January 29, 2020

Ruthlessly Pursuing Reconciliation

Gary Thomas — 

Caveat: This blog post is for those in relatively healthy, perhaps difficult, but not abusive relationships.

I was five thousand miles away, in a foreign country, without a phone in my hand, and I was arguing with Lisa. No, she couldn’t hear me. In fact, she was probably sleeping. Just because you’re not with your spouse doesn’t mean you’re not arguing with your spouse. For the passive amongst us (I’m a card-carrying member of this pathetic tribe), some of our biggest marital arguments happen when our spouse isn’t even there—and these fantasy arguments almost always do more harm than good (unless you’re humbly bringing God into the mix, inviting his correction and discernment).

Ann and Dave Wilson talk about the need to ardently pursue reconciliation in their fine book, Vertical Marriage: The One Secret that Will Change Your Marriage. The chapter “Tear Down that Wall” particularly spoke to me, as it points out an area I can be weak in—how to actively and even ruthlessly (in a good way), pursue reconciliation instead of just burying the disagreement with silence like a “good martyr.”

Ann (the chapter is in her voice) stresses that for a healthy marriage, both parties need to pursue reconciliation in a “proactive” way “at all costs.” “When resolution is no longer pursued by both parties, relationships are left to die.” A “stalemate” between “soulmates” is the death knell of marriage: “No matter who is most to blame here, I will take the initiative and move us toward resolution.”

This isn’t just about our marriage; it’s about our discipleship before God. Ruthlessly pursuing reconciliation is a command from Jesus: “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).

If we fail to forgive our spouse or pursue reconciliation (we’re not talking about physical abuse or a situation where reconciliation keeps you in a dangerous place) we actually can respond to a one-time sin (on the part of our spouse) with an ongoing sin (on the part of us!): “The offense is an act, but to stay offended is a choice. We must choose to move toward a resolution to this offense.”

Ann warns that “ignoring conflict is akin to turning up your car radio so you won’t hear that annoying grinding noise coming from your engine. Give it a few miles, and the noise will be the least of your problems.” She exposes me here; I’m a master at just turning up the radio.

I love the way Ann brings conviction to people like me: “When it comes to conflict [in marriage], nothing is worse than doing nothing.”

When I got married at 22, I hated and feared conflict. I thought the “holy response” was to “grin and bear it.” The lie behind that was that I could keep grinning and bearing without doing the hard work of honesty, confession, and forgiveness, all of which take courage I lacked. My silence set my marriage back rather than help move it forward. I was responsible for keeping our marriage somewhat immature.

Being married is being committed to pursue reconciliation at all costs. I love how practical Ann gets in this chapter, pointing out that the verse about “not letting the sun go down” shouldn’t be taken too literally. The principle is to resolve the situation as quickly as possible, but it’s often wise to get a good night’s sleep and reflect on it prayerfully rather than continue an argument past 3:00 a.m. when you’re both tired and on the verge of saying things that shouldn’t be said and can’t be unsaid. Dave is a pastor (who once shared my avoidance tendencies) and has a good take on this. When he and Ann started arguing one evening, he pointed out, “This ‘resolve it before the sun goes down’ deal can’t be literal—the sun went down hours ago, and we just started fighting. We’re good! We have until tomorrow night to resolve this thing!”

Ann also acknowledges the need to let your spouse pursue reconciliation in a way that honors who they are—including their own relational limitations. She confesses, “It would drive me crazy when [Dave] would respond with something like, ‘I honestly don’t know.’ I thought he was just trying to avoid conflict yet again. But the next morning, he would come to me and say, ‘Hey, I’ve had some time to think, and now I know what I’m feeling about our conflict last night.’ I’ve learned over the years that Dave just needs some time to process.”

World marathon record holder Eliud Kipchoge doesn’t fault his spouse for not being able to run a marathon in under two hours, even though he can;  it’s just as unfair to ask a spouse whose brain doesn’t work like yours to immediately work through their feelings if that’s not their neurological makeup.

Soft Words

Another practical tip offered by Ann is the biblical admonition to use “soft words” (Proverbs 15:1). Ann recalls a time when she had to leave on a speaking trip in a month’s time. She asked Dave to change a headlight that was out because she’d be driving in the dark. She reminded him at three weeks, two weeks, one week, and even the day before. You can guess what happened: Dave still “forgot.” Ann wasn’t just angry, she was hurt. She had left Dave and the boys a refrigerator full of meals and even put Scripture notes around the house to encourage them, and she had asked Dave a month ago to do just one thing: change the stupid headlight.

