Mudslinging and Marriage
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We all carry “mud” into our marriages. Carey and Toni Nieuwhof discuss what the “mud” really is and how to deal with it.
Mudslinging and Marriage
Carey: Ask your spouse today: “What would make this a good day for you?” I learned to ask that question; because, naturally sinful guy, I wake up, going, “What would make this a good day for me?” I have my whole little list: “Dah, dah, dah.” [Laughter]
But everybody in your house wakes up with: “What would make this a good day for me?” So I’m going to put my little “What would make this a good day for me?” in few hours, and then we’ll focus on how I can help Toni make sure it’s a good day for her.
Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on our FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife—
Okay, one of the things I don’t think we realized, when we got married—is we’re standing there before the pastor—I look perfect,—
Ann: You did look perfect.
Dave: —with my hair combed over/my bang. [Laughter] Anyway, it was just this great moment.
Ann: —magical day.
Dave: But if we could have seen, behind the veil, there were bags of luggage that were attached to us as we came into this marriage; right?
Ann: Yes; we had no idea how much we were actually bringing into our marriage of past hurt, pain—
Dave: You brought a lot more baggage than I did.
Ann: I probably did, honestly. [Laughter] And you had your share, as well. But I don’t think—
Dave: Actually, the truth is I brought a ton/a U-Haul®.
Ann: Yes; I don’t think any of us are aware of the impact that baggage from the past will affect our marriage in the present. Because nobody’s thinking, on their wedding day: “I bet this won’t work,” “I bet we’ll be miserable in a few years,” “I expect there’s a divorce in our future.”
Dave: But also, nobody realizes, I don’t think, on their wedding day how hard it’s going to be.
Dave: One of the best things we ever did—we didn’t even know how vital it would be at the time—is, two weeks before our wedding, we went to the Weekend to Remember®, FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember. It was a light bulb to say, “Oh, my goodness; this is going to be hard, but we have a plan.”
I’ve got to tell you something: this is a conference you can’t miss. It’s called the FamilyLife Weekend to Remember. We took COVID off; we couldn’t meet because of social distancing. But it’s back—not only can you go—you can go, half price, right now.
Ann: —which is amazing.
Dave: Yes; if you sign up right now, you can go half price. You can pick the getaway; you can pick the city you want to go to. Trust me, between Friday night and Sunday morning, you are going to get a plan that’s going to be one of the best things you’ve ever done for your marriage. This is for pre-marriage, for couples married five years, fifty years—you name it—it will help anybody. Here’s how you do it: go to FamilyLifeToday.com and sign up for a Weekend to Remember.
We’ve got a couple with us today that I just love. Carey and Toni Nieuwhof are joining us. Toni just released the book, not too long ago, called Before You Spilt, which is interesting because—well, first of all—let me just say, welcome to FamilyLife, guys. Glad to have you on with us.
Toni: Hey, it’s just so great to be with you.I’m thrilled to be here.
Carey: Love being with you guys. Thank you.
Dave: Yes; I tell you, when I saw your book, two things: one, I know Carey; so I knew a little bit of your story, but I didn’t know half of it until I started reading the book. It’s such a unique perspective, because you’re a divorce mediator. You’ve sat with couples; you know—
Ann: —Toni is.
Dave: Toni, you know the consequences. You know how it goes with families, so you have that perspective; so you can bring all that into it as well.
You’re married to a leader, a podcaster, a former pastor—a guy I listen to—Carey, I read your blog every single day. It’s life-changing; it’s powerful. I’ve pointed more people to your resources and your books because they’re just dynamite.
Ann: It’s so, so good; and he really/you really have impacted so many. Interestingly, you both have your law degrees.
Carey: It’s where we met, law school. We became friends; and a couple of months later, we started dating. From meeting to being engaged was nine months.
Carey: From meeting to being married was 18 months; and 18 months after we were married, we had our first son. All of that happened while we were in law school, trying to graduate.
