Ten years ago, the movie Fireproof cracked the façades of fragile marriages and forced many of us to take an honest, reflective inventory of our relationships. I, for one, did not like what I saw in mine. I remember my husband and I both turning to each other at the end of the movie with tears in our eyes, dumbfounded that the screenwriters had seemingly captured so many elements of our current struggles.
For a time, this movie became an inspiration to us as we focused our efforts on actively healing and nurturing our relationship. And ten years later (still married, and still working on having a better marriage), I find myself watching the movie again and making note of some of the most important lessons presented.
The first lessons related to recognizing unhealthy patterns, and my top three are listed here:
1. Stop insisting on ‘your money’ and ‘my money’. Does this mean that spouses cannot, or should not, have separate accounts? Not necessarily. While joint banking accounts have traditionally represented a higher level of commitment and trust in a marriage, changing demographics and gender roles in today’s society do mean that those perceptions are changing. According to a recent article in The Atlantic Monthly, approximately 47% of paychecks in this country are earned by women, and today’s millennials are marrying or cohabitating later in life; both of these statistics translate into a higher level of independence and financial autonomy from both partners, which often makes it more difficult or unfeasible for partners to then ‘merge’ their finances.
However, the merging of finances is not just a matter of sharing a bank account. Many couples maintain separate accounts for unique purposes, yet still consider their finances jointly owned and controlled. Regardless of the number or types of accounts, it is the attitudes attached to them that can pose a danger to the intimacy of the relationship. A healthy relationship cannot be sustained when one partner feels that ‘their’ money is off limits to the other, or when one shuts the other out of important financial decisions.
If a relationship reflects this type of division in finances, it is a sign that work needs to be done to restore trust, collaboration, and true partnership.
2. Be wary of reactionary friends and family. As well-meaning as they may be, the friends and family who are quick to circle the wagons in your defense when you vent your frustrations with your partner may not be the wise counsel they appear to be. It feels good to have someone commiserate with you, but at what cost?
Venting allows for the presentation of one side of the story, and in a marriage, there are always two sides. We vent when we hurt, and we want those we vent to, ultimately, to defend us, protect us, and make us feel better, usually through agreement with our perspective. And this, says therapist Michelle Weiner-Davis, is a dangerous cycle.
“Their loyalty to you blinds them from seeing or understanding the context in which the marital problems have developed over time,” says Weiner-Davis in Psychology Today. “They fail to recognize how maybe, just maybe, your actions may have triggered your spouse to behave in undesirable ways.”
And that recognition of one’s own responsibilities is necessary in order to understand and address what is really causing the strife in the relationship. Partners should bring their frustrations directly to each other, which is how the process of dealing with the underlying issues can begin.
This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t count on friends, from time to time, for advice or encouragement. But it does mean that we don’t become partner-bashers. Becoming a partner-basher creates a false narrative of your relationship and can lead to isolation and rejection of your partner by friends and family.
You also should consider carefully the counsel given by your loved ones. Does it match your spiritual, ethical, and relational morals? Does it place the same value on the sanctity of your relationship as you do? And, ultimately, does it point you towards communication, compromise, and commitment to your partner, or does it work to breed or justify further friction?
3. Recognize pain in your partner, and stop when you see it. One of the most hurtful actions that a partner can inflict is to ignore or grow callous to pain in their partner. We should all know what pain looks like and how it manifests in our partners. For some, it could be silence or isolation. For others, it could be binge-eating, sarcasm, anger, high-risk behaviors, or even indifference. Recognizing the pain is the first step, but recognizing the pain means nothing if you do not take action to deal with the pain.
Seeing pain in your partner should stop your world. Loving partners do not minimize, ignore, or walk away from a hurting partner. Most of us would not think twice about reaching down and helping someone up who has tripped and fallen on the sidewalk, but we will ‘walk past’ our hurting partner time and time again because dealing with their pain is uncomfortable, inconvenient, or simply not a priority. Ignoring their pain, for some, can even be retaliation for not having one’s own past pain acknowledged. (For those who struggle for the right words, click here for some suggestions)
When that pain has been inflicted upon one partner by the other, it is especially important that the one who is hurting is treated with compassion and dignity, knowing that their partner will move every mountain necessary to ‘fix’ whatever needs to be fixed to bring the other back to peace and restore the relationship.
Acknowledging pain requires compassion and often humility, and the window to express these will eventually close if a callous partner turns away when their partner is hurting. Leaving a hurting partner to fight their way through pain alone will eventually lead to losing a partner emotionally, spiritually, and in some cases, permanently.
Do you see yourself or your partner in these scenarios? If so, you aren’t alone. The danger is not in confirming weaknesses in your relationship, but in ignoring them.
Ephesians 4:32: “Be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.”