How grace helps us deal with competition in our marriage

© October 18, 2018 | Schulter Etyang

When Jenny and I celebrated our seventh-year anniversary, I wrote a blog on some lessons that we had learned through the years. You can read the blog post here.

One of the lessons we shared was this – we are on the same team. In this lesson, I indicated how early on in our marriage, we were highly competitive – competitive that we demeaned the other, subtly or at other times openly. A simple game of squash would end up with angry outbursts and simmering tension that would brew for days.

When a friend of ours read the post, she remarked that I was being a bit touchy about the competitiveness and that she liked to compete. In the conversation, she spoke of how she played simple games with her daughter and loved the competition. What I didn’t tell her is that for us, a simple game of squash would bring out the competitive nature in us, and the ensuing tension would simmer for days. 

We also discovered, for example, that when we were in conversations with family and friends, it was about who gave the best answers to questions posited, or, who was the most insightful and wise. Subtly, we would try to outsmart each other. I knew that if this competitive streak is left unchecked, it could blossom into something more sinister and insidious. I imagined that in many years to come, we would be exhausted, and angry towards each other because all we did was try to get the upper hand in a marriage where we were supposed to complement each other – on the same team.

Jenny comes from a very sporty family. Her brothers played a variety of sports and were good at the sports the played. Jenny became a national tennis champion at some point. When they played together, they competed hard. She tells me stories of how her father and brothers used to play the game of cards and would compete until the last person standing. There was no letting up. So when we played squash together, her competitive streak came up and had undertones of nastiness.

I, on the other hand, come from a family that competed differently. We argued and fought using harsh words, and we did it loudly. We weren’t silent about it. It was out there in the open. Sometimes even fistfights would break out, and we would resent each other for years. There are things still unsaid in our family to this very day, and when the right opportunity comes along, all that suppressed anger bursts out like a dam. 

So you can imagine what happens when Jenny and I have a simple argument. She can argue nasty, and I can argue harshly and loudly – loudly as to drown out her voice. And then she always makes it worse by saying this to me, “Why are you talking so loudly?” When I hear her say those words, I go through the roof. Simple arguments end up like the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bomb scenes because truth be told, we are both competing for power.

Being a keen observer of life and human relationships, I have noticed that many couples compete, even those married for many years. I have been in Church all my life, and when couples in ministry compete, it is shrouded in spirituality and service to the Lord – especially couples that are both gifted in music, preaching, or leading. If you would talk to these couples, they would deny they are competing because they are, “Doing it for the Lord”, but it’s the exhaustion, anger, and cynicism that expose them. I have witnessed this also in couples who are not necessarily in the ministry, just plain folks who are trying to outdo the other and gain the upper hand.

This is what I believe competition does in marriage. Competition in marriage produces passivity in the spouse who is often at the receiving end of the losses. On the flip side, competition also produces an aggressive and abrasive behaviour from the spouse who loves to compete with a winner take it all mentality. This passive-aggressive dynamic in marriage, I believe, is the breeding ground for resentment and suppressed antagonism, as Paul Zahl puts it. 

Last week, I attended a two-day conference whose keynote speaker was Dr Don Carson, the president and co-founder of The Gospel Coalition and research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. In his sermon on Genesis 3, he talked about the curse that was meted out on the man and woman.

Genesis 3:16 NKJV

Your desire shall be for your husband and he will rule over you.

In summary, he explained how he understood these verses, and a light bulb came on in my heart. The Hebrew word used for desire is also used in Genesis 4:6-7, when God warned Cain that sin was at the door, and sin wanted to control or be master over him (and its desire is for you). In the same breath, Dr Carson said that the marriage relationship in it’s fallen state, the woman would want to control her husband, and the husband would respond by brutal rule over her. Why? Before the fall, both husband and wife were in loving submission to each other. They were in for each other. They were other-oriented. But after the fall, this relationship was distorted by sin so that now the woman wants to control and the man rules with brutal force.

The truth be told, many Christian couples live this way. The Christian couples, however, lace it with spiritual jargon. It is subtle, yet very apparent.

