A young man’s little league football coach saw potential, with a near perfect spiral pass and an instinct to know who would be open for a pass. Great quarterbacks have that instinct for reading what will happen and preemptively matching their moves to what they see as predictability in their teammates.
An important skill for a quarterback is to throw the ball to where the receiver will be, not to where he currently is. Quarterbacks have to lead the receiver, which requires near-instant assessment of the speed and direction of the receiver.
I’ve noticed that, like a football quarterback, great spouses lead their partners by treating them the way they might someday be, rather than the way they are right now.
There is an old saying, “Husbands get married hoping desperately that their wives won’t change, and wives get married fully expecting their husbands to change; both are sorely disappointed.” We get married with expectations, and expectations are premeditated resentments.
Most people struggle to change to improve their lives, and even modest changes can take years and even decades. Getting in shape, getting a college education, working up through the ranks of the company; many of these improvements takes years.
Trying to change someone else, though, is a fool’s errand. People tend to resist changing due to outside pressure, and we soon realize that the best growth and maturity come for a person’s internally generated desire for health and growth.
Mary loves her husband, George, but when she asks for any help around the house, even something as simple as “George, would you mind taking the trash out tonight, because the trash bins are overflowing,” George reacts like an 8-year-old. He uses a mocking tone and repeats her words, or worse, he gives her the frosty silence of Spock.
Mary used to react in anger, but she’s found something that seems more helpful. She used to take the trash out herself when he responded immaturely, but doing so caused her to become really resentful, and a wise friend advised her against “just doing it.”
Instead, Mary responded, “George, I know you love me, you’ve said so for over 10 years. More than flowers, more than a card at Valentine’s, it makes me feel loved when you participate around the house with me.”
In the past, when George responded immaturely and Mary lashed out, or worse, when she just went and took the trash out herself, she was actually participating in George’s dysfunction. Eventually, it would become unclear whose problem it really was—George’s immaturity or Mary’s angry response.
Years later, as George worked through his issues, he was able to tell Mary that when she talked about taking out the garbage, all he could hear was his own mother, who he’d had a difficult relationship with.
When Mary asked him to take out the trash, George was lashing out at the ghost of his own mother. In other words, Mary’s simple request triggered George’s shame.
When couples act and react without thinking, the problem soon becomes like a plate of spaghetti, hopelessly tangled, and unclear where one spouses’ issue ends and the other’s begins. Like spaghetti, a couple’s issues becoming so tangled is called “enmeshment”. By refusing to react, by refusing to automatically respond negatively or lashing out at George’s dysfunction, Mary was able to disentangle herself from his issue.
Acting, rather than thoughtlessly reacting, is easier when we treat our spouse’s dysfunction with “loving detachment.” If you hate “tug of war,” loving detachment means you can simply drop the rope.
Throw your football response to where you hope they’ll be, mature and connected, rather than to where they might find themselves on a Tuesday morning, dysfunctional and angry at the ghost of their mother.
Vern Hyndman is a husband, father to four, engineer, pastor and founder of the nonprofit Heartforge.