top of one of the dogs. I slammed on my brakes, sprang from my car, and ran to the dog—a beautiful yellow lab who was now split open and bleeding. As I reached down to help the dog, it lunged up and bit me hard on the hand. Speaking gentle, soothing words, I reached down again to help. This time, my hand was met with a whimper and a gentle nudge of her nose. I held that sweet dog as she now licked my hand until, about 10 minutes later, a highway patrolman showed up and suggested he take care of the dog from there.
It wasn’t until years later, after professionally coaching hundreds of couples whose marriages were barely hanging on, that I made the connection between our interpersonal relationships and the profound lesson I had been taught that day by that dog: Hurt people hurt people. Here are a few key truths, including this one, that I have learned over the years that can build a better marriage.
1. Hurt people hurt people.
Not too long ago, I arrived home after a stressful day at work. A lot was on my mind and I just wanted to relax and unwind. But when I walked through the door, it quickly became obvious that there would be no relaxing in our house that night. Toys were everywhere and the kids were laughing, screaming, crying, and running all over like a pack of hyenas. Our youngest didn’t even have any clothes on. I’m not sure what message I was communicating to my wife when our eyes met and I opened my mouth to make a comment, but the look she gave me when she saw me was not the “Oh honey, thank goodness you’re home” look that I was hoping for. It was more of a Proverbs 17:28 kind of look: “Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise.”
The conversation that followed between my wife and me went from frazzled and frustrated to a volcanic explosion more quickly than I care to admit. By the end, there were no survivors.
Later that night, as we tried to make sense of what happened, we retraced our steps to figure out how we had gotten to that point. My wife realized that she was not angry with me but that day she was feeling like a failure as a mother. The pain of what she perceived as her shortcomings was too much for her to handle that day and she couldn’t help but lash out.
I, similarly, was feeling like a failure as a provider. A rough day at work had opened some wounds of my own and I was hurting. I immediately became defensive and also lashed out at her. We were two wounded people beating the emotional tar out of each other because, well, we were hurting really badly and we didn’t know what else to do.
Thinking back to my fateful day of hooky, that sweet yellow lab bit me not because it was a mean dog but because it was hurting and afraid. This is true of all relationships, especially marriage relationships.
In my professional life, I run into this problem regularly with the couples that I counsel. Even after explaining this principle that hurt people hurt people, I still regularly hear from couples, “Yeah, I get the concept. But you don’t understand—my husband is just an angry person. He’s always getting really upset and yelling even when I don’t do anything. And besides, what does he have to be hurting over?” Or sometimes I hear, “My wife is always mad at me and I can never seem to do anything right. She’s just unwilling to see my side of things. She’s just an angry person.”
Despite these claims, in the thousands of instances I’ve seen of marriage conflict, I have not yet found an exception to this rule. People don’t lash out and hurt others when they feel great inside. It just never happens. Anger is a symptom of people in pain. Understanding this concept is one key that helps me have empathy for my hurting spouse. And my wife, who has also come to understand this concept, has more empathy for me, even when I make angry comments. Am I perfectly empathetic with my wife and is she perfectly empathetic with me? Not a chance. We both regularly fall short, but we work on it and improve over time, and understanding this truth helps.
2. Rotten eggs never create delicious cookies.
Years ago I decided to bake cookies. I’m not particularly talented at baking, so when I pulled the cookies out of the oven and they were round, flat, and generally looked like what I’d seen others make, I immediately started patting myself on the back and thinking about how excited and proud my wife and kids would be. Then I ate one. Immediately I was looking back over the recipe and checking the ingredients, trying to figure out where I had gone wrong. The cookies lookedgood, but that’s where positive parts of the cookie ended.
Baking is simply the “marriage” of good ingredients combined in the right way and baked at the right temperature for the right amount of time to get a delicious result. A happy marriage is similar to basic baking. We are the ingredients, but life mixes us all up, trials add the heat, and we still hope the result is delicious.
When couples come to me desperate for help, one of the early things I ask them is, “Tell me what you don’t like about yourself.” This is usually met with some puzzled looks. Occasionally people get a bit defensive and even hostile. “This isn’t about me! This is about us—our marriage,” they say. I assure them that the happiness in their marriage is indeed about them individually much more than it is about them together.
The reality is that happy, healthy marriages are created by happy, healthy individuals. The individuals are the ingredients in this baking analogy. You could never bake cookies or cakes or muffins with rotten eggs and expect a good result. If the ingredients are bad, it’s impossible to get the good result you are looking for.
“So you’re comparing me to a rotten egg?” you might ask.Yes! That’s exactly what I’m doing.Emphatically! Unapologetically! You are a rotten egg-at least at least part of you is-and your marriage will sufferif you keep being a rotten egg. But this shouldn’t be news to you. Isn’t that the whole message and mission of Christ? “You are all rotten eggs and come short of the glory of God. But, if you’ll humble yourself and come unto me, I can get rid of your rottenness. Then you can go and make delicious baked goods with that other special person from whom I’ve also taken the rottenness away.” If this isn’t ringing a bell, check out Romans 3:23, Ether 12:27, Isaiah 1:18, and 2 Cor 7:1.
