What Marriage Is Not
About the Guest
If marriage isn't about meeting my needs, then what is it? Christian counselor Winston Smith says that when it comes to marital love, many of us have breadth, but little depth. Winston reminds us that with God's help we can love others as we should, sacrificing our own wants and needs for the sake of those we’ve committed to in marriage.
Winston SmithWinston T. Smith, M.Div., is a faculty member and counselor at CCEF (the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation), has extensive experience as a marriage and family counselor, and teaches seminary students how to counsel couples.
If marriage isn’t about meeting my needs, then what is it?
What Marriage Is Not
Bob: Your spouse is different than you, right? Winston Smith says, “That’s a good thing!”
Winston: In marriage counseling, sometimes couples are fighting because one or both spouses are insisting that the other become identical to them. “You need to think the way I think. You need to do life the way I do life,” rather than saying, “Well, maybe the differences are God’s idea,” so that you can complement and sharpen each other and build each other up.
So, when I think of that sweet spot, it’s recognizing the differences and learning how to live in them in a way that builds each other up.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, October 20th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. Winston Smith joins us today to talk about how we can value and appreciate our differences.
Bob: And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. You’ve never gotten Barbara—like a shotgun for Christmas, or anything? I’m just wondering—
Dennis: No, no but—
Bob: --if you’ve ever made one of those blunders—
Dennis: --but the topic of today’s broadcast about how we learn how to love in marriage—
Dennis: I was thinking about this. When I was a boy—I don’t know, I was probably four years old, maybe five—my mom, who was kind of a practical joker—but she kind of had an edge to some of the things she did sometimes.
Bob: So that’s where that comes from. (Laughter)
Dennis: I wonder, yes; but my mom bought herself a vacuum cleaner for Christmas.
Bob: Bought herself a vacuum cleaner?
Dennis: And she hid it in the front hall closet, and she was going to put it under the tree. My mom’s name was Dalcie, okay?
Dennis: And it was going to be, “To: Dalcie, From: Ward,” my dad. Of course, Dad would have looked at it and kind of—he would have grinned. He would have loved the joke, but my mom was going to get a kick out of it.; but as a four-year-old would have it, I ratted on my mom.
Bob: You spilled the beans!
Dennis: I said, “Dad, Mom has bought herself a vacuum cleaner for Christmas; but I’m ashamed to tell it, and it’s hidden in the closet.” It became one of those legendary tales that we had in our family.
Well, our guest on today’s broadcast has, maybe, not a similar story; but it is a story of how we express love in marriage. Winston Smith joins us on FamilyLife Today. Winston, welcome back.
Winston: Thank you, Dennis. Great to be here.
Dennis: Winston is a counselor and an author. He and his wife Kim have three children, a 16-, a 14-, and a 12-year-old. You’re about to have three teenagers.
Winston: I know.
Dennis: You’re about to learn a lot about love.
Winston: I know. I’m going to be listening to this show a lot more—like, “Start soon!”
Dennis: You tell a story in your book, Marriage Matters, about your mother-in-law.
Dennis: First of all, I want you to know, in all of our broadcasting, Bob, how many mother-in-law stories have we had told?
Bob: There have been very few that have had the—
Dennis: Permission, at least.
Bob: --well, and the courage—
Dennis: I would agree.
Bob: --to bring these stories out.
Dennis: So, I’m really impressed that you got the permission to tell this story.
Winston: Well, you notice I was wise enough to ask for permission. (Laughter) My mother-in-law told me the story that one year she bought my father-in-law a beautiful ornamental brass wastebasket.
Bob: Oh, what every man wants for Christmas.
Winston: Yes, and I thought she was outing him about something, like, “Why would he want that?” The fact is, she wanted that for herself; and she somehow fooled herself into thinking that he would like that.
Bob: So, she really legitimately thought, “This is something that would delight his heart on Christmas morning”?
Winston: I think she psyched herself out to believe that.
Bob: It happened on your side of the family, too, though didn’t it?
