They had worked for years to resolve problems in their marriage. At times things would improve, but before long the same old problems would surface again … and again.
“Why should it be so hard to have a good marriage?” they asked. They had been married in the temple, were active in the Church, and had four delightful—though demanding—children. Yet recurring stresses and strains exerted a lot of pressure on their relationship. Lately their disagreements seemed more frequent and more volatile, satisfactory solutions seemed harder to find, and conflicts often dragged on for days.
At one point, they had sought professional help and were instructed in the use of various techniques. They had discussed the how-to’s of clear communication, had role-played creative listening, and had worked through a number of exercises in effective problem solving. As a result, their marriage received a needed boost and things seemed to smooth out for a while.
But after several months, they were plagued again by the old, splintering conflicts, and although they tried to apply what they had previously learned from the marriage counselor, nothing appeared to work. As their marriage deteriorated, they became haunted by the unanswered questions: “What’s really wrong with us? How can we revitalize our relationship? Is there nothing better?”
The complexity of this particular couple’s dilemma doesn’t permit a simple solution. However, it is likely that part of the problem lies in their failure to understand fundamental laws governing human interaction—laws based on the gospel of Jesus Christ. To their credit, this husband and wife had expended considerable time and effort in trying to resolve their difficulties, but they had never uncovered the roots of their problem. I’ve found that couples who are most successful in creating a wonderful marriage are those who not only have access to valuable marital skills, but—more important—have developed an understanding of the basic gospel principles that underlie productive relationships.
The Law of the Harvest
The Apostle Paul enunciated an eternal law when he declared that “whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” (Gal. 6:7.) The analogy of sowing and reaping is one favored by the prophets of old and by the Lord himself. (See, for example, Job 4:8; Prov. 22:8; D&C 6:33.) This “law of the harvest” ties behavior and its consequences together in an unbreakable relationship that has direct impact on every aspect of our lives—and especially on our marriages.
Like the flowers, fruits, and vegetables we grow in our gardens, our marriages reflect the nature of the seeds we have planted. If we have tried throughout our married life to plant seeds of love and harmony, then we are more likely to enjoy a rich harvest. Of course, the opposite can also be true. At any given moment, we are the sum of all our sowings.
It’s important to realize that marriages thrive where replanting is a constant process, where both husband and wife realize that a one-time planting at the beginning doesn’t ensure a perennial harvest. Each new day should be filled with planting, cultivating, and weeding. One day missed can lead to a week, or a year, missed—and the garden may soon become overgrown with brambles and briars. However, as with gardens, neglected marriages can be renovated with careful replanting, meticulous care, and a great deal of patience.
A Solitary Harvest?
What if one spouse is uninterested or unwilling to plant the good seeds, or to weed or cultivate the marriage? What if he or she for some reason can’t see the importance of applying gospel principles to marriage? I believe that there is great truth in the idea that you can change your marriage by first changing yourself. It may be a slow process, but many husbands and wives can testify that rewarding belligerence with belligerence accomplishes nothing—while changing their own heart and attitude can work miracles.
Let’s look at a few of the many seeds that can help produce a good harvest:
1. A Christ-centered relationship. Sadly, too many men and women are like the early astronomers who, with limited knowledge and inadequate tools, falsely postulated that the sun and all the planets traveled in orbits around the earth; later, an enlightened Copernicus showed that the sun was actually the center of the earth’s orbit.
Similarly, many couples make the mistake of centering their lives on such faulty foundations as self, sensuality, or worldly approval. In their attempts to improve their relationship, they fail to make the Savior a partner in their efforts; they feel that the solution must lie entirely within themselves. By so doing, they fail to realize that, notwithstanding valiant efforts to solidify their union, if their marriage is built on these shifting, superficial sands it won’t withstand the storms.
Fortunately, it is possible to discover the peace and joy of a Christ-centered relationship. Through continuous efforts at applying the Savior’s message of charity and forgiveness, and through daily prayer and scripture study, husbands and wives can have their “hearts … comforted, being knit together in love.” (Col. 2:2.)
One couple I know took this challenge seriously. First, they reinstituted their daily scripture reading, which had tended to lack consistency.
Second, they reestablished the habit of having evening prayer together, and they began to make it a practice to thank the Lord vocally for each other. As they knelt alongside each other and listened to the other’s expressions of gratitude, a greater bond began to build between the two, a bond forged from thankfulness and humility.
Third, they began to evaluate what they did and said in terms of what they felt the Savior wanted them to do. They asked themselves, especially in moments of stress between the two of them, “How would the Savior want me to handle this situation?” As a result, they began to be more receptive to the divine influence of the Holy Ghost, which raised their discussions to a higher, more productive level.
Indeed, blessed are those couples whose lives revolve around the Son.
2. Humility. Successful marriages are characterized by humble people who have developed an understanding of their strengths, their weaknesses (or “growth areas”), and their potential. A humble person understands that although he lives in a fallen world in which “the natural man is an enemy to God,” he can yield to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, put off the natural man, and become “a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord.” He can become “as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.” (Mosiah 3:19.)
These qualities are earmarks of spiritual maturity. Where they exist, pride, selfishness, self-righteousness, and conceit cannot.
3. Perspective. A proper perspective of our relationship to God, spouse, and self is vital. When we lose sight of the Lord’s love for us, it is only a small step to deprecating our spouse. Self-depreciation leads to self-protection, insensitivity, and a general attitude of combativeness.
