Human beings love to be in control. But in marriage, when one person tries to control another true intimacy is impossible. You know that’s true if your spouse is the control freak. But what can you control in your marriage?

I can’t tell you how many times I hear, “I can’t get my husband to do …”, or “If my wife would only …” Or even, “How can I punish my spouse?” Yes, you married a sinner. But so did your spouse. And the only one of those two sinners you have any control over is you.

When human beings are under stress we naturally search for something to control, something we can do that could make us feel better. An insecure person needs to try to control everyone and everything around them. Someone who is mature, grounded, and reasonably healthy doesn’t have to grasp for control.

Research has shown repeatedly that human beings do better when exerting energy in areas where they do have a measure of control. There may be millions of things you’d like to change where there’s nothing you can do; don’t spend time there. But even in the worst possible circumstances there are always things you can do, choices you do have. Focus there.

As far as your marriage, while your spouse undoubtedly should do many things differently, that’s not an area you have control over. Regardless of what your relationship is like, focus on what you can control in your marriage; yourself!

Lynn and David’s Story

It’s a miracle that David and Lynn are still married. David had betrayed Lynn, and their marriage almost ended before they experienced God’s restoring grace. I asked David, “What was it like to see the pain and devastation you had caused your wife?”

His answer may sound selfish, but it demonstrated great wisdom; “Honestly, I wasn’t looking at Lynn much at that point. I was focused on dealing with my own brokenness, and doing the work that I needed to do.”

What David understood was that the only person he had a choice about was himself. He couldn’t manipulate his wife into choosing forgiveness and restoration. The only hope he had of anything good was to deal with his own stuff. Accepting no excuses and sick of “trying harder,” he addressed the roots in his own soul that had prompted his bad behavior. Over a period of a few years Lynn saw David truly becoming someone new from the inside out, someone who was safe enough for her to risk trusting again.

That restoration would never have happened if David had simply focused on outward behavior, or made excuses, or put his energy into trying to get his wife to turn towards him again. It only happened because he focused on the only part of the process within his control – his own heart before God.

Controlling Your Own Heart

While not easy to do, those who are wise gain mastery over their own spirit. “Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city.” (Proverbs 16:32) Children let their feelings control them; those with a mature character learn how to acknowledge their feelings, but not to follow them.

Controlling your own heart may sound clinical, or like working harder. But this has nothing to do with tightening down the screws on yourself; that’s only counterproductive. A better word might be keep: “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” (Proverbs 4:23)

It takes courage to understand the hidden motivations of your heart, to provide it the nourishment, guardrails, and guidance it needs to flourish. Here’s some of what that looks like.  

  1. Ask God to Search You.

Oh, how we can deceive ourselves! How easy it is to self-righteously justify our anger or bitterness, or to mistake fear for kindness. The speck in our spouse’s eye seems so large, when we overlook the log in our own. (Matthew 7:3-5)

If you’re serious about this, ask God to search you. “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts!” (Psalm 139:23) If given the opportunity, the Holy Spirit will regularly put His finger on something in your life and say, “This right here; let Me change you here!”

And when he does that, just say YES!

  1. Seek Understanding.

Stephen Covey was perhaps best known for his encouragement to “Seek understanding before seeking to be understood.” That so holds true in marriage.

Ask yourself (and God), “What’s it like to be married to me?” Who does God need you to be to your spouse in this season? That may not be as obvious as it seems; diligently seek God’s perspective on that question.

Does your spouse need to change? Yes. But remember; that’s not something you have control over. By seeking understanding, you’ll be able to focus on your own soul (which is the only thing you can control), and may well be able to support your spouse in their own growth as well.

  1. Be Relentless About Growth

God continues His work in us as long as we’re on this earth – if we let Him. By remaining focused on your own soul you won’t have any time left over to criticize or manipulate your spouse.

Where is the Holy Spirit working on you right now? Courage, kindness, patience, resilience – whatever it is, focus there. As long as you live, you will have more to learn about loving well. (See 1 Corinthians 13:4-7)

Love is not weak. Love forgives, but it also has difficult conversations, and sets boundaries. Mature love means continuing to grow so that you are the kind of spouse worth loving, and letting God’s love flow through you.

Your Turn: How well have you been keeping your own heart? Where can you adjust your energies to move toward becoming the person God needs you to be to your spouse in this season? Leave a comment below.

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