Marriage is designed to last forever. Ordained of God, it should bind two hearts as one. But no marriage is without problems. Each contains its own unique combination of frustrations and frictions.
Naturally, we want our own marriages to succeed, so we turn to books and theories about relationships between spouses—books on marital communication, physical satisfaction, child-rearing methods, and family activities. Yet, as I have worked with couples, I have observed that individual preparation is necessary before interaction between spouses can be truly effective. This personal preparation results in what I call emotional integrity.
Emotional integrity is the personal achievement of emotional strength, discipline, and completeness that remains constant no matter what others say or do. It includes both a control of emotions and an honest acknowledgement of them—pleasant or unpleasant. When we achieve emotional integrity, we are steady, consistent, and resilient. Our actions are not determined by the actions of our companions. We are emotionally resilient within ourselves, more enjoyable to live with, and easier to communicate with. We have put our own emotional “houses” in order and are thereby prepared for effective communication with others.
As I have worked with people, I have found five principles that promote this emotional integrity. The individuals in the following examples (their names and certain circumstances have been changed) developed integrity on their own, independent of their spouses. They learned to accept responsibility for their own behavior and to strive to become more Christlike in their actions. As I watched them develop this personal capacity, I saw strong marriages made stronger, weak ones strengthened, and even failing ones saved.
An ability to feel secure and confident in our abilities and in the direction of our lives is a must in marriage. Yet too often we undermine ourselves by judging ourselves harshly or by comparing ourselves with others. We often allow our feelings of self-worth to be challenged by the standards of the worldly. For example, a feeling of worth based on adherence to principles of the gospel—kindness, warmth, and faithfulness—is often undermined by a culture that celebrates winning rather than participating, wealth rather than thrift, fame rather than honor, and status rather than service.
Each of us is a child of God, with unique traits, talents, and abilities. Our worth is inherent. While others can help us recognize our God-given gifts, they cannot give us self-esteem. We must cultivate our own self-esteem. We must learn to recognize our good qualities and work at overcoming our weaknesses without constantly berating ourselves.
I recall one woman, whom I’ll call Ella, who as a child was criticized harshly by her parents and peers. Later, as an adult, during and after Relief Society lessons, she became discouraged as she compared herself to the other sisters. She was certain that they were all more intelligent, better organized, and stronger in the gospel than she was. Her husband began to avoid her after Relief Society because she was so unpleasant.
Eventually, Ella saw that her self-condemning attitude was harming her testimony and her marriage. She decided to change. Taking specific inventory of herself, she made a list of strengths and weaknesses. At first, she had trouble accepting her strengths, and she all too readily accepted her weaknesses as permanent and unchangeable. However, using the list, she determined to overcome one weakness and to develop one strength at a time.
Through her self-evaluation, she discovered that one of her weaknesses was saying things too quickly without stopping to think if her remarks would be hurtful to others. Realizing the harm her comments could cause, she practiced thinking before she spoke. Eventually, as she ceased to wound others through thoughtless remarks, she gained a new sense of self-mastery. She also developed her housekeeping skills, which gave her definite evidence of achievement in something that was important to her and was a service to others.
Service is always an essential part of developing self-esteem. Narrow, self-centered obsession with perfection can become an emotional disability. But when we consciously and reasonably set out to sharpen and polish a talent in an effort to serve God and others, we begin to feel good about ourselves.
After overcoming a few of her weaknesses and refining a few of her strengths, Ella began to believe that she was a person of worth. She did not expect confirmation or praise from others for her efforts. Hers was an internal, personal effort—an effort to live in accordance with God’s laws. Her self-esteem really was self-esteem. And, as her self-esteem increased, her marriage improved. Her husband began to relax and enjoy her obviously more pleasant outlook and behavior. Then he, too, began to examine and improve himself—with beneficial results.
Many of us have old hurts—emotional wounds—from past relationships. Emotional wounds have various origins—a childhood home that was unsettled or even violent, unsatisfactory peer relations, a transient family that left us feeling rootless, or failure to achieve some of our goals and dreams. Whatever the source, many of us allow these unhealed wounds to continue hurting us.
