Mistakes Were Made In This Marriage (But Not By Me)

“You don’t live by the facts. You live by your interpretation of the facts.” I read those simple words written by Paul Tripp years ago but they continue to give me insight into myself, my marriage, and the marriages of many people that I’ve counseled. Every marriage is a story, and like all stories, it is subject to interpretation.

For example, picture a family in which the husband often works late and the wife is usually exhausted from being home all day with young children. Both husband and wife acknowledge that these are the facts. The wife interprets the facts to mean that her husband doesn’t love her, doesn’t want to be around her, cares more about his work than the family, and might even be beginning an inappropriate relationship at the office. The husband interprets the facts to mean that he’s loving his wife and kids by working hard and trying to earn a promotion that will allow his wife to not work full time while the kids are young (it was her decision to quit her job) and for them to still save for college and take a vacation.

In the example above the husband and wife look at the same set of facts but come to radically different conclusions. Notice that both the husband and wife are the hero of their own story. Both think they are motivated by love and making sacrifices for the family. Then the next step happens. At some point, and in the heat of the moment that point is often hard to detect, a couple shifts from believing the best about their spouse to believing the worst. They aren’t just the heroes of their own story but now their spouse is the villain. Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) says that that shift might be due to self justification.

The wife has to reconcile her decision to quit work and stay home with the kids with her mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion. Instead of telling herself that raising young kids is more difficult than she thought, she blames her husband for not doing his part. She can’t handle saying that she needs to change the way she does things as a mom so she finds fault with her husband. Soon she’s decided that he’s the problem and then interprets everything he does through this lens.

For his part the husband falls into a very similar trap. He has to reconcile that he works more than ever with his own self perception that he’s a great husband and father. Instead of saying that maybe they need to downsize houses and accept a lower standard of living so he can be home more often, he tells himself that he’s doing all this work “for the kids.” When his wife talks to him about the long hours he’s working, instead of listening to her and making some changes, he decides that she doesn’t appreciate the sacrifices he’s making. Soon he’s decided that she’s the problem and interprets everything she does through this lens.

“But the vast majority of couples who drift apart do so slowly, over time, in a snowballing pattern of blame and self-justification. Each partner focuses on what the other one is doing wrong, while justifying his or her own preferences, attitudes, and ways of doing things.”

A big line is crossed when, driven by their own need to justify themselves, a couple stops arguing about what happened and starts arguing about what kind of person each is. Whether the couple realizes it at the time or not, their marriage is in serious trouble when they starting saying to themselves “I am the right kind of person and you are the wrong kind of person. And because you are the wrong kind of person, you cannot appreciate my virtues; foolishly, you even think some of my virtues are flaws.”

Self justification is blocking each spouse from asking: Could I be wrong? Could I be making a mistake? Could I change?

In marriages that thrive the husband and wife have resisted the habit to self justify. They’ve developed patterns of putting their spouse above their own need to defend themselves. Both spouses are able to listen to criticisms, concerns, and suggestions without taking offense.

I loved this book. Here’s the problem. The authors don’t give you any power to live the way they suggest. The book does a great job of diagnosing all the ways we self justify and the damage it does to ourselves and others but it doesn’t give you any power to change. You leave the book feeling trapped by your own foolish patterns and habits.

But the good news for us is that the gospel gives us exactly what we need. The gospel frees us from our need to be right. Therefore it frees us from our need to defend ourselves. Therefore it allows us to change.

The gospel says you are more sinful than you can imagine so don’t be surprised that your spouse (or your friend, co-worker, child, etc…) sees sin in your life. But the gospel says you are accepted in Christ not because of what you’re doing but because of what Jesus has already done. So there’s no need to defend your record or your performance. You can admit fault and say, “I’m wrong” without fear. As we come to a deeper and more personal faith in the gospel we don’t need to interpret the events in our life in a way that exalts ourselves and demonizes others. We can appreciate that we’ve married another “good” person who wants to do the right thing and has a different way of looking things.

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