For Better, for Worse, for Always

By S. Brent Scharman

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    Building a lasting marriage requires the maturity to accept responsibility for our own errors and the commitment to weather hard times.

    David and Barbara were unhappy—and had been for a long time. They had tried for several months to improve their marriage through professional counseling. This helped, but nothing seemed to solve the problem completely.

    Since Barbara was discouraged and was acting as though she had given up, it appeared that she was the cause of most of the problems in the marriage. Finally, one night, David felt he couldn’t go on any longer. He felt he was at a crossroads—that he needed to decide which of three possible directions to take: get a divorce, stay with his wife without improving the marriage, or stay with her and improve the marriage.

    After spending some time alone, during which he prayed and listened to the promptings of the Holy Ghost, David made an important decision. He recorded his feelings:

    “I am very discouraged about my relationship with Barbara. Since she is frequently depressed, it has often seemed that I’m the ‘good guy’ and she’s the ‘bad guy.’ Others have hinted that I shouldn’t have to put up with this. That used to make me feel good, but now I can see it’s not helping—it’s only making things worse.

    “I know that if I could step back and get a clearer perspective regarding the challenges we’re going through, I would see that I’m equally part of the problem. Not knowing how to act, I have fallen into a variety of unpredictable, manipulative behaviors. I put undue pressure on her. Although I try hard to help and encourage her, I often fall into the old trap of name-calling and criticizing. She can’t trust my frequent positive statements because they are followed by so many incompatible negative ones.

    “I’m going to do something about it,” David continued. “I’m totally committed to our marriage. I want to be with my wife and children for eternity. But it’s clear to me now that I won’t be if things continue as they’re going.

    “Right now I’m more motivated than she is—she needs to be understood and accepted. Someday I may be the one who needs it. I’ll commit myself to supporting Barbara—sharing genuine, unconditional, predictable love. On a daily basis, I’ll compliment, praise, and help her, do special things for her, etc. I won’t sulk, feel sorry for myself, or get mad (particularly at her silence). I won’t feel like a martyr for taking this approach, and I won’t do it in a manipulative way.

    “I refuse to get a divorce. I’ve made up my mind to be happy and to help her be happy. It feels good to have made this decision.”

    Previously, David had been unable to see his role in the problems. His “good-guy,” self-righteous attitude had prevented progress. But now, after prayerful contemplation, he had made a decision that contained two important elements: (1) he accepted responsibility for problems and solutions, and (2) he made a commitment to the marriage. This change of heart prompted new behavior on his part and was followed by significant changes in their relationship.

    As a psychologist concerned about marriage and the family, I have seen over and over again the importance of the two principles listed above. Let’s look briefly at each of them.

    Accepting responsibility for problems and solutions. When problems arise, one of two conditions often develops: either both partners blame each other, or one assumes most of the blame and the other graciously agrees. It is easy to feel that “I am without blame, and he [or she] is the cause of all our marriage difficulties.” However, only when each partner sees his or her own role in the problems are couples able to begin to overcome them.

    President Spencer W. Kimball said, “If each spouse submits to frequent self-analysis and measures his own imperfections by the yardstick of perfection and the Golden Rule, and if each spouse sets about to correct self in every deviation found by such analysis rather than to set about to correct the deviations in the other party, then transformation comes and happiness is the result. There are many pharisaic people who marry who should memorize the parable of the Savior in Luke—people who prate their own virtues against the weaknesses of the spouse. They say, ‘I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all I possess.’ (See Luke 18:9–14.)” (Marriage and Divorce, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1976, p. 19.)

    Part of accepting responsibility for problems is learning to take away the pressure. One young man came to understand clearly the truth of this principle.

    John was very committed to Church activity, attendance at meetings, and observance of the Sabbath day—but his wife, Janice, didn’t share the intensity of his feelings. His self-righteous words and actions only increased her resistance. When he finally came to see that he was provoking much of the resistance he objected to, he backed off and began to allow her to use her agency in the way she desired. Janice could then make choices based on what she felt was appropriate, rather than as a result of John’s pressure. They each chose to act responsibly and to be accountable for their own behavior, rather than punishing the other by resisting the changes they felt were being unfairly imposed.

    It is obvious that harsh, punishing statements can be destructive to a marriage. But it is not always as clear that insincere “positive” statements can also be destructive.

    Ken had been raised in a small, rural town and had never developed what he considered good social skills. His wife, Kay, had been a school officer in a large metropolitan area. They met and married and were initially quite happy; they devoted most of their time to finishing school, beginning a family, and working full-time.

    But problems arose later. Ken became uncomfortable with Kay’s growing desire for social contact. She had always assumed that because of his love for her and his many genuine positive traits, he would eventually change and come to enjoy social situations as much as she did. Out of frustration and a desire not to criticize, she began trying to control him through insincere praise. She told him he was the life of the party and the most fun person she had ever met—and she arranged for them to attend one party after another. Ken became resentful and confused. He didn’t feel uplifted and understood; he felt manipulated. The solution to their problem came after a genuine sharing of feelings and compromises on the part of both. Kay came to see that the intent of her insincere positive messages was really attempts to control her husband.

    It is unfair and destructive to begin after marriage to reconstruct a partner’s life and personality. A successful marriage is one in which both partners recognize personal problems, are aware of and accepting of each other’s weaknesses, and make sincere attempts to adjust to each other while accentuating the positive. When differences are seen as a normal, natural part of marriage and are dealt with maturely, they may be resolved eventually. But if one partner tries to use differences in order to document the fact that the other person has a problem, differences will grow to exaggerated proportions.