I can understand Ann’s hurt, anger, and frustration. As Dave sprinted into a Kmart to get the headlight (now making Ann potentially late for her five-hour trip), Ann had to surrender what she was really feeling to God: “Help me to be the wife I need to be because right now, I just want to hurt him.” 

After Dave got the headlight and put it in, he was repentant, and the time he spent in that parking lot under the hood gave Ann time to respond in a way she could be proud of. Dave came up to her window and said, “I’m so sorry. Are you okay?” They’ve been married for decades; Ann could read Dave’s face and knew “he was waiting to get blasted, and rightfully so.” To Dave and Ann’s surprise, Ann, by surrendering to God, just replied, “Honey, I’m okay.” Ann writes, “With those three soft words, a conflict that could have risen to epic proportions was instead defused.”

As I read this story, I thought of another “soft” way Ann possibly could have responded to this situation.  The day before, she could have gone into an auto shop and had them replace it for her. When Dave found out, she could say, “I know you’re busy.” As a husband, this would have hurt me (in a good way) even more. It’s not manipulative—it’s actually honoring. And it would make me double down on not wanting to let that happen again. But maybe that’s because anything more than filling up Lisa’s gas tank (which I try to do religiously) is beyond my skill level as a mechanic (but I excel at getting that gas in there!).

Using soft words also means the removal of ever uttering the harshest word: divorce. You’re pursuing reconciliation, not war, and certainly not separation. You don’t want a one-time event to seriously set-back a lifelong, ongoing relationship. Ann writes, “Remind yourself now to tell yourself then that the beautiful, two-eyed person you married is still in there somewhere, even though the good traits may be eclipsed by the anger and conflict you are experiencing at the moment. If you stop believing in who they are, you will stop treating them like who they are.”

A Right Heart

Near the end of the chapter, Ann brings us to the right place: being the people of God before we’re husband and wife (which is the point of their book, and why I love it so much). This calls us to surrender to God in every situation and to pursue the attitudes and actions that every child of God is called to. She quotes one of my favorite passages, the glorious Ephesians 4:31-32: “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” If we would just be this kind of people, our marriages would flourish and we could pursue reconciliation with joy.

Vertical Marriage would be a wonderful investment of time and money. (This isn’t a “sponsored” post—I’m not getting any money or benefits for making this recommendation)

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18 responses to Ruthlessly Pursuing Reconciliation

  1. Thank you for adding the caveat! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard from women who say these experts who speak about marriage don’t understand the abuse I’m enduring and how doing what they suggest doesn’t work. I felt the same way while married as well. Read some of your books and things got worse as his entitlement used helpful information against me. Again, thank you for the work you’re now doing!

  2. Would you say this would be a helpful book for those preparing for marriage or would it be better to read after marriage?

  3. I love this post. There has been so much dialogue lately on FB, various blogs, etc. about the book, “When to Walk Away” that it has been discouraging. That is a great book, and clearly it’s recent release has moved it to the forefront of conversation, but it was beginning to get overwhelming.

    This post is a superb counterpoint to that book. Sadly, there are those times when the wisdom in the book need to be applied, but so much more often reconciliation is the right course.

    In my own life, after years of letting various offenses and hurts direct my heart, God led me into a season of reconciliation. I had a lot to apologize for and to ask forgiveness for. Every relation I had was marred by something that either some offense that I had committed, or others that I had not forgiven fully. Some of the efforts I made immediately bore fruit, and others took longer. Some are still ongoing as well. But, I can praise God and say that every single relationship was restored. Even those that had been so strained by hurt and distance to have been essentially dead, are now healed beyond belief.

    With that said, I appreciate the book he wrote about when to sever relationships, I absolutely celebrate this post. I am so amazed at what God can heal.

  4. Mr. Gary Thomas,
    Thank you sir for your time in writing these blogs. They are so very helpful for me and those I love. God bless you and your family. Thank you again sir,
    Your an inspiration To us all.

  5. How true… some have to sleep on it. My husband used to take it litterly and not allow me to sleep till it was solved. It only increased the tension and yelling since i am an early to bed person. It’s 55 years now but the first 20 were horrible till finally in a church talk it was cleared up… let them sleep!

  6. My husband asked for a separation almost 4 years ago. We live separately and he makes very little attempts at reconciliation. I do all the work towards it. He recently told me he’s not in love with me anymore as well. I’ve prayed and am still praying for reconciliation. I have given him to God and don’t let it worry me as much anymore. Is it just time to let go and file for divorce?

