31 May 2012

Two marriage myths, busted

by Dan Phillips

As I continue in my announced intent to share a few bits of Biblical wisdom on marriage, it seems good to start by dispelling a couple of myths. Call me a Biblical "mythbuster."

First: it takes two to create marital problems. No, it doesn't. It only takes one.

It feels embarrassing even to have to say that, it's such a Biblically obvious point — but the notion of necessarily democratically-shared liability is so widespread that some air-clearing is necessary.

I think I'll call this the Democratic Causality Myth. How do I know it's a myth? The same way I know anything really important: the Bible. Didn't you read 1 Peter 2:19-20?
For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly.  20 For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God.
There you go: it is possible to suffer, not only in spite of doing good, but precisely for doing good. Peter expressly envisions a relationship where Party A causes suffering to Party B, and the latter not only did not "have it coming to him," but was specifically doing what he ought to be doing.

Peter's not done with that theme. Note that he says in 3:14a, "even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed." There it is again: suffering precisely because one had done what was right.

Of course, we could add a heap of Scriptures, and they'd take us back to our Lord Himself, amid the Beatitudes: "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:10).

The assumption that all suffering must be immediately traceable to some specifically causative wrongdoing is simply not Biblical. It is to join hands and nod along with Job's divinely-discredited friends, as they doggedly pursue the etiology of Job's suffering, sure that he'd brought it on himself somehow.

So if we grant this for all of life, is there some force-field that un-trues the truth when it comes to marriage? Is it only in marriage that we must always split blame for suffering 50-50? I'd like to see that logic diagrammed.

Now let me hasten to say (if it isn't too late to "hasten") that the odds are that there never has been a troubled marriage involving one 100% flawless saint and one 100% culpable reprobate. And anyone who was trying to help a troubled couple would be a fool to overlook the wisdom of Prov. 18:17. We sinners being what we are (sinners, and rationalizing ones at that), the odds are that both parties in a struggling marriage have sin-patterns to deal with. You, the person in a troubled marriage, should start with that assumption.

But really — a woman's husband commits adultery. You immediately begin to search for what she did to bring this on herself? On what Biblical warrant? Even if you can find twelve things she did wrong as a wife, does that make his sin of adultery to any degree her fault? A man's wife incessantly tongue-lashes and emasculates him. First thing you do is start listing off his failure as a leader? On what Biblical warrant? Even if you can find twelve things he did wrong as a husband, does that make her sin of verbal assaults to any degree his fault?

Where was I when the Bible was changed (A) to relieve parties of 100% culpability for their own sin, and (B) to empower mere mortals to cause other mortals either to sin or do righteousness?

Let me also hasten to say that if you are in a troubled marriage, and your immediate thought is "Aha! I knew it! This proves I'm in the right!", you're not catching what I'm throwing. What I'm throwing, when we combine it wth the terrifying human capacity for rationalization of the most outrageous sins, is that you should start with the thought that you may be the one in the wrong.

In fact, let me develop that. Let's say a marriage is troubled. (Readers: "A marriage is troubled." Nice.) Let's say the biggest problem is a selfish, lazy man who is in no way a picture of Christ's sacrificial love for His church (Eph. 5:25ff.). You imagine the specifics. Let's say he agrees with his wife that they have a troubled marriage. Let's say she tries to talk to him about his behavior (the porn, the late nights out away from home night after night, whatever).

He retorts "It takes two to tango, honey. We've got problems, that means you've got problems. Let's talk about your problems."

What if she does have problems? What if she doesn't? It doesn't make any difference to his sin. Maybe she's sweeter than a ripe peach. Maybe she's a sour-mouthed, nasty, merciless harridan. What does that have to do with anything? He is contributing sin to the marriage because he is contributing sin to the marriage. Insisting on starting with her behavior, and hiding behind the democratic myth, is a sheer red-herring.

And in case I haven't made this clear, I am writing to you. I am not writing to your spouse. You (and I) need to own your (and my) sin, period, and not race for cover behind the democratic causality myth.

Second: an occasional knock-down, drag-out fight is good for a marriage. This is a great idea... well, apart from that whole thing about it being totally dead-wrong.

