“At our deepest levels… we have become more passionate than reasonable.” Larry Crabb
“Your love is better than wine.” Song of Solomon 1:2
“You’re my water, you’re my wine,
You’re my whiskey from time to time.” Over the Rhine
I must confess… (swallow)… that a few weeks ago I called my wife a bitch. Seriously. And right to her face. We were fighting in the car and I wanted to be heard. And so I found the worst word to call her and, well, it worked. She heard me alright and promptly stopped talking. And I promptly inserted my foot, shoe and all, in my mouth and swallowed it whole. Yeah, that’s right; I’m a Christian marriage counselor. I choked that one down too. While I’m at this confessional thing, let me get this off my chest, too. When I told her this week I was writing about the time I called her a bitch, she asked, “which time?”
Recently, I heard some other fight stories from a few friends. One friend confessed that she had called her husband a mother $%&#er in the heat of a fight over money. And this is a pastor’s wife. You better believe he had his own choice words. Worse yet, the windows were open to their house, with the neighbors right next door. I don’t remember the Good Samaritan having a dirty mouth. But, well enough, this couple did. Another friend with us, grinned a big smile, and recalled a similar story of when he dropped the F-bomb on his wife as she slammed the bathroom door in his face. She was out of the bathroom fast as lightning. “Did you just say ‘&%#$ you’?” He nodded in shame and they both burst out laughing at his obvious childish move.
What is with these people? What is with me? I mean seriously, did I think calling my wife a bitch was going to help anything? I did go to preschool. And I did learn that name calling is neither a loving, nor productive means of communication. My goodness, I’ve had graduate level coursework in marriage counseling! I know that love requires the vulnerable communication of needs and feelings. And yet, in the midst of love’s battles, something else kicks in for me, something beyond my education.
I’ve learned I’m not alone in this struggle. When couples call me for marriage counseling, the number one issue they complain about is their communication. “We need to learn some communication skills!” they cry. And almost none of these couples have ever needed to be taught actual communication skills. Business owners, pastors, nurses, lawyers, psychologists, mothers of children – these are successful people! There is no way they’ve accomplished any of this without basic relational aptitude. Communication skills are not the problem. I know now that they just do not know how else to descirbe to me the outrageous, out of control behaviors they’ve engaged in when they fight.
So what is it about our most intimate relationships that drive us to do the most immature, down right harmful things ever to each other?
Author and marriage therapist Sue Johnson has this take on it. “I see distressed couples who are amazingly articulate and show exquisite insight into their own behaviors, but cannot talk to their partners in a coherent way when the emotional tsunami hits. The standard remedies do not address yearnings for or threats to emotional connection.” Yes, that’s it! Our need for love and our fear of losing it is so primal as to drive us mad when its threatened. In an inherently vulnerable relationship, we are compelled beyond reason itself to protect our deepest selves. We will do whatever it takes to survive. All is fair in love and war, as the saying goes.
The writer of Song of Solomon may have said it best when he compared love to wine. I hear him saying something like: Love is an experience like being drunk. It renders you more out of control, more out of your mind than an intoxicating binge. And when love is good, no problem – the more out of control, the better! Take sex as an example. Lovers expose themselves in utter nakedness. And then give themselves to the other person for total exploration, total free commentary, total enjoyment. The more abandon involved in their intercourse, the greater the orgasm. Whoa, yeah, that is better than any amount of wine!
Ah, if only our vulnerability were met with safe, trustable love every time. We would risk it all. We would never fear. We would never fight. We could always drink love to the dregs. We would be emotional nudists! But love this side of Eden is fraught with uncertainty, with fear, with hurt, with disappointment. We can and will get hurt at some point in every relationship. And as such, we reach for whatever defenses will minimize our disappointment, assuage our pain, hedge our bets. The best defense is a good offense. As Larry Crabb says, “We feel irrationally driven to keep away from the people who (we think) could destroy us even though we thereby create the very isolation we fear. But we see no other choice.”
So here’s a little word of comfort for you: Studies show that having fights has nothing to do with the success or failure of your marriage (John Gottman). The goal of your marriage should not be trying to never, ever fight. It matters only that eventually you do the exact opposite of your instincts to defend and confess the truth of your soul, that we are all desperate for love and scared to death of its vulnerability. Every single one of us. As Rob Bell says, we are all naked underneath our clothes. This ain’t rocket science, folks! But our cognitive abilites have never been the problem anyway.