The point is, if you want to have a happy marriage, the first place you must look is at yourself—the only “ingredient” you can control—and figure out where you are rotten. Then you must turn to Christ and ask Him to remove that rottenness from you. As you clean up your own ingredients, your resulting marriage will become much more delicious.
3. Coasting only works when you’re going downhill.
I was sitting in sacrament meeting one Sunday morning, doing my best to stay awake. I was a teenager at the time, so this was nothing new. My neighbor stood up to give a talk. This man, whom I’d known my entire life, had never spoken in sacrament meeting, at least not that I could remember. I’m not sure what it was about this man or his talk, but he held my teenage attention—something very few other people could do. I still remember one simple but profound statement from that sermon. He said, “Coasting only works when you’re going downhill.”
Many years later, again doing my best to stay awake, but this time in a university chemistry class, I learned the same principle taught a different way. The professor talked about the law of entropy, or the idea that all things are moving from order to disorder and that the only way to maintain order in any system is to add energy to that system. This is true of all things in our universe—the mountains, our houses, our cars, our bodies, and especially our relationships. Simply stated, by scientific law, everything is always falling apart unless we add energy to keep it together.
Just a few months ago, a woman with tears in her eyes and a completely broken heart asked me how her marriage had fallen apart. She explained that they had enjoyed a happy marriage in the early years. They loved spending time together, they traveled, they were spontaneous, and they even made lots of love. Life was wonderful. Then the kids came and, understandably, that’s where her focus and energy went. Her husband, on the other hand, focused his energy on his career and making money for the family. These were two good people with good intentions who didn’t understand the law of entropy—that if they didn’t continually add energy to their marriage relationship, it would fall apart. They thought that because their marriage was great early on, it would always be that way. Now, as empty-nester status was fast approaching, they realized that the strong relationship they once had was gone. Neither one of them could explain why or how their relationship had deteriorated and neither had a clue how to get it back to the way it was before.
Similarly, some close friends of ours recently bought an old, worn-down home and started renovating it. It had taken a beating from the weather for many years with very little maintenance to keep it up. These friends sought out a professional to help them make a plan to repair and rebuild the house, and then they went to work. It took a lot of time and effort to put that house back together—much more than if it had been maintained and improved all along—but eventually they recreated a beautiful, comfortable home. And so it is with marriage. If your marriage has fallen apart like the couple I mentioned previously, it will take extra energy to put it back together, much more than if it had been maintained along the way. But, with a good plan, time, and focused effort, that marriage can be more beautiful and rewarding than you’ve ever experienced before.
Making Sense of These Truths
Now that I’ve explained these three truths, let me see if I can tie them together into some steps that are a little easier to apply. After all, as Stephen Covey put it, “To learn and not to do is really not to learn. To know and not to do is really not to know.”
Step 1 - Choose now to heal wounds instead of hurt others. As tensions arise in your marriage and your spouse lashes out at you, instead of getting defensive and fighting back, ask yourself, “Why are they hurting and how can I help ease the pain?” And Likewise, when you feel angry at your spouse, stop and ask yourself, “Why am I hurting?” You will find that as you address the real root of your own pain in the heat of the moment, the anger and aggression toward your spouse will fade away.
Step 2- Choose now to repent and improve. If you want to have a sweet and delicious marriage, you have to make sure the ingredients are good. Grab a notebook and make a list of a few things that you know you need to improve on or some mistakes you have made that have not been resolved. Are you critical of others? Do you wish you spent more time focusing on spiritual things? Have you been neglectful of your spouse and your marriage? If so, write it down, recognize your mistake, apologize to those whom you’ve hurt along the way, and ask God for forgiveness. Allow Christ to work His magic as He begins to make more of you than you can of yourself. As you allow Christ to sanctify your heart and improve you character, your marriage will also improve.
Step 3- Choose now not to coast. If your marriage is falling apart, it will take extra energy and effort to put it back together. So, choose to put energy into your marriage starting today. This can be done in a variety of ways, from a regular date night and quality time to doing kind things for each other and making love. If you don’t know where to start, a good counselor or coach can help you make a plan. The key is that, whatever you decide to do, the positive energy must be put intentionally into your relationship. Going to see a movie together is great, but if your mind’s focus and energy is on everything else except your spouse, you are coasting in your marriage and downhill is the only possible direction to go.
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Greg Reynolds is a husband, father, and founder of Abundant Life Mentoring LLC, a marriage coaching company whose mission is to save couples and families from unnecessary divorce. He has a degree in child and family studies in addition to over 2,000 hours of marriage training. After helping hundreds of couples turn their marriages around, Greg has found that the best answers to marriage and life challenges are found in the gospel of Jesus Christ and the steady and consistent application of faith, repentance, and forgiveness. For more information on healing and strengthening marriage, visit www.abundantlifementoring.com.