Dear Allen and Carol,
I am writing both of you together because I believe we need to tie this up into one bundle. Carol, you have been corresponding with Nancy for a number of weeks now, and Allen, you and I have been doing the same. Nancy and I have spent a good bit of time comparing notes, and we would like to share this macro-view with the two of you together.
Both of you have a good reputation with your friends at church. You both have a good relationship with your kids, who don’t have any real idea about the level of tension and unhappiness in your marriage. You both love God, and His Word, and neither of you understand why you are having such a hard time with each other.
Now either the good reputation you have with those outside is rank hypocrisy (which each of you is frequently tempted to believe is true of the other one), or what is going on between the two of you is the result of faulty and erroneous assumptions about what your spouse needs, and what you are supposed to be doing to meet those needs.
We are very much convinced that it is the latter. Allen, you don’t know what a woman needs, and Carol, you don’t know what a man needs. And it is fruitless to ask which one of you “started it.” You both started it when you got married, and both of you have been at it ever since.
When Scripture addresses husbands, as husbands, what does it tell them to do? When Scripture addresses wives, as wives, what does it tell them to do? The answer is simple. The Bible tells husbands to love and cherish their wives, and it tells wives to respect and honor their husbands.
Now of course we are all to love our spouses, because the Bible teaches us to love our neighbor as ourselves (Lev. 19: 18) and our spouse is our closest neighbor. And of course we are to honor our spouses, because the Bible tells us to honor all men (1 Pet. 2:17), and our spouse is part of that human race. So of course, wives should love their husbands too, and husbands should respect their wives also.
But when Scripture singles husbands out in order to tell them what to do, the command is to love their wives (Eph. 5:25; Col. 3:19) as Christ loved the church. And when wives are singled out, the command is to respect and honor their husbands (Eph. 5:33).
There are two basic reasons for this. One is that the command is given to our respective weaknesses—men are generally better at respecting than they are at loving. Conversely, women are generally better at loving than they are at respecting. Scripture emphasizes what it does because of our respective weaknesses. Men need to work on love, and women need to work on respect.
Second, the command is given because of our respective needs. When the Scripture commands pastors to feed the flock (1 Pet. 5:2), it can be inferred from this that the sheep need food. And when it comes to marriage, men and women require different kinds of food. They are nourished and strengthened by different things. Men feed on respect, and women feed on love.
Change the metaphor. Men run on diesel and women run on regular. If you persist, as both of you have been doing, in putting the wrong fuel in, you cannot pretend to be astonished at the results you are getting. When it comes to how you relate to one another, both your cars are broken down by the side of the road. This is why.
If you go to another country, you have to adapt to a different currency. And a man and a woman living together must constantly have the other currency at the ready. Men operate with the currency of respect. Women operate with the currency of love, and each of you is required to know this about the other one. You do not have the right to be surprised by it.
Suppose we offered the same (hypothetical and artificial) choice to 100 men and 100 women. They could move to a town where everyone in that town despised them, but respected their abilities and integrity highly, or they could move to a town where everyone loved them to pieces, but thought of them as a lovable buffoon. The point is not that we would get a 100/0 split going both ways, but rather that there would be a significant difference that showed that the men valued respect more than love, and that the women value love more than respect.
Now let me give you an illustration of how you might collide with one another because you are not sufficiently aware of this. When a man has a trouble, he generally tries to fix it himself. When he comes to the realization that he cannot fix it, he reluctantly goes for help. The trouble could be anything—a broken carburetor, a difficult teenaged son, or a bug in a software program. He goes down the hall to talk with a coworker about it, and when he has laid out the problem, the words he wants to hear are “have you tried . . .?” He has a trouble, and he is on the hunt for a solution. This is all being conducted in the coin of respect—one man respecting another by thinking he may have the answer, and the other man respecting the questioner as one capable of implementing a solution.
So let us say that this guy goes home that night, and discovers that he is not the only one with a trouble. His wife also has a trouble, and after dinner they sit down to talk about it. When she gets the difficulty out (or almost out), he says — can you guess? — he says — hopeless, hopeless chump — “have you tried . . .?”
And she says, “You’re not listening.” But he was listening, very carefully, and when he saw what the trouble was, he took out his respect wallet, and tried to pay the bill. But when women have a trouble, their first need in that trouble is to find a companion. Not a solution, a companion. And when he offers her a solution, he thinks he is doing great, but she feels like she is losing a companion. She didn’t want Mr. Answer Man, but rather a companion. And he is mystified, and hurt, and angered, when she gets angry over his sincere attempt to help. She wanted love, and he offered respect.
Moreover, when she gets miffed at his kindly offer, he reads that as disrespect, and pulls away. When he pulls away, she reads that as emotional abandonment, and very unloving, which increases her critical spirit, which he reads as disrespect, and down the drain they go.
In fact, whenever a Christian married couple find themselves in a tangled and snarled rats’ nest of a quarrel, of the kind that mystifies both of them, the chances are outstanding that some version of this has been happening. She tries to communicate her need for love in ways that seem disrespectful to him, and so he pulls away in ways that seem unloving to her. This is how nice people can find themselves in nasty fights.
It goes the other way too. Women offer love when they should be offering respect. Something comes up, and she offers him a companion when he is desperate for a solution. It could be anything—a flat tire, a problem with the GPS, whatever. He gets annoyed, she gets hurt, he reads that as not trusting him, and down they go.
It is natural for women to love, and they are fully capable of doing this to a man that they disrespect in frightful ways. It is natural for men to respect, and they are fully capable of doing for a woman they can’t get along with.
