Happy Couples Don’t Give 110%

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No.

It’s one of the most important, life-giving words for marriage, I’m finding.

No, I can’t. No, I don’t want to. No, I don’t like that.

Whenever I wanted to say “no” to anyone, Paul’s words always popped into my mind: As much as it is possible with you, live at peace with everyone. For the past twenty-four years, I interpreted that as a challenge. I would pride myself on my flexibility, on my limitless tolerance, on my 110% giving. It was possible for me to give it all and then some.

When resentment and burn-out poked their heads up (and they did, often, and more often), I took that as a challenge too. I just needed a new perspective. I just needed an attitude adjustment. I just needed to root out whatever sin was causing me to resent the recipients of my love.

How low could I go? Watch me.

It was possible for me to live at peace with everyone, at all times, in all ways. I could be all things to all people. I could swallow my opinions and blur my boundaries and run into another person’s life and fix all their broken pieces for them.

It’s more blessed to give than to receive — but the longer I lived like this, the more the resentment and burn-out drained me. I never felt blessed. I felt used and used up. 

I was missing a key part of love that many Christians don’t recognize: As much as it is possible with you is not just a challenge. It’s an acknowledgement of reality: it’s not possible to live at peace with everyone. There are limits to who you are and what you can give. There are moments when you come to the end of yourself. You max out at 100%. That’s a fact.

I believe that resentment and burn-out are rarely signs that you need a new perspective, an attitude adjustment, or a quick pick-me-up. They are signs that you have reached your limit. They are reminders that you need to say no to whatever is draining you.

Christians are often idealists. I am, at least. I live in light of what I should be doing. But the reality is that I am a broken, finite human. There are things I ought to do but cannot do ever because of the limitations of being human, and there are things I ought to do but cannot do now because of the limitations of being an imperfect human. 

In an ideal world, all things being equal, I as a good Christian wifey should be happy and willing to have sex whenever my husband wants, listen to the intimate details of my husband’s latest Fortnite game, pick up that random thing at the store for him, and take on extra work to give him a break. But can I do that thing on this day, during this period of my life, without reaching the end of what I can give? No, not always, because all things are never equal at any given time.

Like all my other fellow female mortals, I get tired, sick, overwhelmed, scarred, pregnant, preoccupied, burnt out, and other negative adjectives because we are limited persons.

As much as it is possible with you, make your husband happy in the ways he wants. But sometimes it’s not possible. There needs to be space in the marriage for the wife to say no, I don’t want to or no, I can’t. Burn-out and resentment are signs that she’s reached her limit. She needs to say no for her own soul.

And she needs to say no for her marriage. 

We all subconsciously know we have limits. Unacknowledged limits have a way of expressing themselves in destructive ways — like failing to follow through on our yes because really, we wanted to say no. “Yes, of course!” my husband and I will tell each other (I sometimes with an added, “Ugh, do I have to?”) — and then, because we don’t want to, we never do what we agreed to do.

This causes far more harm than if we simply said “no” at the outset. Now we have depended on each other, and we didn’t hold up. We have trusted one another, and that trust is broken. We have relied on each other, and now we’re inconvenienced and scrambling to pick up the ball the other person dropped.

Over time, these little betrayals add up until we don’t feel like we can trust our spouse. My husband has a list of things I said yes to and never intended to get out of. We joke about them, as they’re small things — I promised to play Fornite with him, I said I’d read the book series he really got into, stuff like that, stuff that I thought was little but turned out to be a big deal to him.

We’re left wondering why on earth our spouse keeps falling through — does he not love me anymore? Is something wrong? Is he not telling me something?

And, of course, since we’re too “nice,” and “obligated” to keep saying “yes,” we respond to our spouse’s fears and confrontations with more false promises that we subconsciously don’t intend to keep: “Yeah, I know I should have done that. I’m sorry. I’ll do it after I finish this.”

It affects our own sense of self, too. We beat ourselves up because we don’t understand why we keep falling through on our yeses. We’re just so tired, and burnt out, and busy, and disinterested, and we don’t want to be. We want to do the things we said we’d do. We want to make our spouses happy. And then we can’t, and we wonder what on earth is wrong with us.

