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Love is…

Do you remember those cheesy cards that had the little cherubic boy and girl looking slightly wistfully at each other and slightly embarrassed, with the slogan “Love is…”?

I’ve been reading a book on marriage recently and came across a list of definitions of the kind of love that marriage requires. We live in a world where people believe that the emotional feelings they mistake for love are enough to hold a marriage together. Instead marriage is a commitment of the will (although not devoid of emotion!) to the good of the other—for better, for worse etc.

Here are some of Paul Tripp’s definitions of the love that is called for both in husbands and in wives. They’ll probably not make it as far as the card shop, or grace a range of fridge magnets, but they will doubtless help form the basis of lasting marriages.

“Love is being willing to have your life complicated by the needs and struggles of your husband or wife without impatience or anger”—Is your marriage just about having someone there for you when you need them, or are you prepared to serve them and their needs?

“Love is being unwilling to make any personal decision or choice that would harm your marriage, hurt your husband or wife, or weaken the bond of trust between you.”

“Love is the willingness to make regular and costly sacrifices for the sake of your marriage without asking anything in return or using your sacrifices to place your spouse in your debt”— Love requires us to say no to our selfish instincts, and to look for specific ways to serve, support, and encourage, even when busy or tired, without saying “look at all I’ve done for you”.

“Love is staying faithful to your commitment to treat your spouse with appreciation, respect, and grace, even in moments when he or she doesn’t seem to deserve it or is unwilling to reciprocate”—Lovey dovey conversation is all fine over a romantic dinner, but what is the conversation like when the dinner is burnt, the car has a fresh dent, and tempers are running high? Love means speaking kindly and gently, even in moments of disagreement, refusing to attack your spouse’s character or assault their intelligence.

“Love is being unwilling to flatter, lie, or manipulate, in any way in order to co-opt your spouse into giving you what you want or doing something your way”—The foundation of a marriage is where both partners trust that the other loves them enough to want what is best for them.

“Love is always being willing to ask for forgiveness and always being committed to grant forgiveness when it is requested.”

It’s a high standard, and one we have drifted far from. But it’s not possible simply to try harder in order to improve our marriages. We need more—we need to have experienced ourselves what unconditional, sacrificial, forgiving, servant love is like. And the only place to find that is in Jesus Christ.

(Quotes taken from Paul Tripp “What did you expect - Redeeming the Realities of Marriage”)

What do children really want?

How do you satisfy that small person who just doesn’t seem to be happy? “What more can I give them?” the frustrated parent cries when they feel they aren’t doing enough. Phrases like “You never wanted for anything” ring out from parents to ‘unappreciative’ youngsters.

A UNICEF report on the well-being of children delivered a shock for UK parents last week as the UK came in bottom of a league of 21 nations for happiness among its children. The BBC summed it up succinctly: “Our children need time not stuff”.

Although it’s about the UK, I wonder how much of these home truths apply to Ireland too. We may have come a little late to the economic prosperity party, but we jumped in well and truly once it arrived. Suddenly there were jobs, more hours, more work. Let’s work more, buy bigger houses, go on better holidays. Now they are gone, but the mindset lingers.

We are caught up in a world where we get our sense of identity from our work, or what we purchase with the money we earn, and we impose these values on our children—expecting them to be satisfied with possessions too.

We come home from work, tired and frustrated because we didn’t get any deep sense of satisfaction from it, we feel deeply in need of some time to ourselves—after all, “We’ve earned it”. And there is a little person, whom we brought into the world, who is hardwired for time with us, waiting—and all we can see is an interruption, a nuisance, another person needing our attention. So we send them to play with the expensive toys we bought them, or to park themselves in front of the TV to watch another DVD we purchased for them, not really because we love them, but because we love ourselves and want some time for ourselves.

UNICEF paints a picture of a country that has got its priorities wrong—trading quality time with our children for cupboards full of expensive toys that aren't used.

Dr Tessa Livingstone writes on the Daily Telegraph’s website:

‘The average 10-year-old can name-check 400 brands and is increasingly likely to use them to measure self-worth. British children are inundated with presents. There is £7.3 billion worth of goods in children’s bedrooms.

‘I remember talking to an unemployed father whose wish was to be able to give his son a games console and other presents. I asked whether he played with his son: “I only want to give him something. It’s my job to give the kids what they want, not to do anything else.” That’s what being a successful dad was to him.’

UNICEF found that Spanish and Swedish children have more contact time with their families and rarely buy into the consumerist dream. Sadly we give less time and buy more.

“What more can I give you?”—the answer is ‘Yourself’.
“You never wanted for anything”—yes, in fact, they wanted, but didn’t get time with their parents.

“Children are an inheritance from the LORD, offspring a reward from him.” (Psalm 127:3) One day we will have to give account of what we did, and how we raised the children God has given to us.

The Four Horsemen of Divorce

Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink quotes University of Washington psychologist John Gottman who studies couples and their interactions. For years he has taped couples chatting about topics and studied a whole range of indicators from the tiny facial movements to posture to tone to verbal content. Piecing it all together after watching and analysing an hour of conversation on any subject between husband and wife, he is able to predict with 95% accuracy whether or not they will be married in 15 years or not.

Watching only 15 minutes still allowed him to predict with 90% accuracy. In fact, watching only 3 minutes of a conversation contains enough clues.

That’s phenomenal—especially when you take into account that when they gave the same tapes to 200 psychiatrists and marriage counsellors they had only a 54% success rate of predicting success or failure—little better than tossing a coin.

But Gottman is able to narrow it down even further. Amidst all the welter of data about a marriage there are four key factors—Four Horsemen he calls them—that are signs that a marriage is in a critical situation.

The Four Horsemen are criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling and contempt.

Criticism—“You don’t appreciate me”, “You never do anything about this place”, “You’re stupid/ugly/lazy.” Personal generalised sweeping statements that aren’t designed to be helpful, just to hurt.

Defensiveness—It’s often the response to criticism, you know how it goes, you’re in the wrong, but you won’t admit it. She says “You never take the bin out” and you retort with “I would do, but you never put anything in it, just leave it lying around here looking like a tip.” “You’re always in a foul mood”—“That’s ’cos I’m married to you.” And so on—excuses and blame-shifting are the order of the day.

Stonewalling—Another response to either legitimate issues, or to illegitimate criticism. There is no spitefulness, just a tuning out. 85% of time it’s the husband. He hears the issue and refuses to engage—sighs and changes channel, or walks out of the room or house. It says, “I don’t rate your opinion, I don’t rate this as an issue worth my time or effort to solve. I’m done.” It’s unspoken contempt.

Contempt—The insult, the name-call, a sneer, the mocking taunt, the rolling of eyes, scorn, treating your spouse with disdain in front of family or friends. They all communicate disgust. The aim is simply to belittle, to score points.

Of the four, Gottman says contempt is the worst. You might have thought it would be criticism. Criticism is about what a person does, and will cause them to react defensively, but contempt displays disgust for who a person actually is.

Where’s your marriage at? Do any of the horsemen inhabit your home? The good news is that it isn’t too late. Hard work will need to be done—the hard work of repentance and forgiveness. But we need to start with the vertical relationship between us and God—with repentance and forgiveness from Jesus—then we find him enabling us to repent and forgive each other on a horizontal level, and our marriages transformed and relationships healed.