You can start by changing yourself

July 16, 2013
This book is simply one of the best I've ever read.

This book is simply one of the best I’ve ever read.

One recurring theme in last Sunday’s sermon was how, through faith, we can make the best of a bad situation. I said that sometimes we are at least a little bit like those passengers aboard that Asiana airliner that crashed recently in San Francisco: we’re strapped in, the plane is going to crash, and there’s nothing we can do about it. We’re stuck. So what now?

I briefly considered applying this idea to marriage, using Timothy Keller’s profoundly good book The Meaning of Marriage—which is also just a good book on life in general. Keller talks about the challenge of feeling stuck in what he calls a “truce-marriage.” This occurs when each partner resents the selfishness of the other and wishes the other would change. Although each recognizes the selfishness within himself or herself, he or she perceives his or her spouse’s selfishness as the bigger problem. “This is especially true if you feel that you’ve had a hard life and have experienced a lot of hurt. You say silently, ‘OK, I shouldn’t do that—but you don’t understand me.'”

What often follows, Keller writes, is

the development of emotional distance and, perhaps, a slowly negotiated kind of détente or ceasefire. There is an unspoken agreement not to talk about some things. There are some things your spouse does that you hate, but you stop talking about them as long as he or she stops bothering you about certain other things. No one changes for the other; there is only tit-for-tat bargaining.[1]

The best alternative to this truce-marriage is for each spouse, though disillusioned by their partner’s self-centeredness, to instead treat their own self-centeredness as the main problem in the marriage—and to work on that. After all, Keller writes,

Only you have complete access to your own selfishness, and only you have complete responsibility for it. So each spouse should take the Bible seriously, should make a commitment to ‘give yourself up.’ You should stop making excuses for selfishness, you should begin to root it out as it’s revealed to you, and you should do so regardless of what your spouse is doing.”[2]

Good things happen, Keller says, even if you’re the only partner who decides, “My selfishness is the thing I am going to work on.”

What will happen? Usually there is not much immediate response from the other side. But often, over time, your attitude and behavior will begin to soften your partner. He or she can see the pains you are taking. And it will be easier for your spouse to admit his or her faults because you are no longer always talking about them yourself.[3]

The lesson: Work on changing yourself because it’s the Christian thing to do. One possible fringe benefit is that doing so may inspire change in your spouse.

1. Timothy Keller with Kathy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage (New York: Dutton, 2011), 65

2. Ibid., 65-6.

3. Ibid., 66.

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