Because we’re so busy feeling guilty and resentful and burnt-out by saying yes to things we don’t want to do (whether we do them or not), we don’t have any energy or emotional space to do the things we can and want to do for our spouses, or to work on why we don’t want to or can’t do the things our spouses ask us to do.

A simple starting place for fixing this whole mess is to be honest with ourselves and our spouses: say no when we mean no and say yes when we mean yes. For some of us, this requires more introspection and self-awareness than we normally use, so familiar are we with tuning out our guilt, resentment, and burn-out.

I think a lot of us ignore our limits because acknowledging our limits creates conflict — within ourselves (“It’s just a little thing! I should do it! I’m a horrible person for not wanting to do this one little thing!”) and within our marriages (“He’s going to get mad at me for saying no. I don’t want to hurt his feelings!”).

We often try to head off those conflicts by holding out for our spouse to let us off the hook. I want my husband to notice that I said yes with a long sigh. I’m waiting for him to immediately retract his request: “Don’t worry about, honey! I can see you’re tired and burnt out.” I want him to sense when I’m hovering at zero so that I don’t have to risk disappointing him or hurting his feelings. I want him to mitigate my guilt and take responsibility for my burn-out.

It doesn’t work that way — and now I’ve said I’d do something I don’t want to do and I’m grumpy about my husband’s lack of mind-reading skills.

It’s a huge relief to both of us when I take responsibility for meeting my needs and let go of responsibility for his emotions. He is not responsible for knowing my feelings. I am. And I am not responsible for controlling his reactions. He is. My no may disappoint him, hurt him, or affect him negatively. I can’t change that, and I can’t ignore my limits either, as giving out of nothing means I end up giving him nothing and causing more hurt and resentment.

But saying no has some beautiful affects on marriage that I didn’t believe until I experienced them myself, again and again. As I’ve been listening to my limits and saying no, I’ve felt even more eager and energized to give of myself. A little but significant example: Ever since I’ve set limits on picking up after my husband, I’ve found myself happily clearing away all our plates after dinner just because I know it’ll make him feel good. Before, I would clear the plates to be nice, yes, but also subconsciously hoping he’d catch on to my niceness and reciprocate by picking up after himself since his love tank was now filled — or whatever.

Didn’t work. Result: more resentment.

Empowered to say no, I feel energized to say yes. Now that my no means no, my yes means yes. We trust each other more now that we know the other spouse feels the freedom to say yes or no and mean it. There’s less passive aggressiveness and resentment and fewer unspoken needs now that we encourage each other to take responsibility for our own energy levels instead of hoping the other spouse will notice we’re running on fumes.

The other day, my husband and I had planned to meet at the park after work to fish and spend time as a family. As I was leaving work, he texted me several times to ask if I could pick up some leaders (whatever those were). I checked in with myself. I instantly wanted to say “maybe” and then make up some excuse — sorry, not enough time, work went late — because I really didn’t want to and I didn’t want to him to feel bad.

If I said yes, I’d use up precious family time wandering through the fishing aisle in Meijer and driving an extra ten minutes. I’d feel stressed trying to figure out what leaders were and which ones my husband wanted. I’d feel resentful because of all of those things. I just wanted to get off work and spend time with my family. At the risk of inconveniencing and frustrating him, I texted back: “I don’t want to pick those up today. I’ll see you at the park soon!”

Turns out it was absolutely no big deal. He picked up leaders himself the next day, and we enjoyed a stress- and resentment-free time at the park. (Well, a relatively stress-free time — e.e. did puke all over himself and eat rocks, but, you know.)

It’s important in marriage to give what you can, for sure, even if it inconveniences you.

When it is in your power, don’t withhold good from the one to whom it belongs.

As much as it is possible with you, live at peace with everyone.

But sometimes it’s not in our power to give. Sometimes it’s simply not possible for us to make others happy in the way they want us to. We all have limits. When we acknowledge those limits, we regain the power and the possibility to love freely and sacrificially. 

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