Whenever you spend a significant amount of time in close proximity with someone else it’s inevitable that you both are going to experience frustration. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why family vacations go wrong so easily – you’re all trapped in a car or a hotel room for extended periods of time, and you just start to get on each other’s nerves. It’s also why the first year of college can be tough sometimes – it’s because for many of us it’s the first time we’ve had someone like a roommate consistently in our immediate space.
And, of course, it’s one of the most basic reasons why marriage, particularly early in a marriage, can be frustrating. Suddenly you are living side by side with someone who does the dishes differently than you, chews their food differently than you, and expects different things from relationships from you. Frustration is natural. But because marriage is about more than a feeling or an emotion, you work through the frustration in love and grace. You do so because you are committed.
But there are some patterns of thinking and therefore behavior, I think, that if are consistently present in a marriage, will move that relationship well beyond the normal frustration that can come. What are these patterns? Let me suggest three:
1. Serve your spouse, but expect paybacks.
Our sense of entitlement runs very deep. One of the places it becomes apparent is in marriage when we insist, either consciously or subconsciously, on a system of paybacks. Here’s how it works:
You do something kind for your spouse. Maybe you make their lunch along with yours to take to work. Or maybe you offer to stay alone with the kids so they can go to a movie. Or maybe you just pick up the dish duty one night after dinner. But then you hold onto that thing you’ve done for another like a card to be played. You have served them, and you have the expectation that they will follow suite; after all, they owe you now. Your spouse might not even know you have this expectation, and you might not even tell them, but you still hold onto the card. And the longer you hold onto it, the more bitter and frustrating your entitlement turns. This should not be so for a marriage that is built on common experience with the gospel.
For in the gospel we have a Savior who did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many. And He does this service, even unto death, not because of our merit but because of grace. This grace does not demand a payback, for then it would cease to be grace.
2. Apologize using the word “but…”
An apology has a disingenuous ring to it when it’s colored with explanation and justification. An “I’m sorry, but…” is really not an apology at all; it’s speaking out of both sides of our mouth. It is a refusal, at some level, to own the full culpability of what we did. It’s true in every relationship, but maybe most acutely in marriage. That’s because in our marriages, we know each other deeply. Intimately. Because we do, we know how to deeply and intimately hurt our spouses. Sometimes we do that. And when we do, we must truly apologize.
In a marriage built on the gospel, this can happen. Because Jesus has already owned the ultimate penalty of our sin, we can own the fault in our sin against another. And we can do without equivocation or explanation. In a way, the gospel simplifies our apologies because it boils them down to an absolute ownership of what we did wrong. Only the confidence that comes in knowing one is justified before God can free a person to stand up and fully acknowledge what they have done.
3. Stop assuming you and your spouse are on the same team.
As a general rule, it’s not a good thing to make assumptions. But there are exceptions to that rule, and this is one of them. We can – and I believe we should – assume that we are on the same team as our spouse. No matter what happens in life, job, or parenting, we are of the same mind. The same heart. The same flesh.
When we are tempted to be frustrated with each other, when we are tempted to selfishly pursue our own ends, when we are tempted to criticize or perhaps even stray from our vows, we remember that we are on the same team. We have the same objectives. We are working not alone, but together. Frustration surely sets in when we lose this assumption and instead replace that assumption with the opposite one – that we are on the opposite team as one another.
Again, in a marriage built on the gospel, we are each empowered to forego our own agenda. To put aside our own interests and work for the good of another. To be about more than ourselves.
Some amount of frustration is inevitable in marriage. The gospel doesn’t change that. It does change, though, how we respond to it and how we shape the patterns of thinking in behavior in our homes.