Could You Be The Leader Your Marriage Needs?
When I ask, “Could you be the leader your marriage needs?”, is there a part of you that pushes back? Do you think:
“Well I am, but it’s not helping” or
“It’s his (her) fault we’re in this mess. If he would just stop doing ____ (or if she would change ______) we’d be far better off” or
“I’ve done what I can. The next move is his (hers)”?
You resist the idea of ‘going first’ because you’ve already been stepping up more than your husband or wife has.
I’ve been taking the lead to get our budget under control for years. Or, I’m already taking more of the lead in our marriage. I do a greater share of the work at home, but it hasn’t drawn us closer. Or, I’m always the one who tries to open conversations, but he keeps resisting.
That’s not the kind of leading I’m raising here. I’m not referring to leading in how you’ve divided your roles in your home or your family. And I’m not referring to the type of “leading” that makes us think of management tactics like ‘bossing around’, threatening, cajoling, or the like. I’m also not asking you to consider specific actions you’ve taken, apart from addressing how you’re showing up in your relationship.
I’m not using the term leader in the sense of “ruler” or “autocrat” or “benevolent dictator.” Having ruled those unhelpful nuances of leadership out, let’s zero in on what might be valuable.
I’m using the term “leader” to mean a person who is willing to serve others with the gifts and influence they have, in love.
Consider the hero Wonder Woman: she wore the bracelets of submission, which symbolized strength balanced by love. Whether you saw the movie or not, here’s her cautionary warning: that a leader who is strong will abuse their power unless they’re exercising it in love.
A leader bound by love is one committed to using their power to empower someone else. To serve another.[i]
What role might that type of leadership play in transforming your marriage?
I remember when our boys were middle school age, involved in piano and sports and social lives, and Carey and I both held full and demanding roles with outside organizations. He was leading our church and I was on the leadership team in a local regional hospital. Our kids were at a stage where someone needed to be available during what was then the middle of the workday, to get the rest of their day underway.
For quite some time, we struggled over how to manage it all. The way we started out was quite predictable: trying to convince each other that the other needed to come up with the solution. We’d get heated and one word would lead to another until we’d descend into personal insults. Sigh.
Carey surprised me out of the blue one day when he announced that he was going to start leaving work at 3:30 pm. “I’ve thought about it, and I can do this. Our team will get used to it. I’ll finish off whatever can’t wait later in the evening. At least, it’s worth a try.” In that season, his decision proved spot on.
Finding Real Life by Losing It
There’s a famous line from a message Jesus gave to his followers:
“Whoever finds their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.” [ii]
What does ‘losing your life’ have to do with leading in your marriage?
It all comes down to your view of the purpose for your life. Jesus saw himself as son of the living God. He also saw himself as the suffering servant described by Isaiah.[iii] We see from the recordings of his disciples and friends that Jesus wasn’t living for comfort, gain or personal pleasure.
Rivers of living water abounded through him. Jesus said, “…whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst.” Viewed through the writings those who lived with him for three years, Jesus’ purpose for living was to lose himself in the flow of loving God and loving others.
Perhaps look at your choice of your life’s purpose as the symbolic dam. You have control over the dam. You can choose to open it, or close it, but what you’re controlling are those living waters carrying real life with them.
Following Jesus’ commitment to serving the other means yes, you do give away some self-determination, and yes, you open up to the flow of what truly delights a soul.
Applying this to your marriage means questioning your motives, your desires and what you’ve defined as your needs. As you know, leaning into self-awareness can be painful.
Giving up something you’ve been pushing for, such as that new car or your particular schedule preference or swallowing your pride enough to apologize can make you feel like you’re losing. But when your motive is love, nothing could be farther from the truth.
The path to unity in your marriage passes through Calvary. You can’t expect it to be painless and free from suffering, but there’s something captivating on the other side.
So, what might godly leadership – your power to choose bound by love – look like in your marriage? Here are a few down-to-earth applications:
You’re not entitled to not care:
I realize that all us couples (at least most of us…) marry for love. And after years together, some of us wonder deeply about what love really is.
Do I have to clean up the kitchen now even though I’d rather do all the dishes at once this evening?
Am I unloving if I say “no” to having a dog?
Do I really need to move to that place that looks like a moonscape for half the year?
There are no rules for answers to these questions. But there is a rule for the process: loving your spouse means truly listening to the desires of their heart. It means learning to patiently listen even when they’re saying things you don’t want to hear. It entails growing in heartfelt empathy. What you can’t do if you desire to lead your marriage upward is to dismiss, avoid or silence your partner’s feelings or deep desires.
If you decide to take up Jesus’ mantle of leadership, you can’t fail to care.
Give Something Up
In my experience, leading in your marriage at time looks like giving something up.
For years, I would let myself get bent out of shape if my husband Carey showed his frustration about the way I’d chosen to organize my day. It wasn’t that I didn’t care about his feelings. Sometimes the problem was that I wanted to control them.
All emotions are okay; but not all actions are okay.[vi]
While still caring about how Carey felt, I needed to give up my natural desire to control his emotions.
Bring this question before God: “What is it that you would have me give up to bring more love into our marriage?” My pride? My temper? The near-addiction I’m in denial about? The schedule I’m pushing for? My ______ attitude?
After 31 plus years of being married, I’m confident that each loving gesture of ‘giving up’ will not amount to your loss, but rather will accumulate to your gain. Your future relationship is enriched each time.
Some People Won’t Approve
I wrote above that ‘Jesus’ purpose for living was to lose himself in the flow of loving God and loving others.’ And that is true, but if you’ve ever studied his life, you know he faced opposition. The cries against him from the religious leaders and the people from his hometown, as one example, were furious and fierce.
Expect that as you invest in your marriage, especially if you’ve been through tough days, not everyone will celebrate.
When Carey and I were in the midst of our rough years, a close friend of mine coached me to leave. Eventually, I had to let go of that friendship.
You might have a disgruntled mother or sister who isn’t a fan of your partner. A friend in your circle may be nudging you toward divorce as he goes through his. Perhaps someone close to you sees your marriage as pretty much doomed because of all your venting.
You may pick up from someone that they see you as ‘too weak to leave’. Be sure to wrestle that one in prayer, and lean into the voices around you who are for your marriage.
By the way, you do have those supportive voices around you, right?
The Upside Down Promise
Lose “self” in your marriage and you’ll find more of “you”.
More of the “you” who’s been hiding. More of the “you” who isn’t pretending. More of “you” who experiences the spacious feelings of peace and contentment – not all the time, but for remarkable parts of it.
Try taking the lead. Be the first one to make a move. Bind your power of influence with love, and watch for the signs of transformation to unfold.
[i] I want to make it clear that I’m not advocating for leniency, or attempting on your own to lead your spouse out of harmful behaviors that are toxic, destructive or otherwise put your safety at risk. My messages about marriage are intended for couples whose marriages are unhappy, not harmful.
[ii] Matthew 10:39 New International Version (NIV)
[iii] Isaiah 50:4-7 and 61:1 NIV are samples of the servant songs
[iv] Matthew 8: 24-25 NIV
[v] See for example, the response of the Samaritan woman in John 4: 1-30 NIV
[vi] If you wonder whether your marriage is causing you harm, please read this: https://toninieuwhof.com/is-your-marriage-unhappy-or-harmful/