We didn’t quite marry strangers, but it was close. You’re right; we brought all our unresolved baggage into that relationship.
Dave: Yes; you called it, in the book, if I’m right, you called it “mud” or “mud stories” that you bring in. Talk about that a little bit, because I’m guessing you didn’t realize the mud you were bringing in. What was the mud you were bringing into your marriage?
Toni: There was plenty of it. Carey and I got together, as we said, when we were in law school. I became a Christian just shortly before that without a lot of mentoring or insight. It wasn’t until several years into our marriage that I started to pick up clues that something wasn’t quite right.
At one point, we were on vacation with our oldest son; and I had this episode, where I just broke down and started weeping, and really didn’t know why. It wasn’t/there wasn’t any major factor/provocation. It was probably about 36 hours of misery; and then I sort of pulled myself back together, and we went home.
At that point, I realized I had a choice. I could either pay attention to what happened or just completely ignore it and life goes on. But at that point, I started to pay more attention to these emotions that seemed to go beyond the circumstances. I call them overkill emotions, where maybe Carey said something that was provocative—maybe at a level of a 2 or 3 out of 10—but my response is a 7 or a 9. Something’s going on with that.
It took some introspection—prayer, reading Scripture was part of this discovery process—and working with a Christian counselor to realize that there were these hidden lies that were beneath the surface—certainly I wasn’t aware of them—that were telling me things like: “I’m better off alone.” That showed up in the ways I was acting and behaving that were very self-protective. It became obvious, over time, that I didn’t trust anyone.
That wasn’t the only one. I’ve also come to realize that I was believing things like: “My voice doesn’t matter,” and “I deserve to be invisible.” Yes, that’s what I’m calling mud; but you could also call it “wounds” or “baggage.”
Dave: I think—you tell me if it’s true in your marriage—I found that it’s really easy for me to see the mud in Ann; [Laughter] I could see all her baggage. I had a really hard time seeing mine, even when she would point it out, which is her gift to me. She said to me one day, “I am God’s Holy Spirit to your life.”
Ann: I’ve never said that. [Laughter]
Ann: No; I said, “I’m your helper. I help the Holy Spirit,”—that’s what I said—“I help the Holy Spirit.”
Carey: “Doesn’t feel like help to me”; right? [Laughter]
Ann: That’s what he said. [Laughter]
Dave: But the question would be: “How do you see your own mud?” Because it’s easier to see somebody else’s, but to look in a mirror and identify it.
Carey: I saw Toni’s like crazy. I spent a long time—and I did the same thing—I went to counseling; because Toni was speaking, like the Holy Spirit, and gave me an ultimatum; and basically said, “You go to counseling, or this isn’t going to end well.”
When I was about 31—I got married when I was 25—when I was 31, I went to counseling. I spent the first hour of counseling complaining about Toni and just: “She does this…” and “She does this…” and “She doesn’t do this…” and “I’m so frustrated; can you please validate me and correct her?”
My counselor—his name was Jim—he just said to me, “Well, Carey, now that we’re done talking about Toni, can we talk about you?” That’s when I began to realize and start to unpack that, somewhere along the line, when I was a kid, I confused love with performance and that, basically, if I behaved well and I produced good results, it forgave pretty much everything. Of course, that’s not biblical; that’s not how people respond.
I’ve also realized, and I’m still working on this, I have a fear of intimacy; that I’m not good with really close relationships. We moved a lot when I was a kid; maybe that was part of it. I remember being ten years old, and it was four schools in three years. I made a decision that I wasn’t going to make any more friends—dumb thing—but that’s what ten-year-olds do.
Turns out that we didn’t move a lot after that. All those people could have been my friends; but by that time, the wall was up. Put that in a marriage context, and that doesn’t go very well when you’re afraid of the person who is closest to you. I wasn’t afraid/afraid of Toni; but there was like, “I’m only going so far.”