Winston: Yes, my dad got himself and my mother a motorcycle for Christmas one year.
Bob: Which your mom was just dying for?
Winston: And as a child, I remember seeing my mother’s motorcycle pristine in the shed, where it was never used.
Dennis: You know, I’m picturing you and Kim coming together. You’ve been married how long now?
Winston: 21 years.
Dennis: 21 years. So 21 years ago, here you’ve got this man and woman coming together, saying they’re about to learn how to love; and they both have images in their minds of their parents giving themselves presents.
Winston: Yes. Yes, or riding down the street with a brass wastebasket on motorcycles. (Laughter)
Bob: You say in the book that most of us love the way your daughter plays the piano.
Bob: Explain what you mean by that.
Winston: Yes, both my girls play the piano. You know, how when you start playing the piano, you hang out right around middle C; and you play the eight keys on either side, and you kind of plink around. But the piano is this magnificent instrument. You can make it louder or softer, depending on how you hit the keys. You have these wonderful 88 keys. You have these wonderful light, airy notes on one end and these deep, dark notes on the other end. The piano—you can play all kinds of amazing music on it.
But most of us end up satisfied—living love the way a kid starts playing the piano. You learn a few tunes that you can plink out, and you never develop any breadth. You stop learning how to love. You find out what’s comfortable and what seems to work for you, and then you stop learning.
But when you understand that God is love, and Jesus is love incarnate, you should know that you’re in for some surprises. As you read about Christ’s life and as He instructs you about love, He’s always blowing our categories.
Dennis: You’re saying that we tend to live our lives playing Chopsticks?
Winston: Yes. Yes.
Dennis: But what God wants to do is—He wants us to venture out on the whole keyboard.
Winston: And spend the rest of our lives learning how to do it better and better.
Dennis: How have you learned the love of God? In other words, give us some illustrations of what you mean here and what you’ve learned about the love of God, both in terms of what it is, and in terms of what it isn’t. Begin with what it isn’t.
Winston: Well, I think, kind of an unspoken assumption as a newly-married husband for me was, “I wanted my home to be a very safe and comfortable place. I wanted to come home from work, and I wanted dinner to be ready, and I wanted the laundry to be folded. I wanted my home to be comfortable for me.”
Dennis: I counted five “I wanted”s in those statements.
Winston: Oh yes. I’ve got more. I’ve got more lined up for you.
Dennis: Spoken as a good truly-married young man.
Winston: Yes. And I was unapologetic about it.
Dennis: Me, too. Me, too. So, it’s okay.
Winston: So, one of the things I noticed, though, especially as children came along, is that I’d come home and dinner wasn’t ready. My wife would be on the floor playing Candy Land®, you know, with the kids or going to one of their school events. At first, I got irritated. I started pitying myself. “Why are the kids becoming more important than me?”
I sat down with Kim at one point; and she said, “You know, I love you as much as ever,” she said, “but what I don’t want to happen is—I don’t want to look back and see a bunch of missed opportunities. I love you and I’ll always love you; but God has given us these children and they need our time and love, too.”
In that moment, God kind of helped me see that, “You can learn something about love from your wife,” because she’s saying in a much nicer way than needed to be said, “Our marriage isn’t about you being comfortable. It’s about loving people who need to be loved; and right now, our kids need to be loved. They need me to play Candy Land with them, and that’s more important than dinner being on time.”
I think the Holy Spirit had to work in me; but then I realized, “I can’t make my life about my own comfort. Living a life of love means people are more important than things.”
Dennis: Okay, I want you to tell the truth now. You’re a trained counselor. You’ve had a lot of years of education. You come home from work and your wife advises you about love?
Winston: Yes. She’s good! Yes, like I said, “A lot of times she models things more than she lectures me.” I do occasionally get, “You’re the marriage counselor. You figure it out,” comments. She’s not sinless herself, but she—one of the things she shows me is—a lot of times actions are more powerful than words. I see her do love, and that changes me.