On the other hand, humble awareness of my “sonship” with the Father is an important step toward “oneship” with my mate. Furthermore, it seems inescapable that if we are to learn to revere God, we must also learn to revere his creations, especially those for whom He claims literal spiritual parenthood. To admire Da Vinci and then slander the Mona Lisa is, to many art lovers, unthinkable; similarly, to praise God and then mistreat our spouse—one of his sons or daughters—is desecration.
4. An attitude of giving. My experience has shown me that people approach life and marriage from one of two points of view: They believe that happiness comes either from giving or from receiving.
Individuals in the latter category have the mistaken belief that they will be happy as long as the marriage is fulfilling their needs. Unfortunately, in most cases this is translated into the idea that as long as my spouse is doing the right things and is measuring up to my ideal, I will be happy. A lot of unhappiness results when one or both of the partners pursue this course of self-aggrandizement to the exclusion of the needs of the other. This win-lose approach results in a stifling atmosphere of selfishness and competition.
Individuals who have an attitude of giving, however, understand that marriage constitutes a divinely directed relationship which, when gospel-oriented and Christ-centered, can provide us with our only means for reaching our full, eternal potential. In successful marriages, neither spouse is overly concerned about his or her own needs, but each is ready to engage in collaborative compromise in order to ensure whatever is best for both. Each makes a firm resolution to become “nurturing caretakers” of the marriage, rather than insensitive “harvesters.” In this way, everyone benefits.
In reality, “getters” neither give nor receive, but “givers” do both.
5. A desire to work together. Both husband and wife should have a desire to preserve, protect, and perfect the marriage. This means that they constantly monitor any force that could bring harm to their relationship—whether external pressures, such as economic instability, or internal disruption, such as differences of opinion. They recognize that there can be no marital battleground, for unless both are on the same side, unilateral victories will inevitably lead to bilateral defeats. Indeed, it can be said that “we-ness” typifies a growing partnership, whereas “me-ness” marks a dying one.
Blaming each other is an easy way out, but it’s a highly ineffective way to solve problems. I know a man who decided that during moments of stress, when his natural tendency was to blame his wife for whatever was wrong, he would reaffirm in his own mind that he, and he alone, is responsible for his thoughts and actions and that inner emotion, such as anger, is a result of his own thought processes and is not caused by his wife’s behavior. By maintaining such an objective outlook, he finds that solutions come more readily, being unencumbered by the selfish reaction to blame the other person.
Another couple adopted a rule for their marriage: “Whatever you say to your spouse, make it a gift.” With this in mind, they challenged themselves to discover new, imaginative ways of communicating with each other. With a little effort, they were able to develop new procedures for handling delicate and sensitive issues, procedures which clearly gave the message “I care about you—I care about us.” Together they declared war on all noxious elements that could hurt their relationship.
6. Service. Too often, love is defined solely as a feeling, an inner glow, something indescribable yet real. I believe that, to a great extent, those feelings come as a result of the acts of loving behavior that have transpired between the husband and wife. Someone has pointed out that it is important to see the word love as a verb rather than as a noun. Then, when we say “I love you” it reflects an ongoing demonstration of loving action and service, not just an expression of feeling. “I feel love for you” is not nearly as important as “I show love to you.” Perhaps the Lord had this in mind when he said, “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” (John 14:15.) It seems obvious that his main concern here was not merely a feeling of love but a demonstration of it. We should do no less in our marriages.
Service in marriage suggests a commitment to the welfare of our spouse as well as a willing acceptance of the role of a servant. The Savior taught that true leadership hinges on service to others. (See Matt. 20:26–27.) His devoted disciple Paul, in counseling the Saints at Ephesus about their marital relationships, singled out all husbands for special emphasis in this regard. Drawing a parallel between the Savior’s great sacrifice for the Church and a husband’s patriarchal responsibility to his wife, he wrote, “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it.” (Eph. 5:25.)
To husbands and wives alike falls the great challenge of serving each other, being careful to give what is truly needed, not what one thinks should be needed. There is little value, for example, in a husband’s buying his wife a new sofa when what she really wants is some time alone with him to just chat about her day. By the same token, a wife is missing the target if she thinks that giving advice is always more important than giving support.
The couple discussed earlier in this article had to struggle quite a bit before catching the vision of voluntary servitude. But as they quietly and conscientiously moved toward this goal, they began to realize some of what is meant by taking upon themselves the name of Christ. (See D&C 20:77.) Who but Jesus himself can better model for us the role of servant? As they grew in their desire and ability to serve, they discovered a sweetness and peace that comes only from a heightened interest in the needs of others. They found that, in fact, they had truly begun to find their own lives by losing them in the service of each other. This was probably the greatest gift of all—to learn that the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ could have no greater relevance than when applied to their own marriage.
Marriage is one of the best places to learn the principles of the gospel and how to become Christlike. Is there any doubt that we must first learn to apply these principles within our own homes? All of God’s creations exist according to eternal principles of order—and our marriages are no exception to that rule. Our destiny lies in being able to learn and master the principles of eternal marriage so that we might be prepared to share in all that the Father has promised us—even an everlasting inheritance and a continuation of lives. (See D&C 132:19, 22.)
Lawrence M. Barry, a marriage and family therapist, serves as an alternate high councilor in the Kaiserslautern (Germany) Serviceman’s Stake.