Today is our 35th wedding anniversary. It’s difficult to comprehend that we have been married that long. Like many others who have been in life-long relationships, our marriage has not always been a bed of roses. Yes, we have enjoyed many wonderful times together. We’ve had the opportunity to travel to amazing places in God’s world. We’ve gone on mission trips and have had the joy of pastoring together in two churches. We’ve raised three children and relished the privilege of helping to mold and shape their lives. We have a grandson who delights us with his curiosity, incessant questions, and insights. We enjoy hiking and playing golf together.
We have been incredibly blessed. At the same time, we are acutely aware that our life together would be pure misery if we did not expend our best energy cultivating our relationship. We’ve had our share of spats and deep disagreements. Our children have played us off each other with “Dad said – Mom said.” We have not always agreed on child rearing practices, together and alone time, use of money, and yes, even theology. There have even been occasions when we’ve sought professional help because of family issues.
Of course, our challenges are no different than yours. In my roles as pastor, wife, daughter, sister, parent, grandmother, friend, and global citizen, I am a part of many complex family systems and am continually steeped in relational issues. On a daily basis I witness immature and dysfunctional behavior. I observe:
- People becoming angry with a server when the food quality or service is poor, so the tip is withheld even if it was not the server’s fault.
- Crude gestures made when someone believes he/she is cut off in traffic.
- Someone feeling slighted, but rather than sitting down and talking it out, the person holds it inside until anger erupts at a very inopportune time.
- Jealousy between siblings that threatens to destroy relationships and causes heartache for parents.
- Tempers flare in a church council meeting when discussing the budget shortfall, with everyone pointing the finger at others.
- Parishioners complaining publicly to others in the church about a disagreement with the pastor rather than first speaking directly to the pastor.
We live in a culture in our country where people claim the right to express whatever is on their minds. Following the example of talk radio and social media where rants are commonplace, we feel free to unload at all times and places.
If we’re angry, we’re entitled to rude and boorish behavior in attacking others. If we’re disgruntled, it’s okay to berate and abuse others. Listening skills are woefully lacking. Self-control is no longer a fruit of the Spirit or even a hallmark of courteous behavior. We make assumptions about the integrity of others without even bothering to engage them in conversation.
We eschew self-examination and reflection, believing that the other person is always to blame. We insist on scapegoating in order to avoid taking personal responsibility for our words and actions. Because the importance of good social and relational skills is not valued, we don’t teach our children appropriate manners, good judgment and delayed gratification. I tire of the “he said – she said” way of life.
I still remember a funeral where I was meeting with the family and one of the adult children remained strangely quiet. I was asking the children about their mother, and they all agreed that she could be stern at times and did not know how to express physical and verbal affection. Nevertheless, they loved their mother for who she was.
After the meeting, I approached one of the sons who seemed strangely quiet, and he expressed with sadness in his eyes and voice, “My experience of my mother was very different from that of my siblings. I was the scapegoat of the family. I was always the one who got the blame whether I was guilty or not. I was not the favored child, and my mother verbally and physically abused me almost every day. I love my mother, but I vowed long ago that I would never treat my children the way my mother treated me. My siblings wonder what’s wrong with me, but they have never even tried to understand, nor did they ever challenge my mother’s behavior and come to my rescue.”
Few families escape this type of dysfunction. As the author Scott Peck so memorably began his ground-breaking book, The Road Less Traveled, “Life is difficult.” So many people are living on the edge. Because we have an unrealistic image of the good life and assume that we are worthless if we don’t measure up, the world has become a tinder box. Poverty, emotional deficiency, hopelessness, low self-esteem, unemployment, and scars from childhood all move us toward a behavioral tipping point that is too often fueled by alcohol, drugs and other self-destructive behavior.
Gary and I may not have another 35 years of marriage in our future. However, I’ve learned plenty about my own relational mistakes over the years that I trust will empower me to be a more loving wife, a more patient parent, a crazier grandparent, a more whole pastor, and a more generous friend.
Top Ten Learnings from 35 Years of Marriage
- I am not responsible for anyone else’s behavior other than my own. Therefore, I will resist ragging on anyone else and focus only on my own words and actions. I trust that through my example my children and grandchildren will exhibit mature relationships and so inspire others.
- In God’s kingdom there are no winners or losers, so it is not necessary for me to blame others for my own shortcomings. By blaming I simply project my own insecurities on others.
- Critical self-reflection is not only an acquired skill. It’s a continual process of growing and maturing where I discern my own motives instead of trying to guess the motives of others.
- The only way to resolve conflict is to seek to understand rather than to be understood. That’s why “he said – she said” conversations don’t work. We model healthy dialogue by sitting at table together, opening ourselves to honest dialogue, and listening more than talking.
- In the words of Franciscan priest and author Richard Rohr, if I do not transform my own pain, I will transmit it to others in unhealthy and dysfunctional ways. I transform my pain when I am no longer attached to my ego and neediness and am completely free to love.
- Until I acknowledge my shadow side, along with my fears, foibles, and idiosyncrasies, I will drag it behind me and poison every relationship.
- Giving ourselves a free pass with uncontrolled behavior is not only unacceptable and arrogant, it’s a recipe for disaster in any job or relationship.
- Two simple words can avoid untold heartache and bitterness. We need to learn how, when, and why to say “I’m sorry” and mean it.
- The Golden Rule has withstood the test of time: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
- I’m not perfect, but it is possible and absolutely necessary to move on to perfection.
Our churches would be much healthier if our clergy and laity sought to become more emotionally and relationally intelligent. How might our worship, stewardship, outreach, mission, children, youth, and family ministries transform lives if they were led by transformed, spiritually mature leaders?
Wouldn’t it be refreshing if our faith communities put as much emphasis on healthy communication and relational skills as we did on pledging, taking care of the building, and putting on the chicken BBQ? No more yelling, whining, brooding, power plays, dominating meetings, overreactions, or drama queens/kings. Instead, calmness, centering prayer, joy, hope, shalom, deep conversations, hugs, careful listening, thoughtful decisions, and hearts that are clear. “See how they love one another,” not “See how they stab one another in the back.” “Provoke one another to love and good deeds, not “He said – she said.”
She said, “We’ve been married 35 years. Let’s celebrate by going for a long walk.” He said, “We’ve been married 35 years. Let’s celebrate by going out to dinner.” Thanks be to God. Maybe we’ll do both.