When Tim and I got married, I thought outright conflict was a sign of breakdown. I had no idea it could be a source of redemption. So instead of being direct, I was passive aggressive, making issues about him, rather than being honest about my own feelings. I didn’t know how to ask directly for what I wanted. I felt like a victim to Tim’s preferences and differing opinions. I stayed busy, trying to manipulate my circumstances (and Tim) just right, so I could get what I wanted.
I felt powerless, like Tula in my Big Fat Greek Wedding. My only option was to learn to subtly control, like Tula’s mother. “The man is the head of the household, but the woman is the neck… and she can turn the man any way she wants.”
Little did I know that this was killing my marriage. My inability to confront Tim was limiting my ability to love him. Rather than challenge him to grow and risk him temporarily withdrawing, I shirked conflict to keep him close. I didn’t know how to hold my ground, if we differed about something. For example, I was desperate to get to Europe before we have kids. Tim, ever practical and not a big traveler, wanted to fund our emergency fund. I melted into a silent, sulky puddle, sending thinkly-veiled judgments in his direction. The story I was telling myself was that I was powerless. So I tried to convince Tim to think and be like me. But we are almost completely opposite in many respects.
This is the (extremely limiting) story I was telling myself: I am trapped because Tim doesn’t like to travel. He will never give in. I will never get to Europe because it’s not important to him.
Sometimes I tried to rationalize away my dream to numb the disappointment: Tim is probably wiser than me anyway… Other times I just blamed him. Tim is boring. He is uptight and stingy. He clearly doesn’t value culture. (I could go on, and it just gets uglier from here…) I rarely, if ever, said these judgments aloud, but I didn’t have to. They filled the atmosphere in our home and clouded the way I saw and interacted with him.
In the 3rd year of our marriage, I went to a high intensity, 4 day, jump-start-your-life weekend by Reinvent Ministries called Impact. The weekend is designed to be a mirror for how you’re showing up in life, and it’s based on the principle of personal responsibility. They contend that whatever you have in your life is of your own choosing–even if you don’t like it. That idea didn’t work for me. I wasn’t responsible for not going to Italy! It was definitely Tim’s fault. He was the one holding me back.
Through the course of the weekend, I slowly began to see that I was responsible for my problem. I realized that I was choosing to avoid conflict, rather than fight for what I wanted.
Why would I do that when Europe was so important to me? Well, for starters, I was getting a lot out of my little system. I didn’t have to take ownership of my dream. I got to be right about Tim. It wasn’t my fault. And most importantly: I was afraid if I engaged in conflict, Tim might emotionally withdraw. I wanted to avoid feelings of abandonment more than I wanted to go to Rome. I was the only one responsible for my own disappointment–and all the blaming and judging in the world wasn’t going to get me the Vatican.
If I wanted to go, I was going to have to own it and fight tooth and nail for it.
I came home from Impact with a new spark kindled: the power of personal responsibility and ownership of my own life. It was a weak little flame. Responsibility was a flabby muscle that had never been exercised and I could barely stand, let alone walk in it. I was used to making excuses for just about everything (why I was late, why I hadn’t done this or called or whatever). But the power of personal responsibility changed my life.
I sat down with Tim, told him how much I wanted to go to Europe, how important it was to me, and that I wanted to go within 12 months. What do I need to do to make that happen? Will you help me?
We argued. We disagreed. This wasn’t as important as saving for the future, he said.
I quailed, replaying that old story: My voice wasn’t going to be heard and I might as well give up because he has all the power and all the say.
By some act of God, I got back up and started swinging, for the first time EVER. This is important to me. I’m going to fight with you until we figure out how to make it happen.
We got stuck because I wouldn’t back down. We were in a stalemate–we were both choosing to live in a story where our limited resources seemed to dwindle & possibilities dissipated. We didn’t see a way through it, so we prayed. We prayed and God gave us a miraculous solution to get on the same team. I would throw my energy towards fully funding our emergency fund, and Tim would put everything he had toward funding Europe. We would be praying for & working towards each other’s goals as an act of sacrifice and love.
At the time I worked for hourly wages at a non-profit kids’ arts organization, and Tim was just a green staff accountant at a small firm. Through grace and commitment, we raised enough money to travel to Europe for a month and have a fully funded emergency fund, in 11 months.
Europe was miraculous. It happened because I took ownership of my desires. I communicated them directly. I stood my ground when challenged. I fought for and endured emotional withdrawal (short-term) to reach a goal. I didn’t wheedle and weasel and covertly arrange things… I was direct. And it worked. Tim and I were on the same team, even though we differed about what was important to us.
That experience made me realize: showing up as a victim is not as fun as taking responsibility for my life, ultimately. Victims don’t get what they want because their lives are at everyone else’s disposal. They are constantly unhappy, dissatisfied, disgruntled and it’s everyone else’s fault. They get to be right, garner sympathy and blame other people, or the weather, or the traffic for their problems…. but they never get what they want.
Where do you find yourself? Do you prefer to be a victim? How might that be limiting your life, and the way you can love other people?
For more information on the Impact training, you can check out their website at Reinvent Ministries. There’s another training coming up in Southern California August 1-4.
Note: I recognize that this post isn’t long enough to address theological issues regarding the work of the Holy Spirit to change our hearts, etc. If something bugs you, ask me about it and I’ll do a follow-up post on it. My basic answer? We need Jesus and can’t do anything on our own… but we have the resurrection power of the Holy Spirit in us… let’s sit in that tension together?