  7. You mention that this doesn’t apply to physical abuse. You failed to mention emotional abuse, which actually does turn into physical abuse—it is at the expense of the abused one’s physical, emotional, and mental health. So relentlessly pursuing reconciliation turns out to be nothing more than a punishment for staying in the marriage and also enabling the abuser to continue in his ways. The reality is that this type of abuser RARELY changes, they can but they don’t want to. As long as they can keep their victim in their life, it’s good enough for them.

    • Karla, at the very top, before I typed a single word, I offered this sentence:

      “This blog post is for those in relatively healthy, perhaps difficult, but not abusive relationships.” I did not qualify it with “physical.” This isn’t to argue with you at all. I’m grateful you raised the issue so others could be reminded of how sensitive a topic this is.

      • There’s no biblical provision for divorce in abusive marriages. Emotional (or any kind of) abuse is relative and subjective. In a hypersensitive society where it’s about “me” and “my feelings”, one could argue that withholding sex, constantly trying to “work on” you marriage or making you go over the phone records or bank account statements, emails or text messages is “abusive.” Am I wrong? How is it defined and who gets to decide?

  8. What is the next step when you have applied the above for almost 9years after finding out your husband is a porn addict and while he says he is doing better and acts to your face and infront of others like he is this super religious moral and loving guy he is still lying to you about what he is doing behind your back. Everyone thinks he is such a great guy yet we carry around the weight of his secret sin.
    He says he is repented but never once has he confesses to it. It only comes up when I find more evidence and confront him. He is not getting better on better at covering up. Yet he makes very little effort to change. I am at the point now that I no longer believe a word he says and don’t trust him but he doesn’t seem to care.
    Any advise? Is it time to separate and move on? We only have a business partnership now. His actions have killed our marriage.

    • It’s one thing if you’re with a man who is truly repentant and working thru issues, it’s entirely different when there is very little effort to change. My advice, if it’s been that long and your marriage is dead, why keep letting it hurt your life. Find someone who truly values you. Maybe divorcing him will be what opens his eyes, but seriously, maybe that won’t work either.. Praying you have a good life Sandy.

      • Thanks. I have considered divorce but don’t want to put my children through that. Plus now there is a granddaughter.
        He says he is repentant but does not make any effort to get help.
        Hoping he will see how it is destroying him and us.
        Thanks Jess for your response.

    • Business Malindi January 29, 2020 at 2:04 pm

      I have found out that I need not count how many times I have to forgive my husband. Take your husband back to God and let God deliver him in God’s time. Persevere put yourself in your husband shoes. Will you allow God to help you stand in the gap for your husband. Remember you and your husband are one. Ask God to guide you on how to help and bear your husband’s burden. You can do this for God is for you.

    • Heather Peterson February 4, 2020 at 5:54 pm

      I can understand your pain. I lived with a sex addict for nineteen years before he completely repented and was saved by God. He is a completely different man now and the fight for purity is now supplied by grace. Before he was only fighting in his own strength and he lost so much until he hit bottom. The Lord told me to stay and pray and fight, none of which I felt like doing after so much hurt. I nearly lost all hope. Carrying the burden of this secret around was very difficult and my source of strength was to cast it on the Lord. I will say: He was faithful to me in ways people just could not be. When he hit bottom he did not love me, he hated me, hated God, gave me divorce papers and acted out in a way he never thought he would. But I am here to tell you there is HOPE. Every prayer I prayed all of those years has been answered. I will pray for you also. I strongly encourage you to make no decision to leave unless by faith you can say the Lord told you to leave. Any other decision will be a source of regret and second guessed for the rest of your life.

  9. My fiancee lives 2 hours away. She was having a minor(immense to me) health issue. She hadn’t talked with me in over 24 hours. I got concerned had an argument with her in my mind at 2am. I was positive she was dead on the floor! Boy was I mad. She’d lost her phone. We discussed and compromised on my communication expectations in the morning.

  10. Gary, What a blessed blog this morning. My wife is God’s favorite daughter. How He feels about her is how I want to feel about her. God being my helper, I want to love her with the love of Jesus. EVERY DAY! I need to learn to let the little things go. Easier to do for me than addressing the things that need to be addressed. Both are important to do. Thanks for the reminder. rusting God to help me “look under the hood” next time there is a foul noise. I love your honesty in your messages. I am praying for you from Florida Dick and Brenda

  11. Michelle Bennett January 29, 2020 at 6:05 am

    I have read this book – and it is wonderful. Very down to earth, but insightful in a way that you can relate back to your own situation. At the end of it all, we should be living our lives to please God, and from that all things flow.