“Love is patient, love is kind…It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered. It keeps no record of wrongs.” 1 Corinthians 13:4-5 NIV
We were surprised when we arrived back at our house very late in the evening to see a familiar car in our driveway. It was a woman from our church sitting in her car waiting for us to come home. This was not planned. She was in crises. “I don’t know if I can handle him anymore! I am so angry and I don’t know what to do!”
Though she had never done this before, we were well aware that her marriage was on the rocks. They had been married nearly twenty years and their relationship was only getting worse. The clear tension and verbal sparring between them was excruciating to watch. Her resentment had risen to toxic levels.
We met with her that night and several other times to offer counsel. As well as coming along side to support her, we helped her process things she might do to change the direction of the marriage. We challenged her to remind herself of his good qualities and find ways to give him more honor and respect. Though we did not use the term at that time, we were asking her to practice cherishing.
Cherishing is what a young mother does with her child. To cherish is to protect, hold dear and believe in the inherent value of the cherished, no matter what their present behavior. Cherished is what you feel when someone delights in seeing you, believes in you and encourages you.
Yet, in difficult marriages, an accumulation of disappointment and hurt often builds up over time to the point where cherishing is only a distant memory. What has taken its place is what marriage researcher John Gottman has called Negative Sentiment Override.
Negative Sentiment Override (NSO) is the state where accumulated pain has grown to a level that the heart just “expects to be hurt”. In a sense it is very reasonable. It is a way to brace for disappointment.
However, when NSO is fully in place, it warps the perceptions of the spouse infected by it. Actions that are neutral will be viewed as negative and even positive gestures may be interpreted with suspicion or at best unimpressive. “Oh sure, now you buy me flowers on this anniversary. Don’t expect that this will make up for the last three years you forgot!”NSO is looking at the proverbial half empty cup long enough that it begins to appear more and more empty. In a very real sense, these negative expectations hold both spouses hostage. The NSO spouse can’t appreciate any good coming from their partner and the other spouse can’t get any credit for attempts to improve. Like the inmate of the debtor’s prison, the prisoner is unable to ever work off their debt, no matter how willing they are to make restitution.
Though the Negative Sentiment Override label is relatively new, the problem is as old as human relationships. Hebrews 12:15 tells us to, “watch carefully, so no one falls away from the grace of God. Let no root of bitterness spring up and trouble you, let many be defiled by it.” And Ephesians 4:31 warns us to “let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you.”
Then the big question of course is, what is the antidote for this NSO malady? The very next verse in Ephesians gives our answer. “Be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.”
To fight the tendency to dwell on the hurt, you can choose to forgive and cherish. Cherishing is not excusing the wrongs done to us or denying our disappointment. Cherishing is choosing to remind ourselves of what is still good and valuable about the cherished.
Cherishing is appreciating how much wonderful (liquid of your choice) is still in that cup. The attitude and actions associated with that focus will actually begin to change the relationship so that the cup begins to fill more.
When I was a public high school teacher, I would sometimes have a class full of troublemakers. I could get anxious even thinking about the dreaded “5th period” coming up. Then I discovered a secret.
If I shifted my goal to try to enjoy the “crazy characters” entering my room, I would often like them more. And as my attitude changed from “warpath” mode to “delighting in you” mode the kids seemed to behave better. A few times my “worst class” eventually became my “favorite class”!
Gottman has found that successful couples offer five times as many positive statements as negative ones. Of course, a good relationship is going to naturally produce more positive feedback. But it is also true in reverse. More positive feedback will lead to a more enjoyable relationship.
When we practice cherishing, two things happen. First of all, the cherished feels valued. The cherished feels appreciated. This will often motivate them to return the kindness. Secondly, the cherisher is building positive neuropathways in their brain. Positive as well as negative thinking can become a habit.
The very act of cherishing will produce a happier state of mind, perhaps only a little. But practiced over and over, it can become a reality. Cherishing will change the cherished. Cherishing will also change you.
How to practice cherishing.
- Make it a point to say please and thank you-especially for the little things often taken for granted. My wife often says thank you for supporting her, even though I am semi-retired and only work two days a week. I don’t feel like I am doing anything special, but I appreciate being appreciated.
- Cherish with little gestures that your spouse likes. My wife and I both like tea in the evenings. It is such a simple thing to heat some water and throw a tea bag in the cup. But when one of us surprises the other with a cup of their favorite flavor, we feel cared for.
- Cherish by speaking their “love language”, watching their kind of movie or joining them in their hobby or activity.
- Start a list (or journal) keeping track of all of the positive attributes and contributions of your spouse. Start with ten things. Then “go crazy” and work towards ninety more. As you do so, begin sharing those with your spouse. a few at a time.
- Throw away the expanding list of all of your spouse’s offenses. 1 Corinthians 13 says love “keeps no record of wrongs”. Practice redirecting your negative thoughts with “yes, but”. “Yes, I was frustrated that he/she did that, but I am also thankful for…” Assume good intentions. The point is not to ignore wrong doing, but to keep a balanced perspective of what is good as well.
- Take responsibility and apologize every time you are overly critical, harsh or disrespectful.
- Express your feelings of frustration or anger gently and carefully. Learn how to share negative feedback in a way that shows you still value and believe in him.
- Tell others what you appreciate about your spouse both in front of her and behind her back.
- Let go of your pet peeves – little things that your spouse can’t seem to change. Marriage counselor and author Gary Chapman tells of trying to get his wife to close the kitchen cupboard doors. He had nagged her to do it for years and she just didn’t change. Finally, he got the brilliant idea to just accept that it could be his job and take the few seconds to do it for her whenever needed. The doors got closed and he stopped getting irritated.
- Devote more time to be together. Plan regular date nights or getaways. My wife and I were often surprised, in our overly busy years raising a family, how a weekend away caused us to remember that “in love feeling” again. If your relationship is really bad, this extra time may be difficult. Choose to “delight” in being with your spouse anyway, and the feelings may eventually follow.
Strategy of the clever marriage counselor for cherishing.
Gary Chapman tells a story about a wife informing her marriage counselor that she had finally “had enough.” “I am going to leave him,” she said. “I just want to make sure that when I leave, it hurts him as much as he hurt me. What can I do?”
“Well,” the counselor responded, “I suggest you spend the next few months showering him with compliments. Then when you leave him, he will be totally shocked.” The woman followed the instructions and came back to report a while later. “So, are you ready to divorce him now?” asked the counselor. “Divorce him? No way! I love that man!” she exclaimed.
Her cherishing changed the relationship. Her cherishing may have changed him but her cherishing definitely changed her.
So, what happened to that woman in the driveway?
We watched our friend over the next few years take up the challenge to cherish her husband. She started telling him what she appreciated. She encouraged him in some of his leadership roles, even though it was not his strength. She began to tell others about his accomplishments and how proud of him she was.
As she did this, he began to change. Her kindness let him grow in kindness. Her support caused him to become more confident in his own abilities. Backstabbing stopped. Mutual admiration took its place. Several decades later, that marriage appears to be strong. Resentment lost. Cherishing won!
For help navigating through a difficult season in your marriage or other life issues, contact me or any of the other counselors at Spokane Christian Counseling. We also have sister offices elsewhere. We can partner with you in your quest to grow and thrive.
“Argument”, Courtesy of Keira Burton, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Mother and Baby”, Courtesy of Jonathan Borba, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Half Full”, Courtesy of Nolan Simmons, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Holding Pinkies”, Courtesy of Gift Habeshaw, Unsplash.com, CC0 License
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