The Compassionate Marriage Partner


We were packing for a short trip to the mountains of northern New Mexico, and I was loading the last of the children and supplies into the car. My wife appeared at the door and said cheerfully, “Well, we’re all set!” As she was pulling the locked door closed, I realized I didn’t have my keys! I yelled quickly, “DON’T SHUT THAT … door.” Too late.

In an instant I was irritated. I said to my wife, implying she was to blame, “My keys are in the house!

Fortunately, a forgotten open window allowed us access to the house without the loss of much time, and my feelings dissipated. I “forgave” my wife for having caused me emotional pain.

Later, as I thought of the experience, I realized I had found it convenient to blame my wife because it was a way of justifying my own failure. By my hostile feelings I could make it appear that she was the guilty one and that I was a helpless victim.

The truth is that my irritation was not due to her behavior at all. It was, instead, the product of my own unwillingness to accept the responsibility of my actions, and obviously, she hadn’t needed my forgiveness—but I certainly needed hers.

The real issue was my need to repent of the feelings I had. Had she been in some kind of transgression, then the solution to the problem would have been for her to repent and me to forgive. In this case, however, only my repentance was necessary to restore us to oneness. I understood also that my repentance, my giving up of my feelings of resentment, would have been necessary whether she had been guilty of anything or not. I saw that I could not be both unrepentant (or unforgiving) and compassionate at the same time. These are two incompatible attitudes.

This almost trivial incident illustrates some important truths about forgiveness, charity, and compassion. I’ve learned that these Christ-like attitudes are the foundation for dealing with the big problems as well as the little ones that may beset a marriage. They can lead to oneness in even the most strained relationships.

As a marriage and family therapist, I occasionally meet people who feel that problems in their marriage are much too large to ever be resolved. Sister Flagg (not her real name) was one of them. She shared with me her feelings of helplessness about being in a loveless marriage. When I asked her to imagine her life one year from now and to describe what her marriage would be like then, her expression shifted from discouragement to despair. She was sure her marriage could never be different. She doubted she could ever love her husband; he was aloof, uncaring, wrapped up in his own world. He rarely took time for her—for them. He wasn’t physically abusive, but distant from her.

I saw the following as features of her situation: (1) She felt helpless in the face of what she saw as a hopeless situation. (2) She was emotionally burdened by the isolation from her husband. (3) She was convinced that she was a victim of circumstances, that she was trapped and miserable because of her husband’s actions. (4) She saw the gospel as a nice set of ideals that didn’t adequately address her circumstances. (It was as if she were insisting that her brand of suffering was an exception to the application of gospel principles.)

I am convinced that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the solution—a very practical one—to problems in marriage. Even though some husbands and wives see scriptural counsel as too “abstract” or too “idealistic,” I see continually how the gospel is the source of personal and marital happiness and that it has the answers to solving problems in marriage.

Consequently, I sought to explain to Sister Flagg how three important gospel attitudes—forgiveness, charity, and compassion—could help her and her husband resolve their difficulties. I tried to help her see that just as I felt that my wife had “caused” my irritation when I was locked out of the house, Sister Flagg was unjustly blaming her husband for “causing” her misery. Whether my wife had been guilty or not, I was wrongly accusing her of causing my reaction. My feelings of resentment were my way of refusing to feel compassion for my wife. Sister Flagg was in a similar position: whether her husband was guilty or not, her feelings of helplessness were a way of showing how impossible it was for her to view him compassionately.

Now, I am not saying that her husband was innocent, that the solution to her problem was easy, or that the problem was “just in her head.” I am suggesting, however, that her way of viewing her circumstances was part of the problem. By insisting she was helpless, she was producing hopelessness.

Suppose Brother Flagg was, indeed, as aloof and uncaring as Sister Flagg said he was, that everything she reported was true. By living gospel principles, she could still do much to improve her situation. Although there is no guarantee that her husband would respond and change, she could still rid herself of her bondage of helplessness and despair, and create a better life for herself and, hopefully, for her husband as well.

If people in Sister Flagg’s position were to realize that they can do something about their problems, they would have begun to solve the problem. I remember working with a man who, like Sister Flagg, felt helpless; he was sure that nothing he could do would change the problems in his marriage. Although his feelings of helplessness were real, they were not produced by his situation; rather, he had produced them himself as a way of showing who was to blame. They were his “proof” that he could do nothing about his circumstances except be defeated by them. Harboring these feelings was his way of achieving vengeance against his wife for her “wrongs.”

What could he do about these feelings? Like Sister Flagg, he could give them up in favor of the Christ-like attitudes of forgiveness, charity, and compassion. He can’t feel both helpless and forgiving simultaneously; he can either continue to insist he is helpless, or turn his heart to the Lord—and begin to solve the problem.

