Thursday, May 6, 2010
Two Book Reviews: The Marriage Code and Love & War
One of my husband's ministry mentors some years back told us that he believed that every married couples--especially pastors--ought to go in for marriage counseling routinely every three years. Rob and I haven't done that. But I have taken it as encouragement that our marriages are something with which we need to actively engage. Two new relationship books bear reading and discussion this spring--Farrels' The Marriage Code and Eldredges' Love & War. I'd strongly recommend both of them for any couple, whether healthy or struggling (though my recommendation for Love & War comes with some caveats).
The Marriage Code examines the dynamic of security and success in a marriage. Both men and women need both security and success the Farrels say, but women tend to primarily need security and use success as a means to that end, while men primarily need success and will sacrifice security to achieve it. Additionally, (as per the Five Love Languages) people tend to give what they themselves want to receive, so women, the Farrels argue, tend to try to make their husbands feel secure when what they need to be doing is helping to be successful, while men tend to try to feed their wives success when what they need to be doing is feeding them security. The Farrels then unpack this idea across a variety of issues, covering work and play, communication, finances
One of the more interesting things to me about this book is the principle that men are supposed to be successful and that one of the keys to a good marriage is for a man to feel that he is a success as a husband and a father. A man will pour his time and energy into the areas in his life where he can accomplish things and being deliberate about setting up those positive feedback loops in areas where God has called him to work is critical. Much of the language of success has been hijacked by the legalists and heretics of the American church. An orthodox, gospel-driven view of righteous success in an accomplishment driven society is sorely needed.
This brings us to Love & War. In this book, John and Stasi Eldredge give us a picture of marriage--all marriage in general and yours in particular--as a battleground of spiritual warfare. Satan wants your marriage to fail and you need to be active in fighting for your spouse, not against them. My main problem with the Eldredge's theology is this: I think they are far too prone to name as the devil that which is simply the world and the flesh. There is a real danger in anthropomorphizing certain kinds of problems and sin. That said, the Bible makes very clear that Satan is very real, that we do have a malignant, intelligent Enemy working against us. And the Eldredges have written a challenging, sympathetic, pragmatic, gritty book on the core how-tos of making marriage work between profoundly sinful and broken (that's all of us, folks!) people. Too many Christian marriage enrichment materials start with the implicit assumption that the couples working through them are Nice Christian People without significant hang-ups or issues. Give 'em a few active listening techniques and understanding and peace (voila!) will blossom. The Eldredges start with the assumption that you don't really have a clue just how screwed up you are and that the best thing that you can do for yourself and your relationship is take a good long look in the mirror. Get some humility. And expect Capital I Issues from yourself and the people around you.
Any good counselor will tell you that any real change starts with the understanding that you can't change other people; you can only change yourself. (And indeed--good theology takes that a step further; you can't change yourself in any meaningful sense. Only the Spirit of God can change you). So in order for our marriages to grow, we need to not focus on our spouse's problems but on letting God point out to us the areas where he wants to grow us and then cooperating with God to become the people he means us to be.
But if the Eldredges make the challenges to our marriages out to be worse than you wanted to admit, they also promise a pay-off better than you could have hoped for. "This is the deepest and most mythic reality in the world. This is the story of God's romance with mankind." Each of our marriages is a microcosm of the love of God, a peephole for us to see the wild, infinite, creative love that we are called to. A crack we allow in our self-protective shell that pry wide open to pour his love through us.
At the end of last year, Elizabeth Weil published an article in the NY Times about the quest she and her husband took to "improve" their marriage. For the most part, the secular experiment turned into an exercise in frustration, simply bringing into focus irritations that they were generally able to ignore. In the end, she comes to the conclusion that happiness cannot be found in ones spouse and a good marriage is one in which the spouses keep growing. This dovetails neatly with the Christian insight that we do not find our fulfillment in other people but in God. And our marriages are the primary place where we help each other along in doing that. If your desire is to grow into the fullness of who God made you to be, and for your spouse to do the same, each of these books is a good resource.