"Remember that whatever you do in life, ninety percent of it is half mental." Yogi Berra1
In November of the tenth year of our marriage, Rhonda and I were discussing a sensitive issue that comes up every year: where we were going to spend Christmas.
By this time in our marriage, we knew which topics created sparks, and this was one of them. As a result, we were both armed for battle.
Rhonda responded to a statement I'd made by saying, "Now you've got an attitude. Stop talking to me like I'm a child! You're being very condescending."
Without really thinking, I snapped back, "Hey! This has nothing to do with my attitude! Don't play that card! We went to your folks' for Thanksgiving, so we're going to mine for Christmas!"
We didn't know that our then five-year-old daughter, Hannah, was in the living room watching TV and listening to our conversation. Suddenly, her tiny voice rang out, "Whoa! Whoa! Hold it right there, Dad! Barney just said that attitude is the most important thing in life."
Hannah had a point. So did Barney.
Attitudes and the thoughts that form them are important, especially in marriage. You can attend every marriage conference available and read every book on romantic love out there, but if your marriage is based on destructive attitudes, it's likely that nothing will help.
Thoughts and attitudes are like the engine of a train and our emotions and behavior are like the caboose.
Thoughts help form and determine your attitudes toward marriage. They determine how you feel about your mate as well as how you feel about being married in general. Thoughts can inspire hope – or take it away. Changing the way you think is like a locomotive that switches tracks and heads in a new direction, taking the rest of the train – behavior, actions, and habits – right along with it.
Paul obviously didn't have a train in mind when he offered his heart-felt instructions to the Christians in Rome – but it's still a useful metaphor. Pleading with the Romans to change their thoughts and actions, he said, "I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God. . . . Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. . . . Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment" (Romans 12:1–3).
The apostle is speaking about a major mind shift here. The word transform comes from the same basic root for the English word metamorphosis. As larvae go through a radical change to become butterflies, so must we sometimes radically change our minds in order to have a healthy faith and marriage.
When we do make this change, we will not think of ourselves higher than we should (v. 3), and our judgments (perceptions, beliefs, conclusions, attitudes) will be sober, clear, and accurate. Transforming our thinking can lead us to the right behaviors (vv. 9–21). The right behavior will then lead to the outcomes we want such as peace, intimacy, and oneness. The more we understand this principle, the more positive impact it will have on our relationships.
One of my good friends, Dr. Gary Rosberg, is one of the most spiritual men I know. When I grow up I want to be just like him. Whenever we're together, talk on the phone, correspond by e-mail, or chat after I finish a radio interview on his show, the last thing he always says to me is, "Hey Mitch, guard your heart, brother." This is another way of saying, "Be very careful to protect your mind from the wrong stuff. Put the right things in your mind. Protect it. Shield it from the bad influences." Just recently, after the birth of my first grandchild, Gary's message to me was: "Mitch, guard your heart, brother. The stakes just got higher."
I know Gary means for me to guard my heart in every area of life, including my relationship with Rhonda. Like a computer, if I put the right things into my mind, the right things will likely come out. Gary understands this. He knows that if my thinking is on track, then the rest of my life will be too.
Our Creator commands spouses – particularly husbands – to guard their hearts and thinking so that they do not forsake the wife of their youth (Malachi 2:14–16). God is serious about how we think and behave in our marriage. We should be too.
Sure, our actions may be due to "unthinking" habits we've fallen into. You may leave the bathroom messy every day without even thinking about it. Just part of the routine, right?
But if you really reflect on that habit, you may discover that there was a particular thought, belief, value, or idea that led you to the action – or at minimum maintained it. Maybe you thought at some time previously, I did this before I was married, so I should be able to keep on doing it. Or, What's the big deal? I'll clean up later, but now I'm in a hurry.
Sometimes, though, our distorted thinking can lead to consequences much more severe than squabbles about bathrooms.
If you are angry, afraid, resentful, jealous, or depressed – in other words, if you are struggling with negative emotions – the fault may lie in your thinking. Cognitive therapists operate on the theory that distorted thinking lies at the root of most of these negative emotions. These therapists help their clients identify the distorted thinking, understand what is distorted about it, and then correct it so that emotional healing can begin.
Here are some common distorted thoughts. Do any of them sound familiar?
Research shows that these thoughts can lead to serious problems, among them addictions and depression.1 I know.
I've struggled with depression for most of my life, so I'm very familiar with distorted thinking. While growing up, I suspected I had a problem, but counseling was not smiled upon then, and I had no idea how to get help.
