Not too long ago I was working in my wood shop (actually, my garage pretending to be a wood shop). As I was cutting wood in preparation for a project, I noticed the cuts were splintered, the saw seemed louder, and the wood seemed to smell as if it were burning. Because I’m not the sharpest blade in the drawer, I finally got a clue as I realized the saw was working harder than it needed to, and of course this led to me working harder than I needed to. I finally wised up and realized I needed to change the blade.
It occurred to me that several centuries ago, a wise man spoke about this dull blade experience and how it is a great idea to evaluate your axe to see if it is dull. In fact, Solomon said, “if the axe is dull, and one does not sharpen the edge, then he must use more strength; but wisdom brings success” (Ecclesiastes 10:10).
It seems to me that this simple concept can help us all understand the significance of honestly evaluating several areas of our lives that need attention. I suggest evaluating those relationships that are nearest to us, especially the person we are married to.
Unfortunately, it has been my experience that marriages have too often simply neglected those areas that needed care only to live a life of neglect and aloneness. Good people continue to work very hard in life, in parenting, on projects, and in their churches and community. However, these same wonderful folks unintentionally forget to stop chopping away at life and often don’t realize how dull their marriage has become. What many marriages do is continue to chop away and expect something good or different to happen.
What I am presenting here is wisdom that I believe can bring increase relational intimacy in marriage. But first, we need to assess where we are relationally and what our Father in heaven says needs sharpening and transformed. However, we won’t sharpen the axe of our marriage if we don’t see that it is dull.
How Pride Impacts Intimacy in Marriage
First, I’d like to present the notion of pride vs. compassionate care in your marriage. How would you assess your personal character and behavior with your husband or wife? When (not if) I allow pride room to influence how I think, feel, and behave in my life, it negatively impacts my wife, Paulette.
Pride is simply believing and feeling that my way is best, no matter who it impacts. Pride says, “I am central,” and “I may need God, but I will let Him know if I do.” That being said, the most lethal aspect of pride in marriage is the painful reality leading to relational aloneness.
It has been my experience that this leads to two significantly painful areas of life:
1. Pride vigorously opposes compassionate care because forgiveness is cut off. As a result, there is the propensity to stand one’s ground and fight for rights. There may be a secret thought life that feels entitled and will fight for what the person deserves. This type of rumination leads to relational division and increased aloneness.
In fact, Proverbs 17:9 says, “Love prospers when a fault is forgiven, but dwelling on it separates close friends.”
2. Pride will lead to intense conflict that can lead to the death of relationships. The selfish arguments that lead to relational isolation are predicated on what James 4:1 calls “evil desires at war within you.” Selfish pride feeds a person’s condition of relational isolation, which inevitably manifests in selfish taking and rigorous resistance to change. Proverbs 18:1 says, “A man who isolates himself seeks his own desire; he rages against all wise judgment.”
I fully acknowledge that these aren’t the only issues that lead to marital discord, but it seems clear that selfish pride leads to the most devastating pain in our relationships. When spouses resist the affectionate care that brought them together in the first place, it is inevitable that unhealed hurt and unresolved anger will manifest in destructive symptomatic behaviours, thus perpetuating the experiencing of relational aloneness with the one from whom we at one time couldn’t stay away.
The Impact of Compassionate Care on Intimacy in Marriage
Those of you who decide to sharpen your relational skills and/or desire to learn to practically love and heal your life’s journey mate, I strongly recommend you consider the first and most significant step when it comes to healing broken relationships.
This is what David Ferguson calls “affectionate caring.” This is the initial step we initiate when struggles create distance and the propensity for selfish taking. When (not if) you are experiencing painful emotional separation in your marriage, distance and self-care only will invariably fail you. However, as you and/or your spouse humble yourselves when in conflict, you provide a safe place to move toward one another.
For example, when Paulette and I are in an emotional tug of war, both intensely attempting to win this relational struggle (pride), and one of us drops the rope, there is no more “tug of war.” One of us consciously chooses to consider the other person over ourselves. We intentionally decide to gently move toward one another during difficulty and communicate the message, “I care about you.”
But what does “affectionate care” actually mean?
Am I saying that when our marriages are in conflict, we actually learn and practice a lifestyle of reaching out and placing our spouse’s interests ahead of our own? Yes. This is what is being said here, without apology.
Am I saying that when we feel we have rights and we are going to win this fight that we ought to authentically and gently defer to our spouse? Yes, this is what I am saying.
Am I saying that when we have been legitimately hurt by our spouse, we should be more concerned about his/her pain than our own? Yes.
Some will say this sounds like codependency and colluding with enabling cycles. In specific cases, it may be. However, when we choose to generously care for our spouse through authentic humility, we will see things change. This is what affectionate care is predicated on. As we humble ourselves before Jesus Christ, in due time He will honor us; He will lift us up (James 4:10). In this humility, we are open to learning how to give compassion as He has given it to us.