Too often we expect our spouse to heal our wounds for us. This is neither logical nor practical. Blair was such a person. His mother was an exceptionally dominating, even unkind, person. An only child, Blair resented his mother’s dominance, even after she died. He fiercely resisted his wife’s slightest expression of opinion or preference. He wanted—and kept—total control over finances, discipline of their three children, housekeeping, recreation, prayer, and church attendance. His wife desperately tried to say or do things that would satisfy or pacify him, but nothing seemed to work. Assuming that she was at fault, she sank into despair.
Blair’s wounds began to heal when he came to see that he was reacting to all women as if they were reflections of his mother. To learn more about his mother, he did genealogy work and interviewed relatives. As he listened with compassion to tapes of oral histories, he began to see his mother as a person, not just as his parent. And he learned to understand her struggles as she tried to succeed in what she perceived as her role as a wife and mother. Eventually he was able to forgive his mother, and by accepting the responsibility for healing his own wounds, Blair was able to relieve many of the pressures that were undermining his marriage.
When we try to say just the right words in just the right way in order to elicit just the right response, our communications tend to become defensive and calculated rather than spontaneous and natural. Effective interviewers and counselors know that true communication takes place only when people sincerely respect and desire to hear what others have to say. Most people respond well to honest sincerity.
However, many of us put ourselves in situations like that of Ruben, who took pride in the communication techniques he had learned from his sales training. Knowing of his wife’s unhappy childhood, he earnestly tried to get her to talk whenever she became upset. Unfortunately, because Ruben was rather mechanical and scrutinizing, relying more on technique than on the love he felt for his wife, he intimidated rather than encouraged her. As she would tense up, he would press harder, applying probing techniques until them was very little heart-to-heart communication.
The solution lay almost totally with Ruben. He learned to care enough about his wife to recognize that often she needed respect more than she needed to talk. As he allowed his love for her to guide him, he learned to watch for nonverbal nuances. If he asked a question and she did not respond immediately, he did not press her for an answer. On more than one occasion, he went days without pressing issues, confining himself to simple courtesies, thoughtful actions, and words such as “please” and “thank you.” As he concentrated on creating a climate of respect instead of trying to get his wife to open up, she responded with increasing trust, and their communication improved steadily.
The Savior said, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” (Matt. 5:48.) But perfection is difficult to achieve, and often takes a lifetime—or more—to attain. Some people give up and turn to immoral pleasures. Some strive for perfection in an area in which they are gifted and become obsessed with career, intellectual growth, civic service, or material acquisition. Others despair of ever being perfect, yet press on dutifully—and miserably. Still others adopt a harsh view, stressing the letter of the law like their philosophical ancestors, the Pharisees.
But we should not be discouraged by the Savior’s admonition to be perfect. God truly loves us. We are his children. His Son came to earth to sacrifice himself for our sins that we might have joy and return to our Father in Heaven. The perfection expected of us is a lifelong effort of patience, growth, observance of law, and reliance on the redeeming mercy of a loving Father and Son.
Laurie learned this by trying to be more Christlike in her relationship with her husband. She had a need for order; her husband did not. She shed many tears after she repeatedly criticized her husband for his casual and not very tidy ways. However, Laurie realized that her feelings and actions were not in line with the Savior’s example. Rather than condemning her husband, she determined to work on her own attitude. She thought of how Christ would have handled such situations, and planned how she would react to her husband’s next offense. With a Christlike attitude, she found there was no room for fault-finding. She ceased to react unpleasantly. Though it took weeks before her husband’s untidiness no longer bothered her, she found that while she waited for her husband to come home each day, she found herself planning to listen to him, to join him in a few quiet moments, and to help him relax from the tensions of the day.
These actions did not decrease her need for order. But as she learned to deal with the problem cheerfully, this approach became second nature. As much as she wanted it, her husband never did improve enough to be considered tidy. But after a while it did not matter much, because she found that her ability to control her temper was enormously satisfying, far more than having all his socks in the dresser drawer. She had, in fact, come a long way toward achieving emotional integrity.