I bet you can guess what happened when I got married. You got it. I didn't check my depression at the door. My moodiness, anger, and negativity moved into the Temple home.
After ten years of marriage, Rhonda and I were desperate.
I was extremely depressed and I worried about everything – even in my sleep. I often woke up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, but I couldn't go back to sleep because the anxiety from my dreams kept me awake. Sleep deprivation caused me to be contentious and on edge. I lost forty pounds, became physically ill, and experienced constant nausea. When I thought I had cancer or another terminal illness, I visited numerous doctors without a diagnosis. Finally, an internal medicine specialist from India gave me an answer.
"Mr. Temple," he said in accented English, "you don't have a physical problem. You have an emotional problem. You have developed an anxiety disorder, and you are also very depressed. You must get help or you may die."
After weeks of denial, I knew he was right, so I finally got the help I needed.
The counselor I visited convinced me to take depression medication, even though I was terrified of becoming addicted. I spoke with my good friend Jeff Mathis, MD, who alleviated my concerns. He said that most antidepressants are not addictive and should be a bridge, not a crutch, to help navigate through a dark emotional valley.
Because my marriage, family, faith, and job were on the line, I was willing to do whatever was necessary. The result? Over time, I became a better husband. And the way I saw myself, Rhonda, and others improved.
I was transformed.
Through my experience I learned that because I suffered from depression, I could not see myself or my wife realistically. I felt as if I were stumbling around in dark rooms – wearing sunglasses. I couldn't see myself as God sees me. I felt that I could not be good enough, faithful enough, or spiritual enough – no matter what the Bible says.
These kinds of beliefs, based on myths and distorted thinking, led me to depression and hopelessness. They can also lead us to accept Satan's lie that you are not worthy of grace and can cause us to act in ways that we'll regret.
This is typical in a marriage where a spouse is depressed. Though a depressed husband is committed to marriage, he won't feel good about his wife and, therefore, won't treat her well. If the non-depressed wife does not understand what is happening, she will make the situation worse by assuming that her husband is mean or doesn't care about the marriage or that he can easily change how he feels and acts.
In reality, change can be almost impossible for a depressed person. Until the depressed spouse receives proper treatment, he or she cannot interact with you in a healthy way.
Depression is a very serious illness, which if left untreated can destroy a marriage in a short period of time. Many marriages today are in trouble because one or both spouses struggle with severe depression. Until these couples address and treat depression, it will be difficult to learn new relational skills to strengthen their marriage.
If you suspect that you, or your spouse, suffer from depression, seek help together. Focus on the Family provides free counseling referrals.http://www.focusonthefamily.com/) or write to them at: Focus on the Family, Colorado Springs, CO 80995.
(A caveat is in order here. Depression and other emotional problems can be caused by factors other than distorted thinking. Chemical and sugar imbalances, stress, lack of sleep, even thyroid disorders can also be precipitators of depression. When issues like these are involved, they must be assessed, diagnosed, and treated by a medical professional.)
You may not struggle with depression. But distorted thinking, because it is so subtle and rooted in the way you look at yourself and your spouse, has the potential to eat away at your marriage.
Distorted thinking (we should never have conflict; my spouse should meet all my needs) can lay "ruts" in your mind.
As pioneers headed West in their wagons, they tended to follow the same trails as those who had gone before them. Eventually, the soil became compressed and ruts appeared. These ruts wore so deep that they still exist today.1 In northeastern Oregon, you can actually walk out behind a museum and see the literal Oregon Trail.
Add a little mud to such deep ruts, and you can well imagine a covered wagon getting its wheels stuck, so immobilized that even a team of oxen or horses couldn't pull it out. We can guess it took a little shovel work – and a lot of manhandling – to get back on the trail again.
Or if you've ever gotten stuck in deep snow, spinning your wheels, needing a push or some traction – you know how difficult it can be to pull out.
Marriage ruts can be the same. When you and your spouse disagree . . . or get hurt . . . or become frustrated . . . or reach an impasse . . . the easiest thing to do is what you have always done! Human nature tends to follow the same patterns of interactions and reactions over and over again – especially when we're under stress.
Like the early pioneers, we might know we're stuck, but not know what to do about it. Eventually, distorted thinking, attitudes, and behavior become a normal part of the journey together.
And we ride the ruts into the sunset.
Sometimes I realize I'm doing the same hurtful, nonproductive things over and over, and it isn't helping a thing! I can hear myself make the same useless comments I made last time – and get no more traction with them than I did then!
You want an example? Easy.
