In the Heat of Battle
Strategies for pushing back the Enemy in marriage.
by Teresa Cook
“Stop treating me like a two-year-old!” Michael hissed.
“Sorry!” I spat back.
My husband and I finished getting ready for bed in silence. How many times lately had we ended our day like this? I’d always considered Michael my best friend, someone I could trust implicitly and talk to about anything. Now I didn’t even like him.
Michael seemed just as miserable. My normally kind and gentle husband acted sullen and snapped at the slightest provocation. He took everything I said the wrong way. I hardly recognized the man I married.
What was happening?
After nineteen years of marriage, Michael and I had long since conquered the which-way-do-you-turn-the-toilet-roll and who-takes-out-the-garbage questions in our marriage. We were past the 2 a.m. feedings, dirty diapers, and chicken pox stage with our two sons. We’d weathered tight finances and a cancer scare. I thought we were home free.
Other marriages might disintegrate around us, but ours was destined to last. Until now.
A few nights later, the hostility escalated. Angry words flew back and forth. At one point, Michael beat the bed as he spoke, accentuating each word with a punch. I had the distinct impression he was striking me every time the bed bounced. I had never been afraid of my husband before that moment, and I silently prayed for protection.
Instantly, I felt an irrational and unspeakable calm that allowed me to answer Michael in a non-threatening manner, yet still express what I needed to say.
The next morning, however, I fumed at the previous night’s events. Thoughts of divorce filled my mind. The constant bickering, the hurt feelings, the unfair accusations — surely it would be easier to quit and start over. Isn’t that what the world says? When things don’t work out, you pick up the pieces and move on. No problem, right?
I didn’t buy it. When we married, Michael and I united as “one flesh.” How do you divide one flesh and not leave lives ripped apart? You can’t. So why was I considering divorce as an option?
Then came the night Michael revealed he’d been thinking the same thing.
“Maybe I should leave for a while.”
“Where would you go?” I asked, stunned. We’d rarely been apart in nineteen years.
“I thought I would get my own apartment and see how things pan out.”
I felt like throwing up. “You would really leave us?”
“I don’t want to,” Michael said, “but we’re both so unhappy. The only alternative would be to try counseling.”
Uh-uh. Not me! I thought. We’d talked about this before. To me, going to a counselor was the ultimate admission of failure. If we couldn’t work out problems on our own, what kind of marriage did we have?
I opened my mouth to say no again, but closed it. What choice did I have?
Problems and pain
So we went.
Anyone who believes counseling is a quick and painless cure has never been to a counselor. Talking about our problems in front of Dr. Cole opened old wounds and exposed tender flesh. Things we had said and hadn’t said to each other were aired in front of a stranger.
It was just plain hard. And the battles at home heated up.
After another angry morning, I paced back and forth through the house mumbling to myself and tried to think of one good reason why I shouldn’t divorce my husband. Suddenly I stopped, grabbed a pen and piece of paper, and jotted down a list of qualities I loved about Michael — the reasons I had married him in the first place. From his long eyelashes and charming dimples to his strong morals and high ideals, I listed everything I could think of.
Next I made another list of the nice things Michael had done for me in recent months, despite our differences: rubbed my back, folded laundry, read to the boys before bed to give me time alone. Over the next several weeks, I took out the lists in times of distress and reread them, hanging onto the words like a lifeline.
I had loved Michael once. Maybe I could learn to love him again.
I also began to earnestly pray for my husband. When I felt angry, I prayed God would change Michael’s attitude, his demeanor, his behavior —everything about him I thought was wrong.
But before long, my prayers changed to “Please make me part of the solution, not part of the problem.” While I continued to pray God would renew Michael’s love for me and heal our marriage, I also prayed He would show me the things I needed to change to make our marriage stronger.
He did. As I sat in the counselor’s office week after week, I started to hear a recurring theme when Michael spoke. “She criticizes me all the time. She acts like she’s my mother.”
“Uh . . . but . . . he . . . ” I’d say.
Was it true? Had I fallen into a pattern of treating him like a third son? Had I developed a habit of pointing out his faults and demanding he improve? Maybe Michael was providing a clue to how I could love him better. It certainly lay within my power to change how I treated my husband.
Working at closeness
As I learned to hold my tongue and regard Michael with more respect, our fights slowly dissolved, and we enjoyed an unspoken truce.
I knew Michael was trying to find ways to draw us closer, too. One night, he sat on the couch and told me to lay my head in his lap. “Now, tell me your hopes and dreams for the future.”
Just like that? I thought for a moment. I’d already fulfilled my dreams of working as a registered nurse and then quitting work to stay home and raise our children. God had added the unexpected blessing of homeschooling our sons. Until our marital discord, I had been content doing what I was doing. I didn’t have any other aspirations at the moment.
“Well, I’d like to go back to Hawaii one day.”
“No, no.” Michael’s voice developed an edge. “What are your dreams? What do you see yourself doing ten years from now?”
Suddenly I felt like a shallow person. “Honey, I can’t think of anything right now. I’m happy just . . . ”
“Fine! If you don’t want to tell me your dreams, that’s fine!” Michael flipped me upright, jumped up, and stomped from the room.
Clue number two. Michael needed to share my innermost thoughts and goals. He would just have to find some other way to do it.
Walking and talking
After several more attempts at the “let’s sit on the couch and talk” method, Michael finally realized he couldn’t coerce my dreams from me. Knowing how much I enjoyed walking around the lake in our subdivision, he began to take me for long strolls, and we talked about various things.
No longer under pressure to perform on cue, I found it easier to explore the future with him. We seemed to grow closer with each revelation. But no matter how far we walked, we still had a long way to go.
About a year after we’d started counseling, Dr. Cole apparently thought we were beyond danger of killing one another and suggested we take a getaway trip. “I want you each to concentrate on making your spouse happy,” he instructed.
We decided to visit Dallas. I let Michael show me the sites, since he’d been there before and I hadn’t. We held hands as we toured the aquarium and shopped at malls. We whispered to each other, sat close together, and generally acted like newlyweds.
I enjoyed the trip but didn’t realize what an impact it had on Michael until I had a one-on-one session with our counselor the next week.
“I’m not going to ask what happened on your trip, but I don’t think I’d break a confidence to say Michael told me it was the best three days of his life,” Dr. Cole said.
I must have looked skeptical, so he continued, “Don’t discount the importance of this. Michael is an idealist at heart, and romantic. Physical touch is very important to him.”
Ah, here was the third clue. Though I’d grown up in a hugging family, I realized how often I shrugged off Michael’s physical displays of affection when I was “busy.”
After the counselor’s words, I made a special point to throw my arms around my husband every evening when he returned home or pat his leg under the table. Michael’s tender smile told me I was on the right track.
Payment for perseverance
As I learned to love my husband again — the way he wanted to be loved — Michael responded in kind, and I felt the old warmth return. We persevered through two years of counseling, but it took three more years of fervent prayer, sheer effort, and divine grace to right our relationship.
Then one day I woke up and realized We have a happy marriage.
How easy it would have been to give up, especially in the early days locked in the heat of battle. How glad I am we didn’t.