Building the kind of marriage that God wants us to enjoy by Bill Hybels
The passages below are taken from Bill Hybels’ book “Honest to God?” published in 1990 by Strand Publishing.
Through a strange turn of events, Lynne and I recently found ourselves holding hands and skating around a 1950s-style roller rink in southern Wisconsin. Several times throughout the evening it struck me that I would rather be holding hands and skating with her than with any other woman in the world. Though I probably shouldn’t have been, I was amazed by the strength of my attraction for her.
I first met Lynne twenty years ago. We were seventeen, and believe it or not, we were at a roller skating party. I saw her out of the corner of my eye, carefully checked her out, and was just about to ask her to skate when the announcer stopped the music and said the next skate was ladies’ choice. Much to my delight, the first girl to invite me to skate was Lynne.
So began five years of courtship that led to the marriage I count as one of the greatest blessings of my life. Lynne and I enjoy an authentic love relationship that provides mutually satisfying companionship and intimacy.
But you know from reading the previous chapter that our marriage wasn’t always that way. The flames that flickered twenty years ago nearly died many times, and they didn’t hit their present bonfire level without a lot of fanning of the coals.
During those long years of working out our marriage, we learned a lot about the difference between an authentic and an inauthentic marriage. In an authentic marriage, you genuinely delight in one another’s uniquenesses. You also know how to give and receive love in such a way that you both feel loved. And you enjoy the fun, romantic side of your marriage so much that you don’t have any trouble keeping your affections centered at home.
In an inauthentic marriage, you may talk about treasuring your spouse’s uniquenesses, but in reality you barely tolerate them. You may try to offer one another love in meaningful ways, but often you and your spouse end up feeling unloved and misunderstood. And fun and romance? It’s something you wistfully long for, but it’s never more than a dream. The grass always looks greener somewhere else.
In this chapter I want to offer three suggestions for moving from an inauthentic marriage to an authentic one. First, learn to understand and appreciate inborn temperament differences. Second, learn the “language of love.” And finally, take practical steps to nurture the fun side of marriage.
A RUDE AWAKENING
I dated Lynne off and on for five years, but it was not until after the wedding that I found out the awful truth. Lynne was strange. She was not normal like me.
To begin with, she turned out to be a near-recluse. I would come home from an exciting, energizing day at work and suggest we invite friends over for the evening, and Lynne would say, “Sorry, I don’t feel like it. I’d rather have a quiet evening alone.”
I would say, “Who did you talk to today?’ and she would say “No one.”
I would say, “Why don’t you plan a getaway with your friends this weekend,” and she would opt out because of a good book she was “dying to read.”
I did my best to transform her relational life. I did everything I could to encourage her to be more social—like me. But to no avail. She persisted in being a hermit.
She even accused me of being a “relationship junkie.” She said I had too many relationships and didn’t take any of them seriously enough. She stooped so low as to suggest that I treated our marriage too casually, like just another relationship in my list of many.
Then there was the issue of her oversensitivity. One night we watched a television movie about a man who died in an airplane crash on his way to propose marriage to a beautiful, young paraplegic. You would have thought Lynne’s best friend had just died. She couldn’t sleep. She cried all night. When I tried to talk sense into her, and reminded her it was just a movie, she accused me of hard-heartedness. “Can’t you feel the pain of that tragic, broken romance?”
I would tell her about a couple I met whose finances were in shambles, and she would ask me what I was going to do about it. I’d say, “Nothing. It’s their problem. They made the wrong choices. They created the debt. Now it’s their responsibility to scrimp and save their way out of it.”
She would say, “But they were young. They probably didn’t know any better. If you got yourself in a jam like that, wouldn’t you hope somebody would help you out?” She was always worrying about how people felt, always wanting to take responsibility for their problems.
To me it seemed obvious that sometimes people have to learn lessons the hard way. Sometimes forcing them to do that is just what they need. She said I just didn’t care about people. That I was heartless and cruel. That I had no feelings.
Then there was the planning issue. She always had to have everything planned. The word spontaneity was not in her vocabulary. Whenever I said, “Let’s do ‘such and such’,” she had to take time to “get ready” or “make arrangements.” And when I changed plans or came up with a spur-of-the-moment idea, she accused me of being unpredictable and disorganized!
