Harold had been frozen by the red light of pride for a number of years. At age 57, he had succeeded in virtually every area of his life. In business he was a corporate vice-president with an income approaching seven figures. He had been president of his service club for three terms, and the group had raised more money for charity with each succeeding term.
The one area in which Harold was failing instead of succeeding was a big one: his marriage. Fourteen years earlier, their 22-year-old son, Jake, took his own life with a massive drug overdose. Harold and Desiree were devastated and broken. Then, soon after the funeral, Harold started the accusations with his wife: “If you had only trained him better as a boy, Desiree, this might not have happened. You should have controlled his behavior as a teenager. He wouldn’t have fallen in with the wrong crowd if you had been on top of things.”
Desiree was crushed, not only by Harold’s harsh and persistent blame but also by his unwillingness to shoulder any of the responsibility. He would not admit that his extensive business travel and fanatical devotion to his hobbies and projects might have contributed to Jake’s problems. As a result, the couple was popular and well-liked by many, but they were strangers to each other behind closed doors.
To Harold, admitting that there is a conflict, let alone admitting that he may be at least partially responsible for it, is a weakness. His pride is pushing his marriage to the brink of divorce.
The antithesis of pride is humility. C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, “If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realize that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it.” It is a “biggish step” to admit our pride, but it is the only way to turn that red light to green and get on with healing.
Exercising humility allows the Harolds of the world to stand back and take a look inside. We see where we lack forgiving love in our marriage and how to close the loop of conflict. Humility is a gift we rarely ask for because it usually comes in the form of some difficult lessons. But it is indeed a gift.
Red Light 2: Guilt
Mark's head hung so low it looked as if he might never raise his eyes again. "I really did it this time, Gary," he said, "and I can't go back."
Mark worked as a comptroller in a manufacturing plant. He met Mary at the small Christian college they both attended, and they married soon after graduation. Mary came from a wealthy background, while Mark grew up in a working-class home and was the first in his family to attend college. They were both 43 years old when Mark came to see me. The couple had one child in college and another in high school.
Mary enjoyed having nice things, and Mark tried to meet her desires. Though they were on a modest budget, he kept encouraging her to buy what she wanted. Mark was determined to provide for his wife the way other men in their circle of friends did, so he kept using credit cards and delaying payments. He felt terrible about the big financial hole he had plunged them into, but he couldn't bring himself to tell Mary about it.
Then one day, Mark made a decision that would change the course of their lives forever. He discovered a $12,000 error in the company's books. Sitting at his desk reviewing the figures, he congratulated himself on a job well done. But then a dark thought took him by surprise: What if I didn't tell anyone about the error? Nobody else would be able to find it. The $12,000 is there for the taking.
He knew it was wrong, but then he thought about all the raises he had been promised but had never been given. No one is looking out for me here, he thought. And trying to keep up with Mary’s spending is getting harder all the time. Maybe I can just take the money for a couple of months and then pay it back later. No one will ever know.
Can you see the web of rationalizations? Mark gave into the temptation and never returned the money as he had planned. Now he was in my office because his actions were about to be revealed by a company audit.
Mark's inability to be honest with Mary about their finances helped create his problem in the first place. But after he committed the crime, he began living with guilt. As that guilt weighed on him, he became more moody and irritable, harder to get along with. Mary knew something was wrong but didn't know what it was. Mark avoided any conflict over family finances because he did not want to admit his crime.
Mark was filled with self-condemnation and feelings of failure as he sat in my office. "What will Mary say? How will I ever face my kids and my parents? How will I support my family? What will happen if I go to prison?" Guilt had blocked Mark from resolving conflict with Mary and his secrecy only allowed things to get worse. He would be dealing with the consequences of his actions for many years.
The good news about guilt is that it can lead us to a loving relationship with God. The apostle Paul wrote: "God can use sorrow in our lives to help us turn away from sin and seek salvation. We will never regret that kind of sorrow. But sorrow without repentance is the kind that results in death" (2 Corinthians 7:10).
The red light of unresolved guilt can inhibit the restoration of a broken relationship. When you feel guilty, you need to ask yourself a pointed question: Have I violated a law of God or humanity that would lead me to feel what I'm feeling? If you must answer yes, perhaps your guilt is constructive and can lead you to repentance and healing. Confronting guilt and repenting is a difficult step, but the freedom you experience is so much more refreshing than a terrible burden you feel when you do not face up to it.
