Robert has an admittedly sordid history with pornography. He has been in recovery for years, has set up appropriate accountability and has gone out of his way to rebuild his marriage.
He has (in his words) “devoured” my book Cherish and has sought to apply every principle in every chapter. He knows he can never remove the hurt he has caused his wife in the past. He knows she will always feel a sense of betrayal, but he is working diligently to cherish her in the present in order to give her hope for the future. He has kept a “cherishing journal.” He makes the bed every day, praying that God would bring joy back into their intimacy. He keeps fresh flowers in the bedroom. And he has learned to make sex all about his wife’s pleasure. She is discovering, to her great delight, that it’s possible for a thoughtful middle-aged husband to help his wife experience two or more “standing ovations” during a single performance.
His efforts outside the bedroom are just as intense. On vacation, he plans for her enjoyment and fun. He tries to make the most of every birthday and anniversary (as well as Valentine’s Day).
On a recent birthday, he researched and purchased the perfect birthday present for her and couldn’t wait to give it to her (though he waited to let her sleep in). She was delighted when she opened it. He then had two options for breakfast—her favorite restaurant or her favorite meal at home. She opted for the restaurant.
Robert took great pains to get ready. His wife had scolded him for always wearing a “Jerry Seinfeld” outfit of jeans and running shoes, so he picked out an outfit that he thought would perhaps even impress her.
“Gary,” he told me, “I came out of the bedroom all dressed up, feeling like a boy who is looking at his mom before he goes to school, hoping she’d be impressed that I have listened and changed, and the only thing she said was, ‘Your shirt is wrinkled.’”
Robert didn’t respond the way he wishes he would have or should have. But this was not the first such “bubble busting” occurrence. He knows he has messed up. But he also knows he has changed and that there has been great improvement in virtually every aspect of their marriage. He doesn’t want his wife to pretend the past never happened, but he does want her to acknowledge that the present is very different.
“Our family knows her as a ‘bubble buster,’” Robert explained. “The family joke is that when one of her grandchildren is old enough to draw her a picture, she’s likely to say, ‘The leaves are the wrong color.’”
Forgiveness is difficult. It takes time to fight past resentment and contempt for a spouse’s past failings. But if you have decided to work through whatever the issue was, then part of working through it is learning to “reboot” your brain and acknowledge the progress your spouse has made. Sometimes, we fear that acknowledging a new present might diminish the hurtful past. That’s not true. That’s a lie. But you punish yourself and your spouse if you keep acting like nothing has changed.
Robert remains committed to cherishing his spouse. I admitted to him that one of the potential weaknesses of Cherish is that marriage is much sweeter when both spouses embrace the message. Lisa and I are in the midst of our best marital years by far because we are both committed to the idea and practice of cherishing each other. Doing so makes marriage very sweet, indeed.
“Unilateral” cherishing still makes marriage better, but it’s not the same and it won’t produce the same results. It can help, but the marriage will still have its weaknesses.
If your spouse is trying to grow, don’t hold her or him back by nailing them to the past. Acknowledge the growth. Don’t compare them to where you wish they would be, especially if your wish is a perfect spouse. Compare them to what they were, be thankful for the growth and encourage them.
My fear is that Robert may be tempted to give up. He has had many doors slammed in his face. My prayer for him and my counsel for him is to persevere, and to find creative ways to share with his spouse how this “bubble busting” is holding both of them back.
I wish his spouse would read Cherish. She’s of the mindset, however, that because Robert is the one who “messed up,” he’s the one who needs to experience all of the “fixing.” She’s missing out on some sweeter seasons of marriage, perhaps not realizing how far a husband will go to preserve a cherishing marriage once he tastes it.
Let’s pause for a moment and ask ourselves, do we acknowledge our spouse’s growth? Are we comparing them with how much better they are now than they used to be, or are we downgrading them because they’re still not where we think they should be? Do we think discouragement fosters more change than encouragement? Wouldn’t you rather go out on a date with an enthusiastic and earnest husband who has a wrinkled shirt than blow up a date by essentially saying, “I know you tried really hard, but you still don’t quite measure up?”
[As always with posts of this kind, I want to emphasize that I am not calling wives in abusive and violent marriages “bubble busters.” There are some marriages from which women need to be saved, and cherishing isn’t an appropriate strategy to confront violence.]
If you’re a wife reading this who recognizes a little bit of herself in Robert’s wife, I urge you to consider getting a copy of my newest book Loving Him Well: Practical Advice for Wives to Influence Their Husbands. It’s a substantial re-write of Sacred Influence. You can read more about it here: http://www.garythomas.com/books/loving-him-well/