Here are some concrete definitions of affectionate care as a lifestyle:
Develop this relational muscle and observe the healthy fruit of care returning back to you. To be clear, it is not a tool to manipulate or to use as a strategy for personal gain.
1. Affection: expressing care and closeness through physical touch and through words such as “I love you” or “I care about you” (Romans 16:16; Mark 10:16). Many of us have walked through life not experiencing safe touch and caring words. Often times, care is called, “Well, I’m here,” or “I work hard to provide just like those before me,” or, “I told you I loved you when got married, haven’t I shown that?”
2. Affection during conflict: At times, blood pressure goes up and so do voices. None of us enjoys this, and the hurtful words are difficult to recover from. Our Father says that when we are in the beginning or middle of a “harsh talk,” there are a couple of things we can do. He says, “A gentle answer turns away [deflects] wrath” (Proverbs 15:1), and “A hot-tempered person starts fights; a cool-tempered person stops them” (Proverbs 15:18).
3. Affection through establishing respectful guidelines: not emotionally engaging (personalizing, minimizing, agitation, emotional reasoning, magnifying) when pain is manifesting in hurtful ways. We teach what is called “marriage staff meetings,” which enables couples time to pray, journal, listen, read the Bible, talk to a confidential/objective friend or mentor before talking about concerns or conflicts. This enhances safety, clarity of thinking, and reduces pressure. Accompanied by humility, we are learning to walk out what God says to do: 1) “Starting a quarrel is like opening a floodgate, so stop before a dispute breaks out” (Proverbs 17:14); and 2) We will learn to speak the truth in love with wisdom and calmness and move away from immature emotional interactions (Ephesians 4:14-16).
4. Affectionate care is learning to experience Christ in our marriages. Just a respectful reminder. He wouldn’t have put this in the Bible if He didn’t think we were able to walk this out. “Is there any encouragement from belonging to Christ? Any comfort from His love? Any fellowship together in the Spirit? Are your hearts tender and compassionate? Then make me truly happy by agreeing wholeheartedly with each other, loving one another, and working together with one mind and purpose. Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interests in others, too” (Philippians 2:1-4).
5. Affectionate care courageously recognizes when your spouse is grieving or experiencing pain from life circumstances, you hurt with them. Perhaps even join your nearest one with your own tears for them. Expecting nothing in return and certainly not flipping those moments back to you. Romans 12:15 says “weep with those who weep;” Matthew 5:4 says, “blessed are those who mourn, they will be comforted.”
Will we all be so brave as to recognize one another’s painful moments, generously and freely giving affectionate care while catching our thoughts when we conversely attempt to fix, lecture, criticize, minimize, ignore, use sarcasm, humor, or even over spiritualise?
Many spouses are often afraid of their own pain, or struggle with knowing how to give care. The “go to” is humor or fatal attempts to cheer their spouse up. Well intended, but misguided. This invariably evokes emotional reactions and escalates the hurt. Proverbs 25:20 says, “Singing cheerful songs to a person with a heavy heart is like taking someone’s coat in cold weather or pouring vinegar in a wound.”
May we be so audacious that we use words that bring life. For example, “My heart hurts for you as you walk through this,” or “Seeing you in pain causes my heart to hurt for you because I deeply care about you.” Another option is to remain silent with tears and gentle, nonsexual, giving touch.
Self Assessment Questions:
On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate yourself?
When my husband/wife is experiencing joy or encouragement, do I join him/her, or do I make it about me?
1 = self-centered, 10 = other-centered
When my wife/husband is in need of affectionate care, do I recognize his/her pain and freely give, or do I make it about me?
1 = self-centered, 10 = other-centered
When my wife/husband is emotionally hurting, I don’t know what to do, so I do what I have always done, which leads to the same results.
1 = clueless, 10 = need help and am open to seeking it
I hope this discussion on the dull axe of pride and the sharp axe of compassionate care in your marriage has penetrated your heart. I truly believe that removing aloneness in marriage requires proactive work with two people endeavoring to experience relational intimacy in marriage as a lifestyle.
The work of compassionate care is the first of four healthy relational ingredients that I will write about in future articles. This is not a formula, but we certainly are given several promises from God that may ensure your confidence for future relational intimacy in your marriage.
We have a hope and a future as we follow simple guidelines that He gives us. David Ferguson speaks of a relational progression that healthy relational ingredients bring. I will close with this quote:
“If I feel that you care for me, I will be more likely to trust you with vulnerable communication. If I trust you, I will allow myself to need you more, which will lead to more joint accomplishment. Finally, if I need you, I will let you give to me, which will cause me to feel loved and motivate me to give to you in return, thus producing mutual giving.”
“Having such a deep affection for you, we were delighted to share with you not only God’s good news but also our own lives, because you had become so very dear to us.” – 1 Thessalonians 2:8