For many years in our marriage every time my dear wife disagreed with me, I got defensive. Instead of trying to understand her point of view, I reacted. Maybe blew up.
That, my friend, is a rut. And it got deeper every time I spun my wheels in it.
Rhonda gets into ruts as well. She manages our finances and does a wonderful job. But sometimes when money is tight, she tries to shield me by fixing the problem on her own. When I probe to find out what's wrong, she doesn't want to talk about it. I pressure her and she becomes more frustrated. I get defensive, she gets defensive, and then we argue, criticize, and withdraw. We have learned new ways to handle things, but we resort back to the past.
Same lousy ruts, same nonresults.
Our friends Mike and Ellen are also familiar with marriage ruts. One night over coffee, Ellen mentioned an ongoing pattern that was wreaking havoc in their marriage.
Ellen stays home with the kids, and by the time Mike arrives in the evening, she is exhausted. She wants him to jump into the parenting ring and do a little fighting. Because Mike works only one mile away, he has had little time to unwind. As a result, he's on edge when he walks through the door. When Ellen unloads on Mike everything the kids have done wrong during the day, he feels even more aggravated. As Ellen vents her frustrations, Mike sees her lips moving, but he doesn't hear a word. All he hears is nagging. Ellen picks up on Mike's frustration and assumes that he doesn't care. The ruts in their marriage road have been established. Ellen gets angry and doesn't talk to Mike, and Mike withdraws into his study and spends the evening on the computer. Sadly, the kids play alone.
After hearing their story, Rhonda and I could relate. We fell into a similar rut earlier in our marriage. We finally recognized the unhealthy pattern we had gotten into and implemented some changes that worked for us. We offered what worked for us to Mike and Ellen. We suggested that Ellen give Mike at least fifteen minutes after he arrives home for time to unwind. We also encouraged Ellen to break her complaints into smaller chunks. Most people cannot handle a truckload of bad news all at once.
Ellen agreed. Mike also agreed to give Ellen some time to unwind after his arrival by taking the kids to the park.
We also helped Mike and Ellen take a look at their negative attitudes, such as: "He doesn't understand"; "He doesn't care what I go through"; "She always acts this way"; and "She doesn't respect me anymore."
Over the next weeks, Ellen and Mike joined forces to move out of the old ruts they'd created, and they developed new, healthier ways of relating.
Tara, a young lady at the church I was working for at the time, approached me one day after church and asked to speak with me. "You've got to help me. I know in my heart that my attitude is wrong, but—I can't help it. It's how I feel. My marriage is killing me. It's so bad. I just want to give up. I'm tired of fighting. I'm tired of being the only one trying."
Tara wiped tears from her cheeks. I knew Tara likes to be direct and she is a good friend, so I decided to shoot straight with her.
"Tara, can I be real with you?" I asked.
"Yes, please. I'm at the end of my rope. Just tell me anything that will help me," she pleaded.
"Do you really want to make your marriage better?"
"Well, if it can be. I know it's what's best for the kids and I know it's what's right. I know God hates divorce."
"Tara, then here's the key. You have to begin with your attitude. You have to stop thinking that your marriage is over and that it can't be changed. If you keep thinking and saying that it's over, your feelings and actions will follow and your marriage will eventually fail."
Tara's tears flowed unabated.
"Do me a favor," I said. "For one day, stop focusing on your marriage ending and focus on saving your marriage—even if you don't believe it's possible. Can you stop thinking about it being over for at least twenty-four hours? Will you at least consider that your marriage might just work?"
Tara looked surprised; it wasn't what she expected from me. I'm usually more passive and empathetic in my approach.
She sighed. "Well, all I can do is try. I don't know what else to do."
Not only did she try, but she made great strides in turning her heart around. The next day, she called my office. "Well, no miracle has happened yet," she said, "but I do feel better. I did what you told me to do. For a few hours, I stopped obsessing about my marriage ending and started to think about changing my attitude versus trying to change Matt's. I stopped praying that God would end the pain and get me out of it and started praying that God would change my heart and restore my joy. It really made a difference in how I looked at Matt and the future of our marriage."
I was thrilled. "Good, that's the first step," I said. "Now, let me help you with the next."
In a series of meetings, I convinced Tara that if she continued to work on her attitude, then her actions regarding her marriage would open up new possibilities for changes in Matt. Like most people, Tara felt that 99 percent of her marital problems were her spouse's fault. Over time, she had convinced herself that Matt was the reason her marriage was headed south and that her actions and attitudes had nothing to do with it. Though she hadn't seen any valid signs of adultery, Tara even imagined that Matt was cheating. Her thoughts spiraled downward, producing more and more destructive thinking and behavior.