President Joseph Fielding Smith explained that Heavenly Father’s covenants are not negotiated with us. (See Answers to Gospel Questions, compiled by Joseph Fielding Smith, Jr., 5 vols., Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1957–66, 4:155–160.) Rather, our Father in Heaven offers us blessings predicated on obedience to laws. He sets the conditions and covenants to grant us the blessings as we meet them. We can keep or break the covenant, but we cannot set the conditions or make counteroffers to our Creator. Yet sometimes we act as if we can modify the laws of our all-knowing, all-loving Father.
Stephen wanted to make such a counteroffer. He admitted to his bishop that he and his wife were not happy together and wondered if they should get a divorce. After assuring himself that there was no transgression requiring Church discipline, the bishop reminded Stephen of his covenants—that he had vowed in the temple not only to remain married for eternity but also to be a Christlike husband.
Stephen was unhappy with his bishop’s reaction. Saturated by conditional morality and self-absorption, Stephen tried to tell the bishop of his wife’s shortcomings and of his need to be happy. But the bishop simply challenged Stephen to spend the next twelve months living his covenants before considering the matter of divorce again.
The bishop did not do much counseling; he simply reminded Stephen of his solemn oath before God. Prompted by the Spirit, he plainly but kindly told his brother what was right and wrong. And fortunately, Stephen had retained enough integrity to recognize that he had made a covenant with the Lord—a covenant that he could not take lightly.
For twelve months Stephen honored his covenants, trying to treat his wife in a Christlike manner. Rather than worrying about whether she was alluring enough to make him happy, he concentrated on honoring his priesthood. At the end of the year, Stephen reported to the bishop that he had developed an appreciation and love for his wife that had far surpassed his expectations.
For Stephen, individual obedience led to blessings in his marital relationship. Repenting and submitting himself to such rigorous self-discipline was not convenient or easy. But as he grew in personal righteousness, he gained a healing peace that was far more tangible, complete, and enjoyable than the so-called “happiness” he had sought. And his long-suffering wife gained a loving companion who had learned to nurture rather than undermine her.
Most of these examples tell of fairly serious problems. Not all marriages are on the brink of collapse. But many serious problems can be prevented or solved if each partner concentrates on living the gospel before trying to change his or her spouse.
These five principles are not exhaustive, nor does the ideal of emotional integrity imply that cooperation is not needed in marriage. But experience teaches that strong, rewarding marriages incorporate some or all of the five principles as the basis for effective cooperation, communication, and companionship. Without them, grave misunderstandings often arise.
Yet, as important as these five principles are, there is one upon which all of them are based. The Savior’s life is the one true, complete example of emotional integrity. The Latter-day Saints whom I have watched attain emotional wholeness have, of necessity, studied and strived to emulate the life of Jesus Christ. He lived in this world and experienced mortal emotions. He celebrated with friends and relatives. He experienced temptation in the wilderness. In righteous anger he drove greedy men from the temple grounds. He wept with joy at the purity of little children and with sorrow at the death of friends. Weary from teaching and healing, he withdrew to recuperate. In the closing scenes of his mortal life, he yearned for companionship as he suffered unspeakable pain for others’ sins. Viciously abused, he still forgave the soldiers who killed him.
Christ’s mortal experiences demonstrate an integrity that remained unchanged even when he was left without spiritual comfort and cried, “Why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46.)
His perfection ought not discourage us. Rather, we should be encouraged that he knows, perfectly well, what we are going through. Obedience to his laws helps us gain master of our emotions, and we, in so doing, are able more fully to express and receive love.
After reading “A Better Me, a Better Marriage,” you may want to consider the following questions and ideas.
1. What are some areas you could work on to increase your own self-esteem?
2. List some of your emotional wounds. What are some ways you can work toward overcoming them?
3. Are there things you could do that would make communication with your spouse more effective? What are they?
4. Can you think of some specific situations in which you could strive to feel and practice Christlike love for your spouse?