We are often misled by a misapplication of the Golden Rule. We do unto others what we would like to be getting. And while our Lord’s teaching on this subject is perfect and holy, He did not give it to us as a guide for shopping for birthday presents. What you would like for your birthday is not what you should be getting for everyone else in the family. You would like to get a new shotgun, but perhaps that is not what she wants for her anniversary present. And wives, that string of pearls you have had your eye on is not the ticket for his birthday present.
In short, in this area, in this respect, do not give what you would like to be getting. Give what God commands you to give. Husbands, love. Wives, respect. Remember that God commands to your weakness, and God commands what your spouse needs more than anything else in the world.
You must also remember that this love and this respect should not be thought of as information, but rather as food. In Ephesians, Paul even uses the language of nourishment (Eph. 5: 29). What would we think of a husband who told his bride on their wedding day that he loved her, and that if things ever changed, he would let her know? We would not think much of him, but our disdain would be misplaced if it were just a matter of information. Verbal affirmations of love and respect are food, not data.
So then, how should we go about this? From talking to the two of you, each of you is convinced that that the other person has no desire to be offering anything like this. Carol, you believe that Allen is filled with a cold rejection of you. And Allen, you believe that Carol thinks of you with contempt and disdain. We are convinced that both of you are wrong—you are misreading the signals. And even when you are right about the fact of sin that is being expressed by the other in the middle of a fight, we are convinced that you are both misreading the source of that sin. Sin, yes, but what sin?
Each of you reacts angrily to what you take as rejection by the other. Carol, what you read as a lack of love is taken by you as rejection. You respond accordingly. He takes that as disrespect, and consequently rejection, and he responds accordingly. And no matter how many times you circle that same drain, it always looks the same going down.
So what do you do? We do have an assignment for you, and I have to warn you in advance that both of you will feel like perfect dorks doing it, but trust us. Returning to the earlier metaphor of cars running on diesel and regular, both of your cars have been running on fumes for a long time. It will be awkward to do this, mostly in anticipation of it, but both of you will be so surprised after the fact (and thrilled) that you will gladly consider it all worth it.
First, let us define what expressions of love should communicate, and what expressions of respect should communicate. Love communicates commitment and presence. When Paul says that husbands should love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her, he was talking about the sacrifice of Christ. That sacrifice was the evidence of the commitment. Love says “I will never leave you or forsake you.” When a wife criticizes, trying to close the distance with her husband, and he clams up, she takes this as his desire to be absent from her. She is communicating the opposite of respect, and so he then communicates the opposite of loving presence.
In distinction, respect communicates admiration for abilities and achievements. A wife should tell her husband how much she admires how hard he works, or how smart he is, or how good he is with cars. Abilities and achievements. What does he do?
Now somebody out there is going to say, that’s just it. He doesn’t work that hard, and he is kind of stupid. To a woman in such a position, we would only say that she shouldn’t be putting on too many superior airs if she is the one who decided, against much counsel, to marry a stupid, lazy bum.
But fortunately, you two are not in that position. We know that if you do this, it is going to go well, and will surprise both of you.
Here is your assignment. Because we started counseling the two of you because Carol’s outburst at that wedding reception, I think it would be best if we started with her. Normally I think it is best if the husband goes first, but not here.
I want you to go out on a date to a nice restaurant, one that has a good place for you to talk without being watched or overheard. Carol, I want you to bring with you a list of ten things that you admire and respect the most about Allen. I want you to simply work through that list. Tell him how much you admire his abilities and achievements. What do you think he is good at? Tell him.
And remember that it is food, not information. You might feel stupid telling him how you admire his woodworking (for example) because you think the whole town knows about that, and he certainly knows about it. He’s won prizes. Yes, he knows that he knows how to work with wood, but you might be surprised to find out that he does not know how you think of it. So, ten things.
Allen, when she is done, I want you to pull out your list. I want you to have a list of ten things you love about her, things you would miss terribly if she were gone. The way she jokes with the kids. The way she takes care of her mother. The way she is masterful in the kitchen. The things about her that you want always to have in your presence.
The awkward part is because it will seem stiff and artificial. You will each have a list of ten things, just like we told you, and isn’t this whole thing kind of contrived? Yes, it will seem that way, and for good reason, and secondly, both of you will have to humble yourselves in order to do something like this, and we think that a bit of humility from each of you will go a long way in this.
After you get through your lists, just talk. Visit. Talk some more.
Normally the work of reconciliation needs to start with confession of sin. The reason we are not recommending that here is because if you are radically misunderstanding one another, then you will continue to do so during attempts to confess sin. Get the language tangles out of the way so that you can talk normally, and once you are talking normally, you can (and should) confess your sins.
By sin, we do not mean the misunderstandings proper, but rather the things that flowed out from the misunderstandings—the outbursts of temper, the nagging, the critical spirit, the accumulated grievances, and so on. Those sorts of things are downstream sinful consequences of a failure to understand. And so the upstream ignorance is sinful also, but it is in a different category. This ignorance is more a sin of omission. For example, Allen, the apostle Peter teaches husbands that they are to dwell with their wives with understanding (1 Pet. 3:7). And Carol, Paul tells older women to instruct younger women how to be obedient to their own husbands (Tit. 2:4-5). Failure to understand the concept is a sin of omission, and leads frequently to somewhat spectacular sins of commission—outbursts and fights, and things like that.
There is more that could be said, obviously, but let’s start there. Arrange for that date, and let us know how it goes.