Dr Gary Chapman may have written bestselling books on marriage, but the early years of his own relationship were a mess. Here he reveals how God challenged him to change his attitude towards his wife – and what a difference that made
Two weeks after our wedding, Karolyn and I packed our few belongings and moved to Fort Worth, Texas, and I enrolled in Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. The plan was that Karolyn would get a job, and I would attend school full-time. That lasted for one semester. She was working for a mail-order company processing orders and had to be on the job at 5:30am. Karolyn is not a morning person. Need I say more? By the end of the semester, she had stomach ulcers. So I took a part-time job at Fort Worth National Bank and Karolyn got a part-time job as secretary for one of the Old Testament professors at the seminary. This arrangement worked much better.
DEALING WITH THE DIFFERENCES
Even with the new arrangement, our relationship was not what either of us had anticipated. Our differences emerged and we often argued. No one told me that the euphoric feelings of being ‘in love’ had an average lifespan of two years. Since we had dated for more than two years, I came down off the ‘high’ pretty early on in our marriage, and so did Karolyn. The arguments became more heated. I remember one night it was pouring with rain and, in the middle of an argument, Karolyn walked right out into the rain. When the door slammed, I said: “Oh God, this is bad.” And it was!
We argued about little things, like how to load a dishwasher. I am an organised person. When I loaded the dishwasher everything was in the right place. This meant everything got clean and nothing got broken or chipped. Karolyn loaded a dishwasher like she was playing Frisbee. I tried to explain to her how the dishwasher was designed. It made no sense to her. She saw my plan as a waste of time. Eventually, she said: “If it is so important to you, then why don’t you load the dishwasher?” I thought: Well, I guess I could. So I said: “OK, I can do that, but some nights I have to leave right after dinner for a meeting.” She said: “I’ll be happy to load it on those nights.” What I was thinking was: I know, but then I have to unload it the next morning and deal with the two spoons joined together with peanut butter and try not to cut myself on the broken glasses. But what I said was: “OK, let’s try that.” We did, and I’ve been the dishwasher loader ever since.
Then there were bigger issues. A few years later, I observed that Karolyn knew how to open cabinet doors, but she did not know how to close them. She knew how to open drawers, but she did not how to close drawers. That bugged me. So I asked her if, when she finished in the kitchen, she would please close the cabinet doors and, in the bathroom, please close the drawers. It was a simple request, but apparently she did not hear me.
A week later, I decided to use a visual aid. I took everything out of the top drawer, placed it on the counter, pulled the drawer out and showed her how drawers worked. I said: “This little wheel fits in this little groove. It is a marvellous invention. You could actually close the drawer with one finger.” Then I took her to the kitchen and said: “Now, if you get this door close enough, this little magnet will close it for you.” I knew she heard me that day.
Every day the following week I did my door and drawer check, and every day they were open. I said: “I don’t understand you. You are a college girl, a Christian and you can’t close drawers. I don’t get it.” Neither did she get why I was so obsessed with closing drawers. To her it was a waste of time. I was beginning to see a theme: wasted time. So I dropped the discussions, but I was still frustrated when I came home and saw open doors and drawers.
About nine months later, I came home one night and our little daughter, who was about 18 months old, had fallen and cut the corner of her eye on an open drawer. Karolyn had taken her to the doctor and now here was our baby with stitches.
I was so proud of me. I didn’t say a word. But inside I was thinking: I bet she will close drawers now. My other thought was: She wouldn’t listen to me – now God is working on her. (Remember, I was in seminary.) Incidentally, I am so grateful that Karolyn forgave me for all the junk I dished out on her in those years. Can you imagine living with a man who was bent out of shape about open drawers?
But would you believe it? She still did not close drawers. Two months later – that is, eleven months into the drawer-and-door journey – it dawned on me: This woman will never close drawers. I am a slow learner, but I finally got the message. So I went to my study desk in the library and did what someone had taught me to do when you have a problem you don’t know how to solve – make a list of all your possibilities and then go back and choose the best option.
Can you imagine living with a man who was bent out of shape about open drawers?
I went back to analyse my options. I read number one: I could leave her. I knew that was not an option. If I left her, no church would ever allow me to be their pastor – and besides, it was unthinkable. I read number two: I could be miserable the rest of my life about open drawers. I said to myself: This has gone on long enough. I don’t want to keep this going. Number three was obviously my best option.
I then told Karolyn that she no longer had to worry about the doors and drawers. I told her that I would close them when I came home and if she needed to open them again that was fine. I would close them later. Her response? “Fine!” Obviously, no big deal to her, but that was a big day in my life. From that day to this, open drawers have never bothered me. When I walk into the kitchen, I close the doors. When I walk into the bathroom, I close the drawers. It takes about seven seconds to do both. How foolish for me to have made such a big deal out of something that could be solved in seven seconds.
It was experiences like this that helped me understand that most conflicts are not monumental. As humans we have different patterns of behaviour and different personalities. This means we will always find areas of conflict. It was years later in my counselling with other couples that I learned there are no couples who do not have conflicts. Looking back, I wish Karolyn and I had spent more time in premarital counselling, or at least read a book on marriage together. The euphoric feelings of being ‘in love’ had blinded us to the reality of our humanity.
