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)