Cathy, a forty year old teacher at our local high school came to see me for marriage problems. She was a short, neatly dressed, slender woman. Her eyes were red and swollen as if she had been crying recently. Although friendly, Cathy seemed tense as we began discussing her reasons for coming to see me.
Cathy came for individual counseling after being referred by their pastor. She had complained to her pastor that she was ready to end her marriage because of problems that lingered without remedy. Her visit to me was a last ditch attempt to save their marriage.
Looking at her intake sheet gave me a hint of her reason for coming: "My husband tells me what to do and how to think."
I began our session by asking her to share about herself and her reasons for coming to counseling.
"Well, I’ve been married for fifteen years to Paul, who works as a chemical engineer at Weyerhaeuser. He’s been there a long time and makes a good salary. He’s in charge of a lot of people there and seems to bring that attitude home to our marriage. It seems like he wants to play God with me and our daughters. There is a right way — his way — and a wrong way — our way. It is the world according to Paul, and I’m not sure I can live like this anymore."
"It sounds like this has been going on for some time in your marriage."
"You know, I never noticed it at first. I guess it is like you read about. I used to like his strength and determination. I used to like that he was a solid leader in our home and church. I have always been proud of how he has taken leadership positions at church. He takes his faith seriously, and I like that."
"But, at home he can be a bit overwhelming?" I asked.
"I feel like I am going crazy in my marriage. I feel like I am suffocating in my own house and can’t stand it anymore. I can’t have my own thoughts. I can’t disagree with him without him telling me how my ideas are wrong. I am always feeling judged."
"What exactly does your husband do to make you feel this way?" I asked.
"You know. I don’t know exactly. It just seems like he has an answer for everything. He tells me the ‘right way’ to do things," she said raising a pointed finger. "He has to be right. But, what drives me the craziest is when he tells me that I am wrong in how I discipline our daughters, or the way I balance my checkbook."
"So, he corrects you and makes you feel bad for your choices?"
"Oh yeah. He does that all the time. He even finishes my sentences for me, or criticizes me for something I might do even before I do it."
"Your husband seems to have strong opinions about things, Cathy. There is nothing inherently wrong with that. It is when we force those opinions onto others that we get into trouble. It is when we take our judgments and put them onto others that cause the damage."
Cathy sat quietly for a moment.
"How have you tried to talk to Paul about your feelings?"
"Well, I have complained to him again and again, but he doesn’t change. After talking to our pastor, he did say he was willing to come in for counseling to save our marriage. I guess I am wondering from you if there is any chance for us. I feel so resentful toward him."
"There is good news, and bad news, Cathy," I said, smiling. "The bad news is that a lot of water has gone under the bridge. You are very resentful and his judgments seem to have taken a toll on you. The good news is that with an intervention, where you both change, feelings can change for the better. Are you willing to do some work with him in counseling?"
"I have a lot invested in this marriage, and we are strong Christians who don’t want to give up."
I met with Paul and Cathy over the next several months. We explored the dangers of playing God in your marriage. We looked closely at what that looks like and how to correct it. Consider if any of these God-playing patterns are taking place in your marriage.
• Telling your mate how they should think;
• Telling your mate how they should act;
• Using coercive communication to get your way;
• Being dogmatic in your opinions;
• Quoting scripture as a way to change your mate’s mind or behavior;
• Failing to validate your mate’s point of view and their right to have it.
Reflect on how you talk to your mate about issues. Do you allow them to think independently? Do you allow them to disagree with you without getting defensive and upset? Do you try to change their mind on issues?
The scriptures admonish us to not judge others, unless we are willing to be judged as well. We are also told by the Apostle Paul to "defer to one another in love," (Ephesians 5: 21) voluntarily submitting to one another out of love and respect. Although objective truths are certainly a part of the Christian faith -- and there are times when we need to gently correct our spouses -- we still need to give our spouses room to exercise their own free will.
Instead of using these coercive, resentment-building tactics, try sharing your point of view on issues and claim them as your own! Create a safe place where it is all right to have differing points of view. Practice stating your preferences — just one possible view on the world, not demanding your mate think the way you do.
Be extremely cautious about using terms such as "good and bad," and "right and wrong" in the context of your marriage. These are emotionally loaded, moralistic words and they leave little room for acknowledging that there may be many different, acceptable ways of doing something. Offer grace and space to each other’s individuality and you’ll notice a new freedom enter your relationship. Blessings as you practice these marriage-building strategies.
Editor's Note: Do you need sound, Biblically-based advice on an issue in your marriage or family? Dr. David will address two questions from Crosswalk readers in each weekly column. Submit your question to him at [email protected].
This article was adapted from Nine Critical Mistakes Most Couples Make (Harvest House Publishers, 2005).
Dr. David B. Hawkins is a Visiting Professor at International Christian University and specializes in interpersonal relationship counseling as well as domestic violence and emotional abuse in relationships. He has been a frequent guest on Moody Radio Mid-day Connection, Focus on the Family, and At Home Live. You can visit his website at www.YourRelationshipDoctor.com.