Jesus, the Good Shepherd, offers an enriching life that He wants you to experience: “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10, emphasis added). An abundant life isn’t a bonus: It’s an essential part of the Christian life.
If we as Christians are neglecting ourselves, it’s like driving a car but never doing repairs on the vehicle. Cars need regular maintenance. Similarly, God designed people to need care emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually.
Roadblocks to self-care
Many of us don’t understand how to care for ourselves. Instead we cling to behaviors and patterns that wear us down.
I’ve counseled married couples for decades, and I’ve observed that many women — especially wives and mothers — resist self-care because they think like this: If anyone I love or am responsible for has a need of any kind, that need has to be more important than mine. Not only that, but women who take time and other family resources for themselves also admit to feeling guilty and believe it’s selfish.
I’ve also noted that men typically can schedule time for themselves but are frequently neglectful of all but basic self-care. They rarely pay attention to the spiritual and emotional aspects of their lives. Developing a plan that nurtures, revives and enlivens their soul and spirit is not on their to-do lists.
These roadblocks to self-care affect marriages because a spouse who isn’t cared for comes to the marriage depleted instead of ready to give. A marriage can thrive only when each spouse is seeking his or her own care. Here are some ideas to help you start taking care of yourself so that you’re more capable of bringing your best to your marriage:
In its purest form, spiritual self-care is allowing divine inspiration to breathe into your life. Reading the Bible, praying (communing with God), worshiping, reading Christian books and having conversations related to your faith with other believers are all parts of spiritual care. To live passionately and intimately with the relationship-oriented Creator and your spouse, you need to find communities and practices that spiritually inspire you. This is fundamental to living the abundant life. If you’re not having the “breath of life” fill you through spiritual communities and disciplines, you run the risk of depleting yourself and your spouse.
Many couples live with emotional pain and not-so-abundant marriages because they lack understanding of how to tend to their feelings. To care for oneself emotionally means to pay careful attention to feelings and the information they give you. Feelings have an essential role in a marriage relationship. They are not at odds with your God-given design; they are your God-given design.
A great way to enhance emotional self-care is to change your self-talk. I’d estimate about 80 percent of what the average spouse tells him- or herself is negative and 20 percent is positive. Those percentages need to be swapped so that a person becomes his or her own advocate.
I recommend that you connect with feelings you had as a child and re-evaluate them. Give yourself some slack. As an exercise, talk to yourself as you would a vulnerable child. Become your own parent so to speak. Tell your adult self what that child self needed to hear to be built up. It’s not too late to change the audio tracks in your head. For example, recall a time when you felt frightened as a child — perhaps you were separated from your mother during an outing. Reassure the young you that someone will be coming soon; you won’t be abandoned forever. That’s the reassuring tone you can learn to convey to the adult you who still may fear being alone.
If spouses tend to their own emotions rather than leaning solely on their husband or wife for that support, each spouse has more emotional bandwidth to give to the marriage.
A couple of years ago, my physician noted that my cholesterol was creeping toward unhealthy levels. So I began to exercise more and changed my eating habits. At my next visit, my physician was shocked. Lab results showed my cholesterol readings were in the healthy zone. He said that usually no one does that. Most patients prefer to take a pill rather than change their lifestyle.
Caring for oneself physically improves the other areas of life. Emotions are less likely to spin out of control. Self-image improves. Focusing mentally is easier.
Encourage each other to exercise and eat right. Give your spouse permission to join a gym or invest in running shoes or other sports equipment. Resist the urge to be lazy. I can almost guarantee that your doctor won’t be the only one impressed with the changes you make by tending to physical self-care. Your spouse will most likely appreciate the effort you put into caring for yourself, too.
Mental self-care is attending to your mind. It involves engaging in certain activities and attitudes, such as being curious, learning new things and working on creative projects.
Everything seems fresh, interesting and new to a child. If you often feel bored, you may have turned off the curiosity that you were born with. When you succumb to the illusion that everything is the same old same old and shut down your native curiosity, your marriage will seem boring as well.
You don’t have to enroll in a college course and cram for a test to be mentally alive. But if your brain isn’t active, it will deteriorate, much like your body does without exercise. Keeping your brain engaged may help build better marriage relationships as you’re more likely to remain curious about your spouse if you’re curious about life in general.
If you understand that self-neglect drains you and your spouse, you’ll be more inclined to embrace this four-part self-care system. It’s essential for living the abundant life and for experiencing marriage the way God designed it.
Robert S. Paul, licensed professional counselor, is vice president of the Focus on the Family Marriage Institute. He is the director and creator of the Hope Restored marriage intensive counseling program and is a co-author of The DNA of Relationships for Couples.
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