I don’t know why I had been so blind to all this while we were dating. It was suddenly so clear that this girl had problems.
An ancient Greek legend tells of a Cyprian king named Pygmalion who found a unique way of solving potential marital differences. He became so frustrated with his inability to find the right woman to marry that he decided to sculpt one. Out of the most exquisite ivory he could find he fashioned the woman of his dreams. When he was done, he bowed and prayed. The ivory woman miraculously came to life. Pygmalion took her as his wife and they lived happily ever after.
It’s easy to see why that legend endured. Wouldn’t you love to custom-design a wife, or a husband? Wouldn’t it be fun to take the chisel and chip away until you had the man or woman of your dreams? That’s exactly what many of us try to do to our spouses. For years I tried to chip away at what I thought were Lynne’s rough edges, those flaws that made her think, or behave, or respond differently from me. I truly believed that if I could just get her to be more like me, we could have a decent marriage. She thought the same about me. We each thought that we were the standard by which all others should be judged.
But God intervened. He used a book called Please Understand Me:Character and Temperament Types by David Keirsey and Marilyn Bates to reveal our mutual deception.
DIFFERENT ISN’T BAD
In the 1920s Carl Jung took a new look at the old theory that just as people are born with differing physical traits—tall or short, brown-eyed or blue-eyed, right-handed or left-handed—so they are born with differing temperament traits. In the 1950s Isabel Myers and Katheryn Briggs expanded Jung’s work and devised the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test, a tool for identifying personality types based on various combinations of inborn temperament traits.
Please Understand Me is an in-depth look at Jung’s theory and the applications made by Myers and Briggs. Lynne and I read it one year on vacation, and to say it revolutionized our marriage is no exaggeration. It dispelled the notion that there is one standard of “normalcy” and whoever doesn’t fit it is wrong.
The theory proposes that people approach four selected areas of life in ways that are fundamentally different—but equally right. These different ways of behaving are called preferences.
The first area of difference looks at where people get their energy and how this impacts their relational patterns.
Extroverts derive energy from social contact, so they prefer to be with people most of the time. People interaction charges them up. Long stretches of aloneness weigh on them. Solitary work makes them feel “antsy.” They need the stimulation of relationships, and they enjoy initiating and maintaining many of them. That’s what keeps them fresh and vital.
Introverts derive energy from solitude, so they prefer to spend a lot of time alone. Quiet hours give them strength. If they spend too much time with people they become emotionally drained. It’s not that they don’t like people; it’s just that they can’t take heavy doses of them. They have to carefully balance their people interaction with lengthy blocks of solitude. They prefer a few significant relationships rather than many casual acquaintances.
If an introvert and an extrovert go on a private vacation together, after three or four days the introvert decides it would be great to live that way forever—in near-seclusion. At that point, the extrovert starts running from hotel room to hotel room, knocking on doors. “Hi! Hi! How long are you staying? Where are you from? Do you want to have lunch?”
Who’s right? They both are.
The second area of possible difference deals with how people take in and handle information, and how they solve problems.
Intuitive people focus on ideas and possibilities. They’re imaginative people who constantly dream of better ways to do something, and ideas tend to pop full-blown into their heads during moments of inspiration. They are big-picture types who don’t like to get mired down in intricate details and procedures. They see a problem, think about it awhile, then solve it according to gut-level perceptions. They just say, “Trust me, I know. I have a hunch about this. It’s going to work out.”
Sensing people say, “I’ll trust you when I see the facts! Give me the pertinent data first.” They are as sensible and realistic as the intuitive are imaginative, and accomplish more through perspiration than inspiration. They take in information through their senses—what they can see, hear, smell, or touch. They’re very conscious of details, and more oriented to facts and figures than ideas and possibilities. They like charts and graphs and balance sheets, and meticulously follow their systems and procedures.
At our church board meetings I watch our board of directors wrestle with amazingly complex issues regarding the future of our church. They handle millions of dollars and make decisions that affect thousands of lives. The intuitors talk about the big picture, and come up with visionary plans for future growth and added ministries. The sensors reach for their calculators and start crunching numbers. They want to make sure the dreams are anchored in reality.