The Proverbs book has a long (60+ page) chapter on what Proverbs specifically, and the Bible as a whole, has to say about marriage. I tackle this particular myth in the course of that study. To wit:
Perhaps you have heard the conventional wisdom that fighting is healthy for a marriage, that a little “clearing the air” (by means of a fight) is actually constructive and helpful. I have come to be absolutely convinced that this is a lie, and harmful one at that. A married couple should never fight.

By “fight,” of course, I do not mean “disagree,” nor do I mean have lively discussions nor debates. It is probably not only impossible, but positively undesirable that disagreements never take place in a marriage of two redeemed pilgrims on their way to—but not yet arrived at—the Celestial City. (More on that, later.)

Probably any couple knows when a disagreement becomes a fight. When lines are drawn up, tempers flare, hurtful accusations are hurled, and verbal blows are exchanged, a disagreement has degenerated into a fight. One opponent seeks to defeat the other, at almost any cost. Victory becomes the only goal. (p. 210)
This is followed by a sidebar, "Why Christian couples should never fight each other," Biblically detailing individual sets of reasons why neither husband nor wife should ever participate in a fight with the other. The reasons center around the Biblical description of what it means to married in general, and specifically what it means to be a husband or a wife. You can't be doing what God calls a husband or wife to do, and at the same time give yourself to fighting your spouse.

(And yes, I'm aware that clever minds can come up with valid "what-ifs" ["What if my husband is carrying a vial of deadly virus and intends to wipe out the population of Encino?"] — if a "what-if" that probably accounts for about 0.0001% of actual marital fights constitutes a valid exception.)

So. We can't assume that every marital problem has a 50-50 split. We can't solve our problem by trying to destroy our mate and force him or her to our will by verbal blunt-force trauma.

What should we do?

Next time.

Dan Phillips's signature


Doug Hibbard said...

I would contribute this to any "shared-trouble" in my marriage:

Usually any attempt to excuse my behavior because of a fault of my wife's is either where I have misunderstood what she has said, made a faulty assumption about her, or have just grabbed some inane slight to build that case on.

Even the times that our issues have been 80/20, most of "her" 20 is still me.

Bill Honsberger said...

Agreed. What exactly were Uriah's sins? Too faithful - too loyal?

CGrim said...

Bill, I agree 100%, but I'm sure people would accuse Uriah of focusing too much on his career and not giving his wife enough attention.

Pastor Zach said...

I had never given much thought to whether fights could be "good" for a marriage. I've usually heard it phrased that "conflict" can be "redeemed" or useful or something...which is basically saying that fights can be.

Since I've never heard anyone back that assertion up from Scripture, and since Dan just refuted it from Scripture, as of now, I'm with him...

Anonymous said...

My wife and I found ourselves supporting a friend who was escaping an emotional/sexual/financial/spiritually abusive marriage.

Unfortunately out church (at the time) insisted that he shouldn't be called an abuser and that she must be treated in the same way as he because...it take two.

Even to the point of admitting that he was abusive and claiming that she was "no doubt" being abusive as well...

Crazy crazy crazy.

Great post Dan. Great post.

aaron said...

This post, while I appreciated the caveats in point 1, is really idealistic.

How we're defining "fight" and "fault" make all the difference here. So much difference in fact, that if we define them in more common use, I'd say every marriage needs to fight and that it's helpful to see the multi-orbed reasons for a sin, without blame- shifting of course.

No one wants to be argumentative (point 2) and/or to blame shift all of one's struggles onto their spouse(point 1). But, those are extreme positions that only the rightly rebuked married person holds. There's alot of nuance here, and I think that nuance was partly achieved in the explanation of point #1. To the texts:

Proverbs 15:1
A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

Proverbs 29:22
A man of wrath stirs up strife, and one given to anger causes much transgression.

Did the harsh word help to cause the anger? Did the angry man of wrath stir up strife and help to cause transgression?

As far as the "never fight" issue. . . Of course fighting in anger, being aggressive, and being quarrelsome are to be called out. But, the bible also speaks against flattery, and there's a fine line between passionately trying to "win over" your spouse on a point, and a sinful fight. Yes, wives should win over their spouses with their quiet spirit and Husbands should lay their lives down. But, sometimes winning over and laying down involve pointing out what you think is wrong about the other person's thoughts and actions. When is that a fight? Hard to say, but I bet there's more than one definition there.

