The Sin Behind Dissatisfaction

Gary Thomas

Greg looked at his wife, Sharon, (not their real names) and tried not to show what he was really feeling. They were celebrating their eighth anniversary with a dinner, and Greg was, well, bored. An avid computer geek, Greg felt chagrined that he would much rather be talking about computers with a colleague than trying to find something to say to his wife.

Sharon's choice for the dinner setting was a funky antique store/restaurant. Greg collects old metal advertisement signs, and he had to fight the urge to get up and go browsing in the antique shop. This was his wedding anniversary, he reminded himself; he should want to share it with his wife, and not wander off alone seeking his own satisfaction.

But Greg believed his wife's world had shrunken to an almost unbearable degree. She had little to say beyond giving a tedious, play-by-play account of the day's events. "And then, right after I mopped the floor, I went up to take a shower and guess what? Rebecca dropped her entire bowl of applesauce and didn't clean it up. Peter walked right through the mess and started making applesauce footprints all over the house! And I had just cleaned the floors!"

Greg nodded, struggling mightily against his internal thoughts. He felt bad because he knew his wife wanted something he wasn't sure he could give her -- she wanted someone to be interested in these domestic challenges, and frankly, keeping floors clean wasn't all that interesting to Greg. Greg has a fertile mind -- he loves figuring out computer glitches ("It's like a digital crossword puzzle," he explains), and his wife's seemingly endless anecdotes of messes and hassles put him to sleep.

"But Greg," I suggested a few days later, "this is how you serve your wife--by listening to her world. Do you think Jesus' mind was excited by washing the disciples' feet and listening to their foolish arguments over and over again? Besides, these are your kids. Of course Sharon's going to think you're interested in what happens to them throughout the day."

Greg reluctantly nodded his head. "I guess. But..." His pause told me we were about to get to the crux of the matter. "Well, there's this woman I work with. We're able to talk code -- something Sharon has absolutely no interest in -- and when we figure out problems together, there's nothing else like it. I feel so close to her."

There was another long pause. "Sharon and I have nothing in common anymore."

Right then and there the selfish lie was exposed. "Nothing in common?" I asked. "What about Peter and Rebecca?"

"Well, maybe the children."

"And having conceived them together, and caring for them together -- including cleaning up after them -- counts less in your book than connecting a bunch of numbers in order to write computer code with this other woman? Is that what you're saying? Do your children mean so little to you that you find them less engaging than creating a new program that will be obsolete in eighteen months?"

"Ouch," Greg said, blowing out a long breath. "I guess I hadn't thought of it that way."

Greg wanted to "rewrite" his reality so his thoughts wouldn't sound as evil as they really were. The truth is, he did value writing computer code over spending time with his family -- but instead of admitting and reevaluating that attitude, he blamed everything on his wife: "Sharon is boring," "Sharon doesn't understand me," "We've grown apart." These accusations were much more comfortable for him than admitting, "I am selfish, and I am having serious priority problems -- even to the point of mentally risking an affair."

If we approach it in the right manner and are willing to look honestly at our deepest motivations, marriage can be like a photograph. Looking at pictures isn't always pleasant. I remember once when we looked at some photographs we had just picked up at the store, and I realized for the first time how much weight I had put on. "Whoa -- where did that chin come from?" The natural inclination is to blame the camera angle, but the truth is, those fifteen pounds were showing from every angle!

The same thing happens with our sin in marriage. We resent the revealed truth, and we are tempted to take it out on our spouse -- the camera so to speak.

In my book The Glorious Pursuit, I reflect on a truth that I believe applies here. A mature Christian finds his or her fulfillment in living faithfully before God -- that is, in being a mature person, not in being around a particular person. Much of our marital dissatisfaction stems in actuality from self-hatred. We don't like what we've done or become; we've let selfish and sinful attitudes poison our thoughts and lead us into shameful behaviors, and suddenly all we want is out

The mature response, however, is not to leave; it's to change -- ourselves.

Whenever marital dissatisfaction rears its head in my marriage -- as it does in virtually every marriage -- I simply check my focus. The times that I am happiest and most fulfilled in my marriage are the times when I am intent on drawing meaning and fulfillment from becoming a better husband rather than from demanding a "better" wife.

If you're a Christian, the reality is that, biblically speaking, you can't swap your spouse for someone else. But you can change yourself. And that change can bring the fulfillment that you mistakenly believe is found only by changing partners. In one sense, it's comical: Yes, we need a changed partner, but the partner that needs to change is not our spouse, it's us!

I don't know why this works. I don't know how you can be unsatisfied maritally, and then offer yourself to God to bring about change in your life and suddenly find yourself more satisfied with the same spouse. I don't why this works, only that it does work. It takes time, and by time I mean maybe years. But if your heart is driven by the desire to draw near to Jesus, you find joy by becoming like Jesus. You'll never find joy by doing something that offends Jesus -- such as instigating a divorce or an affair.

In the nineteenth century, Marie d'Agoult left her children to follow after the most famous pianist of her day, Hungarian composer and virtuoso Franz Liszt. After the ardor of her infatuation cooled and the reality of missing her children set in, Marie is said to have made this observation: "When one has smashed everything around oneself, one has also smashed oneself."

Sin will lead to self-destruction if we allow it to. The same sin that confronts two different men can lead one to a greater understanding, and therefore to greater maturity and growth, at the same time that it leads another man into a cycle of denial, deception, and spiritual destruction.

The choice is ours. Sin is a reality in this fallen world. It's how we respond to it that will determine whether our marriages become a casualty statistic or a crown of success.

Excerpted from Sacred Marriagecopyright 2000 by Gary Thomas. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved. For copies of the book visit