Better Love

As it turns out, I’m guilty.

Awhile back, I served as an alternate juror on a murder case and quickly became familiar with the legal definition for aiding and abetting.  The suspect was proven guilty.

Fast-forward several years, and here I am indulging in a cheesy, pepperoni pizza after a rough day, finding myself guilty of the same crime (don’t worry, not the murder part).  Normally I would not have thought anything of it, but my husband and I had recently done a “feelings” exercise at a marriage conference, which opened my eyes to some criminal feelings of my own.

I am comfortable with my emotions and wear them on my sleeve, for better and for worse, so I thought this exercise would be effortless.  Reviewing a list of feeling words and evaluating whether I was able to communicate them or not… piece of cake.

My husband is fluent in his emotions too, if for no other reason than he is wholly empathetic to my own.  This first exercise was simple for him too.  We were a communicative couple who could discuss anything!

For each emotion, we then had to discuss how we were taught to understand and process these emotions.  Did our parents teach that we were even allowed to have and express these emotions?  Were we shamed if we did something wrong?  Was anger something to hide or a weapon to unleash?  How were we treated if we cried?  Was celebration an outflow of joy or did it pervert itself into one-upmanship?

This part of the exercise was also doable.  We were surprisingly in agreement with each other’s perceptions of our emotional instruction from our childhood.  He and I even took it a step further and examined whether those instructions were still defining our emotions today or whether we had retaught ourselves to process them.

If only the exercise had stopped there… where we were comfortable. The facilitators then asked us to review the list of words one more time to consider which emotions we do not tolerate in our spouse.  At first I didn’t even understand this.  I love my husband no matter what emotions he expresses.

Aiding and Abetting

But then I started thinking about how many times I have defaulted to ordering BJ’s pizza (his favorite) for dinner when he comes home stressed from work, or how many times I have suggested a dessert that he likes because I know it will cheer him up.  He and I are both stress eaters; this was not news to me.  It hadn’t dawned on me, however, that I actually abetted his stress eating so that I could cope when he was struggling with tough emotions.

It’s always easier to point out the plank in someone else’s marriage than to recognize the speck in my own.  A friend was in a harrowing season of newborns and job loss.  In the midst of the unforgiving economy, her husband’s job search was painstakingly slow and dry, so they had no income for several months.  They searched frantically for jobs while they were home together (not a fun date), trying to stifle fear and resentment.  Strategizing for provision was so urgent that they felt too strapped to spend a minute or a dime on nurturing their affection for each other.  It was a painful time, and as it continued, her husband spiraled into depression.  He was deeply discouraged by not being able to provide for his family, which seemed to underscore his feelings of worthlessness and incompetence.  It was the perfect storm, and no one–not even his wife–could empathize with him.

Les Parrott's Making Happy
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How should a wife respond when her husband’s employment stalemate casts him headlong into depression? Most of us would probably attempt to manage the job search for him or to coddle and console him with comfort foods or flattery. But a strong kind of woman could discern when it’s best to allow him to struggle through it.

Cheerleading our spouses from the sidelines can feel powerless, but often, that is exactly where God wants us so that His power will be evident as He does a transforming work in them. We want to rescue our spouses from pain, but God is comfortable using it for good. We are impatient for relief, but God can see the end game. We desire control and need to feel valued in the situation, but God is sovereign and His love for us is not dependent on our being “useful.”

So there I was advising my friend to take a step back and allow God to deal mercifully with her husband. She should try letting God drudge up the emotional baggage that was flaring up in her husband’s depression, letting God teach her husband about what His provision looks like, and letting God renew her husband’s identity in Christ alone.

She took my advice, but could I have? Struggling with that last feeling exercise sure convinced me that I would not have been able to. I was too prideful. Sure, distracting my husband from his stress was a major impetus for coming to the rescue with pizza and dessert, but honestly, I wanted to be happy.

Having someone stress or sulk or snap in my vicinity and still maintaining a joy and a peace in my own heart seems impossible. It’s easy to feel like those negative emotions are directed at me because I’m the only other one in the room. And if they actually are directed at me, I would cook up the most indulgent peace offering I know how to make so that I wouldn’t be the target of his anger. I want to be forgiven. I want to be loved. I want to be affirmed. And as long as he is hurting, it’s my opportunity to give him forgiveness and love and affirmation.

Aiding and abetting my husband’s stress eating so that I can maintain peace and happiness is all a matter of selfishness, which means I must take my fear, pride, and impatience to the cross and let God spend the necessary time helping my husband through his tough emotions.

What about you? How do you respond to your spouse’s stress? Anger? Depression? Shame? Happiness? Do you stifle the emotion, withdraw from it, fuel it, resent it, or embrace it? Do you trust God to be the God of your spouse even when that demands a sacrifice of your own comfort?

Know that there is comfort at the cross. If you are like me and want to control every situation, start by taking control of your own emotions each time you are rubbing against your spouse’s negative emotions. Perhaps that’s not the encouragement you were hoping for–certainly not as feelgood as BJ’s pizza and dessert–but it will position you for greater joy and peace. And isn’t that exactly what we hope when we abet our spouses in avoiding their uncomfortable emotions?