I don't think the myths were busted, I think wrong applications of neutral ideas were.

Nash Equilibrium said...

I second Dan's idea about fighting not being good for a marriage and raise him one "it probably isn't good for two Christians to actually "fight" with each other, married or not"

DJP said...

LOL; fair enough, Nash. The difference being I've never heard anyone suggest that fighting (per se) is good for Christian friendships, but I have heard it said of marriage.

Rick Brownell said...

When I first became a Christian, a higher-up in the JW cult stopped by my house to let me know how I could tell that the JW view of Christianity was the right one: "he and his wife of 30 years had never ever had even a single argument." I said, "Sorry to have to let the cat out of the bag, but ... something is seriously amiss in your marriage."

Nash Equilibrium said...

"I've never heard anyone suggest that fighting (per se) is good for Christian friendships, but I have heard it said of marriage."

Good point. That is truly a bizarre phenomenon isn't it?

Morris Brooks said...

Dead-on Dan. I was just covering this last night in a pre-marital counseling session.

Gunner said...

Dan, you have a repeated section in the fourth paragraph. You can delete this comment when you correct it.

"I think I'll call this the Democratic Causality Myth. How do I know it's a myth? The same way I know anything really important: the Bible. Didn't you read I think I'll call this the Democratic Causality Myth. How do I know it's a myth? The same way I know anything really important: the Bible. Didn't you read 1 Peter 2:19-20?"

DJP said...

First thought: yeah, but it bore repeating.

Second thought: thanks, but nope. I didn't change anything, yet there's no duplication. Perhaps your browser?

Andrew Lindsey said...

"I've never heard anyone suggest that fighting (per se) is good for Christian friendships, but I have heard it said of marriage."

-This is one of those observations that both: 1) should be blatantly obvious; 2) no-one ever thinks of. This is deeply thought-provoking and should be famous.

Robert said...

Just think...we can go from "I have to tell my spouse how wrong he/she is and help him/her to root out their sin" to "I have to tell my spouse how wrong I am and ask him/her to pray for me as I work to root out my sin by the power of Christ within me". How much better would our marriages be if we made a regular practice of followign this type of thinking?

Persis said...

I'm chiming in late...

Thank you, Dan, for dispelling the 50/50 myth. It's a kick in the gut when you're already down to be told you must have failed to (fill in the blank), which therefore led to your spouse's infidelity. Believe me, there's already enough self recrimination going on without adding to the pile.

Jim Pemberton said...

Spot on with both myths.

If it takes two to tango, it only takes one to sit down to stop the dance.

While my wife and I occasionally disagree with each other, we've never had a knock-down drag out fight in our 17 years of marriage. Who needs it? Any sacrifice made for each other in marriage is far less painful than butting heads to have our own way. In fact, the incredible blessing of sacrifice becomes evident as it is practiced over time.

trogdor said...

I cannot comprehend the thinking that you've got to fight to have a good marriage. Disagree? Sure, unless you just never talk about anything important or one of you is completely Stepford or jellyfish. But fighting? Insanity.

One of the most important passages for our mawwiage has been Ephesians 4:26-27. "Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil." If we have a disagreement that threatens to become a fight, everything else stops until we get it resolved. Whatever else we may have going on pales in significance to stomping out the brush fires. What good can possibly come from letting it blow up into a raging inferno, or letting it smolder unresolved so it can resurface later? Have a problem? Deal with it, now!

In your anger, do not sin. If I ever in my anger cease, even for a moment, to love my wife as Christ loves the church, I have sinned. Slamming doors, insulting her, storming off in anger to go 'blow off steam', giving her the cold shoulder - they have no place in a Christian marriage. And as with all sins, how does it do me any good? We are one, and I'm to love her as my own body, to nurture and cherish her. Fighting with her is about as brilliant as clubbing myself over the head with a frozen meat chub.

Oh, but if you fight, you get the joy of making up. And if I intentionally step in a bear trap, I get the exhilaration of making progress in my rehab! I got a better idea - don't be stupid, and keep yourself and your marriage healthy.