In a book on soul keeping, John Ortberg gets about as honest as any writer I’ve ever read in revealing the petty ways we allow “little” spiritual sins to spoil our marriage. His words are a great springboard for us to discuss how it’s impossible to have a healthy marriage while harboring a sick soul.
“I suppose that the person I have sinned against the most is my wife…I had asked that question many times: ‘How do you know when you’re in love?’ The answer I always got — the answer I wanted to believe — was ‘You just know…’ With Nancy I just knew. Except for when I didn’t. Except for when she did something that bothered me, something that didn’t fit perfectly with my idealized, romanticized notion of what it would mean to have the greatest relationship ever. When she would do something I didn’t like — when she disagreed too vehemently or I felt as if she was getting too directive — I would feel something turn cold inside of me. I would distance myself from her by making less eye contact and touching her less and speaking a little coldly.”
This is marvelous writing in a marvelous book (Soul Keeping: Caring for the Most Important Part of You), and I’m hoping John won’t mind the copious quotes since I’m also hoping this will help sell a ton of his books.
Unfortunately, I recognize way too much of myself in John’s account (maybe that’s why it resonated with me so much), particularly during the earlier years of my marriage. That coldness I felt, which led me to respond with “less eye contact and touching her less and speaking a little coldly” sends (sorry for the pun) chills up my spine because that was me. I wasn’t verbally or physically abusive. That would have been too obvious. I’ve never used a swear word talking to Lisa and I’ve never even said something intentionally to hurt her. But I was good at withholding warmth. I’m ashamed of that. I hate it, looking back, but that’s what an immature person in marriage does.
John Ortberg continues:
“On the night of our rehearsal dinner, which was supposed to be all music and magic, she did or said something that I did not like (and that I no longer have any memory of), but I remember with great clarity sitting in the car with her late into the night. In tears, Nancy said, ‘If you don’t want to marry me, say so.’ Love, anger, withdrawal, coldness, pain, guilt, melting. All this at a level too deep for my knowing. I had to keep two incompatible thoughts in my mind: ‘I am a good person’ and ‘I want to inflict pain.’ So I had to separate them from each other; I had to disintegrate my mind. This pattern became so embedded that my will couldn’t stop it. We honeymooned in Wisconsin. A few days into our marriage, she moved toward me romantically, but I withdrew behind a book. I would intimate to her that I did not want sex, even though really I always wanted sex. But I knew my coldness would hurt her a little. My sin crept into my sex life.”
The problem of marriage is the problem of unformed or ill souls relating through unhealthy responses. It’s not primarily about communication, finances, conflict resolution or in-laws. It’s about our sick souls. Even when we really desire something like sex, we’ll deny ourselves to make our spouse pay.
I counseled a couple where the husband also did this. Ironically, they had been fighting about him wanting sex more often! When his wife made herself more than available and even initiated in a provocative way, he remembered something she had done earlier in the day and thought he would make her pay by turning her down, even though he had wanted sex for a really long time.
He so wanted her to hurt that he was willing to hurt himself even more. There’s a little bit of the kamikaze pilot in all of us when it comes to marriage. Sick souls make sick decisions even when those decisions take a pound out of our own flesh.
“Sometimes if we were with other people and she said something I didn’t like, I would get a little distant and polite with her and make a little more eye contact and grow a little warmer toward whomever we were with. My mind was conflicted with thoughts of love and thoughts of bitterness; my feelings were split between intimacy and coldness. My will would move away from her in anger until things got really bad and she cried and I would feel guilty and move back toward her. My face and the tone of my voice could create the effect on her that I wanted without ever being totally open about the deeper recesses of my mind and will. Sin was in my anger. Sin was in my deception. Sin was in my body — the way I would use my face to both conceal and to hurt.”
John correctly identifies that the key issue keeping him from loving his wife was sin. It wasn’t that he didn’t understand her as a woman. It wasn’t that he hadn’t learned her love language. It wasn’t that they were so different he didn’t know what to do. John knew exactly what to do, but a sick soul kept him from doing it.
“Nancy wanted us to see a counselor. We did for a few times that first summer, but I did so quite grudgingly. And then no more after that, not for many years. I had a doctorate in clinical psychology because I believed other people needed help, but not me. Sin was in my pride. Sin was in my stubbornness. Marriage is revealing. If only I had eyes to see the sin in just about every area of my life. . . . This dance of withdrawal and approach continued on-and-off for fifteen years. It was not the only dynamic in our marriage; we genuinely loved and enjoyed each other. But withdrawal was always at least beneath the surface, hibernating until the next painful episode. And then it got much worse. I had been colder longer and meaner than maybe ever before. Nancy got back from a two-week trip, but I still did not thaw. I remember picking her up at the airport and still being politely distant; I can remember our eight-year-old daughter at the airport trying to push the two of us together for a hug. She knew that we were pushing apart. Children always know more than we think. That night Nancy told me that she could not do the dance anymore. She wasn’t going anywhere. But this dynamic was not about her. It was trouble inside of me, and I would have to work it out somehow.”
John didn’t “fix” his marriage by going to a marriage conference or reading a marriage book. He decided to tend to his soul:
“This began a year of anxiety and depression, of counseling and journaling, of little steps and painful talks and looking at the ugliness inside myself that I had never known was there. The lost soul that I had gone into ministry to save was my own. I called Dallas [Willard] and flew back to Box Canyon. We went for a long walk and a long drive. I tried to describe what was happening with Nancy and what I was learning about my own need to be seen — and to see myself — as someone other than who I really was. Dallas’s wife, Jane, joined us for a while; she works as a counselor and a spiritual director. She drew a little diagram that I have to this day, illustrating how certain people view themselves as either the inflated superior being or the worthless empty person no one could love. I began to feel my deep lostness. As I unburdened myself to Dallas, I began to understand another soul truth: Confession really is good for the soul. The soul is healed by confession. Sin splits the self. It split me. It meant I tried to pretend in front of Nancy; I tried to pretend before the church that I was a better husband than I was. Sin divided my will; I wanted closeness, yet I wanted to inflict pain when I felt hurt. As long as I keep pretending, my soul keeps dying.”
If the marriage books and conferences aren’t working for you, take a step back, follow John’s example, and tend to your soul (of course, in the case of abuse, the problem isn’t your sick soul—it’s the sick abuse coming from your spouse). It is only out of a healthy soul that we can build a healthy marriage.
I’m not suggesting you put the problems in your marriage on a shelf and forget about them. Instead, you’re simply becoming stronger spiritually so that when you take up the problems again, you’ll have new power, new insight, and renewed motivation. Working on your soul is like cross-training for your marriage—it may not seem specific to the sport, but it increases fitness all around.
How do you become more spiritually fit? John’s book out of which these quotes were taken (Soul Keeping: Caring for the Most Important Part of You) would be an excellent place to start. He mentions Dallas Willard, whose books Renovating the Heart or The Spirit of the Disciplines would be fine follow-ups. Some of my own books related to soul building would include Thirsting for God, The Glorious Pursuit, and Holy Available.
Trying to build a healthy marriage with a sick soul is like trying to build a fire without any oxygen. It’s just not going to take. A healthy marriage begins with healthy souls.
Thank you, John, for your honesty, your vulnerability, your wisdom, and your faithfulness to keep pursuing God and your wife so that we could benefit from your story decades later.