Red Light 3: Laziness
Laziness is a subtle but dangerous enemy of closing loops, a glaring red light for many couples in conflict. When people are single, they often don't realize how much work a marriage relationship requires. The big task is finding and courting a potential spouse. Once the chase is over and they have said "I do," they kick into neutral, intending to coast through the marriage. They put a lot of effort into courtship, but they are not willing to put in the grunt work of making that marriage relationship last a lifetime. When conflict arises, they are too lazy to deal with it. They pull away from the heat and escape into their fantasies with activities such as hobbies, television, shopping, or sports. Hurt and anger go unhealed when laziness blocks a husband or wife from working through the conflicts they face.
John and Deb have been struggling for years over John's apparent lack of interest in dealing with conflict in their family. When John returns home from work, he immediately turns on the television. There he sits for hours on end, night after night, watching sitcoms and sporting events. It drives Deb nuts.
Deb grew up in an active family that was always working in the yard, playing sports, and participating in family activities together. During their courting years, John spent lots of time with Deb, and he was creative in planning special times together. But during the last few years, he has nearly removed himself from any real family activity, and it hurts Deb deeply. And whenever Deb tries to talk to John about it, he’s too absorbed in the TV to listen and respond. Their love has grown cold and they have drifted into the perilous waters of emotional divorce.
Laziness can kill a marriage. It indicates apathy, and apathetic people are never willing to put the time and effort into making a marriage work. At the end of their lives, they look back and realize they forfeited the intimacy and love they really wanted in marriage. Laziness leads to regret, remorse, pain, and divorce.
Red Light 4: Shame
Annie ran from my office, tears rolling down her cheeks. Her husband, Scott, looked at me in bewilderment. "Every time we start talking about what's going on, she cries," Scott said. "I don't know how to respond."
Here was a couple trying to develop their marriage in a healthy way. But a voice kept echoing in Annie's ears from her childhood, the voice of her mother: "Can't you ever clean this kitchen the way I told you to?"; "That boy touched you again, didn't he? I told you to stay away from him. That's all he wants."
Annie grew up with messages of shame delivered by a mother who probably had grown up in the same type of supercritical home environment. As an adult, Annie heard those messages constantly in her mind whenever she and Scott faced a conflict. Those messages came out with the same tone of shame, and always with tears: "I will never do it right, Scott. I know I'll come up short in your eyes"; "I can't go to the party looking like this. Go on without me. I'll never be ready on time."
Scott hurt for his wife. They both wanted to learn how to deal with their conflicts. But every time they began talking about a problem between them, Annie would shut down or become overly defensive, and Scott would throw up his hands in disgust and frustration. They were rarely able to resolve a conflict because Annie's feelings of shame continually blocked the process.
How does the red light of shame differ from the red light of guilt? Guilt relates to behavior; people feel guilty for what they did. Shame relates to the individual; people feel shame for who they are. In her excellent book, Released from Shame, Sandra Wilson wrote, "Shame is a sense of being uniquely and hopelessly flawed. Shame leaves a person feeling different from and less valuable than other human beings."
The shame-controlled person needs to understand and internalize two key biblical concepts. The first is grace. When the apostle Paul cried out to God to remove his weaknesses, God's answer was to trust in his grace. Paul wrote, "But [God] said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses so that Christ's power may rest on me" (2 Corinthians 12:9, NIV). It is in our very weakness that God will display his power in our lives – if we let him.
The second key concept is regeneration. Shame-filled people must release their negative view of themselves and embrace their true identity as the people God made them to be when they place their faith in Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus: "Throw off your old evil nature and your former way of life, which is rotten through and through, full of lust and deception. Instead, there must be a spiritual renewal of your thoughts and attitudes. You must display a new nature because you are a new person, created in God’s likeness – righteous, holy, and true" (Ephesians 4:22-24).
The fifth red light may be the most formidable of all. Barb will describe the role fear plays in blocking us from healing the hurts in our marriages.
Red Light 5: Fear
Fear is primarily a response to something that we perceive as overpowering or threatening in our lives. Fear can exert either a positive or a negative force on us. In the Bible we are instructed to fear God, meaning that we are to respect and defer to his power in our lives. A healthy fear of God is manifested in our trust in God. Ironically, a respectful, trusting fear of God can help deliver us from other fears that can damage our lives and marriages. In other words, the more we fear God in the proper sense of the term, the less we will fear those things that keep us from being the persons and spouses we want to be.
Fear of Failure
When you fear failure in your marriage, you will go to great lengths to avoid the problems and conflicts that generate your fear. Sometimes the fear of failure can become so severe that marital communication in any form is a chore. You may feel as if you don't measure up to your spouse’s expectations, so you stay away physically or emotionally. By avoiding the pain of failure, you can allow conflicts to fester for years.
Fear of Success
Ironically, some people back away from conflict resolution because they are afraid of success, not failure. You may wonder, "The fear of failure makes sense, but who would be afraid of success?" People who fear success avoid taking risks because their past is so scarred by failure that success is an alien idea to them. They stand immobile at the fork in the road because moving ahead into the unknown of healing seems more threatening than the familiarity of failure.
