Traveling across New Mexico on the interstate, I learned how easy it is to drift into serious trouble. It was nearly dawn, and I’d been driving all night from Dallas to Phoenix. For 12 hours, I’d kept my car and myself safe by making lots of small steering adjustments. But all that changed when I fell asleep. From what I remember, I was in the right lane when my eyes closed, but when I woke up, I discovered I had drifted across all the lanes of traffic.
I now know from personal experience that drifting doesn’t wake you up. In fact, I was sleeping very comfortably as I crossed lane after lane. It wasn’t until my tires hit the gravel on the shoulder, at freeway speed, that I instantly awoke. My mind shouted, Big problem, and my instincts responded, Big solution! So I yanked the steering wheel 180 degrees, trying to get back on the road. My car rolled three times and landed on its roof. Thankfully, I crawled out of the wreckage with only cuts and physical (and emotional) bruises.
Metaphorically, I see a similar drifting in some marriages. In my counseling practice, I see godly young couples who started in a positive direction, convinced their marriage would be better than average. But time went by, and they got busy, distracted, complacent, or preoccupied with kids or work (or even ministry), and they veered outside the lane markers and into oncoming traffic.
When a couple quits making those small adjustments that keep them safely between the lines, the incredible speed at which life moves today can cause them to drift into trouble quickly. And when that couple does wake up to find themselves in crisis, it’s also natural to think, as I did, Big problem — big solution! So they race into a counselor’s office or sign up for a Christian cruise, reasoning that one session, one seminar, one dramatic experience, one 180-degree yank of the steering wheel, and everything will get better.
With that word picture in mind, here’s something crucial for busy couples to understand: When you quit making small, 2-degree adjustments in your relationship, you pick up speed toward serious trouble. But the great news is that the opposite is true as well: Small, 2-degree changes can become powerful tools for moving a couple back toward caring, closeness and healing.
I’m not the first one to point out the cumulative impact small shifts can make on our attitudes, actions and outcomes. The famous theologian C.S. Lewis wrote about a “great secret” he came to understand. Before coming to Christ, Lewis chose to only like people who were easy to like. But once he became a Christian, he started trying to like everyone.
“As soon as we do this,” he wrote, “we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him. … If you do him a good turn, you will find yourself disliking him less.” And for Lewis, that great secret was this: “Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance.”
Think about this in relational terms. Most couples come into my counseling office in a state of emotional bankruptcy. They’re facing a big problem and want a big solution. But I send them out with Lewis’ great secret. Namely, there is “infinite importance” in realizing that small, positive actions toward another person grow at compound interest. The same principle of compounding that increases mutual fund portfolios and savings can enrich a relationship. Faithfully doing small things brings great reward — whether in our relationship with Christ or in our marriage.
Two degrees in real life
To understand the power of 2-degree changes, consider one young husband who often brought his anger home from work. Instead of greeting his wife and two sons with love and affirmation, he gave them his irritability or, at best, silence.
My 2-degree prescription for him? I asked him to pull his car into an empty parking lot each day on his way home. With no one around, he turned off the engine, closed his eyes and rested his hands palms down on top of his legs. Then he prayed, dumping all the emotion he still carried from a difficult client meeting or the frustration that was still churning inside him from not getting the shift change he’d asked for.
Then, after turning all that over to the Lord, he’d turn his hands palms up and ask the Lord to fill his heart with love, peace, patience and kindness before walking into the front door. This was a small way to keep between the lines, and to make a big difference for his sons and wife at home.
Or take, for example, the wife whose marriage was coming apart because of the way she reacted every time her husband asked her a question. Having grown up in an extremely critical home, this woman took every question as an accusation that she was doing something wrong or failing to do enough. Neither was true. God had given her a spouse who loved her very much.
The 2-degree change I gave her? To take a deep breath each time he asked her a question, and to say to herself, Thank You, Lord, for giving me a husband who cares enough to ask questions, and thank You that he is looking for information, not trying to make me feel bad. That short pause began to change her reaction to her husband and their relationship.
Or consider the couple who tried (and failed again and again) to carve out an hour each week to pray together. Their 2-degree solution? Instead of trying to find that elusive, uninterrupted hour, they prayed together every night for a few minutes as they lay in bed.
Small adjustments like these can begin to change everything in a relationship. Which brings me to your relationship. Do you want to stay between the lines as a couple? Or perhaps you’ve already drifted and need to get back on the right track. Forget 180-degree changes; think 2 degrees. Focus on making little changes, and watch how much God can grow your marriage.
Want more 2-degree tips? Order Dr. John Trent’s book The 2-Degree Difference: How Small Things Can Change Everything! or visit his website at strongfamilies.com.
Based on research and experience from Dr. Greg and Erin Smalley, Focus on the Family has created valid and reliable questions that evaluate the strength of your marriage. Take our free assessment now.