We had had one hour with the pastor who performed our wedding ceremony. The only thing I remember he said related to money. He suggested that each of us should have some money that we could spend as we wish. Good advice, but woefully inadequate preparation for marriage. It was our own lack of preparation that led me later to write the book Things I Wish I’d Known Before We Got Married (Moody Press), which has helped thousands of couples be better prepared for marriage than we were.
THE GREATEST PRAYER
Our marriage did not turn around quickly. It was commitment that held us together in those early months. Neither of us entertained the idea of divorce, but both of us were miserable. I was in seminary studying to be a pastor. I remember thinking: This is not going to work. There is no way I can be this miserable at home and preach hope to people. One day I finally said to God: “I don’t know what else to do. I have done everything I know to do, and it is not getting better. In fact, it is getting worse. I don’t know what to do.”
As soon as I prayed, there came to my mind a visual image of Christ washing the feet of his disciples, and I heard God’s word to me: “The problem in your marriage is that you do not have the attitude of Christ towards your wife.” It hit me like a ton of bricks. I remembered what Jesus said after he washed the feet of the twelve disciples: “I am your leader and, in my kingdom, this is the way you lead” (see John 13:1-17). The leader serves. I knew that was not my attitude. I expected things of my wife. She would say I demanded things of her. And, yes, she was right. My attitude was: “We can have a good marriage if you will listen to me.” She did not listen to me, and I blamed her for our poor marriage. But that day, I got a different message. I responded by saying: “Oh God, please give me the attitude of Christ towards my wife.” In retrospect, it was the greatest prayer I ever prayed regarding my marriage. God changed my attitude.
Three questions made this practical for me. When I was willing to ask these three questions, our marriage began to improve. They are simple questions: 1. Honey, how can I help you? 2. How can I make your life easier? 3. How can I be a better husband to you? When I was willing to ask those questions, Karolyn was willing to give me answers. Of course, I knew nothing about the love languages (5lovelanguages.com) in those days. But, in retrospect, her answers were teaching me her love language. When I started responding to her answers, her attitude towards me began to change. Within three months, she was asking me those three questions.
This is where I learned the key to having a healthy marriage. When two people choose to give themselves to serving each other, they both become winners. In the early days, we were both losers. We both walked away from arguments resenting each other. But when we started serving each other, the whole climate of our marriage changed. We have been walking this road now for many years, and I have an incredible wife. I said to Karolyn some time ago: “If every woman in the world was like you, there would never be a divorce.” Why would a man walk away from a woman who is doing everything she can to help him? My goal has been to so serve my wife that, when I die, she will never find another man who will treat her the way I have treated her.
I believe this is God’s plan. God did not create marriage to make us miserable. God knows that two are better than one. He made us to complement each other. By nature, we are egocentric or self-centred. The positive in this reality is that we take care of ourselves. We eat, sleep, exercise and learn. However, when our self-centredness becomes the attitude with which we approach all of life, it becomes selfishness. Our approach to life is: What can I get out of this? rather than: How can I enrich the lives of others? Two selfish people will never have a healthy marriage.
6 things I’ve learned about marriage
1. Being a Christian does not exempt us from marital struggles.
2. The darkest of nights can be illuminated if we turn to God for help.
3. Selfishness destroys, while love builds healthy marriages.
4. Knowing and speaking each other’s love language makes all of life easier.
5. We can solve conflicts without arguing if we listen empathetically.
6. In God’s kingdom, the leader is a servant.
THE POWER OF INFLUENCE
Love is the opposite of selfishness. Love seeks to help, to build up, to enrich the life of the spouse. Two lovers will create a climate in which marriages thrive. The good news is that we choose our attitudes in life. By nature we are selfish but, with the help of God, we can become lovers. And we can choose to love a spouse who is not presently loving us. Unconditional love is the strongest positive influence on another person. We all know that we cannot change another person, but we sometimes forget that we can influence them. This reality became personal to me when God changed my heart and gave me a desire to serve Karolyn. When I chose to love her in meaningful ways, in time, she reciprocated. After all, scripture says: “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). His love was unconditional. Paul the apostle said: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). We were influenced by his love. The same principle applies in human relationships.
In reality we influence each other every day, either positively or negatively. When you walk into the house after coming home from work, greet your spouse with a hug, talk about your day and ask: “What can I do to help you tonight?”, you have just had a positive influence on your spouse. However, if you walk in the house and do not greet your spouse, but go to the refrigerator, get a drink and sit down with your computer, you have just had a negative influence on your spouse. The key to a growing marriage is seeking to have a positive influence on each other. The power of influence is often overlooked by couples, to their own detriment.
That power of influence, learned in my own marriage, has greatly impacted my counselling. I am keenly aware that every couple who sits in my office will be either negatively or positively impacted by how I relate to them. If I treat them with respect and take time to listen to their perspective and have empathy for their feelings, they will likely leave with hope and be willing to continue counselling. If I come across as condemning and blaming, they are not likely to return. I am deeply grateful for this lesson learned from my marriage.
Gary’s latest book is Life Lessons and Love Languages: What I’ve learned on my unexpected journey (Northfield Publishing), from which this article has been adapted