I’m not a rule breaker. I am an opportunity seeker.
C’mon – rules were meant to be broken, right? Well, the stupid ones for sure are begging to be broken. And let’s be honest – sometimes the consequences are worth it.
Almost always, the first reaction to the word consequence reflects punishment. Understandably so. As a kid, I sometimes felt like I was navigating a consequence minefield. I learned to choose my actions carefully, weighing possible outcomes.
As a college student in the 80’s, this skill came in handy. Breaking the rules was consequenced with a demerit system. We were allowed 100 demerits per semester. 100 demerits got you “campused”, or grounded to campus with the exception of work or church. 150 demerits got you “shipped”, or expelled. Add infractions like overdue library books, garbage not emptied daily, or dust on anything in your dorm room, and those demerits could rack up pretty quickly. But am I still in trouble if the rule is dumb?
However, I have a super power.
As the youngest of nine, I was born knowing how to watch and learn. Boy, did I learn from watching eight siblings. I didn’t learn how to not misbehave. I learned how to not get caught.
One day I referred to demerits as Units Of Fun, which must be carefully budgeted. My college friends eagerly adopted this system as we all agreed that budgets are good for more things than money.
When I planned activities that skated on the edge of strict obedience to the code of conduct, I carefully counted the cost. If there were enough Units Of Fun available in the budget, and it was worth the risk of spending those Units Of Fun, it was game on. This system also ensured that I wasn’t careless about smaller infractions, like not making my bed or forgetting to sign out when I left campus, because even a few of those small things depleted my Units Of Fun more quickly than I liked.
My friends and I considered this method to be Biblical at its core, as we had all sat through many a sermon about “counting the cost”. (Luke 14:28) Yes, I am aware that the scriptural reference has no relevance whatsoever to my use of it. But it did come in handy when arguing that Jesus approved my units of fun, and, in my mind anyway, applauded my cleverness and creativity. Being the Father of Creativity, as it were.
Those demerits were a system designed to control our behavior. Consequences are viewed this way as well, likely because they are widely used throughout society as such. Growing up, corporal punishment was the go-to for deliberate disobedience. This was not, nor is it now, an effective method of control. It fosters anger and poor self worth, which in turn, fosters critical thinking about how to not get caught. It does little to control actual choices about behaviour.
Natural consequences are another story:
Refuse to wear your mittens when you go out to play in the snow, your hands get cold.
Refuse to do your homework, your grades suffer.
Don’t use a condom, you get a baby. Or an STI. Either way, this is a life altering consequence that affects far more people than just yourself.
Yell at and hit that child, you get an angry child who doesn’t care whether you are pleased with their behaviour or not, because you have wounded their spirit.
How does this work in marriage?
It is reasonable to expect a certain code of conduct within the marriage relationship. Every wedding ceremony includes an exchange of vows. A quick internet search turned up these gems — oh how I wish Google was a thing when I got married!
“I promise not to watch the next episode without you.”
“I vow to always let you have the last blueberry pancake.”
“I promise to unclog the drain, even though you’re the only one of us who has long hair.”
“I vow to get a professional even though I really want to try to do it myself first.”
But after all the love, honor, cherish, and Netflix binge-watching promises, real life happens. Mistakes are made. There are errors in judgement. And sometimes, vows are broken. Who doles out the consequences when that happens? All too often, one spouse makes a mistake, the other spouse, from a place of genuine woundedness, seeks retaliation, and the result can kill the marriage.
We let natural consequences play out. Bear with me — this is simply a part of a larger conversation that must be had, ideally with a trained therapist who specializes in marriage. Having been there, I learned a lot about forgiveness and reconciliation. Mostly from my therapist. Trust me, get some specialized help.
Here’s the thing about forgiveness. It matters. It must happen in order to open the doors to healing. But, and this is VERY IMPORTANT:
It does not nullify or abdicate ownership of consequences. When I forgive you, it means I am not seeking revenge. I am taking you off the hook of my retribution, and putting you on God’s hook. Believe me, God’s hook is a much bigger deal than mine. Fear that hook.
(BTW, we can all agree that I am using the universal “you”, not the person-specific you. Just wanted to clear that up for those of you who feel guilty when you see the police behind you on the road, even if the lights and sirens aren’t on.)