It’s a good thing for our church that we have both kinds of leaders.
The third area of differing preference has to do with how we make decisions.
Thinkers make decisions on the basis of clear logic and practicality. They take a cool, calculated approach and look at obvious cause and effect. If it makes sense, they do it. Clear and simple. Black and white. Thinkers are concerned about productivity, efficiency, profitability, effectiveness, and achievement of goals. If a thinking manager has to make a tough personnel decision, he decides what’s right, then carries it out without trauma. He says, “Paul, you may hurt for a while, but you’ll get over it. This is right for the company, and eventually you’ll realize that it’s best for you as well.”
Feelers base their decisions on more people-oriented implications. They tune in to people’s emotions and sentiments and ask, “How will this decision make them feel?” Because of this sensitivity, they agonize over confrontations and lose sleep over decisions that impact other people. They have a heightened ability to empathize. They are concerned with things like peace, harmony, and understanding.
When feelers see people in pain, they can actually feel the pain themselves. They have no trouble crying with those who cry. When thinkers see people in pain, they take a logical, unemotional approach. They determine the source of the problem or pain and suggest practical ways to alleviate it. Obviously the world needs both—people who can feel deeply and empathize, and people who can move ahead with practical solutions.
This last category deals with basic life orientation.
Structured people prefer a predictable routine. They thrive on organization. They respond well to deadlines, rules, and policies. They like to make a plan and stick with it. They’re frustrated by interruptions, surprises, or change. The fewer uncertainties there are in their lives, the happier they are. I call them “just-settle-it” people. They like it when the decisions are made, the plans are set, and everything’s settled.
Unstructured people prefer spontaneity. They disdain routines, rules, and deadlines, and avoid planning at all costs. They prefer to let the day unfold naturally, and see what adventure might be just around the corner. They’re unpredictable and oftentimes disorganized. I call them “play-it-by-ear” people, because they like life best when it’s unplanned and unsettled, when all the options are open.
You can imagine the frustration that occurs when structured and unstructured people work or live together. They can drive each other crazy.
Lynne and I didn’t have to read far to see why we had problems. Our “fundamental differences” were glaring.
We’re both intuitive, so we didn’t have to deal with “Intuitive/Sensing” conflicts. But in every other category we were extreme opposites. I’m an extrovert; Lynne’s an introvert. I’m off the charts as a thinker; she’s the ultimate feeler. I’m unstructured; she prefers structure.
As we looked back over the years, we realized we had some heavy duty apologizing to do.
For years I had tried to get Lynne to be more relational, not
realizing that God made her to thrive in an environment rich in solitude. He gave her gifts, abilities, and talents that need to be nurtured in quiet aloneness. Because I didn’t understand that, I pushed her into a lifestyle that depleted her energy and left her empty. And then I wondered why she was frustrated, unhappy, and unproductive.
During those same years Lynne questioned my love for her because of what she considered my extreme involvement with friends and colleagues. She assumed I found her boring or undesirable. Why else would I crave so many outside relationships? She made me feel guilty for my sociability, and then wondered why I felt stifled and trapped.
Now we do everything possible to free one another to be who God made us to be. I free Lynne to live a quieter, more solitary life. She frees me to enjoy the level of relationality I naturally desire.
What a difference that’s made! Lynne has blossomed as a woman, wife, mother, and servant of Christ as she’s pursued a quieter life. At the end of a day I love hearing about the work she’s accomplished, the book she’s read, or the insights she’s gained during her solitary hours.
As I’ve pursued and nurtured a multitude of relationships, I’ve been stretched and challenged to become a better man. In the end that’s enhanced my relationship with Lynne. She brings to our relationship the strength of her solitude, and I bring the stimulation of my interactions. The same differences that used to hinder our relationship now enhance it. What we tried so hard to change, we now cherish.
The same is true in the thinking/feeling area. For years Lynne accused me of being heartless and cruel because I so easily made tough decisions that made people uncomfortable or upset. I thought she was neurotic and mushy because she was so unrealistically concerned about how people felt and what they thought.