Yes; I had those issues. Then my obsession with OCD, and environment, and order got really out of whack.
Dave: Let me ask this: “Toni, how did you deal with what Carey just said there?” It’s pretty deep about: “I had a fear of intimacy.” I guess I’m probably saying that, because I have the same fear. How did you deal with that in your marriage, because Carey just admitted a similar thing: “Was that a struggle?” “Did that change?” “What did that look like?”
Toni: I think that’s part of what we needed to go to counseling for: Carey’s tendency to fear intimacy and mine to not trust anyone. I’ve realized that my trust issues went deep enough to not even trusting God. I started to realize that: “Okay, in my brain, I absolutely want to follow Christ. I’m 100 percent sold on being a Christ-follower/being surrendered. But in my heart, nothing resonates/like nothing penetrates.”
I started asking questions like: “God, here I am following You; but where’s the love? Where’s the joy? Where’s the peace?” This emotional journey wasn’t—
Carey: Would you say you struggle with intimacy too?
Toni: Well, yes; that was my part of the struggle with intimacy; so we were a fine pair, the two of us.
Carey: —two emotional toddlers. [Laughter] “Great; how do you do a relationship with that?” I think, for me, just being open about it, it’s a question of feeling not judged—feeling accepted/feeling safe—that’s something I’m still working on.
People would say—if you follow my leadership stuff—it’s like: “Wow! Carey’s very transparent,” “He’s very open; he’s very real,” and that’s true. You would also get that at my house for dinner, if you were over, and we were hanging out.
But I think there are layers to intimacy. I would say, for me, you [Toni] know me better than anybody and you see me. It’s Keller’s understanding of the gospel: that the gospel is to be fully known and fully loved. What normally happens is: you say, “I want you to fully love me, so you can’t fully know me. Because if you knew this about me, then you wouldn’t love me.” So you just hide yourself.
I’ve had to learn—and Toni’s been the best teacher—we’ve gotten, I think, good at accepting each other. Then being a leader, I was always trying to fix my wife; right? “I fix problems all day long, so I’m going to fix you.” That is not a good strategy; uh-uh, terrible. [Laughter] Apparently, as you’ve told me many times, you do not need fixing. [Laughter] Is that true?
Ann: I think that’s the Holy Spirit’s job.
Carey: Wait; I thought you were the Holy Spirit, Ann.
Ann: I’m His helper.
Carey: Oh, you’re His helper! [Laughter]
Dave: One of the things, Toni, you said in the book, which I thought was very insightful, was when you step into your unprocessed wounds—or your mud, or your baggage, or whatever you bring in—when you started to do that, you started to realize, “I can no longer”—or you said—“I don’t blame Carey now for my unhappiness.”
Talk about that, because that’s a big insight. Because that’s what we do; we blame our unhappiness on our spouse or our marriage. You discovered something that’s life-changing, I think.
Toni: Yes; it was through that process of prayer, and really opening myself up to Jesus in the way David describes in Psalm 139, when he says, “Lord, see if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting [New International Version].”
I needed to take ownership really. I did have that blaming perspective, where: “If only you would stop being so upset about the state of the kitchen,” or “…so focused on the environment,” and “If you would step up as a co-parent, and pay more attention to us instead, then things would be so much better.” I was experiencing really dark moods at that point and exhaustion. I really was focused on Carey as the cause for those emotions.
But over time, as I prayed about it/as I listened to what my Christian counselor had to say, I started to recognize that: “No; there were layers to what was going on.” I was completely emotionally unprepared for marriage. I needed insight into how I managed my own emotions, let alone responded to or handled the emotions of other people.
Another layer to my exhaustion was just being isolated. Since I had that underlying belief that: “I’m better off alone,” I really had been functioning as if I was an island/as if I was the only one who would forge ahead and take control of my life. I wasn’t really being open or vulnerable with the friends that I had around me.
