Glancing up at the sticker in the left side of my windshield recently, I was reminded that it was nearly time for a routine oil change on my car. I remembered, for the moment, that this “routine maintenance” was designed to make my car run smoothly and effectively. The sticker was easy to ignore, and yet I also knew the value and wisdom of regular oil changes.
Sadly, many couples forget about “routine maintenance” for their marriage. There are no “stickers” left on the dining room table, refrigerator door or bedside vanity indicating, “Have you hugged your wife today?,” “Have you taken care of any hidden resentment?,” or “Do you need to apologize for anything?”
DENIAL—which I’ve said stands for Don’t Even Notice I Am Lying to myself, creeps into a relationship, and before you know it, the walls of detachment and distance are built. You may hardly even notice your mate wince at your sarcasm, and perhaps have forgotten to take note of the days since you’ve had your last date. How long has it been since you kissed your mate hello and goodbye?
Our marriage may be, in many ways, like the car that has not had a thorough detailing in months. The car runs, and that seems to be all that we expect from it. But, it hasn’t been washed, cleaned or the oil changed in far too long. The rattles are hardly noticeable. DENIAL. The scratches on the interior and abrasions on the paint are hardly noticeable. DENIAL. Marriages can carry the same neglect, only to surface ultimately at some point down the road in the form of resentment and acrimony.
Jennifer and Kurt came for work at The Marriage Recovery Center after they had failed to do marriage maintenance for far too long. Married for ten years, Jennifer had called several weeks earlier begging for “your earliest opening.”
During their first session I asked for a little background information.
“We have been sleeping in different rooms for the past year,” Jennifer said nonchalantly. “We hardly talk to each other now, except to ask about the kids or to make sure the bills are being paid.”
“How do you feel about that?” I asked both of them.
Kurt showed little expression, stroking his beard as he checked out the cottage. Jennifer seemed equally cool.
“We don’t like it,” Kurt finally said. “But, we’ve grown used to it. I go to work and haven’t expected much from her for a long time. I know she’s pulled away from me and there’s not much I can do about that.”
“Not much you can do?” Jennifer said, suddenly coming to life. “There’s a lot you can do. I’ve told you what you can do, but you don’t do it.”
Kurt winced at her cutting remarks.
“That’s what I mean,” Kurt said, looking at me. “There is nothing I can do to please her. I go to work, bring home a paycheck and expect little in return. That’s the way it is.”
“Folks,” I began, looking back and forth at both of them. “I’m curious. How much energy have you used in trying to fix things? How much time do you spend each week connecting with each other?”
Jennifer gave an anxious laugh.
“Not much,” she said. “We quit trying to connect. I guess I hurt his feelings all the time, and I know he hurts my feelings. But, we both just withdraw now. I live upstairs and he lives down.”
“But, why don’t you try to solve problems? What stops you from reaching out to each other?”
“I don’t know,” Kurt said. “I’m not sure she really cares about my feelings and she probably doesn’t think I care about her feelings. We are in a terrible rut.”
I spent the remainder of that intensive session and the next helping Kurt and Jennifer explore their patterns, making special note of their tendencies to withdraw, leading both to feel exceptionally lonely, isolated and abandoned. We then moved into learning how to tend each other’s feelings on a regular basis, leading to true connection. I offered this helpful advice:
First, marriage is a dynamic relationship, requiring constant attention. Just as a car requires regular gas and routine maintenance, marriage, or any relationship, requires attention. Ongoing communication, sometimes filled with sweetness, sometimes filled with firmness, is needed to maintain a dynamic relationship. Couples need to discuss healthy boundaries in their relationship and then work at maintaining them.
Scripture offers the following counsel: “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver. Like a gold ring or an ornament of gold is a wise reprover to a listening ear. Like the cold of snow in the time of harvest is a faithful messenger to those who send him; he refreshes the soul of his masters. Like clouds and wind without rain is a man who boasts a gift he does not give. With patience a ruler may be persuaded, and a soft tongue will break a bone” (Proverbs 25: 12-15).
Second, hurts must be attended to promptly. When we injure our mate, or are injured by our mate, we must attend to each other. We must immediately acknowledge the wound we have caused, or the wound we feel. Repairs are best made immediately with a sincere apology and taking responsibility for wrongdoing.
Third, agree to grow from any conflict. What is there to learn from any altercation? Any complaint by one mate to another is an opportunity for growth. Defensiveness stops communication, while an open, honest and receptive attitude challenges us to grow. Dealing with a matter effectively settles it, often once and for all. Denying or avoiding an issue simply creates a barrier and causes distance, detachment and resentment.
Finally, agree that you will perform ‘routine maintenance’ on your relationship. Commit to one another that you will be candid with each another, inviting criticism and expecting challenges. Agree that you will talk about issues, sharing concerning words as well as encouraging words.
Kurt and Jennifer emptied out their backpack of old resentments and frustrations, healed old wounds and vowed to ‘keep a short record of wrongs.’ They left The Marriage Recovery Center connected and attached, vowing to keep their relationship vital and strong.
Share your feedback or send a confidential note to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and read more about The Marriage Recovery Center on my website www.MarriageRecoveryCenter.com and YourRelationshipDoctor.com. You’ll find videos and podcasts on saving a sexual addiction, emotionally destructive marriages, codependency and affair-proofing your marriage. Please feel free to request a free, twenty-minute consultation.
Publication date: February 25, 2013
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