(This is part two of the fourth topic in a series on the subject of balance. It being the holidays, we thought titling this series the gift of balance seemed appropriate. By “we,” I’m referring to the series contributors. Joining me in this series are Mark Stanifer and Tonya Waechter. At the end of this post are suggested resources on this topic.)
John: Besides making decisions together and balancing giving and getting, what other commitments are their between you and your spouse?
Tonya: The hard and fast commitment to the Lord is certainly there. But I also believe in the strong commitment to grace and forgiveness. You are going to hurt each other; it’s part of human nature. So a commitment to give each other grace and to forgive is very important as well.
John: Does that get easier?
Tonya: We’ve been married over 25 years. I do feel like we’ve found a certain rhythm. It’s interesting though, because it feels like we are coming back to the beginning-getting into emptynesting. We spent the first five years without children, so we had a lot of time together to hangout and be spontaneous. Now we are getting back to that. Parenting for us had different stressors because we saw the world so differently. So now flexing that muscle is a little easier.
Mark: I wish I could say it’s gotten easier for us. I still resist the apology. In fact, in some ways I’m more quick to give apologies to my kids than to my spouse. I don’t know what that is. My wife is always so graceful and forgiving. You would think with all the mistakes I’ve made and the opportunities I’ve had to apologize that it would get easier, yet there is still that resistance like, “I don’t won’t to have to admit that I made a mistake, that I could be wrong in this situation.” All those things are me, not really the relationship. Maybe that’s more rough edges that still need to be smoothed out. We both recognize the importance of it and offer it fairly freely to each other, but it’s the coming to ask for it part that still requires swallowing the pride and just apologize.
Tonya: I wouldn’t say that’s been an easier thing for either of us either, but it’s amazing how much better it feels when you do it. It’s so freeing but so hard to do. It’s true for a lot of people. It’s hard to humble ourselves. It’s probably even harder for those of us in helping professions. We are supposed to know better. For me it was, I mean come on, I’m the therapist. I’m supposed to do everything right. That’s just not the case. We’re all human. We’re all going to have issues. My favorite saying has always been, “Everybody has issues and the one who says they don’t have issues is a liar and that’s one of their issues. “ Acknowledging that is not always easy.
John: I know when forgiveness is challenging for me-not to ask for it but to give it-what I’ve learned about myself revolves around my expectations. Number one, I have unmet expectations of that person. Number two, my expectations were mine, they weren’t theirs. A lot of times I made up the expectations; we never talked about it, and they didn’t live up to it. All of that right there is on me. And the more I can look at it, “This is more your fault than their fault. You’re going to need to work on your own perception of them and lower it,” there’s where the grace comes in. I have to work at looking at them the same way God does. I can’t have a higher standard than he does.
My challenge has been more about giving the forgiveness than asking for it, for that reason, which is a very judgmental perception. I grew up with that, so it’s innate in me. I’m very quick to judge, very quick to create unagreed-upon expectations. Those are my things I have to deal with, not theirs. And I’ve learned I need to say that to them. “I created an expectation here that we didn’t talk about, and we didn’t agree upon. I am sorry for doing that.” And for me, by the time you get to that stage, I’ve usually totally forgotten about the thing that I was irritated by. “I don’t even remember what we are upset about here.” The core issue is that our relationship is built on some shifting sand.
Tonya: Expectations are huge. I love that my husband’s first question when I brought this up to him was, “What do you mean by balance?” Our expectations may be different. I think we have to talk through our expectations. “What does vacation look like? What does time together look like?” Not clarifying that is a big issue and gets a lot of people.
Mark: The antidote to that is just communication. And not just communication like what’s on the to-do list, but deeper communication. Going deeper into other issues is critical and healthy, and will relieve some of the pressure of these unmet expectations. Creating the dialogue where you can talk about it is how relationships grow. It’s critical.
Tonya: Communication is the number one thing that couples come into counseling for. They say, “We need to improve our communication,” which usually means, “We fight alot.” There’s that balance of understanding we are different and we communicate differently. I like to tell the story of me and my husband. I have a lot of words and he has very few. So when I would ask him questions, I had to learn to be quiet, bite my tongue, and sit for a long time because it would take him a while to formulate the words he wanted to share. I had to learn patience. He didn’t talk like my dad; my dad’s a talker. My husband is not. So I had to learn to accept him for who he is and give him that room.
John: So how has communication grown from when your first were married to now, twenty years later?
Tonya: In order to communicate well you have to make time. The idea you can have quality relationship without quantity is just false. You have to make time. This comes back to how you balance time in your marriage. I like the work of Joyce and Cliff Penner. They talk a lot about the intimacy in a marriage. They say that you need to have some eye-to-eye contact every day, whether that is hugging, embracing, even if it is just for a few minutes together. They are also committed to praying together. So they focus on spiritual, emotional, and physical contact every day. They talk also about weekly time as a couple. I tell the couples I’m working with to find at least two to three hours a week that is just them. Then that talk about once a quarter getting away together for a full day, then they talk about once a year going on a vacation just the two of you. All those things are super important. Time together helps build that communication.
