By Kh. Maggie Hock M.A., M.S., LMHP
Jesus answering the Pharisees said: "For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh. Consequently they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate." (Matthew 19: 5,6)
The marriage relationship between a man and a woman is a gift from God. The grace to walk in that gift comes with the blessing of the Sacrament of Marriage. It is here that the priest and the attending community offer many intercessions for the longevity and fruitfulness of the union. If marriage is our chosen path to salvation, we need to understand that we have vowed together to help both our spouse and ourselves attain this eternal state. Therefore, our task as a married person is to learn how to apply that grace and blessing throughout our marriage, through the ups and downs, the joys and sorrows, the hopes and disappointments. For what marriage doesn't experience these emotions? What happens, then, when the marriage is suffering? Where do we find hope for reconciliation and reconnection to the grace that God offers?
First it's important to go back to where the marriage began- by standing before God asking for His forgiveness and blessing. By searching our hearts we may find where we have separated ourselves from His plan for our marriage. Many couples who have strained relations have found that their expectations have not been clearly articulated to each other. Perhaps assumptions were made about the married lifestyle without clear communication and therefore the couple does not have a shared vision for the relationship. Some may find that their expectations were full of worldly pursuits that did not honor God or each other. Still others may discover that they have not modeled Christ's example of servanthood and obedience.
We have a great challenge in today's age--that of walking humbly in an age of unbridled temptations and pride. There is a temptation that causes us to consider our opinion as the only one that matters in spite of what it will cost us in our relationships. There are many couples who demand their own ways even if it means being without what was once their most meaningful relationships- their spouse and children. This is one reason why we have reached such a high divorce rate in current society. Pride convinces us to want only our own way, and keeps us from admitting fault regardless of the consequences.
With this in mind, we must begin with examining our own heart and sinfulness before we can hope for a renewed relationship. Humbly confessing our part in the conflict without giving qualifying excuses for our sin is a powerful way to soften the heart of your partner. Since this principle is at the heart of our relationship with God, it is crucial for harmony in our marital dynamic. It is only as we take this seriously that we can experience forgiveness. Then we can truly give witness to the life-changing power of Christ and His redemption in the midst of a troubled partnership. This change in focus from our eyes being on what we want to who we are in Christ and His goals for our relationship restores us to that path that leads to salvation.
You may be asking yourself "How do I do this is in my practical everyday reality? What are the skills that I need to make this shift?" Whatever your current situation, there are several things that will be helpful to know about relationship dynamics, especially if you have been willing to work on the spiritual disciplines previously mentioned.
We have God-given reactions to the stresses we face. Consider for a moment the role that emotions play in an intimate relationship. We often don't understand and may downplay the emotional dynamic between us as a couple. And yet it is a sign as to what is really happening on a deep level. Feelings tend to unfold in layers. Knowing why certain emotions are expressed is a clue to how you can respond in a more compassionate way.
When you are experiencing conflict there is an order to how it progresses. Imagine a pyramid with anger at the top. Expressed anger is usually the first indication that something is amiss. It is the feeling that is closest to the surface and therefore precedes other emotions. By allowing anger to be properly expressed, the hurt beneath the anger will be revealed. Next, when the hurt is released it uncovers the fear underlying the hurt. Then as the fear is acknowledged, our unmet needs are discovered. Paying attention to those unmet needs and taking care of them gives us energy to move toward forgiveness. Only after dealing with our emotions in this order is energy released to forgive.
Since forgiveness is a Divine attribute of God, we must rely on Him to help us tap into this energy. True forgiveness then unlocks the peace and love at the base of this pyramid. As we work toward this, we learn to truly love our spouse unconditionally as God loves us. Understanding this dynamic as a lengthy yet predictable process can provide hope to know how to reconcile conflict with our spouse. Imagine God's grace as the full sun shining and the conflict as a cloud that covers the sun. The grace is still ever present in the full sun and even diffused through the cloud. So it is not gone completely even in the midst of the shadow. The grace of God helps us to recognize the darkness and move out from under it into His full light. He is always present and His grace is always completely available to us.
If you are unable to restore the marriage after practicing these tools, seriously consider the Scriptural model (Matthew 18:16) and enlist a neutral third party to help resolve the differences. The parish priest, spiritual directors and godly trained professionals can see your circumstances in a way that you may be blind to. However, if your spouse refuses to accept outside help it is still valuable for you to learn relationship skills to make the situation as peaceful as possible (Romans 12:18). You are still accountable for your part of the conflict and although you are not responsible for your partner's reactions you need to examine your own. Often when the opposing spouse witnesses a sincere effort on the other's part to change, the roadblocks to forgiveness are being removed and they begin to seek help also. Personally confessing our sins is the key to the door of forgiveness.
Pray and persevere in your efforts. The problems that you are experiencing were probably years in the making and will take time to heal. Even if you have separated there is hope for reconciliation. Maintaining a marriage commitment is a great spiritual warfare. Whatever knot you have tied in your marriage, trust that God wills to restore His peace in your midst.