When Cathy and I first got married, we would go out with friends or be invited to parties and, as an extrovert, I was excited. It didn’t take me long to meet everyone in the room as I’d easily move from person to person having superficial conversations which fueled my energy tank at the same time (classic extrovert). Cathy, an introvert, was drained by those types of interactions. She was happy to attend, but once we got there, we were night and day (or Mars and Venus). She didn’t move about the room and schmooze at ease. She usually wound up spending the whole night talking with one or two people in a quieter location. Blah! Can you say “Boring”? To me, that was not how you approach being at a social event. On our drive home, I’d ask, “What was wrong with you tonight?” Being caught off guard, she would say, “What do you mean?” I’d quickly reply, “Well it didn’t look like you were having much fun. You didn’t meet most of the people there.” In my immaturity, I was really thinking, “How rude of you not to meet everyone like I did.” Then my insecurity would bubble up, and I’d think to myself, “If she would be just a little friendlier, she would be a better representation of who I am.” Yikes! In other words, “If you talk more, people might think you are friendlier, and that would make me look better.” I know what you’re thinking … what an insecure, selfish jerk. You’re right. I wanted to pull her away from the wall into my active, extroverted arena and show off my dance partner while she wanted to dance to her own style of music. I hate to admit this, but earlier in our marriage, I was 100% confident that my style was the right style and that Cathy would be happier if she were more extroverted like me. I’m sure I viewed introversion as a character flaw. Again, I know–what a jerk.
When you try to change your spouse to be more like you, it sends a message titled rejection. You may not verbally say, “I reject you,” but what your spouse hears is, “I reject your personality, your individuality, and basically how God created you. I don’t like you for who you are.” When your spouse feels rejected by you–his/her heart pulls away from you. Here’s a helpful marriage principle to remember: the heart is repelled from that which rejects it. If you have been dropping hints for him/her to change, if you’ve been shaming your spouse for not being more like you, if you’ve been passive/aggressive when he/she does something in a way that you wouldn’t do–that’s rejection. You’re rejecting the very person you are intended to love more deeply than anyone alive. If that’s you, you’re enhancing the drift in your marriage journey. Your spouse is pulling away from you because he/she feels the sting of rejection from you. You may not see it as rejection because you view it as coaching or helping or guiding him/her to be better (which usually means to be “more like you”). In addition to apologizing, you will want to move from the posture of rejecting to the action of respecting.
Fast forward my above scenario to today. Cathy would testify that I am so different in my understanding and appreciation of her differences. Guess what? She didn’t change at all. I did. I made the very needed course corrections. When I realized that I was damaging her heart by trying to get her to be more like me, I confessed my selfishness and immaturity and begged her for forgiveness. I came to better understand that we are divinely designed to be different. These days, I want to be more like Cathy. She has so many amazing qualities that have emerged from her unique personality. She has a calmness that is so attractive. She cares deeply for people and isn’t running off to the next conversation. Her pace of life is slower than mine, and I’m drawn to her “chill” attitude–she rarely ever gets bent out of shape. She knows Jesus and walks with Him daily and is secure in her identify as a child of God. I’m blown away by how amazing she is, and I’m equally blown away with how stupid I was in our early years of marriage in my attempts to try to make her more like me. Argh! So embarrassing.
If you want to keep your marriage on a solid foundation, you may need make a course correction and beg God to help you change your perspective. What if you began to view your spouse’s difference as a strength instead of a weakness? By embracing your spouse’s differences, you provide the greatest opportunity to communicate unconditional love. Unconditional love–to feel loved no matter what, without any condition–is the true longing of the heart. To be known and loved for who you are–no matter what–is a relationship miracle, and a key component of keeping your marriage strong.
(Adapted from the upcoming book, The First Few Years of Marriage, by Jim Burns and Doug Fields.)