Monday, 18 May 2015

Fight For Your Marriage Part 1: Preparation

The comments on my previous post reminded me of the time I started seeking to improve my marriage.  It also reminded me of conversations I've had with a friend in a similar situation years later, and many posts and comments I've seen in other marriage blogs and discussion boards.

In all these cases one spouse realized that their marriage needed to improve in the area of intimacy, and the other spouse was pushing back and opposed to the very idea.  Either somebody had to fight for their marriage to make it better, or just give up and accept things as they were and hope the hurt and disappointment didn't turn to resentment and anger, or lead to worse consequences.

I believe that fighting for your marriage is the right thing to do, and this blog is mostly about doing just that. I've talked about individual pieces of what fighting for your marriage includes but now I feel it's time to pull it together.  Although this is written from the perspective of resolving intimacy issues in the marriage, the same principles apply to other situations with a little adaption.

If you are in this situation and ready to fight for a better marriage than you have now, then you should first prepare yourself in these areas:

You need a vision of what your marriage could and should be.  I don't mean a dramatic revelation from God, but you need a picture in your head of what it is you want to work towards.  Chances are your spouse has a picture of that in their head too.  They may be as unhappy about things as you, just for different reasons.  The challenge will be to find a picture you agree on, then make it a reality as much as possible.  For now you need to start off with clarifying a picture of your own.

Joseph Smith said in Lectures on Faith that "it is faith, and faith only, which is the moving cause of all action".  Fighting for your marriage will not be easy.  There will be emotional pain, tears, frustration.  If you do not have faith that it will lead to something better you will not put in enough effort to accomplish what you want.  You need faith that God will help you, and faith that there is a way to move towards your vision.

Know who the enemy is... and is not
It's sometimes easy to see your spouse as the cause of hurt and pain then cast them as the enemy.  That isn't reality however, Satan is the enemy, and what better way can he destroy a marriage than to get spouses to see each other as the villain and forget about him?

Your spouse is your team mate.  They may not be as much of an asset to the team as they could be, but the same could probably be said for you as well.  The point is you can't go into this with the idea of 'defeating' your spouse.  You either win together or you lose together.

Part of your objective is to find a way to work together as a team.  If you are attacking them, criticizing them, complaining, and rubbing their face in their perceived failures, whey would they want to be on the same team as you?

Joseph Smith wrote in a letter to the Church:
No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile— (D&C 121:41-42)
Note that he didn't just say it was a bad idea, he said that you can not maintain any kind of influence in somebody's life through authoritarian means.  It is impossible in the long run.  Seeing your spouse as your team mate rather than your enemy will help you treat them as those verses outline.  Fight the real enemy instead.

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Live the gospel 
The best way to fight Satan is to live the gospel as best you can.  That's right, go to church (and the temple), read the scriptures, pray and keep the commandments.  Don't brush that off as trite or simplistic.  A wise Bishop of mine once said that other than receiving ordinances like the sacrament, the purpose of any church meeting is to receive revelation, those quiet whispers of the Spirit reminding us of something we should do.  It can also happen while read the scriptures, but if our lives our out of harmony with the gospel we block God's inspiration.

You can not change somebody's heart, but God can.  You need His help and His inspiration.  Through faith and righteousness you can draw on the powers of heaven and gain access to the gifts of the Spirit.  Living the gospel will also increase your faith and your capacity to love.

When you pray, don't pray like you are leaving a voice mail message for God.  Talk with Him, tell him not just what you want but why you want it.  Tell him what you plan to do, how you feel and what made you feel that way.  Don't tell him what you think He wants you to say, say what you really mean, and even cry on His shoulder.  Plead your case.  He knows what you are feeling, He won't rob you of the growth you get from overcoming by giving you some instant fix, but He will help. 

Un-Christlike behaviour and attitudes are at the root of all relationship issues.  The more Christlike you can become, the better off your marriage is even if nothing else changes.

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Have righteous motives
When your spouse pushes back, one thing they may do is call your motives into question.  You need to make sure your motives are well thought out and in harmony with the gospel so you are ready to answer such accusations by clearly explaining why you are pursuing this.

Don't just focus on the external and immediate pain point. If you frame your objective as having sex more often with your spouse, you may want to re-think that.  That only looks at what you want, with no consideration for your spouse's feelings or needs.  Your spouse will sense you ulterior, selfish motive and refuse to co-operate, or pursue a selfish motive of their own to further limit intimacy with no regard for your feelings.  Each one is as bad as the other.

In theory you could have sex more often by resorting to bullying and manipulation but would that get you the kind of marriage you want?  No, and in the long run I expect you would find yourself alone if you did that. Having sex more often should not be the objective, the objective should be to have a mutually happy and fulfilling relationship.  One where you each have leaned how to find real joy in meeting each others needs.  An increase in sexual intimacy is only a side effect and the sexual relationship is only a portion of what makes a marriage happy and fulfilling for both spouses.

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Ground yourself in sound doctrine
Another area where push back occurs is over basic ideas and beliefs about sexuality.  You may have to push back against ideas like sex is a necessary evil, or intended only for reproduction, or that sexual desire for one's spouse is not in keeping with church standards, or having sex often is carnal, or that sexual desire is lust or that sex should not be that important.

