All married couples want a relationship filled with joy and intimacy. Sometimes the disappointments of life can steal our joy and leave us with the root of bitterness. Hebrews says that bitterness will defile and harass our most valuable relationships. Bitterness can leave our hearts hardened and cold. Without realizing it, we end up exchanging a heart of love for a heart of stone. Hardening of the arteries can be not just a physical thing, but sometimes a spiritual and emotional reality.
Cecil Osborne once said: “Marriage is the most rewarding and the most difficult relationship known to man.” Studies have shown that no marriages are free from occasional marital conflict. The famous marriage researcher Dr John Gottman commented recently: “when Julie and I do our workshops with couples, one of the main messages we give is that we've found that really good marriages, people who are really happy, have terrible fights, where they're thinking at the end of the fight: Why did I marry this person?” Some marital problems never go away, but the wise couple doesn’t get gridlocked on these unsolvable problems. They refuse to go bitter inside. The AA Serenity Prayer expresses this wisdom of ‘the serenity to accept the things that cannot be changed.” No one can really change or fix one’s spouse. It is always better to work on oneself, which requires ‘the courage to change’.
How interpret the meaning of marital conflict is just as important as the conflict itself. Our values and hopes for the future profoundly affect how we navigate the challenges of marital conflict. It is vital that married couples do not give up on their ideals and dreams. This is why Dr Gottman encourages couples to explore each others’ dreams and hopes, with an aim to create shared meaning. Higher expectations for romance and passion have been linked with increased marital satisfaction. Sometimes in a desire to get along, spouses give up something essential that actually fuels the romance and passion of their lives. Bitterness is often about the death of our dreams.
One of the ways out of bitterness is through the use of gentle, self-effacing humour. Aggressive humour like sarcasm kills marriages. Blaming and mocking seals the coffin on your marriage. Dr Gottman found that successful marriages have on average five times more encouraging behaviours than negative behaviours. Encouraging behaviours do not just have to be the extraordinary, like taking our spouse to Maui or to Crete. Despite what Hollywood sometimes implies, a healthy marriage celebrates the ordinary, not just the extraordinary. After thirty-two years of marriages, my wife and I are learning afresh the joy of simple pleasures: taking regular time together for peaceful walks, for chatting and listening, and for physical exercise.
While doing my doctoral course this spring, I was pleased to discover that the social sciences have verified the benefits of forgiveness in healing marriages. Dr Grace Ketterman found that couples who refuse to forgive pay a heavy price: “The physical costs of unforgiveness may include hypertension, chronic headaches, high blood pressure, cardiovascular ailments, and gastrointestinal disorders, to name just a handful. Because negative emotions have a depressive effect and can suppress immune function, unforgiveness may even have an indirect link to major and severe disorders like rheumatoid arthritis and cancer.” Jesus’ words ‘forgive and you will be forgiven’, say Ketterman, lie at the heart of marital harmony and health. She speaks both as a psychiatrist of the Christian faith and as a victim of infidelity who chose to forgive and remarry her husband.
Research also indicates that shared spirituality can help protect against the roots of marital bitterness. Ordinary practices like attending church, reading the bible and praying together have been shown scientifically to strengthen one’s marriage. Sadly I have found that many couples view the idea of praying together to be too intimate.
Before my spiritual breakthrough at age 17, I viewed marriage as just ‘a piece of paper’. Research shows that couples who view their marriage as something that God has joined together are more likely to act and think in ways that protect their marriage. I have discovered that God invented marriage and believes in it; therefore marriages are worth fighting for.
Anything that we believe in, we invest in. I admire the courageous couples I know who have been willing to go to marriage counselors like Bonnie Chatwin. There is no quicker way to make progress on marital bitterness than to go for professional help. Social science studies prove that counselling is much cheaper than divorce lawyers.
My prayer for those reading this article is that our marriages may be sweet and full of joy, and that any roots of bitterness will be eradicated through the bonds of love.
The Rev. Ed Hird+
Rector, St. Simon’s Church North Vancouver
Anglican Coalition in Canada