Subconsciously these people reason, If I work through and resolve this conflict with my spouse, I may have to change my behavior, and I don't know how to handle that. Or they think, If I clear up this conflict successfully, I'll probably mess up the next opportunity, so what's the use of trying? Some of these people will actually sabotage conflict resolution to spare themselves the anxiety of a change in the relationship with their spouse.
Fear of Rejection
Fear of rejection is a cousin to fear of failure. It's the small voice inside that says, "If your spouse really knew what you were thinking and feeling, he or she would laugh at you and turn away from you." Fear of rejection keeps some spouses from explaining the true reasons for their conflicts. We figure that if we risk stepping out, we will be rejected again. So instead of forging ahead to resolve a conflict, we swing back into the shadows and shut down. Fear of rejection leads to a loss of self-confidence that can develop into anxiety or depression. Conflicts may persist, but the pain of discussing them is so great that avoidance seems the best route to take.
Fear of Emotional Intimacy
Another type of fear that can impede the resolution of conflict in marriage is the fear of emotional intimacy. You may equate emotional intimacy with sexual intimacy, but they are very different. Many couples succeed at sexual intimacy while starving for emotional intimacy. Sexual intimacy is easy. You can come together physically and be satisfied in a short amount of time. Being close emotionally takes constant work and commitment.
People who fear emotional intimacy put up walls of protection to keep their spouses from getting close. They carefully keep their deep thoughts and feelings under wraps. They push their spouses away emotionally with angry blowups, or they avoid getting too close in the first place. Either way, the result is a marriage where conflicts are resolved only at the surface level and deep hurts go unhealed.
Slaying the Dragons of Fear
Here is a vivid image that will help you deal with any fears that may be blocking you from the path of conflict resolution and healing. Someone shared this picture with Gary and me several years ago, and we have used it in our own personal lives and in our counseling ever since.
If some kind of fear is standing between you and the healing you desire in your marriage, picture that fear as a fierce, fire-breathing dragon. Every time you even think of taking a step in the right direction, that dragon roars and breathes fire at you, keeping you at bay. The more you feed that fear with your irrational thinking and worry, the more the dragon grows. The only way to stop the growth and move ahead is to slay the dragon.
How do you slay the dragon of fear? In confronting it with the truth. Fear is mention hundreds of times in the Bible. But more than 300 times we are told by our all-knowing heavenly Father to "fear not." Paul wrote to Timothy, "God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline" (2 Timothy 1:7). Our fears may seem invincible, but they are no match for the power, love, and self-discipline we have from the indwelling Holy Spirit.
Whether you struggle with the fear of failure, success, rejection, or emotional intimacy (any or all of them), you can defeat your fears by demonstrating faith in the God who empowers us to slay all our dragons.
Red Light 6: Control
The issue of control centers on the struggle for dominance or power in the marriage relationship.
There are two kinds of controllers: active and passive. Active controllers want to call the shots, make the decisions, determine the course of action, and otherwise dominate what happens in their relationships. Active controllers often block healthy conflict resolution by not regarding a spouse's opinions, needs, or suggestions. Or if both partners happen to be active controllers, they will spend their time arguing and seldom reach a resolution.
Passive controllers have a low need for control and a high need to please. When it comes to conflict, they also have opinions, needs, and suggestions, but they will often back off to keep the peace and make their spouse happy. Or they will simply walk away and avoid the conflict. Passive controllers can block conflict resolution just as effectively as active controllers. By allowing a partner to dominate, often their needs in the conflict are unstated and thus unmet, so the conflict continues to simmer beneath the surface.
What's the biblical response to the problem of active or passive control and marital conflict? I think there is a helpful picture in Revelation 3:20, where Jesus says: "Look! Here I stand at the door and knock. If you hear me calling open the door, I will come in, and we will share a meal as friends.” Jesus is a gentleman. He doesn't bust down the door of your marriage and take over like an active controller. Nor does he stand timidly at the door unnoticed like a passive controller. Rather, he knocks and politely waits to be invited in.
You disarm the threat of control in marriage conflicts the same way. Active controllers, you must learn to back off and knock, as it were, instead of running roughshod over conflict resolution by asserting dominance. Extend your partner the courtesy of asking his or her opinions, learning his or her needs, and hearing his or her suggestions. Classic controllers, instead of always being the doormat, you need to find the courage to step up to the door and knock. Learn to express yourself respectfully but unequivocally. The more you emulate Jesus' courteous example and your relationship, the easier it will be to deal with your conflicts and find healing.