It is important that you don't buy into such false ideas, or you will find yourself hard pressed to help your spouse overcome them.  Get it firmly settled in your heart that sex is a wonderful and divine gift from God and he is fully approving of married couples being intimate and enjoying, often.  There are many quotes from various General Authorities along those lines.

Some true teachings are misunderstood.  Passions are to be bridled, but sometimes that message is taken as they are to be repressed.  To bridal one's passions means they are harnessed so they can put to good use.  Never buy into the idea that you are somehow in the wrong to feel a desire for intimacy with your spouse.  Feeling sexual desire only becomes carnal or lustful if one puts their gratification above obedience to God.  The desire a spouse feels for their partner is neither carnal or lustful since it is a desire to do something righteous.  It is also an emotion God planted in the hearts of mankind to bring men and women together to be one flesh.  God command Adam and Eve to cleave to each other, not push each other away.

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Have realistic objectives  
Perfection is not going to happen in this world.  Our spouse won't be perfect, we won't be perfect, and our circumstances won't be perfect either.  Our objectives need to be realistic and this is an area where it is best to keep objectives vague and not attach an artificial deadline to them.  Feeling pressured destroys intimacy and can backfire by creating resentment and frustration and a lack of co-operation.  It is not a race, if things are moving in the right direction, be happy about it.  If they are not moving in the right direction, don't make it worse by over reacting.

There are a number of circumstances that will slow progress.  Negative emotions resulting from past sexual sins, growing up in a sex-negative home environment, and wrong teaching by well meaning local church leaders are things that can be dealt with but they can take some time.  Mental illness, other medical conditions, past sexual abuse or other traumatic experiences can be much harder to overcome, and might never be fully overcome in mortality.

They may take your effort to change things as a way of you saying you don't love them as they are and need to be reassured that you are trying to change things because you love them, not because you need them to change for you to love them.

How many times have you heard that contention is of the devil?  Probably a lot.  Let's take a closer look at that scripture:

For verily, verily I say unto you, he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another. (3 Nephi 11:29)
To me, a 'spirit of contention' is an attitude of looking for a fight, taking offense easily, and acting out in anger.  It is not like what Jude said when he told the early Christians to 'earnestly contend for the faith' (Jude 1:3).

You can not fight for your marriage without running into disagreements with your spouse, and having your spouse object and push back.  There will be times where you need to push back against what they say and stand your ground with courage, but you need to be able to 'earnestly contend', not 'contend with anger'.   No name calling, no lashing out.  Even with your deepest disagreements you need to remember that 'A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger.' (Prov 15:1)

If you feel yourself getting angry, shelve the topic for another time.  If you tend toward the other end of the scale and avoid conflict even when you should not, you need to steel yourself for those moments where you have to take a stand.

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It is easy to see how our partner needs to change, and also easy to be blind to how we need to change.  Are you being the best spouse you can be?  Are you meeting your husband's or wife's relationship needs well?  How do you know what their needs are?  Just because you are doing things the way you would like them done for you doesn't mean you are doing them the way your spouse needs them done. 

This isn't about 'fixing them' and if they feel it is that will lead them to push back.  It has to be about improving the marriage.  It is pretty rare for only one spouse to need to change to improve a marriage, so be prepared to listen and learn what you need to do for them.  Set the example by not pushing back and resisting change, even if they do.  Invite your spouse to help you become better and they won't feel like this is a one way street.

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Persistence and patience
Deeply engrained ideas can take time to change, especially when there are deep emotions that go with them.  Don't expect one brilliantly worded speech to change much.  You are going to have to repeat yourself several times, refute the same objections again and again before an old paradigm is replaced with a new one.  Don't get frustrated, just calmly and peacefully address the concern again.  Exercise faith that things will change and continue to pray for help and guidance.  Remember the parable of the unjust judge.

Charity and forgiveness
Last but not least, you must have charity towards your spouse.  1Cor 13:4-7 has a lot to say of charity.  It suffereth long and is kind.  It keeps one from 'acting unseemly' (lashing out, slamming doors, other immature and destructive behaviors).  A charitable person does not selfishly seek for just their own satisfaction without regard for others, doesn't take offense easily, and don't assume the worst of others.  In fact the key to being charitable is to assume the best, and not attribute to malice what can be explained by ignorance or something else.

You also must not hold a grudge over any past offense.  If you do that you will not be able to do the things above. Forgiving somebody doesn't mean you pretend it never happened, it doesn't mean you don't still hurt over it, it doesn't mean you must extend the same trust as before, but it does mean that you let go of any desire for payback, any hostility toward the other person. 

To restore a relationship fully requires both forgiveness and reconciliation.  Forgiveness is something an offended person can give no matter what the offender does or does not do, but for there to be reconciliation the offender needs to act to fix what they broke.  That would include recognizing their error, feeling genuine regret for it that matches the seriousness of the offense, making a full confession, asking for forgiveness, making restitution and not doing it again.  The same steps we take when we reconcile ourselves to God through repentance.

That a lot of preparation, but you must start with that.  Next we'll discuss things you can do and how to do them.