Yet we each have a perspective that our world, church, family, and relationship desperately needs. My tough decision making has to be softened by Lynne’s sensitivity. Her empathy has to be balanced by my practicality.
What about the structured/unstructured conflict? It’s the same old story. For years we locked horns. She was frustrated by my unpredictability, and I was impatient with her planning. But once we understood our fundamental difference, we could work around it.
Now I make it a point to alert Lynne to changes or new ideas as soon as possible so she can have time to plan and prepare. And I’ve come to appreciate her organizational abilities. Our family life would be chaos if she didn’t keep me and the kids in order.
At the same time, Lynne has learned to be more flexible and accept my spontaneity. And she’s learned that it’s okay to set aside the schedule now and then and “play it by ear.” It can even be fun.
Once again, our differences have become benefits. I provide the adventure; she provides the plan that makes the adventure work.
Do you see how important it is to understand these fundamental temperament differences? It’s hard to love someone authentically when you don’t understand them. It’s hard to resolve conflicts when you can’t see the underlying issues. Lynne and I could have avoided years of frustration if we had realized that we weren’t better or worse than one another—just different. When you accept and quit passing moral judgment on those differences, you open the door for workable compromise. You end up delighting in the very differences that once caused division.
What about you? Do you and your spouse need to patiently understand each other’s ways of behaving that stem from different inborn temperament traits? Then do it! Or better yet, find a counsellor who can give you the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test, and help you work through the results. It’s an investment that could revolutionize the most important relationship in your life.
YOU GOTTA SAY IT RIGHT
The second key to establishing authenticity in marriage is learning the appropriate language of love.
Several years ago I met a man at a social function at our church. During our conversation, he repeatedly referred to how much he loved and appreciated his wife. He told me how much he delighted in her presence and how easy it was to tell her he loved her. I reflected later that it was refreshing to meet a man so enthused about his marriage.
A short time later, this man’s wife came to me for counselling. Her problem was her relationship with her husband. She was convinced he didn’t love her. I couldn’t believe it!
After several sessions with the husband and wife together, guess what I learned? The husband really was in love with his wife; he had not lied to me. But I also learned that the wife really did not feel loved. For some reason, her husband’s expressions of love were not doing the job.
I didn’t understand why they had this problem. If he loved her, why couldn’t she feel it? I’ve learned since then that the husband was simply not speaking the right language. He was expressing love, but not in terms his wife could understand.
Just as we have inborn preferences regarding relational patterns, problem solving, decision making, and structure, so we have preferences in regard to giving and receiving love. Most of us aren’t aware of this, but it’s true. We each prefer certain “languages” of love.
Here are some of the common ones.
Touch. Some people just naturally touch the people they love. If they want to tell someone they love them, they kiss their cheek, or hold their hand, or gather them up in a bear hug. That’s what comes naturally to them.
Verbal expression. When these people feel love welling up within them, their only comfortable outlet is their mouth. “I love you. I love you.” While some people find it hard to express their love in words, these people can’t stop.
Service. These people communicate love by serving the beloved. For them, love isn’t love unless it’s demonstrated in practical terms—wallpapering the kitchen, washing the car, preparing favorite meals.
Providers. These people consider their breadwinning to be the greatest expression of their love. Providers go to great lengths to ensure that even after they’re gone, their loved ones will be well- provided for.
Gift-givers. These people keep the department stores solvent. They love to buy little gifts (or big ones), wrap them beautifully, and present them with childish glee to the ones they love.
Opportunity enthusiasts. These people like to think of ways to challenge and inspire their loved ones to greatness. Their goal is to open up opportunities that will offer stimulation and fulfillment.
Time-given. These people are primarily concerned with fellowship. They’re willing to rearrange their schedules so they can offer large blocks of time to the significant people in their lives.
As you go down this list, can you pick out your preferred language of love? Can you pick out your spouse’s? Do you both speak the same language?
A CLEAN MISS
For years Lynne and I spoke different languages of love and didn’t even know it.
