A cat that sits on a hot stove won't ever sit on a hot stove again; neither will it sit on a cold stove. —Mark Twain
Keeping the Past Out of Your Present
Gary once sat on a hot stove. His wife, Shirley, complained that he wouldn't let her take any parental initiative with his children. Upon reflection, Gary was aware that he struggled to release control of his kids, but he didn't know why. After exploring his relational history with a counselor, he realized that his first wife's abandonment left him afraid to "get back up on the stove."
Gary knew he had been holding on to his children to protect them from further pain, but he didn't realize he was also protecting himself. Holding on to them meant he didn't have to give as much of himself to Shirley. He feared making himself vulnerable to hurt and worried that she might not be fully committed to the marriage. He discovered that he had been intentionally making his wife jealous of his children so he could be assured of her desire for him. Ironically, this inadvertently built resentment in Shirley's heart toward both him and his children over time.
Confidence in marriage is important. It nurtures a positive attitude toward your spouse and a high motivation to find positive ways of relating. Fear and concern, however, erode how we receive our mate's words and actions. In my book The Smart Stepfamily: Seven steps to a healthy family, I refer to these fears as the "ghosts of marriage past." These ghosts can lead you to live as if negative things are happening when they're not and to interpret benign behaviors, attitudes or words as if they are malignant. Couples who are intent on developing a long-lasting relationship must manage their inner concerns and fears. You must become a ghost buster!
Who You Gonna Call?
Learning to manage your fears and how they affect you is an important task to protecting your marriage from erosion. Consider these ghost busting strategies:
- Identify your ghosts. What are you trying to prevent from happening? What pain are you especially sensitive to? (Find a list of common ghosts for those divorced and widowed at SmartStepfamilies.com.)
- Indentify your fear triggers. It could be a behavior, gesture, tone of voice or verbal message from your spouse that sets you off, or it might be a feeling you experience that reminds you of a painful past. Be sure you know what sets you off so you can interrupt the trigger's impact.
- Interpret the present in light of the present – not the past. "I know what you mean by that tone of voice" might be a mistaken interpretation based on the past. Don't be too quick to judge the motives or meaning of your spouse's actions and words.
- Wrestle with forgiveness. Some ghosts persist because you haven't fully grieved the past or forgiven your ex-spouse.
- Ask your current spouse for prayer. Share what you are learning about yourself – your fears and triggers – so they can support your effort to bust your ghosts.
- Ask yourself questions. In trying to change your emotional reactions, ask yourself, "If I had never sat on that hot stove before, how would I respond in this situation?" The answer represents your love potential and should become your goal each day.
Confronting your ghosts is never easy. Strive to love as Jesus would have you — without fear. Then, and only then, will your confidence and sense of security in this marriage grow. Remember, "perfect love casts out all fear" (1 John 4:18).