Our hostile feelings toward another person are more fundamental to our problems than that person’s behavior. What others do to us does not render us uncompassionate or unforgiving. We do that to ourselves by refusing to forgive. Our road to personal peace requires our own repentance of those feelings of resentment.

Consider Doctrine and Covenants 64:10 [D&C 64:10]: “I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men.”

An attitude of forgiveness toward our companion is an important beginning. By having faith in the first two commandments, we are blessed by them. By loving the Lord with all our heart, we see our situation differently. By loving our husband or wife as ourselves, we see him or her more compassionately, and are no longer in despair. We are traveling on a gospel road, rather than on a path which denies the gospel.

Our emotional burden will be lifted as we realize that we aren’t helpless. This is faith—not the kind of faith that lies passively on a shelf or hidden in a book but the kind that works in the hearts and minds and lives of people. One gift of the gospel is the faith that God is neither a stranger to sorrow nor indifferent to our challenges. As we turn to gospel fundamentals in this way, we will give up the burden of our feelings of helplessness in exchange for faith. Although we will still have feelings, they will be of a different quality altogether than the despair we felt before.

“But,” some may say, “that doesn’t change the fact that we are victims. Haven’t our companion’s actions made it impossible for us to feel any other way than we now feel?”

The gospel teaches us that we are free “to act for [ourselves] and not be acted upon, … and all things are given [us] which are expedient.” (2 Ne. 2:26–27.) In other words, whatever our spouse’s attitudes or sins might be, his or her behavior is not sufficient to render us incapable of living as we feel we should.

Of course there are no magic steps to follow. But imagine what might occur to a husband, for example, if he were to see his wife compassionately—if he were to see her “wrongdoing” with charity? Would he see her point of view, her misery? Would he recognize her self-justifying behavior? Would he ponder how the two of them could work together to overcome their difficulties? Would he see hope for the future? The gospel answer to these questions is yes.

With a new attitude like this, we would be “free” to produce a better marriage. Instead of insisting that we are trapped, we would see an opportunity to be persuasive, gentle, meek, kind—to offer “love unfeigned” to each other. We would see our companions as the Lord sees them. We would have a new view of ourselves, of our husband or wife, and of our marriage—a view born of gospel living. We would become compassionate, rather than accusing, resentful, or despairing.

This change of heart is only the beginning; it won’t change marriage problems overnight. But by seeing each other compassionately, we open the door to some effective problem-solving. Since power and influence really do come through an attitude of love unfeigned, of compassion and caring, we then can be a righteous influence in our marriage.

Of course, it is possible that our companion won’t change and that we won’t have the oneness in our marriage that we desire. But even if that happens, we can still be free of the bonds of resentment and hopelessness and can still find life meaningful and rewarding. We are not helpless; we are not victims of the situation.

Often, however, in situations like these, when one partner begins to live compassionately, many of the “problems” of the marriage partner disappear. When we are nursing grudges or harboring hostilities, the problems we see in our marriage partners are sometimes ones we have manufactured to justify our own resentments. When we repent of our own uncompassionate feelings, those resentments disappear and we see our loved ones in a new light. We then become the kind of compassionate marriage partners we wish our spouses were. And we can begin to play a role in blessing his or her life.

“Hereby perceive we the love of God,” said John, “because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.

“But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother [or husband, or wife, or child] have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?

“My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth.” (1 Jn. 3:16–18.)

The gospel is the solution to problems in marriage. Changing our hearts by accepting the Atonement is a prerequisite to any change, including changes in marriages or families. We cannot decide what others will do, but the gospel of Christ, which includes forgiveness, charity, and compassion, is available to us. Because of it and our agency, we can decide what we will do. And since we reap the same spirit we sow, we can either lay a foundation for hostility and resentment, or we can sow the seeds of compassionate living as an invitation to peace and harmony in our homes.

Let’s Talk about It

After reading “The Compassionate Marriage Partner,” you may wish to personally ponder some of the following questions or discuss them as husband and wife.

1. How can the gospel be the solution to specific concerns in my marriage?

2. Do I ever qualify as one who has a “hard heart” toward my mate? In what ways would our marriage be improved if each of us were to take responsibility for our actions ?

3. The author says that our essential feelings are a way of avoiding responsibility. How can such feelings be given up?

4. What would a “compassionate” marriage look like? If our hearts were broken and contrite, how would we treat each other?

[photos] Photography by Jon T. Lockwood

Terrance D. Olson, professor of Family Sciences, Brigham Young University, and father of six children, serves on the Church Writing Committee.