Lynne decided early in our marriage that to communicate love to me, she needed to speak the language of the Galloping Gourmet. She knocked herself out every evening to prepare lovely meals that she thought would make me feel loved. They didn’t. I’m not a connoisseur of fine foods, and a gourmet meal says the same thing to me as a tuna sandwich.
I finally told her that. I said, “Don’t spend all this time on fancy meals. It doesn’t matter to me. Just sit down and talk to me. Tell me I’m great. Call me a super-husband. Encourage me. Cheer me on. That’ll make me feel loved.”
Being an introvert, Lynne is not naturally free with words. But when she learned I needed to hear love, she disciplined herself to become more verbally expressive. To put it bluntly, she learned to tell me what I needed to hear. Sometimes she even writes little notes and sticks them on my minor, so I can start the day with her words of affirmation.
Another way I enjoy receiving love is through having people open doors of opportunity for me. Because I appreciate this, I assumed Lynne would, too. For years I did everything in my power to offer opportunities that would stimulate and inspire her. I urged her to take flying lessons, or skydiving lessons, or go helicopter skiing in the Rocky Mountains. What an encourager I was.
Finally she said, “Bill, why are you always pushing me? I feel like you’re never satisfied with what I’m doing. You’re always trying to head me off in new directions. I wish that once in a while you would just put your arms around me, hold me, and let me feel loved and accepted just the way I am.”
I was shocked. I thought I was doing her a favor, and in reality I was making her feel pressured and inadequate. What she really needed was a loving embrace, but that honestly never crossed my mind.
Do you see how important it is for spouses to understand and communicate their preferences for receiving love? Most of us mistakenly assume our spouses want to receive love the same way we do. So whatever language comes most naturally to us, we use with them. That usually doesn’t work.
We must tell one another which love language communicates most clearly to us. It’s not hard to learn new ways of communicating love. And it can transform a marriage where spouses hope they’re loved into a marriage where they know they are.
Here’s a personal challenge. Look over the seven languages of love I described, and decide which you prefer to give and receive. Have your spouse do the same. Then go out for dinner and discuss your findings. If this helps you as much as it did Lynne and me, you’ll be on the road to a more loving marriage—immediately.
LET’S HAVE PUN!
One afternoon, shortly after we were married, Lynne and I heard a noisy commotion in our front yard. We ran out and found a big, custom-painted Harley Davidson motorcycle with two riders in black leather jackets and big black helmets with tinted visors that covered their faces. They had driven right up on our sidewalk, and the driver was revving the engine as high as possible. Finally, the rider on the back slid off, removed her helmet—and it was Lynne’s mother!
Here was my demure mother-in-law, and my hardworking father-in-law sitting on a motorcycle in the middle of my sidewalk! They had ridden over from Michigan to surprise us.
I was shocked. I was speechless.
Finally Lynne said, “Relax, Bill. It’s no big deal. They do things like this all the time.”
For years I had been impressed with Lynne’s parents’ marriage. It was so obvious that after decades of marriage they were still madly in love with one another. Finally I learned the secret of their success: “They do things like this all the time.”
That was it. They had learned to have fun together, to break out of the routine, to be friends and lovers again. When you do that on a regular basis, it’s almost impossible for a marriage to go bad.
One of the major reasons for marital breakdown is plain old- fashioned boredom. A couple establishes, a routine—they do their work, handle family business, fulfill social obligations, watch TV—and before they know what’s happening their relationship goes stale.
Maybe they don’t scream and yell and fight. But neither do they enjoy the “ecstasies of marital bliss.” They talk now and then, but they’re certainly not soul mates. They go through the motions of sex, but even that’s more routine than it is romantic.
How can we avoid that pattern? Here are four ideas:
1. Lynne and I decided to begin by becoming religiously devoted to our weekly date. Every Thursday morning we go out for a long breakfast and “catch up” on one another’s lives.
We relate anecdotes about our week and discuss decisions or family plans we have to make. Sometimes we talk about books we’ve both read. Occasionally we spend the morning in the tunnel of chaos, working through conflicts that have risen since our last meeting. That’s not fun, but it keeps molehills from growing into mountains, and frees us to enjoy one another again.
