Marriage counseling for a conflicted culture


A parish pastor is occasionally asked to help married couples work through conflict. As I survey our conflicted culture, it strikes me that the same principles apply there, too. Today’s column can kill two birds with one stone. While laying out some principles to help your marriage, we can also help to build community.

Marital counseling typically begins with one person calling out bad behavior on the part of the other. Frustration is voiced that the bad behavior continues even after many complaints. Sometimes, this rises to an ultimatum: “if this doesn’t stop immediately, I’m done.”

When there’s a chance for the other to respond, he may or may not admit to the wrongness of the offending behavior. Either way he is in a rush to launch a salvo of his own. He, too, has a list of grievances. Sometimes, these are held out to counterbalance the weight of his own guilt. Other times they are cited as valid reasons and excuses for his bad behavior.

Then the fur flies. If the counselor has let the conversation go this far without intervention, it is very difficult to keep it from devolving into a shouting match right on the spot. Tempers flare. Voices rise. Unkind words are spoken. And still more damage is done.

The situation remains hopeless so long as husband and wife are looking to the counselor to be the judge. No matter how he judges, it will not solve the underlying problem. The peace of a home will never exist if both are depending on someone outside the home to come barging in to settle internal disputes. Unless the couple learns to create harmony themselves, harmony will not exist.

This is the point of comparison with every community. True community is created by the bonds of love — not by the chains of law. Peace in our culture will never be brought about by ever-increasing laws and judges. Obligation, not litigation, is the basis of a peaceful community — whether in our homes, towns, state or nation. 

To foster the bonds of love, a married couple needs, first, to recognize that they are forever bound together — for better or for worse. Because of this bond, the well-being of both people is essential. For one spouse to tear down the other is like your right arm stabbing your left arm. Love recognizes that we live or die together.

Likewise, in any community we are stuck with one another — for better or worse. Rarely do people leave a community purely because they can’t get along with someone who lives there. When that does happen, the chances are extremely high that the problem will follow them wherever they go. Only when we have taken this reality to heart can we get on with the work of building either a home or a community. 

Resisting the impulse to flee from one another leads us to see a second vital reality. We have no control over others — only over ourselves. Married couples eventually learn that every attempt to force their spouses to act will be ultimately unsatisfying. 

They find, inevitably, that no matter how successful they become at micro-managing one another’s behavior, there is still something missing. A person may do the desirable thing but grumble while doing it. Or, perhaps, he will not grumble but frown or roll his eyes or simply be unenthusiastic.

Love comes from the heart, not from the law. Laws, power-plays and manipulation can force behavior and words, but they can never produce love. Love can only be given. It cannot be taken. Every attempt to force it only leads to resentment, frustration and anger.

Since love can only be given and not taken, the only control we have over love is the control of our own giving. Happy couples have learned this lesson. They focus infinitely more on their own behavior and attitudes than they do on the behavior and attitudes of their spouses. 

This frees them from the trap of magnifying a spouse’s shortcomings so that they can appreciate and reward the kindnesses that are freely given. By the discipline of self-control and self-criticism, happy spouses also become more aware of their own shortcomings. This helps them be less judgmental and more forgiving.

Here again, the same principle applies in our work to build communities. One reason that our culture struggles is due to the incessant attempt to control one another and the ubiquitous unwillingness to control ourselves. Many are the experts who point out the errors of others, few are those capable of seeing their own. 

The healthiest communities have no policemen because everyone is policing himself. Conversely, no police force in the world can make a community safe when its own citizens don’t care about one another. As John Adams put it, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

All this means that the most important activity that anyone can do to build a better home, town or state is the activity of self-examination. We are not advancing the ball when we have shouting matches on social media. We do not help matters when we deflect and ignore the needs of others. We cannot build the bonds of love by ever more restrictive policies, statutes and laws.

In fact, it is just the opposite. The more freedom I give you in your actions, the greater capacity you possess to love me. Conversely, the more restrictions and laws that burden you, the less capacity you possess to express love. Communities should be in the business of building the capacity to love, not tearing it down.

After I have explained this to married couples, someone will often object. What about his or her hurtful behavior? Can’t I do something to fix it? Without a good answer to this question, the downward spiral will start all over again.

Remember earlier, when I likened spouses at war to the right arm stabbing the left arm? That applies here. We are, after all, one body — the body politic. What is bad for one of us is bad for all of us. A community that cannibalizes itself will soon die. So, think for a minute about when some part of your body is hurting you. 

There is only one reason that something in your body hurts you. It is injured. Your toe does not hurt you out of spite, but because you have stubbed it against a chair. When you stub your toe, you do not curse it and smash it with a hammer. You do everything you can to help it heal.

That’s also how you should approach the person who hurts you. Nine times out of ten, the pain someone is causing you is a cry for help. Imagine how strong and wholesome our communities would become if we looked up from our cell phones and reached out to comfort that person.

Our communities are hurting, and most don’t know what to do about it. Many believe that micro-managing legislation is the way forward. But that is not helping. It is only causing more anger and resentment. 

The way forward is the way of freedom. The obligations of love are both stronger and softer than the chains of law. Our way of government is only for a “moral and religious people.”

Jonathan Lange is an LCMS pastor in Evanston and Kemmerer and serves the Wyoming Pastors Network. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow his blog at OnlyHuman-JL.blogspot.com.

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