Your Marriage Might Need Extra Sauce (and other things you didn’t expect)

I’m delighted to share an excerpt from Dorothy Greco’s EXCELLENT new book Making Marriage Beautiful today. I’m so tired of the “30 days/5 ways to being a happier/sexier/better spouse” type of stuff out there. I long for real wisdom that has stood the test of time, and which holds out hope even for hapless folk like me. This is a practical, funny, biblical and HELPFUL book. It doesn’t have a single cheesy “just plan a date night!” suggestion. Instead, it has stories about looking at ourselves and our loved ones with kinder, better eyes, and making small, doable beautiful changes day by day which add up to a lifetime of joy. See for yourself.

The first time I went to my husband’s house for Thanksgiving, was the first time I was confronted with my ethnocentric tendencies. There was twice as much food as needed, including lime Jell-O and canned green beans submerged in a thick, gray sauce. The turkey was ceremoniously placed front and center, and then his mother brought out two huge trays of lasagna. Lasagna. With extra sauce (this is important) and meatballs. For Thanksgiving.

After a prayer, the curtain went up and the opera began. Unlike at my home, there was no turn taking or insightful follow-up questions. One person simply started talking—to no one in particular—and then another layered their thoughts on top but not before turning up the volume. Then a third and fourth jumped in, making it impossible to really listen to anyone—something I eventually learned was not a priority. I’ve never been a fan of opera and even less so when I’m thrust into it without an opportunity to rehearse my lines. This experience helped me better understand Christopher, but I was not able to extrapolate his genetically coded mealtime expectations until we had a substantial fight not long after.

At our inaugural dinner party, we invited three couples over. The conversation was lively and the food excellent. Everyone seemed to enjoy the evening—except Christopher, who made several less-than-affirming comments about my culinary efforts. This same scenario played out multiple times before I pointedly inquired, “Why are you so critical of how I prepare meals for guests?” He shot back, “Because you don’t cook enough food and you never put out extra sauce when you make pasta!” Want to guess how our evening played out? That fight opened our eyes to a shocking reality: our family cultures had so deeply shaped our preferences, biases, and beliefs that we each reflexively judged anything different as wrong. This discovery allowed us to start tracing other marital challenges directly back to our formative years.

Like us, many of you may have ended up with overweight luggage as you packed for your honeymoon because you unknowingly crammed the suitcase full of culturally bound expectations and historic wounds. If we lack awareness regarding our ethnocentrism and our scars, we tend to assume we’re always right, become oppositional, and endlessly criticize and judge one another.

Because Christopher and I are white, we have not been victims of racism.  However, many of you not only have been but continue to be affected by this systemic sin. The highly publicized race-related issues of recent times have shattered any illusion that racism is a thing of the past. If you are a minority, you have most likely been traumatized by racial disparity, intentional segregation, and overt discrimination. It’s nearly impossible to grow up with an intact sense of self if you have been repeatedly told that you are less than and flawed. These deep wounds guide not only how we understand ourselves but also how we interact with others.

Evan, a Chinese American friend, grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood during the seventies. He doesn’t look back on his neighbors as racists but rather “ignorant ethnocentrists.” In his words:

My personality was reduced to my ethnic identity. There was a sense that everything that represented my family of origin was not accepted in the culture. I had to put on different masks and code-switch [modifying the way you express yourself depending on who you’re with]. I remember as young as first grade, maybe earlier, looking in the mirror and wishing that my facial features were different because I didn’t look like everyone else. In Chinese culture, it’s considered beautiful to have a wide, flat nose, but in American culture, it’s beautiful if you have a long, thin nose. I would sit in front of the mirror and squeeze my nose, hoping that it would become long and narrow. Think about how powerful the messages must have been for me as a seven-year-old child to feel that I had to change my face to be accepted.

Regardless of how we got our scars and how they manifest, they don’t magically disappear when we get married. We bring all of who we are into our marital covenants: our gifts, talents, and strengths but also our weaknesses, limitations, and brokenness. Our spouse is typically the first people who has gotten close enough to notice these scars.

