Emperor Wang Tee of China is reported to have said to his wife, See Ling, "I have a problem. I notice that our mulberry trees are being damaged. I'd like for you to go and find out what's wrong with them."
So the empress discovered that a small, drab-colored moth was laying eggs on the leaves. The tiny eggs would hatch into little worms, which after a few days would spin cocoons and damage the leaves.
Wondering if she could destroy the little cocoons, she dropped one of them into a pot of boiling water. To her surprise, the cocoon began to slowly unwind. Soon she saw, glittering in the water, a silvery thread. Upon further inspection, the thread proved to be a half-mile long!
Thus, through the process of solving a problem, See Ling discovered something beautiful: silk.
Likewise, Dennis and I discovered the beauty of acceptance early in our marriage when we began to deal with some difficulties in our relationship. A couple of things — our differences and our personal insecurities — were eating away at the joy of our relationship, much like those little worms had eaten away at the mulberry leaves.
Discovering Our Differences
The old adage that "opposites attract" was really true for us. We were very different in many, many ways. For instance, Dennis was impulsive. He'd get an idea and, man, he'd be gone. I, on the other hand, tend to be very disciplined. I like to think things through and evaluate what we're going to do before we act. Often, during our first year of marriage, I found myself being left in Dennis's dust.
We also discovered other differences. Dennis was expressive; I tended to be quiet and cautious about what I said. Dennis wanted to spend money on fishing; I wanted to spend money on furniture.
In addition, both of us lacked self-confidence in certain settings. I was not good at meeting people at large social gatherings and tended to cling to Dennis. And he had some weaknesses that his boss pointed out to us one day during lunch. When I heard that, I remember thinking, Now what am I going to do with this information about my husband?
Like See Ling, we began to realize that we had a problem and we'd better find a solution if we wanted our marriage to be secure and happy.
We are not alone. Like flies at a summer picnic, differences buzz in the ears of many couples, threatening to rob their relationship of its peaceful, accepting love. As humorist Sam Levenson once said, "Love at first sight is easy to understand; it's when two people have been looking at each other for a lifetime that it becomes a miracle!" Someone else said, "Love is blind, but marriage is an eye-opener." As you move past the honeymoon stage, all those differences — those little "eye-openers" — begin to affect your marriage.
When the honeymoon fades and reality sets in, those unique things that once attracted you to your mate are often viewed as aggravating weaknesses. As a result, you may be faced with several decisions.
First, you must ask yourself, Will I continue to accept my spouse in this particular area of difference, or will I withdraw a portion of my acceptance, thereby driving a sliver of rejection between us? Ignoring the question doesn't work because differences don't go away. If you can't accept that annoying quality, you are actually rejecting your spouse (either silently or verbally), and his self-image will suffer. Your only two options are to accept him or to reject him.
If you choose to pursue acceptance, then another question arises: How do I live with this difference? Here are some suggestions:
1. Pray for yourself. Ask God to make you content with your spouse as he is. Pray, too, that God will show you the positive sides of your spouse's differences.
As I mentioned earlier, Dennis and I are extreme opposites on the impulsive/disciplined scale. When we were first married, his impulsiveness tended to drive my disciplined nature crazy. I felt that we had no order, no schedule, no budget, and no regular devotions.
I remember praying diligently for God to change all the things in Dennis I didn't like. Then I realized what really needed to be changed was my attitude. God did change my perspective, and in time I began to see how much I needed Dennis's spontaneity to balance my more rigid control.
Ask God to examine your attitudes and your motives and to give you a greater capacity to understand, accept, and even appreciate your spouse's differences. This step may be necessary before God can use you to elevate your spouse's self-esteem.
2. Talk about it with your spouse. Ask for the privilege of being heard. Tell him you are not rejecting him and that you remain committed. Assure him that he is loved, no matter what.
One thing we have learned in our marriage is that we are teachable at some moments but not at others. If you find that your spouse is not emotionally prepared to discuss a touchy issue, leave the subject alone. Don't try to force a confrontation.
You also may discover that the territory you are about to encroach upon is marked: NO TRESPASSING. It may be off limits at this point in his life. If so, be satisfied with exploring small bits of turf at a time. Do not expect (or try) to cover the whole country in one evening. Go slowly.
If your spouse is willing to talk about a difference that is bothering you, share your feelings without accusing him and pointing the finger of blame. Don't be critical. Let him know you realize that you're not perfect and that you understand him, or want to understand him, in this area. Realize, too, that we all have weaknesses or tendencies we will never completely conquer. Because of our fallen nature, we'll never achieve perfection until we reach heaven.
If your spouse considers a difference to be a weakness, ask if you can help. Then, at the end of your discussion, remind your spouse again of your commitment and acceptance. We call this the "bookend principle." Just as bookends are used to prop up books that contain truth, so your reminders of love and complete acceptance at both ends of the discussion will support the truth of what you have said. And it makes the truth a whole lot easier to hear!
3. Tutor your spouse (with his permission). As a couple, we continue to assist one another in many areas, such as punctuality, patience, planning, feelings of discouragement, anger, and worry. We have discovered that the many opposites that attracted us to each other when we were dating are the very things that have provided balance in our marriage. Our differences have made us more effective as a couple than we ever could have been individually.
If your spouse grants you permission to help, ask God for wisdom in how to help. Offer your assistance in such a way that your spouse experiences your acceptance and in no way senses rejection.
4. Ignore certain differences. Some of the annoying differences in your spouse may not be weaknesses. Commit those differences to the Lord in prayer, asking Him to give you peace and contentment to live with them, even if your spouse never changes. It is important to accept him as he is, without pressuring him to change. Choose to ignore the differences that are off-limits and seemingly beyond change, and rejoice over the many benefits you enjoy because of your spouse’s strengths.
Unconditional commitment, unconditional love
Our spouses need to hear words of commitment and acceptance from us, not just once but many, many times. Tell your spouse often how much you love him. Then tell him that you accept him just as he is.
Each time a difficulty arises in your relationship — a misunderstanding, a difference, or a clash of wills — remind your spouse (even in the heat of battle, if necessary) that you intend to remain loyal to him. Assure him that your commitment will not change because of this particular situation. Those infusions of truth will become the reinforcements you both need to work through difficulties in your marriage. Total acceptance will motivate you to persevere.
Also, tell your spouse occasionally that you'd choose to marry him again. This declaration will give him value and approval and build his self-esteem. It will remind him of the truth — that he is accepted.
Reprinted by permission. Adapted excerpt from Building Your Mate’s Self-Esteem © 1995 by Dennis and Barbara Rainey. Thomas Nelson, Inc. Nashville, Tennessee. All rights reserved.
Barbara Rainey has co-authored several best-selling books with her husband, Dennis Rainey, president of FamilyLife. She has also authored books of her own and is a regular contributor to MomLife Today, FamilyLife’s blog for moms.