Lifelines for drowning marriages (and whole societies)

Kindness and so much moreI feel like I have a new friend after reading Katherine Willis Pershey’s book: Very Married: Field Notes on Love and Fidelity. We have only exchanged one email, but I already hope she moves here, or at least comes over to inspire us.

I would like to quote you the entire book, in case you do not buy it immediately, but I will just do this one part today. It feels urgent that I get you to think, feel and pray about marriage, since several are falling apart as we speak, and, I think, the partners in them don’t really want them to fall apart, but they are floundering. They did not do what the following quote suggests we do and the resulting injuries feel insurmountable.

Pershey is talking about John Gottman’s book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (another recommendation). Specifically, she boils down his work into one very Christian exhortation: be kind. If you need a Bible verse, it could be Ephesians 4:32 (memorize it): “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” I agree with her. That about sums it up.

“There are two ways to think about kindness. You can think about it as a fixed trait: either you have it or you don’t. Or you could think of kindness as a muscle. In some people, that muscle is naturally stronger than in others, but it can grow stronger in everyone with exercise.” …This is the muscle Benjamin [her husband] and I continue to strengthen, little by little, day by day.

We still fight. But we fight far less frequently and far more gracefully. We are learning the art of restraint and the craft of forgiveness. And I suspect that all the hard work we have done in this relationship has effects well beyond our household. Despite the uniqueness of marriage, lessons learned within this singular covenant translate into other relationships. Marriage has required me to face the very same insecurities and weaknesses that dogged several other important relationships in my life. To be sure, I can still get defensive and petty and critical. (You may now picture my dear old dad nodding enthusiastically). But I know myself in a way that only the mirror of marriage could have shown me.

Kindness as a muscle. Marriage as a place for inner development. Covenant as a mirror that leads to a deeper understanding of the truth about oneself and the world. If you know people who are struggling because they have not grasped these principles like life preservers as their marriage drowns, maybe sending them this post would help. Pershey goes on with something just as practical:

Not long ago a friend shared a link to an article….the article is short and sweet; in it, a mother asks her young daughter to read 1 Corinthians 13,

[Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.]

swapping out the word love for the name of the cute boy she likes. The girl realizes that the cute boy isn’t, in fact, patient and kind. He is arrogant and rude, and all the other things Paul says love is not. The mother goes on to ask her daughter to consider her own name in the verses. And this, for me, is the key. It is easy enough to ask if Benjamin is irritable or resentful. But am I? Am I patient and kind? Do I keep a record of wrongs? If I flunk all those biblical tests of love in my own marriage –my own marriage! – then I flunk them outright.

Camel kindness

I could apply this thinking to the church, of course, where our covenant love also sets up this test (and I will later do that, no doubt). I could talk about how we can’t make the impact on the world we need to make in this trying time if our love cannot even survive our own covenant! Like Pershey says, a demand for justice is easy, but a willingness to put our love to the test by comparing it to the Lord’s: “love one another as I have loved you,” is what gives us the authenticity and authority to speak into the darkness around us.

But let me not go completely there and just stick with marriage. For those of us in a sanctioned marriage or a cohabitation (no matter how ill-defined), you are undoubtedly facing the challenge to be kind and to not just demand justice in the face of your hurts and confusion – especially if you are thirtysomethings. I hope you will not punch this screen or punch yourself as you read this, but just rest in God’s understanding and favor — and learn. God became a human in Jesus to enter into your pain and heal it. He saved you once and for all on the cross and he is saving you now, resurrected, in the power of the Spirit. “God’s kindness is meant to lead [us] to  repentance” (Romans 2:4) — lead us to learn and grow.

These simple thoughts do not solve all your problems or all the problems of your mate, nor are they the antidote to all the poisons that might be infecting your relationship. But Pershey’s summary of the great truths about living in love is such an important lifeline! I would make sure to hold on to them as you paddle toward someplace better.

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