Husbands, wives and decisions
One of the hardest things to learn, for people embarking on the difficult enterprise of marriage, is decision-making.
It's easy to conceive of a marriage as a corporation, with a CEO who makes all the decisions, and a staff that carries them out. This looks attractive for the same reason that dictatorships always do: It's just so simple when there's one person in charge.
Simple, but miserable. For one thing, the lone decision-maker won't always be right. For another thing, the non-decision-makers will always be unhappy. How can there possibly be any joy in a relationship in which one person always gets his way, and the other one never does?
The real problem is that in a good marriage (as in a good corporation or a well-run nation), nobody should ever have a "way." When it starts to matter most to you who's in charge, you're on the road to disaster.
1. If nobody's bleeding and everybody's breathing, it probably isn't an emergency, and therefore you can wait to make a decision until you agree.
Back in the mid-1970s, before I got married, then-managing editor Jay Todd of the Ensign sent me to six cities across the country to interview people for a series of articles about marriage and family.
One of the wisest couples I met during that tour told me something about how a husband presides in the home, which I have tried to use in my own marriage. They had explained that Section 121 is the perfect guide -- the husband leads only by persuasion.
"But what if you can't agree?" I asked.
"Then we don't decide until we do," they said.
"But what if it's an emergency?" I persisted.
"We haven't had a lot of emergencies in our marriage," they said. "And when it's really an emergency, we both agree instantly. 'You call 911 while I do CPR!' Who's going to waste time arguing in a real emergency?"
2. No pouncing.
Just because you know how your spouse is going to finish a sentence doesn't mean you shouldn't listen to the whole thing. Too often, we listen to our partner as if we were high school debaters, waiting only until we can find something wrong with their words and ... pounce.
How many times does your first response to your beloved consist of saying, "That idea can't possibly work because ..."?
Now, there's nothing wrong with that when it's not a matter of opinion. "We can't have dinner at that restaurant because it's out of business." You're simply supplying information the other person didn't have.
But far more often, we fling out negatives by habit. An idea comes up, and we immediately think of what's wrong with it.
Within a marriage, your first response should be to think, "Why is this idea attractive to my beloved? What is she (or he) trying to achieve? What problem is he (or she) trying to solve with this idea?" You can even say this out loud -- provided your tone is sincere instead of challenging.
3. Men, be men; women, be women.
I've read a lot of advice books that explain to men why the typical male response to a woman's complaints is all wrong. "Women don't want you to come up with solutions, they want you to say, 'Poor baby,' and sympathize."
Here's the real world: Women shouldn't marry men in order to have another girlfriend, and men shouldn't expect their wives to be one of the guys.
It's a good idea for a husband to hear out his wife's explanation of her problems, murmuring words of sympathy until she has said it all. But it's also a perfectly sound idea, if some part of her problem seems soluble, to say, "I think there's something we could do about this one thing."
If all you ever do is express sympathy, then you're not doing your duty to help and counsel with your spouse. In fact, you may be creating a feedback loop that leads to despair.
Of course, some people are unable to give advice without including, in tone if not in words, "you idiot." A solution offered as being so obvious that only a bonehead could have missed it is an attack.
A much better approach, when offering a suggestion, is to say, "I think this might work. What do you think?"
4. If the other person shows emotion, you cannot.
The more emotional your spouse is, the calmer you need to be, especially if your spouse's emotions are negative -- and directed at you.
Anger answered with anger only increases, until terrible things are said and both spouses start to wonder how they ever ended up married to an enemy.
But anger answered with calmness -- infuriating as it might sometimes be, for a moment -- is like a wave crashing against stone. Be the stone. Bear all that is said, and say inside your heart -- or with your lips -- "I love you so much that I can hear this without forgetting how important you are to me."
Your primary objective, when anger is present, is to say nothing that will continue to hurt the other person after this particular argument is over.
Section 121, verses 41-44, offers a complete guide to decision-making in a marriage: Lead by persuasion. Be patient by allowing your spouse to disagree with you for a long time without having to force a resolution. Find the gentlest way to say hard things. Be meek enough to hear hard things without anger or resistance, and then consider them carefully.
Do not pretend to love, really love, which means putting your spouse's happiness ahead of getting your own way -- way ahead.
Be kind: look for ways you can serve your spouse's needs and desires.
Don't offer arguments just because they come into your mind -- take the time to make sure you're actually right before declaring the other person wrong. When you advance a line of thought, make sure it consists of "pure knowledge" rather than your visceral opinions.
Never be hypocritical by pretending to be dispassionate or rational when in fact you're just trying to get your way. Nor is there room in a marital disagreement for tricks, traps, half-truths, or deliberate misreadings of your beloved's statements, just so you can "win."
Sometimes in a marriage you do have to say things the other person doesn't want to hear. But the "sharpness" mentioned by the Lord in his words to Joseph Smith refers to clarity, not anger. "I think you have made a mistake in this precise way," you may need to say.
But you do this when the Spirit of God suggests it to you -- which means never in anger or vengeance or to counter a sharp, clear reproof that has been offered to you. "Oh, you think I was wrong to do this? Well what about when you did that!" That's how children and politicians argue. There's no room for that in marriage.
And the moment you have offered that clear reproof, you show greater tenderness, affection, caring, kindness, gentleness, and service than ever, so your spouse can see visible evidence that it was love, not anger or contempt, that offered that reproof.
Good marriages have disagreements, and they don't have to be hidden away or denied. You don't have to be a doormat by giving in on issues that matter to you -- as long as you don't try to compel your spouse to give in, either.
Before you speak a word of disagreement with your spouse, especially if you feel angry, you should reach out your hand and say, with your lips and in your heart, "Your happiness and our marriage are both more important to me than anything we ever disagree about."
Copyright © 2010 by Orson Scott Card
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