If you were to ask either of us to name our favorite time of the week, we’d say Thursday morning. We need that time to pull ourselves out of our busy schedules, drop the responsibilities of work and family life, and just be Bill and Lynne, out on a date like we were twenty years ago.
Why a breakfast date instead of a candlelight dinner? We’re both morning people and want to give each other the best time of our day. If you’re night people, go for dinner. If you’re one of each, split the difference and go for high tea. What’s important is that you find a workable time and stick with it.
2. We’ve made it a point to develop common fun interests. Though most people wouldn’t consider “running” a fun activity, we’ve found that it is when we do it together. Often when the weather’s nice we run together when I get home from work. We also enjoy nature and found a beautiful, secluded area not far from home where we can take long, quiet walks. When we’re in a more rambunctious mood, we ride trail bikes at a friend’s farm. In the summer we swim, windsurf, and pursue our favorite leisure activity—sailing.
Why is it so important to do things like this? Because when we’re having fun with one another we see each other in a new light. We recapture the feeling of youthfulness and vitality we had when we first met. We joke and laugh and break down inhibitions. We create an aura of warmth and love and closeness.
3. We make frequent use of overnight getaways and vacations. Everything that is accomplished on a weekly date is multiplied during extended times away. For years Lynne and I were careless and sporadic about this. We were so busy with ministry and kids that it seemed impossible to get away.
But when we started seeing Christian leaders all around us shipwrecking their marriages, we decided we had to do something to keep that from happening. So we committed ourselves to taking periodic breaks for relaxation, refreshment, and fun.
Every time we return from a trip, whether we’ve been gone for two days or two weeks, we’re amazed anew at the progress we’ve made in our relationship and the closeness we feel.
4. We’ve made a mutual commitment to make our sexual relationship everything it was meant to be. When we got married, we committed ourselves to sexual fidelity. We said, “All our sexual hopes and expectations we give to one another. We will never seek to satisfy them elsewhere.”
That means that if Lynne is ever going to be swept off her feet by a knight in shining armor, I’m going to have to do the sweeping. And if I’m ever going to have my sexual dreams come true, Lynne’s going to have to make them happen. We believe we owe it to one another to do everything we can to fulfill one another’s sexual needs.
In theory, of course, that sounds easy. In reality, it’s a tall order. At least it was for us.
The chronic over scheduling in the early years of our marriage, and the unresolved tensions that existed because we weren’t willing to face our tunnel of chaos, created hostility that made meaningful lovemaking impossible.
So our commitment to sexual satisfaction meant we had to go back to the beginning and work through the issues that had created the hostility. Only then were we free to experience and express genuine feelings of love.
We also had to learn that mutually satisfying sex doesn’t begin in the bedroom. It begins in the restaurant where we meet for breakfast, in the kitchen where we stop for a brief conversation before the kids come in for dinner, in the backyard where we sit in lawn chairs and talk over the day.
When men complain to me that their wives aren’t interested in their sexual relationship, I often ask what kind of communication patterns exist in their marriage. Do they enjoy meaningful conversations with their wives on a regular basis? There’s an undeniable tie between conversational intimacy and physical intimacy.
Another key to sexual fulfillment relates to the previous point in this chapter: learning the language of love. Someone who genuinely feels loved is much more enthusiastic about lovemaking than someone who doesn’t. For many people, sexuality is deeply tied to emotional and psychological realities.
Achieving mutually satisfying sex is no simple matter. But it’s worth all the time, effort, and creativity it demands. At one time sex was the greatest frustration in our marriage. Now it provides the greatest fun.
What is an authentic marriage? It’s a marriage where differences are seen as blessings. Where spouses really feel loved. And where routine gives way to conversation, fun, and romance.
For some people it seems like a far-off dream. But it’s not an impossible goal. Why not renew your commitment to building the kind of marriage God wants you to enjoy. (67-80)
1. Keirsey and Bates call this last category “Judging vs. Perceiving.” In choosing to call it “Structured vs. Unstructured,” I have undoubtedly over-simplified a very complex distinction. These terms, however, seemed to help my congregation grasp the essence of the authors’ meaning.