Too often, I’m quick to judge and quick to get annoyed with those I love. I tend to understand and follow society’s rules for ‘nice’ and ‘polite’ behaviour; and so when others don’t my instinctive response is to judge them. And, yes, of course I’m wrong to do that.
I’m not saying that our notions of what is ‘nice’ or ‘polite’ are wrong, or don’t matter. I think, by and large, they’re extremely important tools in helping us to understand how we should behave considerately towards others. But, following them well can, paradoxically, lead to an un-loving prideful attitude. And that’s where I tend to stumble and fall. I’m so quick to spot when others don’t behave towards me as they should, and particularly when they don’t behave as I would in that situation, and a little grudge begins to fester against them. Now, often also I catch myself doing this and try to change my response to that particular situation; but, I definitely haven’t managed to overcome this tendency yet.
I think it’s particularly a problem in romantic relationships. We don’t choose our families – we’re stuck together almost no matter what – so we have no choice but to let a lot of little annoyances go without resentment, in order to maintain a healthy bond. We do choose our friends, and we can also choose how close to them we are; so, if they keep annoying us, we can easily choose to drop the friendship, or to step back a bit.
But, romantic relationships, prior to marriage, are a tricky middle ground. We’re testing whether we want to make a commitment to share our life with this person. We can’t helpfully step back a bit, like in friendship, because either we’re making progress forward, or we’re wasting time, to put it bluntly: if we’re not progressing along the road of discernment, and if we’re not building a healthy relationship, then we’re just wasting time and we might as well end the relationship and begin afresh the search for a marriage partner. But equally, because we’re not inextricable bound to this person, like we are with our families, that freedom means that we don’t naturally or easily let repeated offences against us pass without resentment forming or selfish responses emerging.
But, increasingly I’m realising that, in romance more than in any other relationship, we have to be radically unselfish, in order to give ourselves the chance of building a successful marriage. We have to treat the other exactly how we would like to be treated, in order to merit such behaviour ourselves, and in order to see whether – if we both strive to be our best selves – we are compatible or not. If I begin by being selfish, every time I think I’m wronged, I’m hardly testing the waters for a fruitful Christian marriage. In marriage, we are supposed to be models of good and loving behaviour to each other. We test whether we can be influential models of what is good (rather than what is bad!) upon each other in a pre-marital relationship. We also bring all our hopes and desires of how we would like to be treated, for the rest of our life, by the human person with whom we will share the closest and most loving bond – our spouse. And so, it is imperative we begin by treating them as we want to be treated, so that we can fairly ask for this treatment in return – only at that point can we gradually establish whether it is something which they can give.
And, I’m learning, a large part of treating the other as you would like to be treated is forgiving them as you would like to be forgiven. The more forgiveness (i.e. responding to perceived wrongs with patience, compassion, understanding, peace, and never holding a grudge) you wholeheartedly offer, the more you can justly hope to receive. And how much forgiveness I know I need! I can be forgetful, grumpy, selfish, lazy, self-absorbed, impractical, feeble, untrusting, resentful, petty, irritable… and the list goes on! I would love to spend my life with someone who inspires me – by their exemplary good attitudes and behaviour – to improve my faults; but, also someone who has an abundance of genuine compassion and patience with me. When I err in something, I hope my future spouse will forgive me and keep hoping that I’ll improve. Of course I would like them to be able to recognise my faults – to let me know them gentle and encouragingly at the appropriate times, and to pray to God that I make progress in those areas. But I don’t want to spend my life with someone where I’m afraid every time I’ve done wrong, because I know they’ll probably be annoyed, or angry, or resentful, or vengeful. And so I must never be those things in a romantic relationship before marriage (or after!). I must always forgive as I want to be forgiven.
My behaviour says “these are my ideals, and this is what I think is right”; tacitly, our behaviour says “treat me this way”. If I treat someone with this abundant patience and forgiveness, I can justly ask for it in return. And if that is something it turns out that they cannot give, then I can sincerely wish them the best and move on, knowing that they’re not the right person for me, because we don’t share the same ideals of how we want to build a marital relationship. But if they can – within the limits of human weakness – treat me in this way – just as I (in my human weakness) am treating them – then I have found what I have been hoping for, and a rich soil in which to plant and cultivate a strong marriage.
I know this probably sounds radical. I know this probably sounds counter-cultural. It is. True Christianity does not form a ‘pragmatic’ alliance with the selfish values of the world. We are called to ‘metanoia’ – a complete change of heart and attitude. That’s easy to forget, I find; but, it’s so powerful and so joy-filled when I abide by it.