In non-Christian marriages, the wife could use sex as a means to control her husband.  But then when they come together in the sexual act, the man uses sex to brutally rule over his wife. Sex to the husband becomes a conquering tool that he unleashes against his wife. Both are competing for power.

I’ve been reading Paul F. M Zahl’s book, Grace in Practice: Theology of Everyday Life. In this book, Paul explains in detail what grace is, and how it works in everyday living. This book is probably the most enlightening and impactful that I have ever read on the subject of grace. It has changed my life and confirmed or rather put words to our experience with grace.

The book has a whole chapter dedicated to how grace is lived out in families. A subsection in the chapter is titled, Law and Grace in the Competition of Marriage. Paul concisely put words into why Jenny and I had the discussion about competition – a conversation that is still ongoing because we easily forget.

Here are some quotes from this chapter

  1. Men and women encounter a serpent-ridden wilderness of Eden when they enter into marriage. Competition for need-fulfilment and attention squanders huge amounts of energy in resentment and suppressed antagonism.
  2. The law excels in dividing married couples on the basis of power and influence. Many marriages become long-term struggles for power. “You men are all alike,” lashes out Michelle in Diary of a Mad Black Woman. “You only think about yourselves.” Her good man retorts, “Yes, and you women are so angry. No wonder that husband of yours left you.” These are law-driven accusations. They destroy relationships every time. They imply a model of marriage as alternating need-fulfilment.
  3. Grace demolishes the idea of need-fulfilment. Need-fulfillment is a law that has no possible final satisfaction. Human need is limitless on its own terms. It is a bottomless well, a pail with a hole in the bottom. Grace nullifies this. The need for personal fulfilment is not met in Christianity. It is destroyed.
  4. In Christianity, grace assumes a bottomless need on the part of every single man and woman. It is the self-serving expression of original sin or selfishness. This unfulfillable need is worse than it sounds, for there is a scorpion at the bottom of the bucket. The original sin of the unattainable able need is made worse by a sadism that bonds with it in practice.
  5. Grace nullifies competition in marriage. Grace says you are both equally at fault in everything because the fault is in your chemistry and in your head. All men and women are “under the power of sin” (Romans 3:9). Grace also states the answer to psychic and actual competition between men and women, in grace’s one-way love that asks nothing in return yet “believes all things” (I Corinthians 13:7). Grace forms love in return
  6. The characteristic form of competition in marriage is competition over identity. The man thinks, maybe without giving it much thought, that his job, his difficult and demanding job, deserves more credit than his wife’s needlepoint shop, or her raising of their children day after day while he is at work. On the other hand, the woman may believe that only if she is chairing the board of Goldman Sachs can she bring credible equality to the marriage. Unless she is bouncing up and down against the glass ceiling, her “weight” in the partnership is not equal. The wife, in her stereotyped views of what is important and “identity-affirming,” is just as enslaved as the husband is in his own stereotyped views. From the standpoint of grace, both partners are equally mistaken. The best thing that could happen to them is if they both fell down from these stupendously misconceived ideas of human prize-winning and landed together on the same hill of sand, like pole-vaulters who have failed to clear the bar. Then they could observe their common failure.
  7. Grace demolishes the human idea of success. It laughs about it.
  8. Grace does not satisfy the search for a safe, human identity. Grace destroys the search. Humour helps to universalize the pathos of people’s compulsive attempts to shore up their “identity” with some sort of external predicate. Life deconstructs such attempts. Grace puts the competition on the same level and gives the same to every single person.
  9. No presentation of symptoms of identity one-upmanship will ever “win” the war between the sexes. Each person will only “put down” the other. Only God has the will and power to put down “the powerful from their thrones, and [lift] up the lowly” (Luke 1:52). Grace ends competition in marriage. It demolishes self-righteousness and increases, past the Richter scale, the level of compassion required for love to exist, thrive, and continue. No more “Vive la difference.”

Jenny and I have allowed grace to level us out. I am not better than her, and she is no better than me. We are sinners, yet we have been justified by God. With this understanding, as sinners, we see each other for who we are, and as justified we give each other what we don’t deserve – grace.

That’s what grace looks like