Who’s at fault in my marriage? It’s me. Pastor-counselor Bob Kellemen shares insights for marriage from one of his favorite mariage books. It appeared first here on Bob’s website and is used with permission. (Edited for space. -Ed.)
What Causes Marriage Fights and Quarrels?
My wife, Shirley, and I are watching a Paul David Tripp marriage seminar video series based upon his book, What Did You Expect? Session 2 of the video was quite convicting. In about four dozen different ways, Tripp communicates the same convicting message:
“My biggest problem in my marriage is me!”
All of us as spouses, when asked the question, “What’s the reason for your marriage problems?” tend to answer with:
“My spouse is the cause of our marriage problem!”
We are all slow to apply Matthew 7:3-5—slow to see the large log in our eye and slow to focus on our own issues. Instead, we are quick to see the speck in our spouse’s eye and quick to focus on them as the root cause of all our marital fights and quarrels.
Great Diagnosic Question
James asks and answers the great marital diagnostic question in James 4:1-4:
What causes your marital fights and quarrels? Don’t they come from within you—from your unmet desires and self-centered demands that battle within you? You desire and demand your happiness, your agenda, your kingdom, but you do get what you want from your spouse.
So, in anger and frustration, you lash out at your spouse, blaming them—you retaliate: “You hurt me; I’ll hurt you!” You covet—you manipulate: “I’ll do whatever I can to get you to meet my needs.” But you still cannot get what you want from your spouse.
So that’s why you quarrel and fight. Your marital issues are actually rooted in a spiritual issue in your heart and in your relationship to God. You do not have because you do not ask God humbly. Instead you keep subtly demanding your will be done, your kingdom come.
Even when you do get around to asking God, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong, selfish motives—that you may spend what you get on your own pleasures—you become a taker, a consumer, a demander, instead of a sacrificial giver.
You know what that makes you? A spiritual adulterer!
That’s right, you forsake God your Spring of Living Water and you try to make your spouse come through for you as your Messiah. You try to make your spouse do for you what only God can do, what only the Savior can do—quench the deepest thirsts of your soul.
But no spouse makes a good Savior. So you end up turning to broken cisterns (your imperfect, finite spouse) that can hold no water. You live for your kingdom of self, instead of living for the Kingdom of God. (Bob’s marriage counseling paraphrase of James 4:1-4).
The Problem in My Marriage Is Me!
As Shirley and I watched the video, we took some notes. Here are our bullet points of the dozens of ways that Paul Tripp says the same thing—the problem in my marriage is me!
Marriage is not a container for my happiness.
Marriage is a receptacle for receiving God’s grace and for sacrificially giving Christ’s grace to my spouse. A broken spouse—and that’s every spouse—is a God-given opportunity to be a grace-giver. My spouse’s weakness and wickedness are opportunities to be a grace-dispenser.
Marriage is soul school.
In God’s Kingdom agenda, marriage is not about my happiness; marriage is about my holiness. God uses my unholy, imperfect, finite, failing spouse to sanctify me—to mature me increasingly into the image of Christ’s sacrificial, other-centered, giving love.
You become desparate for grace.
When you see that your demanding heart is the core problem in your marriage, then you become desperate for grace—Christ’s grace. Then you begin to look at your marriage and your spouse with grace eyes. And you begin to realize that there is no marriage problem so deep that the grace of Jesus isn’t deeper!
Marriage is a battleground between two kingdoms: God and Self
That is, the Kingdom of God and my Kingdom of Self. The battle begins in my own heart—who is on the throne of my marriage—Christ or me? Marriage is always a war between two kingdoms—either the Kingdom shaped by Christ or the Kingdom driven by self and my agenda for my happiness and satisfaction.
My unstated marital expectation.
Our marriage expectations are not rooted in the gospel. They are rooted in self. My unstated marital expectation is that my spouse will make me happy, will satisfy me, will fulfill me, will fill me, will make me feel good about me, will complete me.
My biggest problem in my marriage is me—my putting myself on the throne of my Kingdom of Self.
I don’t need to be rescued from my spouse. I need to be rescued from myself! I need to be rescued from my self-centered, demanding heart.
When I’m more concerned about my spouse’s issues than my heart issues, my marriage will never become a Christlike, Christ-centered marriage.
What Is God Up to in My Marriage?
So why would an all-wise and all-loving God put two immature, self-centered people together in marriage? Because marriage is a principle tool of sanctification. Marriage is a workroom for two people to become more like Christ! God intends marriage to break us of our self-sufficiency and our self-centeredness.
Indeed, there are two conflicting marital agendas. While we are working on our happiness in our marriage, God is working on our holiness in our marriage. While we are working on our comfort in our marriage, God is working on our conformity to Christ in our marriage.
Your marital calling is to see your spouse’s sinfulness and immaturity as an opportunity for your maturity! The more you witness your spouse’s weakness and wickedness, the greater your opportunity for your own personal holiness.
So what drives my marital agenda? Is it my happiness, my demandingness, my taking? Or, is it grace-love? Am I a selfish consumer or an other-centered giver in my marriage?
The more honest you are about your own wickedness and weakness, the greater your awareness of your need for Christ’s grace and the Father’s resurrection power. You can’t love like Christ in your own strength.
Jesus didn’t shed His blood to make my little Kingdom of Self work! Jesus shed His blood to crucify my Kingdom and to invite me into His Kingdom of grace-love for others.
God calls you into a messy, imperfect, sinful marriage so you can grow in your love for your spouse in their darkest, most wicked, ugliest, most evil moments—and so you can move toward them with Christlike grace.
So What? What Now?
How would my attitude toward my spouse and my marriage change if I admitted to myself and God that the core problem in my marriage is me? “I have been about me and my happiness instead of about God’s glory and my spouse’s holiness and my own holiness.”
And what if I admitted that I can’t love my spouse like Christ without Christ’s grace, the Father’s resurrection power, and the Spirit’s filling? This is why Ephesians 5:22-33 is surrounded by the Spirit’s filling (Ephesians 5:18), Christ’s power (Ephesians 6:10), and the armor of God (Ephesians 6:11-18).
The only hope for a holy marriage is a humbled, repentant spouse desperately dependent upon Christ’s strength to sacrificially love their spouse. Agape love is not natural. It’s supernatural. We need Jesus!