    People tend to live up to—or down to—others’ expectations. Husbands and wives are especially influenced by the feedback they receive from each other. Those who are constantly harassed or belittled end up with little self-confidence, feeling unable to accomplish even simple tasks. Depression is often a result. Those who are given honest, genuine appreciation tend to feel valued and loved. They generally respond positively and productively.

    Making a commitment. Each partner must have a strong commitment to the marriage if it is to survive the inevitable hardships brought on by modern-day pressures. Commitment produces a feeling of stability, which assures both individuals that although disagreements may surface, the marriage is their top priority and will be preserved. This allows both to feel safe—without the fear that every problem that arises will lead to greater difficulties.

    It is important to remember that at any given time a husband and wife’s demonstrations of commitment may not be identical. A husband may, as a result of a recent personal experience, feel a surge of commitment that manifests itself in an outpouring of affection or service to his wife. At the same time, she may be experiencing a personal crisis and may be reflecting on life in a way that makes her a little distant or uninvolved. Marriage partners need to understand one another and to appropriately communicate their feelings honestly at times like these—instead of assuming that the spouse’s commitment to the marriage is faltering.

    For example, one young husband, Stan, suffered a terrible blow when he was not accepted to attend medical school. After investing several years and much energy in striving toward this goal, he was bitterly disappointed when each of his applications was returned with negative responses. His self-esteem hit rock bottom; he worried about his future and his family. He feared that his wife, Karen, would think less of him than she had before. Instead of expressing his feelings, he withdrew, unintentionally leading her to believe that he was angry at her. Fortunately, Karen reassured Stan that her feelings for him were not based on a career choice, but on love and mature commitment. A potential problem was avoided; Stan dedicated himself to a new goal and pursued a successful career in a related medical field.

    Although the intensity of love in a marriage may rise and fall with changing circumstances, love itself is not the elusive, unpredictable state described in literature and song. It is the natural consequence of being treated in a particular way by someone who is important to us. So the feeling of love can return to a couple who fear they have lost it—if they both begin acting in a manner that demonstrates total commitment.

    Commitment to marriage used to be taken for granted when a couple wed, but now this is not the case. U.S. statistics indicate that nearly 50 percent of all marriages today will end in divorce. More and more marriages are ending because some person other than the spouse or some interest other than the marriage takes priority in the life of one of the partners.

    Not all decisions to divorce, however, are made selfishly or impulsively. There are cases in which continuing a marriage relationship may result in spiritual, and possibly physical, destruction for a spouse and the children. But it should always be remembered that through forgiveness and repentance, even destructive relationships can improve if a selfish, abusive, or unfaithful spouse has the desire and shows the commitment to change. Individuals contemplating divorce for even the most valid of reasons will be able to make wise decisions only after sincere prayer and careful weighing of the alternatives—seeking the guidance of the Holy Ghost as decisions are made.

    In the case of David and Barbara, great changes occurred when David recognized his need for total commitment to the marriage. Appropriate commitment, like that of David and Barbara, is based on awareness of the realities of a situation. There is awareness of the roles both people play, of the difficulties involved in changing a situation, and of the fact that some things may not change. Staying in the relationship may mean some needs won’t be met in the way we would like them to be. Sometimes there may not be much appreciation from a spouse for the patience his or her partner shows. The act of enduring difficult circumstances without feeling like a martyr, or without seeking reward or sympathy, can be a soul-expanding experience. It can bring new levels of character development attainable only when patience, tolerance, and a nonjudgmental attitude are practiced consistently over time.

    In his April 1990 general conference address, President Howard W. Hunter described the required level of commitment. He said: “Ultimately, what our Father in Heaven will require of us is … a total commitment, a complete devotion, all that we are and all that we can be.” (Ensign, May 1990, p. 60.) He spoke of the level of dedication one needs to manifest toward God and the Church, but his words are no less relevant in describing the relationship between husband and wife. This kind of total commitment, chosen for the right reasons, allows both partners to feel safety and security which can help them reach their greatest individual and joint development.

    “Marriage never was easy. It may never be,” President Spencer W. Kimball has said. “It brings with it sacrifice, sharing, and a demand for great selflessness. … It has come to be a common thing to talk about divorce. The minute there is a little crisis or a little argument in the family, we talk about divorce, and we rush to see an attorney. This is not the way of the Lord. We should go back and adjust our problems and make our marriage compatible and sweet and blessed.” (Marriage and Divorce, pp. 12, 30–31.)

    All of us who are married would do well to schedule time together as couples to reminisce about our courtships and weddings, talk about good times, review what we have learned from hard times together, and rededicate our lives to each other. It is important to remember our temple covenants or make plans to receive temple blessings, and to invite the Spirit of the Lord into our homes and yield to its enticings, becoming “submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love.” (Mosiah 3:19.)

    I have seen marriages improve and lives become happier as husbands and wives have honestly accepted responsibility for differences, problems, and solutions, then prayerfully and seriously recommitted themselves to each other. It is a difficult process, requiring maturity on both parts. But it is worth the effort. The result was expressed by the comment of one young husband: “I’ve found marriage more difficult than I thought it would be—but also much more satisfying and fulfilling.”

    Illustrated by Paul Mann

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    • S. Brent Scharman, a clinical practitioner in the Salt Lake City office of LDS Social Services, serves as second counselor in the bishopric of the Salt Lake University Eighteenth Ward, Salt Lake University Second Stake.