“You don’t have to be married long to discover that relationships are difficult and problems inevitable. You’ll experience disagreements that will at times force you to acknowledge that the person you married seems to have disappeared. And he or she has been replaced by someone who is either cranky and demanding or someone who disappears whenever there’s conflict.” (Gary and Carrie Oliver, on the subject of growth in marriage)
Most of us can relate to the situation that Gary and Carrie Oliver describe. Often times the person we THINK we married turns out to be different from the person we live with after the wedding takes place. On this issue, in an article (formerly posted on their web site) titled, “Ready, Set, Grow” the Oliver’s write (with their permission):
“Our marriage started like many marriages. We experienced a romantic courtship and thoroughly enjoyed being together. We laughed, played, and prayed together. During our engagement we felt a clear sense of God’s blessing on our relationship. But after the wedding, the surprises started coming.”
They go on to describe the many unexpected strains, and events they adjusted their way through. This included the birth of two children, which “meant less sleep and little couple time.” As they said (which many of us can relate to):
Most nights we dropped into bed tired and drained. Like most couples, we expected parenthood to be a time of great joy. We didn’t understand that it’s also quite challenging. While the birth of our children didn’t throw our marriage into a crisis, it dramatically changed the dynamics. We were slowly becoming married singles.
It seemed as if one morning we woke up more aware of each other’s weaknesses than strengths. We were more aware of what each other did wrong than right. We were also more negative and critical of each other, our kids, our friends, and even God.
Neither of us enjoyed dealing with relational problems. They made us feel uncomfortable and vulnerable, and brought up painful childhood memories. So we denied, and ignored the problems —while pretending everything was fine. We didn’t know that whenever you bury a problem, it’s buried alive. At some point it will emerge bigger, stronger, and even more threatening.
Looking back now we know our experience wasn’t the exception. Most couples experience a time when it’s easy to become problem-focused. Little irritations that were glossed over by romantic love are suddenly magnified. Combine those with the challenges and it can become overwhelming. Many couples divorce because they get stuck in a problem-focused rut and can’t see any way out.
A Needed Change
After years of struggling, we realized what we were doing wasn’t working. After much prayer and many long conversations, we discovered we’d developed a problem-focused marriage. We needed to spend less time going over the problems and more time talking about solutions.
Amazingly, the mere act of looking for solutions caused the size and number of our perceived problems to shrink. But while the solution-focused stage was an improvement, even it had some limitations. We were solving more problems and arguing less. But we weren’t experiencing the depth and intensity of love God designed for marriage.
God doesn’t want us merely to “get” through our problems. He wants us to “grow” through them. Jesus didn’t die and rise again so we could be mere survivors. In the words of Romans 8:37, Jesus wants to help us “become more than conquerors” and experience “overwhelming victory.” He wants to do “immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us” (Ephesians 3:20).
He doesn’t want us merely to survive the difficulties. Jesus wants us to thrive in the midst of them.
For the first years of our marriage we prayed for growth —but we weren’t growth-focused. We discovered if we wanted our marriage to go from good to great, we had to take the next step. We had to move beyond merely solving problems to consciously choosing to look at our problems and our relationship from a new perspective.
That’s when we began cultivating new habits that moved us into what we now call the growth-focused stage of marriage.
What is growth-focused marriage? Here are some characteristics:
Couples identify problems but don’t dwell on them. They look beyond the solutions to how God might use this process to teach them more about Him and/or themselves, their partners, and their marriages. They understand problems are inevitable and the real challenge is in dealing with them in such a way that honors God and each other while helping the couple grow through it.
Couples take seriously the apostle Paul’s urging to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Consistent daily prayer knits hearts together, attunes couples to the leading of the Holy Spirit, increases their ability to listen, and helps them see problems in light of what they can learn from them and not just how they can get through them.
Each partner takes responsibility for what God wants to do in his or her life.
Whenever there’s an “issue” they actively seek to apply Psalm 139:23-24: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” Their first prayer is, “Lord, change me.”
Couples spend more time focusing on each other’s strengths than weaknesses.
They look diligently for ways to encourage each other. Couples try to catch each other being healthy. They do this by being patient, kind, quick to forgive, giving the benefit of the doubt, and assuming the best. Plus, they give each other at least one compliment a day. That’s especially challenging when a partner is being a real jerk. But that’s also when it’s the most grace-giving.
Couples really believe “God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them” (Romans 8:28, NLT). Good marriages don’t just “happen.” While couples don’t ignore problems, they choose to look beyond solving the immediate problem to the ways God might help them “become like his Son” (Romans 8:29).
Couples understand that as iron sharpens iron (Proverbs 27:17), so one spouse sharpens another. Sponge doesn’t sharpen sponge. Nerf doesn’t sharpen Nerf. Iron sharpens iron. When they’re faced with painful or discouraging issues, they remind each other that the product (greater love and deeper intimacy) is worth the process (dealing with the issues).
Couples choose to assume the best about each other.
For years we believed and taught others that “love is patient, love is kind; it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Corinthians 13:4-5, 7). Now we try intentionally to live that out one day at a time.
Making the journey from being problem-focused to enjoying a growth-focused marriage doesn’t happen overnight. It takes determination and a lot of energy. We still have problems. We still disagree. That’s the real world. But having problems doesn’t mean we have a problem marriage. Cultivating a growth-focused marriage has helped us see the problems and challenges in God’s hands, as opportunities for increased satisfaction.”
It is our hope that from this day forward you will join with us to work together to build a GROWTH-FOCUSED marriage —so that it is one that reveals and reflects the heart of God.
Steve and Cindy Wright
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