One of the things I point out in both premarital counseling and marriage counseling is that sometimes the reason for trouble in paradise is that expectations are messed up from the beginning. Here’s what I mean: I ask John and Suzy, how did you know how to treat one another before you were married? You were a boyfriend, and you were a girlfriend. Where did your roles come from? Usually, they tell me they learned it from the air they breathed. They had friends who were dating, they dated a lot, they had a lot of practice, they watched movies and TV. That boyfriend/girlfriend thing is pretty simple.
So, I ask him, John, where did you get the idea of how to be a husband? Well, from my father, of course. He’s the closest person to me who is a father. And then to Suzy, I ask, and where did you get your expectations for how a husband is supposed to act? She says, from my father. Like John, my father is the closest husband that I know of. So I say, so John you are in some sense responding to your father when you act as a husband to Suzy? And He says, Yes. I guess I am. I liked some things, so I imitate him in those. I didn’t like other things, so I do the opposite of what he does. And based on my observations of him, I have come up with some of my own ideas. But at the end of the day, my ideas about how to be a husband come from my father. So, I ask both of them, so John you are being like your father and Suzy, John isn’t being like what you were expecting a husband to be like, based on your father? Do you see a potential problem here?
Then, I say to the couple, so, Suzy, where did you get your ideas about how to be a wife? Suzy says, well I watched my mother be a wife for a number of years and like John with his father, there were things I liked and things I didn’t like. But overall, I suppose I am the outworking of my mother. And John, where did you get your expectations for what a wife ought to be like? John answers, well I watched my mother be a wife and I suppose I was expecting Suzy to be more like my mother. So, I say, your mothers weren’t alike. Suzy, you are being like your mother and John you are expecting Suzy to be like your mother, they aren’t the same mother. I wonder if that explains some of your problems.
Now, let’s move on to the next level. John, now that you have children, your role has changed a little bit from simply a husband to a father. Do you see where I’m going with this? You know how to be a father because you watched your father and Suzy, you expect John to be a father like your father was a father. But they aren’t the same father. So, your practice and your expectations are all mixed up. And when we move to mothers, we have the same problems.
In all, then you both are trying to be husband and wife and father and mother based on two people the that the other person doesn’t really know. And you are expecting things that the other isn’t and can’t give because the one they are reacting to isn’t the one you are comparing them to. Does this sound like a recipe for disaster?
If both sets of parents were wonderful parents, Suzy and John would have a pretty good chance that their assumptions about marriage and family would be a little bit smoother. But if the parents weren’t good examples, or John and Suzy didn’t have both parents, or they had step parents, you can see how things would be incredibly difficult and tangled.
Okay, that explains a lot about why the couple is having so many problems and for how bizarre they often seem to be. But where does the couple go from here? The good thing, as I’ve said before, is that God takes us from where we are, not from where we ought to be. This couple and others can start over. They can rededicate themselves to one another, confess the sin they’ve done to one another, forgive one another, and start over.
I suggest starting over will look like: I ask that the couple work through a book like, Reforming Marriage, by Douglas Wilson, or Strengthening Your Marriage, by Wayne Mack. The reason I picked these books is because they are really good books on marriage and because Wayne’s book has study questions in it, and I’ve written study questions for Doug’s book. I ask the couple to read each chapter, answer the questions, talk about their answers together, and then come back next week and talk with me about answers they differ on, or other topics that come up because of their discussion. I don’t expect that a couple will be completely problem free when they finish these books, but I do believe that acknowledging where and why they went off the rails is a great beginning. I also believe that working through the books, along with the help of Biblical counseling, together with an ever-closer walk with God will give them the tools they need to handle any problems that come up along the way.