I had friends—I was hanging out with people, with other mothers—we would get together with our kids. I had friendships; but I wasn’t really talking about what was happening in my heart, in my life, in our marriage. Keeping those things to myself meant that, functionally, I was isolated. I had to come around and reach the point—where I saw that Father, Son and Holy Spirit—that God’s essence is community. None of us, as followers/as children of God, are intended to be isolated.
I swung around to the view—where I could see that my emotional problems/my exhaustion was very much a part of how I was living my life—not what Carey was doing in our marriage. I had to reach the point, where I actually believed that I need to rely on God and others to be fully alive; that’s it’s actually a necessity. It’s like the air I breathe; it’s part of—being a child of God means—that we have to have these relationships that are open, vulnerable, transparent, and inter-reliant.
Dave: In a sense, it’s the—and I guess I’m quoting Keller here, as well, in The Meaning of Marriage—but one of the things he brings out is the purpose of marriage is to help us become like/he calls it “our glory selves,”—you know, when we’ll be like Christ in Christ’s presence. It’s like we’re on this journey to get there. We’re never going to get there on planet earth, but we’ll get there one day.
And He gives us a spouse, who speaks life/identifies the mud. We can’t clean it up, but we can speak it into our spouse. If we receive it, we’re going to be sharpened to become more like Christ; if we reject it, we’re stuck—we’re dirty; we’re muddy—we’re not going to get it out of there.
How did that process happen in your marriage? Did God use each other?
Ann: How did you stop being mudslingers? [Laughter]
Carey: Some of that was definitely the counseling journey for both of us. We did couple’s counseling and then individual therapy. I think we both—the light bulb went on at different times—maybe a little bit earlier for me that I had to take responsibility for my role in the marriage and stop throwing mud at Toni or blaming her for everything.
I realized, “Wow, I really am kind of messed up.” That made me: “First of all, the most important thing is what happens here in the home. At the end of the day, I’m a follower of Jesus; I’m a husband, and I’m a father. Those are my most important roles.”
As I got that right, ironically, I became a better leader. I’m not the perfect boss—but I’m a better boss—it just has a spillover effect. Because I agreed with Tony; there were times, where we opened up a new building, and I remember you were on the front row, crying—not tears of joy—but tears of: “How miserable our life is,” and “What this cost me.” Now, we’ve been to other buildings we’ve opened and other moments—when there are tears—they are tears of joy and agreement. That is such a joy.
I think a lot of self-examination, a lot of prayer, a lot of confession. Even when I get worked up in the moment, I’m like, “Okay, what did I bring to this?” Sometimes I’m like, “About one percent.” Even now, if we get into a moment, I’d be like, “What did I bring to this?” I’m like, “Well, not much; it’s all her fault.” [Laughter] You’re probably thinking the same thing.
Dave: Yes. [Laughter]
Casey: But I think we have the awareness to know now: “Wait a minute; I’m probably somewhere between 30 and 70 percent of this problem. So let me try to figure out: ‘What part do I own?’ ‘Okay, it was my tone of voice,’ ‘Okay, it was that I made unreasonable demands,’ ‘Oh, okay; I expect too much.’”
I’m Enneagram 8; she’s a 5. Ian Morgan Cron says, we wake up with 200 percent battery life in us every day. You would say you wake up with 70 percent battery life, or 80, or whatever. I can often be like: “And we’ll do this,” and “We’ll do this,” and “We’ll do this,” and “We’ll do this.” Like, this weekend, I’m painting the entire garage; and Toni looks at that and goes, “That’s how you’re spending you’re spare time?” “Yes, I am.”
Toni: “What about your Sabbath?”
Casey: “Come and help me,” “Come and help me. [Laughter] That’s how I’m spending my Sabbath; what’s your point?”
But it’s/now, I can laugh at that; whereas before, that would have been: “Well, you’ve just got to drop what you’re doing and help me. You owe me.” Toni owes me nothing. I’m going to do that; if she wants to help, she can help.