Bob: Well, she’s also showing you and telling you that people are more important than some of the things that you’re valuing. In fact, you spend a lot of time in the book talking about whether we look at our spouse as a person or an object. That really shows up in whether we honor them or we try to manipulate them.
Winston: Yes. Yes, and this is sort of the next step in thinking about how our understanding love needs to be challenged. When we look at our spouses as people who exist basically, “to love me the way I want to be loved,” we are really not treating them like a person at all. We’re treating them like an object. Objects are things that exist for our use, and there’s nothing wrong with using or manipulating an object to get what you want out of it. That’s what they’re for.
But people, fundamentally, don’t exist for us to get what we want out of them. People are made in the image of God; they’re God’s children, and we’re called to honor them. I think we have to especially be careful to bring that attitude into our marriage. Marriage doesn’t mean that my spouse exists for me—especially, “My spouse doesn’t exist to give me what I want.” My spouse is a child of God who, yes, is called to love me; but that’s not the same thing as saying, “Give me what I want.”
Bob: At our Weekend to Remember® marriage getaways, when we’re talking with couples around this, we will sometimes talk about the fact that we were created for marriage to be an interdependent relationship. We take a little bit of time to say it’s unhealthy for it to be a dependent relationship—
Bob: --what sometimes is labeled a “codependent” relationship these days. It is also unhealthy for it to be an independent relationship.
Winston: That’s right.
Bob: Help us understand where that sweet spot is and the danger on either side of it.
Winston: I love the imagery that Paul gives us in the Scripture of one flesh and the imagery of body. So now, talking about the life of the church, Paul talks about how we are members of one body. That’s a picture of that interdependence that you’re talking about, where we can be different because the members of the body are different. We’re not supposed to be identical.
Dennis: Mm hmm.
Winston: But we are connected in a way that we mutually upbuild one another. There’s this picture of being different but being connected in a way that builds up. I find in marriage counseling, sometimes couples are fighting because one or both spouses are insisting that the other become identical to them. “You need to think the way I think. You need to do life the way I do life,” rather than saying, “Well, maybe the differences are God’s idea,” so that you can complement and sharpen each other and build each other up.
So when I think of that sweet spot, it’s recognizing the differences and learning how to live in them in a way that builds each other up.
Dennis: And celebrating those differences.
Dennis: As I think of the word, “honor,” in the Hebrew language, it meant to “lay it on someone,”—to lay a heavy weight of celebration on that other person. If you think about honoring your spouse, the way practically you can begin to lay something heavy in terms of celebrating their personhood—you can do it by common courtesies. You can do it by caring for their needs, by anticipating what they need, thinking about what their ideal day would be like, how you can meet their needs in a tough situation.
I remember going home from work; and I would arrive home and, as you just described earlier, our house was anything but a safe, quiet place. It was chaos; and the kids had my wife tied up emotionally, if not physically.
Dennis: Yes. It had been a tough day for Barbara, and we would begin the dinner. At the dinner table, we would celebrate Mom. I said, “We’re going to go around the table, and we’re going to talk about what we like best about Mom.” Barbara sometimes would be so upset she wouldn’t like it; but by the time you got a bunch of rug rats saying some goofy things like, “She lets me play with my toys,”—you know, that type of thing—it melts the heart, and it does begin to celebrate the other person.
Bob: But one of the things you say is that to treat your spouse as a valued possession, to adore your spouse, to put him or her on a pedestal—that can actually be detrimental to a marriage relationship and cause the other person to shut down.
Winston: Right. Sometimes, I explain it as the difference between loving somebody and needing them—needing them in that capital “N” kind of way, “Need.” Loving somebody means doing what’s best for them because it’s best for them. When people talk about needing their spouse, often what they mean is, “I have this sense of desperation when I can’t get what I want from you.” Their response to not getting what they want is angry punishing, losing the temper, or it could be withdrawing, or—
Bob: Or pleading, or begging, or—
Winston: --or pleading, and that’s needing somebody in the worst possible sense.
