In counseling about relationships, I often draw a circle that demonstrates how we become disenchanted about our partner and the relationship. Or put another way, we wonder if they really love us. Often we doubt that we love them.

The cycle goes like this:

1. We marry an ideal. In a dating relationship, we are both putting our best face forward. Often we act like we are the person we know the other person wants. But when we marry, the age-old longing to be accepted for who we are becomes the flip side of longing to be married to our ideal—not a real person who is a sinner just like we are. Remember, we want to be accepted for who we really are, but we want the other person to be our ideal partner.

2. Next comes what I refer to as “the expansion phase.” This is when we are trying to help the other person become who we think we need for them to be. (Now remember that they are doing the same in regard to us. Women are just usually more obvious about it than men. Women’s brains are more formed to tolerate obvious conflict than men’s). While we are in this expansion phase, what we are doing to each other to “help them be our ideal” is often very hurtful and often makes both parties become defensive in their own style.

3. This starts “the constriction phase.” Both parties are losing their feeling of security and belief in the initial relationship. When I see them in counseling, they are often sitting there holding and defending their own wound because they have become convinced if they let go of it, they will bleed to death and their partner won’t care. Of course, the partner is feeling and doing the same thing. They have basically forgotten all the good times and feelings that were in the initial phase of the relationship because their unhealthy conflict has caused them to doubt their partner and the relationship.

John 10 describes Christ’s relationship toward his followers. He says, “I know them. They hear my voice, and no one can snatch them out of my hands.” I often cup my hands and use this passage to form a metaphor for what a real relationship is like. I put my hands together and say, “If you act like you love me, I feel secure.” And then I say (as I am separating my cupped hands), “If you act like you don’t love me, I am not secure because I have lost my confidence in the relationship.” And the dance goes back and forth from cupped hands that are together to opening your hands and letting what is in drop.

Belief in the relationship is just that. I choose to believe that I do not understand what you did, but that you married me because you love me. I choose to believe that you are not my enemy. (There is an enemy, but it’s not your partner.)

In keeping with this, when I knew that my husband was about to drop a bomb on me, I would say, “Okay, before we start, I need to hear you say that you love me—even though you are disappointed in my actions, beliefs, or feelings.” That way I could hear what he was saying from the position of security. He could feel that I knew he was disappointed in me, but I was ready to face his thoughts. In effect, we were not going to declare the other the enemy.  If you are my enemy, I must defend myself. If your problem is with something I did, not who I am, it is easier for me to try and work with you on a solution. If we approach it from a defensive posture, then it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. We will get what we are looking for.

Returning to my cycle: I try to help people look at themselves (as the Bible does,) not the other people. If all we do is blame, nothing changes, and we are not open to new information about the relationship and ourselves. Our blind spots continue to exist, but BOY DO I SEE YOUR FLAWS! It’s terrible to be so holy and be married to such a fallen sinner! Thus, if we began to see who we really are, the other person can stop his defensive stand and began to look at him/herself and see that they are a fallen person just as we are.  Both of us can realize that we were doing the best we could with the choices we thought we had.

4. This phase I called the reality phase”. Both of us are married to real people, not our ideal that we dreamed up when we were five years old that would do all the good things our parents did and make up for all the childhood losses.

This is how we go from anger (remember, anger is a secondary response). Hurt, loss, frustration, and fear are what is primary and make us feel vulnerable. We defend against this vulnerable feeling by pulling for power. Anger makes us feel powerful, but it also can make the other person the enemy. It is rather the problem underneath the feelings that is the thing on which we need to work together.

I may need to give you a road map. Where I am going in this series is towards forgiveness and learning how to restore broken relationships. But until we grow in sanctification and maturity as a person, we will stay stuck in our five-year-old place. You know when little boys are playing trucks and one gets mad and says, “I’ll take my truck and go home.” Thus, the fun game has come to an abrupt end. They may lay this quarrel aside and play trucks again, but no one grew in the process. As we get willing to stay in the relationship and stop blaming and start learning what each one of us does that is hurtful to the other person, we can then go to God with this new found knowledge about ourselves and ask for grace and mercy. When we learn how to really accept grace and mercy, we learn how to accept ourselves, fallen as we are. Only in this new position of self-caring, we have renewed energy to grow and solve problems. We realize more and more that God loves us, but that he is also conforming us into the image of His Son—and lo and behold, He is using that person to whom I am married to enlighten me!!

As we do this process, our trust gets stronger. As our trust grows, we are more able to keep our hands cupped together and look into those cupped hands at two struggling people that are doing the best they can at the time. Because we work through one crisis, it gives us confidence that we can work through the next.

Oh, by the way, if you need to ask for reassurance before the conflict start, it’s okay. Christ in the garden went to his father and asked for reassurance. Hebrews 12:1-6 reminds us that sanctification and forgiveness are Christian acts, but both are a process. Remember forgiveness from God was not just He saying, “It’s okay. I forgive you.” It took a lot more than that.