If I can add one real practical tip—it would be this—“Ask your spouse today: ‘What would make this a good day for you?’” I learned to ask that question because, naturally sinful guy, I wake up, going, “What would make this a good day for me?” I have my whole little list: “Dah, dah, dah.” [Laughter]
But everybody in your house wakes up with a: “What would make this a good day for me?” If you just—like this weekend, I know I’m not going to be painting all day—but I know that probably it’s going to be getting out on the trail, doing a hike; maybe getting out on our bikes; maybe socializing a little bit. I’m going to put my little “What would make this a good day for me?” in few hours; and then we’ll focus on how I can help Toni make sure it’s a good day for her.
Dave: That’s a direct application of: “Love your wife as Christ loved the church.” It’s a laying down of your agenda and saying, “It’s not about me. It’s about her; it’s about Him. I’m going to serve unto Christ—not for my happiness—really for theirs.” That’s a beautiful way to do life/a beautiful way to do marriage.
Bob: Really, what’s at the core of what Toni and Carey Nieuwhof have been sharing today is: “What would make this a great day for us/for our marriage?”—and ultimately—“What would make this a day God is pleased with?” That has to be the focus as we think about our marriage. It can’t just be: “Am I getting what I want out of this marriage?” It has to be something bigger/something more purposeful and intentional.
I think a lot of couples get stuck in the cycle of thinking, “Am I happy?” rather than asking the question: “Is my spouse happy?” and “Is God happy with our marriage?”
Toni Nieuwhof has written a book called Before You Split. It’s a book that really every couple, who is at a point of hopelessness in your marriage, this is a book you ought to pick up and read, and really work your way through, and ask yourself the question: “Have I done everything I can do to try to preserve my marriage relationship?” “Am I getting the help I need?” “Am I leaning into friends who can help me here?”
Oftentimes, when couples find themselves in a tough spot in their marriage, they isolate—they go dark—they don’t reach out to anybody else. That’s the exact wrong time to be doing that. Toni talks about that and provides other wisdom in the book, Before You Split, which is a book we have available in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can get it online at FamilyLifeToday.com; or you can call to order: 1-800-FL-TODAY is the number.
Again, the book is called Before You Split: Find Out What You Really Want for the Future of Your Marriage by Toni Nieuwhof. Order online at FamilyLifeToday.com, or call to order at 1-800-358-6329; that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
Let me also say: if you’re looking for a way to clean up some of the messiness in your marriage—you’ve got a good marriage, but all of us have those irritations/those messy spots that we’ve brought our own “mud” stories, as we heard today, into our marriage—and you’d like someone who could help you take a good marriage and make it better, or take a hurting marriage and bring hope, plan to join us this fall at one of our
30 Weekend to Remember marriage getaways that we’re hosting in cities all across the country. The getaway is a two-and-a-half-day escape for couples, where you’re going to learn what God’s Word has to say about how to build a strong, fulfilling, enduring marriage relationship.
Right now, when you sign up, you’ll save 50 percent off the regular registration fee for an upcoming getaway. That offer is good to FamilyLife Today listeners, and it’s good only through Monday. If you want the 50 percent savings, and if you’re ready to join us this fall at a getaway, go to our website, FamilyLifeToday.com. Information about the getaway is available there. You can find a location and a weekend that works for you, and then register online; or call 1-800-FL-TODAY if you have any questions or you’d like to register by phone. Either way, plan to join us at an upcoming Weekend to Remember marriage getaway. We look forward to seeing you.
Now, tomorrow, we’ll hear from Toni Nieuwhof how you process the decision in front of you when your marriage is in a crisis situation—the decision to either split, or to just stay and survive, or to save your marriage—how do you make that decision and what do you do once you’ve decided? Hope you can tune in and be with us tomorrow.
On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We’ll see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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