This is the twelfth post in a sixteen part series on “Marriage with a Chronically Self-Centered Spouse.” In the posts nine through twelve we will examine guidelines for how to live at peace with a self-centered spouse “as far as it depends on you ” (Rom. 12:18). These are not prescriptions with the promise of a better marriage, but wisdom principles that will allow you to inject as much peace into a situation as your spouse will allow.
Talking About the Past
Discussing the past is a classic Catch-22 with a chronically self-centered spouse. If the past is not brought up then, the self-centered spouse treats each moment as if it had no history (i.e., no reason for you to be afraid, upset, bracing, etc…). If the past is brought up, then you are “being unforgiving and nothing is going to get better as long as you only focus on the negative, especially parts of history we can’t change.”
The book of Proverbs provides excellent guidance for these lose-lose moments in life, “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes (26:4-5).” We learn from this passage that there is no one right way to respond to someone who isn’t humble or self-aware enough to receive the truth.
But this passage does not allow this “realism” to result in cynical, hopeless silence. We are directed to speak up (at times) in the face of folly. There are two guiding principles for when we should speak.
- Are we in emotional self-control or will we descend into foolish speech (v. 4)?
- Is there reason to believe there is a window of humility for our words to be received (v. 5)?
While these principles do not apply specifically to discussing the past, they do provide direction on when it is worth this conversational risk that is necessary for sustainable, long-term improvement in the marriage. In this post, we will assume you are in a moment when the two criteria are met and it is wise for you to speak.
Emphasize the pattern over the event. Events cannot be changed; patterns can. It is easy, especially when we are upset or offended, for our examples to drown out our point. When this happens, accusations of bitterness are harder to refute and you become a distraction from your message.
What does this sound like? Lead with a description of the pattern (i.e., “This is another example of refusing the basic transparency that allows for a healthy marriage.”). If the statement is met with a counter-attack (i.e., “Well, then why don’t you tell me about [blank]?), then it is unlikely that criteria two is being met.
If a seemingly honest question is asked, then the strongest single example should be given (i.e., “I do not have access to your personal cell phone account even though you used that phone to arrange your affair and said I would have access to your on-line call history.”). If the conversation cannot stick on that subject, then both criteria one and two will soon be violated.
If the conversation does remain on subject, then don’t get lost in the example. You can get cell phone access and not have a better marriage or peace of mind. The point was transparency emanating from the pursuit of a healthy marriage. If the point is maintained, then express more appreciation for the humility and cooperativeness than access to the ongoing phone records.
Likely in this conversation the subject of forgiveness will arise. Forgiveness for an ongoing, chronic sin does not involve a “clean slate” of trust. That would actually be unloving (not to mention impossible). Willingness to work on restoration is a powerful example of the presence of forgiveness in a chronically self-centered marriage.
However, when this debate begins it is another sign that criteria two has been violated. The time of productive conversation is likely coming to a close. If there seems to be some window of humility remaining, then differentiating forgiveness (relinquishing bitterness) and restoration (working towards making something what it once was or was intended to be) may be advisable.
Regardless, at this point, you need to begin to prepare yourself to disengage the conversation and praying for the next opportunity for a fruitful conversation. Otherwise you will quickly violate criteria one and become a distraction from what you desire to see accomplished.