This is the tenth 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.
You Must Not Whither
In most conversations when you respond well, there is an emotional affirmation that follows – you sense that there is hope. In a conversation with a chronically self-centered spouse, “healthy” is most often met with derision or some other form of displeasure.
There is a cycle that develops. You walk away from a conversation that went badly, reflect, and try to find a healthier way to engage. For a while, you come up with better alternatives that you believe might work. You try to implement your new approach only to get a similar response.
As this cycle continues you feel stupid, defeated, and begin to believe that maybe you really are the central problem. Often the spouse begins to be deeply torn between wanting to know what else he/she could do to help the marriage and feeling cynical / fearful / blamed by any alternatives offered.
The first step out of this relational-emotional storm is to be able to remain calm in the face of your spouse’s displeasure. The common responses are:
- Fearful – Believing that your spouse’s displeasure means that you’ve done something wrong.
- Angry – Perceiving the falseness of your spouse’s reaction and wanting to battle for the truth.
- Callous – Realizing that your response will not be the deciding factor in whether these moments are different.
But “calm” is not fearful, angry, or callous. Calm is unsurprised and unrushed. Calm realizes that an “answer” to an accusation is not the solution. Calm does not feel the pressure to please someone who does not want to be pleased. Calm is waiting to care when and if caring can be received.
Ultimately, calm is a mirror. Whereas fear, anger, and callousness put the focus on you, calm puts the focus on the one who is upset. Fear, anger, and callousness get wrapped up in trying to rebuttal or prove the setup. Calm waits and is content not to answer if doing so only feeds the moment (Prov. 26:4-5). Fear, anger, and callousness cause us to whither – exhausted, hopeless, and numb. Calm remains able to care when it is wise to do so.
The question is, “How do I remain ‘calm’ when my spouse is displeased with me?” The key phrase is “with me.” With a chronically self-centered spouse, you must realize they are not primarily displeased with you. You are merely the most frequent context for their displeasure. They are trapped in themselves and you just happen to be the person who lives nearest to their cage.
This realization should allow for a level of compassion that does not need to become a sense of responsibility. The lock to their self-centered cage is on the inside. While they rail at you for their misery, you do not have access to the latch. In fleeting tender moments, your spouse may have admitted as much. These moments are glimmers of genuine hope.
As you become convinced of this picture of your spouse’s misery, you can – by God’s grace – patiently wait for those moments of clarity. Those are the only moments when speaking into your spouse’s displeasure will do any good. Until those moments come, you rest in the knowledge that God calls you not to cast your pearls before pigs or feed wild dogs.
When the people outside your spouse’s cage quit trying to unlock it, but do not quit caring, then that is the best context for conviction to come. Read I Peter 3:1-6 in light of this picture. Conviction must come before the gospel can bring freedom. Like every other person your spouse must die to self before he/she will know the freedom of true life (Luke 9:23-24). Your role is to rest in these truths and surround yourself with a godly, wise support network while you pray for your spouse to surrender to God.