To plant a garden is to have weeds. That's the way it goes. They appear overnight, staring up defiantly and threatening to take over the flower bed we have so carefully planted.
My wife is always very wary when I begin one of my manic onslaughts on the weeds, for ignorance coupled with frustration and haste can produce quite a mess. She is usually at hand to point out, "Honey that's an herb, not a weed!" However, even with these necessary cautions, I know of only one way to deal with weeds: pull them immediately, ruthlessly, and consistently.
As in our garden, so, too, in our marriages.
Not all weeds are ugly. In fact, sometimes they make an attractive addition to the plant life. But we cannot be seduced by their attraction. They must come out or we will regret it. Neglect will find our gardens overgrown in no time at all, and in need of a major work project, usually involving outside help.
There are obviously many weeds that can threaten a marriage garden. Here are three of the most common.
Weed #1: Taking each other for granted
I was the guest of a family in Australia, and we had just finished our meal. In the absence of a dishwasher (a mechanical one, that is), I volunteered to help with the task. In declining my offer, the young wife assured me that it would be taken care of by her husband, Lionel. Then she turned and said, "Oh, Lionel loves doing the dishes, don't you, Lionel?"
Neither she nor I was prepared for Lionel's response and the underlying sense of bitterness that accompanied it: "No, I don't enjoy doing the dishes." He then made clear that the reason he had been doing the dishes ever since they had been married (some 12 years) was because of his frustration with the way his wife cleaned the house.
Her assumption had been all wrong, and Lionel had never discussed the matter with her in a constructive manner. I spent the remainder of my stay trying to help this young couple pull some large weeds from their marital garden.
Not every situation is as serious as this one, but each couple must learn to eliminate the selfishness that is often at the root of taking one another for granted. Husbands, for example, are called to live in consideration of their wives. They must ensure that the passing of time and familiarity with routine does not deaden their sense of wonder and awe for the immense privilege of waking up each morning next to this woman who is an express gift of God.
We can check how well we are doing in this area by listening to ourselves talk. How often do we use the words, "Thank you" or "I appreciate you" or "I can't do without you"? We might check to see when we last sent a special card or flowers or came home early so that they could have some time of their own free from other responsibilities.
If you find that you have been ignoring a taking-my-spouse-for-granted weed, pull it up right now and fill the gaping hole with flowers of appreciation or thoughtful words of gratitude. If you are stuck for words, close your eyes and imagine what you would have said in your courting days. Digging deep into that well will bring up sweet water.
Weed #2: The comparison trap
Over dinner, a wife tells her husband, "I was over having coffee with Jean today, and she said her husband is teaching the men's Bible study, memorizing all of 2 Timothy, and considering an evening class at the local seminary." If you were the husband, wouldn't you fill in the inferred, unspoken conclusion: Why can't you be more like him?
The husband was well aware of his need to grow spiritually. In fact, as he had been driving home that very evening he had congratulated himself for maintaining a steady Bible reading program during the past month. That was the first time he had been so consistent. But his joy instantly evaporated as a result of his wife's unhelpful comparison.
Even more common are critical comments regarding physical characteristics. "I saw Jerry down at the courts. Now there's someone who has managed to keep a waistline!" Instinctively the husband sucks in his stomach and regrets the gradual increase of his belt size. It may even be worse when the wife is on the receiving end of a husband's comparison. Some insensitive men use anorexic, waiflike supermodels as a standard by which they compare all other women. A much better strategy is found in the wisdom of Solomon:
May you rejoice in the wife of your youth. A loving doe, a graceful deer—may her breasts satisfy you always, may you ever be captivated by her love. Why be captivated, my son, by an adulteress? Why embrace the bosom of another man's wife? (Proverbs 5:18-20)
Solomon's challenge is to rejoice in the wife of your youth, not a wife who looks like a youth. Faithfulness across years brings a deepening sense of love and appreciation, but engaging in mental comparisons introduces seeds of disintegration.
This kind of love and encouragement can only come about when we resist the temptation to compare our spouses unfavorably with others in terms of body, mind, and spirit. Such comparisons are weeds that can strangle even the best of relationships.
Weed #3: Ignoring common sense boundaries
If it has not already become an axiom in your marriage, then make it one as of today: Do not take someone of the opposite sex into precincts that are the exclusive domain of your spouse.
When a man tells me he "communicates" far better with the lady in the office than he does with his wife, the danger signals are flashing. It's eye-opening to hear how often an extramarital affair begins with casual conversation around the water cooler, while having coffee together, or in some other "innocent" arena. Yet any time one person takes a discussion into new levels of intimacy beyond what he or she shares with a spouse, the weed sprouts and begins to bloom.
The prevalence of women in the workplace has made a direct impact on the number of extramarital affairs. Job influences are crucial simply because much of one's week is spent with business associates. That prolonged and regular contact may easily lead to dangerously close associations. Unless one draws clear limits to his associations and resolves not to transgress those limits, he will naturally drift towards companionships that could harm him and his marriage. The businessman, like the preacher, should heed Paul's advice: "Treat the younger women as sisters" (1 Timothy 5:2). No sounder approach is possible.
Who says marriage has to be this way?
The ever-increasing percentages of failed marriages should indicate that secular society's approach to marriage, with its lack of absolutes, is not working. A significant number of movies and television shows have challenged the institution of marriage under the disguise of humor. It is important now, as in every age, that we learn the times in which we are living so that we can avoid its temptations and challenge its proud assertions. Many of the things that are accepted as natural—perhaps even beautiful—are nothing more than weeds.
No matter how much effort goes into the preparation and planting of a garden, it will all be in vain if the weeds are not dealt with. Let us then resolve to tackle them immediately, ruthlessly, and consistently.
Adapted from Lasting Love: How to Avoid Marital Failure by Alistair Begg. Published by Moody Publishers. Copyright © 1997 by Alistair Begg. Used with permission.
You can listen to Alistair Begg talk more about how to make your marriage last in a recent FamilyLife Today interview.
Lasting Love by Alistair Begg
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Staying Close by Dennis and Barbara Rainey
Intimate Allies by Dan Allender and Tremper Longman