Mark: I asked my wife for her thoughts on this topic last night, and she came back to a couple of things that have been present with us. The first is being intentional, which is exactly what you’re saying. That’s a word that we use all the time, sometimes as a reminder, sometimes as an encourager. The other thing she said was more comical. She said, “Remember when our kids were toddlers, and we couldn’t even communicate in complete sentences because of getting interrupted by screams, or something on the floor, or food flying across the table? We couldn’t get a sentence out without being interrupted.” That was difficult, but it comes back to being intentional to maintain the balance. Now the difficulty is it’s just different. As you progress through life together, the needs change. Now we need to steal away together because our kids are older, they stay up later, and there’s not as many quiet places in the house that we can go. It just changes, and you have to be able to dance with it.
Tonya: Those young years are some of the hardest and have the biggest strain on a marriage. I have vivid memories of my husband walking in the door from work, and all three of us being on the floor crying. Those were tough days. We also didn’t have the financial means to get away. But the intentionality was being there together. He came home, took over, gave me a break, and we were together in the kitchen with kids on our feet. Finding those moments in those years is possible.
Mark: The thought I have always used is maintaining a relationship is a lot like exercise. It doesn’t happen on its own. If you don’t do it, you atrophy. If you are doing it, you have to keep it up. It’s not a one-and-done thing.
Tonya: I want to reemphasize the power of commitment. My parents were divorced multiple times along with other family members; that was my example. My husband comes from a family with no divorces. So we made a commitment that divorce was not an option. Leaving was off the table.
John: Mark, when you compare this to exercise, I immediately think of goal setting. So, I’m curious if goal setting is helpful, and how do you do it if it is.
Mark: That hasn’t been part of our equation. It is a little bit how we are wired. For us it comes back to two things. Number one, we were and are best friends. We had a long dating period and were able to develop a friendship that is just phenomenal. We’ve continued to maintain that friendship. There is a natural desire and draw because of the depth of the friendship. The other thing is going back to the commitment and intentionality of making this work. We recognize that if we don’t there could be pretty tragic consequences, and we don’t want that. We don’t want to let it get to the point that it’s on life support either; then it’s not benefiting either of us.
Tonya: I don’t know if it’s a goal or not, but we made the decision that we were going to be first. We were not only going to be able to say our priorities but walk our priorities. In the last five years, maybe we have some unwritten goals. We’ve talked about life after kids, things we’d like to do. Travel is a big things for both of us, so how do we set our finances up for that to happen. Neither of us relish the idea of retiring and setting around the house all day; that’ll never happen. My husband has some vision for mission work and different things, so those are goals to set up life that we haven’t necessarily sat down and written it out on paper.
Mark: One last thing about this topic I’d like to bring up is space for “me time.” I’ve become more aware of this importance. It maybe more personality driven, but I definitely need time away from the kids and my spouse. It can take various forms in order for me to recharge, reset, unplug from some of the responsibilities. Recognizing and taking the opportunity helps maintain balance.
John: I’ve always maintained as a single person and in talking with other singles who may not be happy in their singles status, “If you can’t be happy in this status, I’m not so sure you’re going to be happy in a marital one. You better be able to figure out how to be happy in this state so you don’t bring stuff into a marriage that doesn’t need to be there.”
Tonya: Figuring out what “me time” looks like is key. I remember asking my husband, “Is there a night a week I can go away and do something that I would like to do?” And the same for him. That was important and gave us something to look forward to.
John: That relates to something I wanted to bring out from a singleness versus couple basis. I believe single people have to come to terms with living life outside of the expectations they believe others have of them to be like. I had to really work on it, and probably didn’t find the balance until about ten years ago, my late thirties. I finally stopped saying yes to things out of the mindset that an invitation to something meant I had to do it. Just because I may come across to some people as an extrovert doesn’t mean I am one and therefore must be one or continuously function as one. That took me a while, and I’m going to guess it probably takes single people longer than married couples. They don’t have to deal with this challenge under their roof. I can do what I want at home and don’t have to figure this out with my spouse. A couple is forced into figuring this out. A single person is going to be much more balanced if they just own who they are and not try to live in the mindset, “Everybody expects me to do this, so I must need to do this.”
Tonya: It comes back to that expectation thing again. So we all have to get to that place of living for an audience of one. How do we put God first? We’re all constantly learning and growing in that area. You’re right, I think it is more of a challenge for a single person. My husband who is an introvert and has to have time away, I can notice when he’s getting frazzled. I can say, “It seems you need a little break here.” We can see that in each other. A single person has to monitor that on your own. Of course, the Holy Spirit can speak to you and help you be okay with the possibility of someone being mad at you for not meeting their expectations.