Bob: So building up, encouraging, affirming another person—to do what Dennis was talking about around the dinner table, where you’re encouraging another person—those are all biblical things to do; but if we’re doing that out of some kind of a dependence- deficit in our own heart and our own life, that can put too great a weight on the other person—something they can’t live up to.
Winston: Right. God did not invent marriage to replace Himself. Marriage should enhance our understanding of God. It’s a way to embody the love of God for another person but not to replace our fundamental need for God.
Dennis: Let me read Romans 12:9-10 here. I think this is just a good reminder. It says, “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.” Of course, we would never want to put the person in a place of honor equal to God or in a place above God; that’s idolatry. That’s not healthy.
I don’t think that’s the biggest mistake we make in marriage. I think we withhold honor, we withhold ways of lifting the other person up, celebrating their differences. I mean, as I’ve mentioned earlier, we’ve been married 38 years. It seems like the past five years have been a new revelation of all the new, fresh ways I need my wife and how we’re very different from one another.
Barbara and I have chosen, because we’ve been trained by the Scripture, to err on the side of celebrating the differences rather than chipping away at the other person because of the differences.
Bob: But sometimes those differences can be like sandpaper on one when we’re in the process. Last night, at dinner, our 16-year-old son said, “Hey, is it okay on Saturday if I drive to Hot Springs?” It’s about an hour from here. I could tell immediately that my wife was thinking, “That’s just a lousy idea. That’s highway driving—he’s 16, doesn’t have the experience doing that.”
I’m thinking, “Well, there’s no problem. He’s been driving long enough. It’s a Saturday morning, not a whole lot of traffic. He should be able to get to Hot Springs and back without a problem.” Okay. Here’s what got exposed in that whole process. What got exposed is that a part of what’s behind my answer is the lowest-conflict response here to my son is, “Sure. Why not?” I’m not going to get any fight from him, the evening goes on peacefully—
Winston: Everybody’s happy.
Bob: That’s part of the reason I want to let him go is because—
Dennis: You just switched the area of fight, though. You traded him for your wife.
Bob: Well, part of what was revealed in her answer is fear—a desire to control her environment, her surroundings, her circumstances. Now we could pull back and we could say, “Who is right? Bob or Mary Ann?” That’s really the wrong question to ask isn’t it?
Winston: Yes, that’s right.
Bob: We’re really pulling back and saying, “In this ordinary moment, what’s coming out that we need to pay attention to, and learn, and grow from?”
Winston: Exactly. I would add to that, “How can we talk this through in a way that we’re really loving each other, we’re really listening and trying to learn from each other?”
Bob: Yes, we could have used a little help in that area as this subject came out. If you’d been at the house last night, maybe you could have coached us through some of that.
Winston: I got a slot open.
Bob: We’d have to pay you.
Dennis: And a teenager—what’s he going to do? He’s going to pounce on your answer, and there’s the opening. “Man, Dad’s a softy. I’ve got him working my side of the deal,” so he pits you and Mary Ann against each other.
Bob: Right; and he can learn in the process that, “If I just give any evidence that I’ll create some conflict, then Dad will cave quickly.” A teenager’s alert to that, without being intentional or malicious. They just go, “I can see here—if I just pout a little bit or if I just get a little angry, that’ll cause Dad to back off because he’s a low-conflict, pleaser-kind-of-person.”
Winston: Yes, and what all of our kids need to see is us kind of working it through, honestly with our spouses.
Bob: I was smart enough at the dinner table when it came up and he said, “Can I do this?” I said, “Your mom and I will talk about it, and we’ll get back to you.”
Dennis: Away from him.
Bob: It took five kids to get to where I can do that reflexively now. (Laughter)
Winston: He’s going to be incredibly healthy. (Laughter) The other four are on their own.
Bob: Yes, that’s right.
