I recently found myself engrossed in an episode of “Hoarders.” If you are not familiar with this show, “Hoarders” lets you see in great detail the struggles of people who . . . well, hoard. Up close and personal, viewers witness what happens to people’s lives, families, health and spiritual well-being when they are beset by one basic problem: the inability to let go of stuff. Whether it is memorabilia, toys, electronics, appliances, clothes or whatever, the basic issue is the same: The person just cannot let it go.
While “Hoarders” deals with material things, the show mirrors a similar challenge that is all too common in marriage: the inability to let go of the old and the broken, even when those things now hurt the relationship.
We all go through life looking forward to the new, to the promise of tomorrow. But as we embrace the new, we don’t as often recognize the need for the parallel process of letting go of the old. Relationships, activities, practices — our lives are filled with things that may only be meant to last for a short season. As King Solomon said, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: . . . a time to keep and a time to throw away” (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 6).
When a season is over — when its value has come and gone — we should let it go. This cycle is built into life by God.
Trading the good for the best
Endings are never easy, of course, even if they are necessary. And sometimes those endings are painful. But in the same way a rosebush needs pruning for a gardener to get beautiful flowers, married couples must also decide what needs to be cut away.
Think about that idea for a moment. A gardener prunes a rosebush for three reasons: First, a bush may produce more buds than it can sustain and feed. So, the gardener prunes the good ones, and keeps only the best ones so they can fully mature. Second, there are diseased branches that simply refuse to get well. Third, dead branches occupy space that the healthy ones need in order to grow. If all three types of pruning are done regularly and well, then the rosebush thrives.
Imagine if couples were to approach their marriages with a gardener’s mind-set — if they trimmed away good things to let the better things thrive and if they said goodbye to the activities that took resources and space from their relationship. The process might be painful at first, but the courage and determination to embrace those necessary endings would ultimately give their marriage a new and more fulfilling beginning.
The courage to embrace tomorrow
For a variety of reasons, such as guilt or fear of the unknown, couples hang on to things whose season has passed, things that really should be cut away. You may recognize some of these things from your own life:
- A church or small group, which served you well in a particular season of your marriage, is no longer doing so. Its legitimate season is past, and it may in fact be toxic for your relationship. Guilt and fear keep you from finding and investing in a group that is appropriate for this time of life.
- Your lives are simply too overextended. Sports, clubs, ministry opportunities, arts, social functions — if too many outside activities are extracting energy from your lives, the quality time that you need as a couple doesn’t happen.
- A group of friends that was once important to you is going a different direction in life, with different values than you wish to build in your marriage. Spending time and energy there is keeping you from investing in the friends who are heading in the same direction as you.
- You spend time on a hobby that, while entertaining, might be keeping you from pursuing something that will enrich your marriage.
- You’ve tried helping an extended family member, but he continues on the wrong path, taking advantage of your kindness and causing your marriage unnecessary grief. Every time you interact with him, your own marriage suffers because you are not emotionally available for your spouse in the aftermath.
I am not saying that couples should just throw away all of the activities and relationships that are not benefiting them in some way. That would be selfish, and Christians are called to commitment and service. But this must be accompanied by discernment and wisdom.
As we journey through life with our spouse, we need to wisely choose where we spend our time, energy and money, having the strength to say goodbye to what does not fit. If we are going to enjoy a truly thriving marriage, we need to recognize what season we are in, and prune accordingly.
Dr. Henry Cloud is a clinical psychologist and the author or co-author of over 20 books, with a total of 4 million copies in print. His most recent book is Necessary Endings.
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