And the more she allowed her thoughts to spin in that rut, the deeper it became.
As Tara made changes in attitude toward Matt, he noticed. He appreciated her increased respect and grace when he made mistakes. She stopped reacting in the same ways as before. Within a few short weeks, Matt came to counseling with Tara. We worked on basic attitude changes, actions, and how they could interact without arguing. Changes slowly occurred in their hearts and even their everyday interactions improved. They're happier than ever now, and it all started with changes in thinking and attitude.
Perhaps you're thinking, This doesn't apply to me. My attitude is stellar. I'm right on track. Fair enough. But do yourself a favor and take this quick checkup. How many of these statements have you recently thought or said to your spouse? Put a check by those that apply.
Do any words in this list sound vaguely familiar? Could it be that your attitude—or your marriage—has begun a slow drift in an unhelpful, unhappy direction? Now is the best time I can think of to get back on course.
One day when I was fishing in Florida, it was getting late in the evening. I was tired and decided to take a rest. I closed my eyes, laid down my pole, propped my feet up, and drifted off to sleep. A short time later, I was startled awake by the sound of heavy traffic.
Oh no, I'm in the middle of a highway and I'm about to be killed! Then, I remembered I was in the boat. Because I didn't put out the anchor, I had drifted more than two miles in the bay underneath Interstate 10, where cars were rushing overhead.
When you lose hope in your marriage, you drift as I did on the bay. Emotions, circumstances, and myths are the winds that move you, not truth, which is the foundation of hope. Hopeless faith and hopeless marriages are always vulnerable to ruin.
One dictionary defines hope as "the happy anticipation of good."1
Hope motivates us to make positive choices in life and marriage and to be in right relationship with Christ and His people. God's Word says, "We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure" (Hebrews 6:19). When you lose hope, your soul is like a boat lost at sea without an anchor.
Jesus, who sees into the depths of the human heart, knows what it takes to restore hope in a person's life.
Remember the story of how He met the Samaritan woman at the well in John chapter 4? Jesus knew who she was, that she'd had multiple husbands, and that she believed religious myths. He knew that her attitude about the past was seemingly hopeless. I wonder if the tape she played in her mind went something like this: "There's no hope for me. I've made too many mistakes and I don't deserve to be helped."
But after this woman spent time with Jesus, hope filled her thoughts. Though He instructed her to change the way she lived in the past, He loved her as a sinner and accepted her as a person.
And she came right up out of her deep ruts of bad thoughts and emotions.
She even ran to tell others about her interaction with Jesus – "Come see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?" (v. 29). Spending time with Jesus can have a huge effect on our thinking, attitudes, and behavior.
Don't allow anyone, including the Devil, to convince you that the health and security of your marriage has nothing to do with your thinking, attitude, and beliefs! Truth that is based on the teachings of Jesus and the Bible is truth that can completely transform your heart, life, and relationships.
Over the years my experience working with couples, as well as my own study of both Scripture and research, have led me to really appreciate the role that attitude plays in my life. It affects my job, faith, and relationships — especially my relationship with my wife.
In marriage, it is very important to check our attitudes and discern whether our thinking is based on truth or misconceptions. The truth sets us free (John 8:32), not necessarily what we perceive to be the truth. If left unchecked, distorted perceptions can poison our attitudes. And a poisoned attitude toward a spouse can tear down a relationship rather quickly.
When I find myself feeling and acting negatively toward my wife, I start addressing it by doing an attitude check:
These are the types of questions that often convict me and prompt me to adjust my attitude — and thus my actions.
The Bible is full of exhortations about checking our thinking and attitudes:
I've come to realize that these scriptures apply not only to my spiritual life, but to my relational life — my marriage. God not only cares about my actions, he is concerned about my attitude regarding "the wife of my youth."
What about you? What's the quality of your thought life regarding your husband or wife? Are you embracing truth or untruths about your spouse? Are you keeping your attitude in check, or have you let your guard down?
I find that when I am off-base in my attitude and need to replace misperceptions with truth, I start by praying for God to change my heart. I ask Him to enable me to see the truth in my marriage and to see my wife through His eyes. Reading scripture also helps to realign my thinking. Sometimes I'll read a Christian book or marriage article, too.
Life circumstances, conflict and culture are constantly working to pull our hearts away from each other. Let's do all that we can to guard our hearts and protect our marriages, even if it means adjusting our attitudes from time to time.