Forgiveness benefits me because it allows me to turn my attention away from the pile of yuck that your hurt caused me, and allows me to move forward to a place of healing, with or without you. I would 100% rather it be with you, but that’s your choice. Reconciliation is one of those phenomena that requires both parties to participate fully.
Here’s the magic trick of forgiveness:
I can forgive you even if you never say you’re sorry.
Forgiveness is my choice. I don’t need your permission to forgive you. I can choose to do that all by myself. I don’t even have to wait until I feel like it. It can take a long time to process all the anger, hurt, sorrow, and injustice. Forgiveness can happen even in the middle of the storm that all those things create. Forgiveness, in fact, MUST happen in the middle of that storm. Without it, the storm won’t calm to a place where you can begin to heal.
But what about the schmuck who hurt you? I’m so glad you asked.
Consequences will be brought to bear. Forgiveness means you don’t choose the timing or the details of the consequences. Leave that up to God. He’s the pro at fire and brimstone, after all.
Here’s something else forgiveness doesn’t do. It doesn’t remove the natural consequence of broken trust. Don’t use forgiveness to remove boundaries between you and the person who hurt you. The opposite, in fact, is true.
Forgiveness allows you space to rebuild safe boundaries.
Forgive, but don’t put yourself back in harms way. Trust has been broken and must be rebuilt for the relationship to be reconciled to a place of mutual respect and safety.
Forgiveness and trust are not mutually exclusive. I can forgive you and still not trust you as far as I can throw a bull by the tail against a strong wind.
In a committed adult relationship, if we try to control the consequences, we are not in a peer relationship. We are in a parent/child relationship. And that’s a recipe for disaster. It is not your job to fix/change/improve your spouse. Besides, don’t you have enough of a mess on your own plate that needs attention?
Reconciliation requires both of you to agree on the stuff that matters. I recommend that you keep this list short, and value-oriented. You can make a list of the “10 Commandments of being married to me”, but you won’t be married for long.
Or, you can agree on the character values you both want lived out in your relationship. For example, my husband and I have committed to one another to live out the following character values in our marriage:
Seek the best for one another.
Believe the best about one another.
Tell the truth
Admit mistakes and seek forgiveness
Love even when it’s hard.
Especially when it’s hard.
Wet towel on the bathroom floor? It’s just a towel. It’s not unkind.
Bed doesn’t get made every day? If it bugs you, you make it. It’s not dishonesty.
He/she said something that hurt your feelings? Talk about it. Be honest. This challenges your agreed-upon character values. Left ignored, it has the potential to be a deal-breaker.
Is there habitual dishonesty going on? Ask why. If it’s a bigger answer than you can handle between the two of you, get into therapy. Like, yesterday. (Ideally, you should agree on a therapist to use before you need one. Got teeth? Get a dentist. Got a marriage? Get a therapist.)
Are you naturally sarcastic and have a sharp-tongued wit? If it is hurting the one you love, even unintentionally, knock it off. No laugh from your friend group is worth hurting your love’s feelings.
Just like a sci-fi franchise, I am going to wrap with a prequel.
This is all stuff you should have talked about before you made a life-sharing commitment to one another. Didn’t do it? DO IT NOW.
When you are in a calm place in your relationship, agree on a time and place for this conversation. Write down your key values beforehand. You need to know what your deal breakers are. Decide together what the next steps look like when those key values are broken.
Here’s a pro tip for free.
Is there a couple, who have been together at least 5 years longer than you have, whose relationship you admire? Befriend them. Ask them if they would be willing to mentor you. Finding a mentor couple was one of the smartest things we ever did. Have couples time. Have one-on-one time. Ask all the questions. Learn from their bumps and bruises. Prevent your own mistakes.
Oh — and agree on this choice too. Don’t pick another couple on your own and sneak them into your lives as regular friends, when all along you have an ulterior motive for them to fix your spouse. BAD IDEA.
Are you further down the road of a committed-for-life relationship? Have you learned some stuff? Maybe you are ready to be a mentor to a younger couple navigating the world of love/life/kids/work/in-laws. If you and your love are asked to step into this role, make sure both of the other spouses agree to this. That’s a hidden minefield you don’t want step into!
Above all, be smart enough to stop and think before you do something hurtful. Those Units Of Fun run out fast, and it takes a loooong time for them to fill up again.