The Call of the Mild


How I learned that being pushy didn’t achieve my objectives in marriage.

Equality of the sexes has been hotly debated during the ‘80s. Latter-day Saint couples, however, have been faced with their own equality issue for decades—that of spiritual equality. Many spouses have asked themselves at one time or another: “Is my husband (or wife) progressing with me? Are we equal?”

In my earlier years of marriage, I found myself asking these questions and was discouraged by what I perceived to be the answers. Although my husband was an excellent father, I often felt irritated and angry. I wanted him to fit the image of what I thought he should be. I had certain ideals and goals I wanted implanted in him.

One day, I turned to my father for advice. Because of his training as a psychiatrist, I knew he wouldn’t be too critical of his son-in-law. His first words were like a cold-water dunking: “Martha, if you continue like this, you could drive your husband away.”

My jaw dropped. “What do you mean by that?” This wasn’t going at all as I’d expected.

He held up his hand to ward off my indignation. “Just let me explain on a matter that is different, but the principle is the same. Not long ago, I was counseling a Latter-day Saint woman who had left a basically good marriage. She felt her husband wasn’t living all the Church standards. Years of nagging and pleading hadn’t changed him. She thought that leaving him would force him to change his ways in order to win her back. She never suspected that he would find someone else who loved and respected him as he was. He remarried happily after their divorce, and she was devastated.”

Why am I getting this lecture? I thought. I had never considered leaving my husband. Why was I suddenly in the wrong? My chin went up. “Are you saying I should just quit pushing, and forget my own ideals?” I asked defensively.

“No, I’m saying lead but don’t drive. Be gentle in your persuasion while recognizing his strengths and achievements. Be an example without criticizing. In your rush to achieve your goals, you may be sending a silent message that he’s not measuring up. He’s a good man, Martha, and he needs to know that you think so, too.”

I sat, unable to speak as tears welled in my eyes. I was torn. I understood my father’s words, but I expected my husband to be what I’d always dreamed of.

My father tried a different tack. “Have you heard the story about the farmer who hitched two mice to his wagon? His neighbor saw him climbing into the wagon and laughed at the farmer. ‘You don’t really expect those two little mice to pull that wagon, do you?’ he asked. The thick-headed farmer said, ‘Why not? I have a whip.’”

I laughed in spite of myself. The image of me in the wagon was clear. I’d used anger and resentment as my whip, with just about the same chance for success.

“Okay, I guess I am being pushy,” I said. “But I see other men who lead the way I want to be led. Is it wrong to expect that?”

Dad’s voice was gentle but firm. “You’re going about this with the wrong attitude. One of the most insidious cracks in any marriage is when partners wonder if they made the right choice. The marriage begins to fall apart because they quit working at it.”

“Dad,” I interrupted, “I don’t think that. It’s because I love him that I get discouraged. I want him to reach his full potential.”

“It’s all a matter of loyalty. Do you realize that disloyalty begins with your thoughts—that you’re actually being disloyal when you compare your husband to others?”

I was losing ground fast, and I knew it. I tried one more time: “My commitment to him is eternal. The day-to-day choices he makes as the priesthood leader affect our family eternally.”

“Patience and love are eternal, too.” He opened his scriptures and read: “No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;

“By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile.” (D&C 121:41–42.)

I knew these verses. They were written for priesthood holders about exercising unrighteous dominion. Why was he reading them to me?

“These two verses,” he explained, “contain the elements for success in any relationship—and especially the relationship between husband and wife. One of the great challenges in marriage is to accept all the differences in personality, background, and motivation and work toward being one in purpose. That’s no easy task, and it may take a lifetime. But as you pointed out, marriage is an eternal commitment.”

Then he told me about a farmer he had known when he was a boy. The man used to catch wild mustangs in northern Arizona. They were free for the taking but difficult to break. Late at night, he’d spook part of the herd into a makeshift corral near their watering hole. Then he’d select the best one and tie one end of a cotton rope around its neck and the other end to his strong white mule, leaving just enough space for them to travel side by side. Then he’d leave them in the desert to work out their own compromises.

The mule knew the way home and would gladly travel in that direction. If the mustang tried to head the other way, the mule would dig in its heels. If the mule got off track, the horse would balk. So it went until they had worked through their differences. Inside of two weeks, the two would come trotting home to food and shelter. The mustang would be “broke-to-lead,” and it was as if they’d been together all their lives. Dad added, “I almost left out the most important part: that rope around their necks was a very soft rope.”

I began to see the connection between the story and the two verses of scripture—and I knew it wasn’t about being as stubborn as a mule. Marriage commits us in purpose as surely as that rope between the mule and the mustang. Even though we recognize our ultimate destination, we don’t always travel in the same direction or at the same pace to get there. The soft strands of the rope that tie us together—representing love, patience, commitment, and faith—should prevent the rope from chafing. If the rope material is too abrasive, one of the partners might decide to sever it rather than endure pain and suffering.