Dennis: Several times in this conversation you’ve really talked about how marriage is not about us getting our needs met from the other person, but marriage has transcendent purposes designed by God for our good. It’s interesting—I’m just reflecting as you’ve talked here, Winston, that our Weekend to Remember marriage getaways—this is what we teach at the conference and how we start the conference, talking about the transcendent purposes of marriage.
Because I think one of the problems today—we get into marriage and we dumb it down to the other person meeting all of our needs. We try to manipulate them; and we laughed about that at the beginning of the broadcast, talking about giving yourself a gift for Christmas, or for a birthday, or something.
But I think a lot of people are really lost in the middle keys, playing Chopsticks, as we talked about; and they don’t experience the stereo, the breadth, the richness of the high tones and the deep tones, so that there’s harmony between a husband and a wife. Some of our listeners have listened to us on FamilyLife Today for a number of years talk about the Weekend to Remember, Bob, and they’ve never been.
They may be thinking, “You know, I’m going to wait until my marriage has got a problem, and then we’ll go fix it.” Well you know what? That’s not the time to go address your marriage. Invest in your marriage; go spend some time away as a couple, sitting and soaking in the teaching of Scripture in a godly perspective of what marriage is all about. That’s what Winston talks about in his book, and it’s what we attempt to do in the Weekend to Remember.
Bob: You’re saying a little preventive maintenance can go a long way?
Dennis: I mean, really! You think about. If you were given a car for a lifetime, and you knew that car had to last you for a lifetime, I’ll guarantee you’d be paying more attention to the maintenance on every part of that car. Well, marriage is a lifetime relationship far more important than any vehicle we’ll ever own; and you need to invest heavily in your marriage relationship.
Bob: But remember, it’s a person, not an object you’re dealing with. There is a difference between them.
Dennis: That’s good. That’s a good reminder—and to celebrate the differences at that point.
Bob: And for those who have never been to a Weekend to Remember, there is information available on our website, FamilyLifeToday.com. You can click on a link there; and it will take you to where you can get all the information about dates, locations. We’ve got events taking place this weekend, next weekend, all through the month of November, into December, and then next spring as well.
So, go online at FamilyLifeToday.com for more information about the Weekend to Remember marriage getaway and for information about Winston Smith’s book, Marriage Matters. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com. That’s FamilyLifeToday.com, or call 1-800-FLTODAY and ask how you can get a copy of the book. That’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
A couple of other quick reminders: On our website at FamilyLifeToday.com, we have a site that we have worked together with our friends at the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation, where Winston works, to address some of the difficult issues families will face in a marriage or as they raise their children—issues that might send you to see a counselor or even a medical doctor. We have a link at FamilyLifeToday.com that will take you to that part of the website if you’d like to check it out.
I also want to mention that the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation is about to host their national convention for this year; and there’s a link at FamilyLifeToday.com if you’d like to find out more about the convention. I think it’s in Louisville, Kentucky, this year. It is coming up in a couple of weeks—so, go to FamilyLifeToday.com for more information. This is a conference primarily for pastors, counselors, those who are involved in soul care, and again, the link is online at FamilyLifeToday.com.
Finally, a quick word of thanks to those of you who help support the ministry—make this ministry possible through your donations to FamilyLife Today. We are listener-supported. That means that it’s folks like you who go online or call us and make a donation. You make it possible for this program to be on this station, and we appreciate your support.
This week, if you’re able to help with a donation, we’d love to send you a copy of a book by Dennis and Barbara Rainey on praying together as a couple. It’s called Two Hearts Praying as One, and it’s our thank-you gift this week when you support the ministry with a donation. If you donate online at FamilyLifeToday.com, just type the word, “ONE,” (O-N-E), into the key code box on the online donation form; or call us toll-free at 1-800-FLTODAY. Make your donation over the phone and ask for your copy of the book on praying together as a couple. We’re happy to send it to you, and we do appreciate your support of the ministry of FamilyLife Today.
Tomorrow, we’re going to talk about anger and what we do when anger is a part of a marriage relationship on an ongoing basis. Winston Smith is going to be back with us. Hope you can be back, as well.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back again for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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