    Our scars and internalized cultural values not only inform our beliefs and actions, but they also become the foundation for many of our expectations. As we enter into marriage, we have dozens of unspoken expectations for the small, seemingly incidental details of life together (e.g., who cleans the bathroom?) as well as the major, significant components of life (e.g., who sacrifices their career to care for a sick child or aging parent?). Sometimes we’re not even cognizant of our expectations until others fail to meet them. Sometimes an expectation emanates out of our wounds, which makes it more difficult for us to identify the expectation, let alone discern what drives it.

For example, not long after we were married, Christopher and I started having conflicts about what it meant to be home in time for dinner. After we negotiated what seemed like a reasonable compromise and then he showed up an hour (or more) late, I felt angry. He would apologize, but then we’d have a déjà vu moment the following week. Though I had legitimate reasons to be frustrated, his offense was a level three (out of ten—not that big a deal) and my response was a level eight (in other words, out of proportion). This disparity clued me in to the possibility that maybe this dynamic was uncovering a historic wound.

When we have the same conflicts over and over again, it’s likely that there’s something deeper going on that will provide an opportunity for healing if we can stop reacting and start exploring what’s driving our broken patterns. That was certainly true regarding our ongoing discord about mealtime. When I was twelve, my grandfather died and our extended family fractured due to some poor choices and miscommunication. After two of my father’s beloved siblings moved out of state, he turned to liquor to numb his pain. This eventually led to a full-blown alcohol addiction lasting more than a decade.

During my middle and high school years, dinner could be a tense affair. Would Dad be on time? Would he be sober? If he wasn’t, how would Mom respond? There was an obvious connection between my childhood wounds and our marital strife. Christopher’s struggle with time management uncovered my unresolved pain and amplified my unprocessed anger. My response replicated my family of origin’s patterns and certainly did not help Christopher feel loved or grow in his time management skills.

Obviously, not all expectations emerge from brokenness and pain. Many are inspired by God. When we vow to love, honor, and cherish until death do us part, we expect our spouse to stick with us, even if we become unemployed, cannot conceive, or develop serious health issues. We expect our spouse to tell the truth, advocate for us, and remain monogamous. These are healthy non-negotiables. In order to have a healthy marriage that is free from judgment, we need to discern which expectations are godly and life-giving and which ones adversely affect our marriages.

    As my husband and I have pursued healing for our historic wounds and let go of our need to be right, we’ve become less dogmatic and more flexible. These changes manifest in small but welcome ways. When I need to talk through something, Christopher no longer expects me to replicate his family’s operatic style of communication. When we have company, I try to serve more food than I know we need. And sometimes, I even remember to put extra sauce on the table.

 

This article was adapted from Making Marriage Beautiful (2017) published by David C Cook. Used with permission.
Dorothy Littell Greco writes on how following Jesus changes everything. Her work appears in Relevant, Christianity Today, The Mudroom, and Start Marriage Right, among others. Her first book, Making Marriage Beautiful was published by David C Cook in January. You can find more of her work on her website or by following her on Twitter (@dorothygreco) or Facebook (Words & Images by DorothyGreco)

Fear Not!

I am thrilled to introduce my friend and fellow Redbud writer Dorothy Greco to you. I love Dorothy’s thoughtful and thought-provoking writing, and her photos are just… well…. breath-taking. She is a regular contributor at Gifted for Leadership, and her work has appeared at RELEVANT, Christianity Today, Abingdon Women and more . You can visit her online at dorothygreco.com, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

angel fear not

Americans generally don’t associate fear with Christmas. We tend to sanitize and commercialize the holiday, throwing in omniscient Santas and schmaltzy music for good measure. Even when we dramatize the Nativity, it’s safe and tidy with the generous magi showing up like long forgotten uncles. But there’s more to this narrative–and that more is far from safe.

The back story could easily earn an R rating and instill fear in the most courageous of souls: angelic visitations, high risk pregnancies, a last minute escape, a jealous king, and the infanticide of baby boys. Mary, Joseph, and Zechariah were not the only ones who needed to hear, Gabriel’s word, “Do not be afraid!”