I had misunderstood. Was I really willing to have a dynamic, take-charge leader for a husband and stand in his shadow, being pulled toward a goal or ideal? On the other hand, I wondered how much my husband appreciated being dragged along by my unwavering zeal.

I’ve studied the last six verses of Doctrine and Covenants 121 with new understanding. The principles they teach have strengthened and enriched my marriage. When one partner is less enthusiastic about the path they are following, it’s easy to blame the other partner and that is what I’d been doing.

Anne, a friend of mine, told me how she had once handled a situation that embodies the same principle. Married in a civil ceremony, she and Bob had set a goal to be sealed in the temple. For a time they were both active in the Church, but Bob gradually lost interest. He and his sports-minded friends looked forward to watching Sunday afternoon football on TV.

Anne rose early each Sunday morning, made breakfast for her family, straightened the kitchen, and got herself and their two toddlers ready for Church meetings. She left Bob with a kiss and a smile. In sacrament meeting, she struggled alone with the children, even though her husband had offered to watch them at home and put them down for their naps.

She said, “I knew it was critical that I set a good example for him and my children. I prayed that Bob would come around if I kept my faith in him. After church, I’d pause before entering the house, clear my mind of any negative feelings, and remember how much I loved him. Sometimes the living room was messy with popcorn and cans, but I wouldn’t allow those minor things to interfere with our relationship.”

After asking her husband’s permission, Anne started preparations to receive her own temple endowment. At first, Bob made only small concessions to living gospel principles. Later, he resumed attending church with his family and finally joined in preparations to attend the temple. Eventually, they were sealed as a family for eternity.

Anne said, “I think he saw the difference the gospel had made in my life. He also noticed that his family was progressing. One day, he just decided to catch up.”

Concerning the issue of Anne’s example, many Latter-day Saint women desire strong priesthood leadership within their homes. But aren’t both husband and wife responsible for the home? For example, who ought to make sure family home evening is held? Only the husband? Does the wife have no responsibility there? I suspect that a wife’s tendency to scrutinize her husband’s spiritual progress more closely than her own is a frailty widely shared.

I believe now that the promise in Doctrine and Covenants 121:46 is meant for priesthood families. It’s a blessing that requires time, effort, and patience to receive. And it’s well worth the journey:

“The Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion, and thy scepter an unchanging scepter of righteousness and truth; and thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever.”

I’m grateful to my father for a gentle reminder that made such a difference in my life. The deep love and respect we enjoy in our seventeen-year marriage is a product of his advice. Each time I’m tempted to be pushy, I hear my father’s words: “He’s a good man, Martha, and he needs to know you think so, too.”

Thanks, Dad. You’re so right.

How Can I Improve My Relationship with My Spouse?

You can break out of cycles of irritation and defensiveness that weaken your marriage. Try these suggestions, concentrating on a new one each week. You’ll be amazed at how effectively they can improve your relationship with your spouse.

  1. 1.

    Avoid negative thoughts. Avoid comparing your spouse with someone else. Instead, think of what you like or appreciate about him or her. Make a list and add to it frequently.

  2. 2.

    Avoid sniping. Don’t make derogatory remarks about your spouse in front of others, and don’t allow others to criticize your spouse within your hearing. Instead, say something positive about your mate in front of others, especially when your partner is present. It will reaffirm commitment and bolster self-esteem.

  3. 3.

    Do something positive for your spouse each day: a cup of hot chocolate, a surprise note, helping with a chore that your partner usually handles alone. Be creative—and don’t keep score.

  4. 4.

    Don’t set limits on the work you’re willing to invest in your marriage. Love is not a 50/50 proposition. You should avoid measuring the “amount” you’re contributing to your marriage.

  5. 5.

    Avoid making demands or ultimatums. Nothing brings out stubbornness and resentment faster than an ultimatum.

  6. 6.

    Practice meekness. Many people equate meekness with weakness. But meekness in reality is a strength. It results in a person becoming compatible with others and being teachable.

  7. 7.

    Study the references to the words charity and love in the dictionary of the LDS edition of the King James Bible. Let the scriptures expand your understanding of eternal love.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Scott Greer

Howard C. Macfarlane, Martha Wiser’s father, is a physician at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Salt Lake City. He serves as regional director of an LDS substance abuse program in the Jordan Utah Stake and as a temple worker at the Jordan River Temple.

Martha Macfarlane Wiser, a free-lance writer, serves as Sunday School in-service leader in the Delta Seventh Ward, Delta Utah Stake.