Two things strike me about the angel’s exhortation. First, God understands humanity’s innate tendency to gravitate toward fear. And second, there’s an unspoken implication that choosing not to fear is an actual option.

I haven’t always felt like I’ve had a choice in this matter. Raised in a home with an alcoholic parent, there was a notable lack of predictability which left me grasping for control. As a coping mechanism, I developed the sensitivity of a deer grazing in broad daylight–ever poised to retreat at the slightest indication of a coming storm. Eventually, that hyper-vigilance became as much a part of me as my dimples and brown hair.

Regardless of our upbringing, few of us have entered adulthood without witnessing or experiencing at least a few frightening events. Accidents, health crises, and large scale tragedies (such as 9/11 or the Boston Marathon bombing), all leave fault lines. For some of us, fear gets normalized due to years spent living in crime-ridden neighborhoods or being in abusive relationships.

Though each of us has unique histories with fear, our bodies respond in a similar fashion. Adrenaline surges, the heart goes into overdrive, muscles contract, body temperature drops, and organs deemed unnecessary for fight or flight (like the stomach) essentially shut down. And if fear persists, it impacts far more than our adrenal systems; it seeps into our souls and conditions our expectations. For some veterans, the simple sound of a car’s backfire can send them into a reflexive drop and roll.

So, was Gabriel onto something? Do we have a choice or is fear simply a chemical chain reaction–a byproduct of evolution–and therefore beyond our control? Based on my own life experiences and my understanding of Scripture, I think we can actually take back some of the territory lost to fear.

We first have to learn to recognize what fear looks like in our lives. For most of us, fear is connected to everyday worries. In contrast, many of the 40 million American adults who suffer from diagnosed anxiety disorders can recognize fear with their eyes closed because the anxiety they experience is far more acute. Understandably, some of these individuals organize their days to keep a safe distance from their personal cliffs.

But fear has many manifestations, some of which are difficult to identify. Sometimes it’s connected to a specific place (the dentist’s office) or activity (flying), but not always. In our current culture, most of us unreflectively say we’re “stressed” without piecing together that stress is little more than a euphemism for fear. In my own life, I’ve done some risky things (like sleeping under a highway overpass with runaway teens) and regularly enjoy the #1 fear on most people’s lists: public speaking. However, I continue to do hand to hand combat with fear on a routine basis.

Take last summer’s vacation. While in Zion National Park, our sons wanted to do the Angel’s Landing hike which has multiple dire warnings; “Not recommended for anyone fearful of heights. This hike has sheer drop offs.” My fear based imagination envisioned a sudden gust of wind pushing them over the edge. I tried to dissuade them but when that failed, I prayed non-stop until they re-appeared over the ridge.

This tendency to catastrophize, to expect the worst case scenario, has been with me as long as I can remember. While it’s impossible to discern exactly where it came from, I am convinced it has spiritual dimensions. It’s as if the enemy notices my moments of vulnerability, sidles up to me, and tries to convince me that my Father is not who He claims to be and is therefore, not to be trusted. Isn’t this the same tactic Satan took with Adam and Eve?

Paul wrote, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.” For us to walk in that power, love, and self-discipline, we need to ruthlessly part company with fear. In my own life, this has meant confessing any and all faulty theology. If I begin to doubt God’s advocacy or love for me, I recall Jesus’s willingness to come to earth and die on my behalf. If the fear persists, I’ll address it directly; “In Jesus name, I rebuke you spirit of fear. Go to the cross.”(It’s counter cultural and won’t necessarily endear you to the random person standing next to you in the elevator, but trust me, it’s effective.)

While we all need some measure of healthy fear to keep us from stepping in front of a moving train, I believe that God wants us to appropriate Christ’s resurrection power whenever we feel limited or constrained by fear. If that’s the case, Gabriel’s exhortation to “Fear not!” is just as relevant–and comforting–for us today as it was for Joseph, Mary, and Zechariah two thousand years ago.

Please Note: For those of you who have diagnosed anxiety disorders, this does not mean that battling in the spiritual realm will erase the valid benefits you receive from your therapeutic work and/or prescribed medications.