The battle of the sexes probably started as far back as Adam and Eve. Actually, the battle probably ensued when Eve first asked Adam to take out the apple core. Regardless of how long the battle has been raging, you can still put me on record as saying how glad I am there are differences between the genders. My wife, Erin, has gifts that complement mine, and I adore her femininity.

However, I’m not keen on celebrating some endless joust with Sir Testosterone vying for victory over Lady Estrogen. A healthy marriage does involve conflict — fighting even — but the resolution should be to strengthen the union, not to knock a spouse off his or her mount so the hand-to-hand combat is easier next time.

Marriage is a battle, but not against your spouse. It’s a war against our sin nature. Every marriage has a mortal enemy, a mighty nemesis named selfishness.

Realities of marriage

When Erin and I got married, I knew that I should "leave" my old life and "cleave" to my wife — as the King James version of Genesis commands a man to do (Genesis 2:24). But under pressure in the first months of our marriage, I was double-minded. Memories of my independent, Greg-only priorities would warm my thoughts, causing me to want to rekindle my single, self-centred way of life.

I wanted to spend money on CDs, and Erin wanted to pay bills. I wanted to play basketball five days a week or watch television until the wee hours of the morning. Erin had other plans for me, such as washing dishes. I thought living as a caveman was fine, and I had no desire to buy into her Martha Stewart standards.

As I struggled with the difficult realities of marriage, I let discontent weigh down my soul. Erin struggled even more than I did. Depression and anxiety threatened to suffocate her. At that time in my life, immaturity and pride kept me from taking responsibility for our problems, so Erin sought counselling alone.

We were losing the war in our home.

Lessons from an ancient Chinese general

Ironically, concepts revealed in The Art of War, a book written in the sixth century B.C., helped us resolve our battle against selfishness — and seek peace. The advice offered by Chinese philosopher-general Sun Tzu to his trainees can also help you fight to improve your marriage. As recorded in the book, Tzu noted: "[War] is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected."

If you replace the word war with marriage, the message is profound for couples. Twenty-four years ago when I married Erin, I wanted a successful relationship. But our first few years together were not filled with nuptial bliss. Because we were neglecting to wage the war against self-centredness, we were headed toward ruin.

The prospect of living out my marriage in misery frightened me. I could choose to either run away — or work to resolve the problems. Because I was committed to God and His values (see Malachi 2:16), I gave up the option of divorce. I had only one course of action: I chose to fight for Erin’s love, even if it killed me.

Hankerings for home

The Art of War describes the shrewd strategy of eliminating the option of retreat so that your soldiers stick to the war no matter the cost: "When your army has crossed the border, you should burn the boats and bridges, in order to make it clear to everybody that you have no hankering after home."

The option of retreat, or "hankering after home," must be eliminated in your marriage. I call this the "burn the boats" marriage mentality. It’s the ultimate show of commitment to each other.

If spouses perceive that conquering marriage issues is the only way forward — that divorce is not an option — their choices will be focused on improving their marriage. Husbands and wives choose wisely when they know that their life destinies are fused to another person’s well-being. They talk about their feelings, even if it’s painful, instead of pretending everything is fine. They refuse to dwell on the negatives when their spouse ruffles their emotional feathers. They "let love and faithfulness never leave" them (Proverbs 3:3, NIV).

To not "hanker after home" means a spouse has promised to stick out the battle, not just today but for as long as they both shall live. It’s the first step toward eliminating a selfish attitude.

A widow’s vow

There’s a great picture of love and commitment, with no option for retreat, found in the Old Testament story of Ruth. This Moabite widow’s initial commitment to God and His people later leads to one of the great love stories in the Bible.

Ruth makes a simple yet profound vow to her mother-in-law, a displaced Israelite named Naomi. The tension of Ruth’s story develops upon the death of her husband, Mahlon, who provided financially for her and for his mother, Naomi, while they all lived in Moab. After Mahlon’s death, Naomi decides to return to her homeland, Bethlehem. She forbids Ruth from coming with her and encourages her to find a new husband from among the Moabites. The story picks up in Ruth 1:16 where Ruth says to Naomi, "Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God."

Ruth makes this promise, in essence, pledging her life to serve the living God. Next, she vows to leave her life with the Moabites. She denounces her former polytheistic religion, her homeland and her emotional and financial ties to blood kin.

Ruth 1:17 captures the young widow’s depth of commitment: "Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the LORD do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you." Ruth never looks back on her former life, vowing to serve God and Naomi until she dies.

Today, many couples choose to symbolise their commitment to marriage by using a unity candle at their wedding. This short ceremony is powerful because it represents the dying to self that’s essential to a healthy marriage relationship. Once the unity candle is lit, the original two candles — representing separate lives — are snuffed to show a commitment to the one new life the couple is beginning.

Unfortunately, the circumstances surrounding my own married life didn’t parallel the unity portrayed by Ruth or the commitment symbolised by the unity candle. I needed God’s help.

A powerful force

In addition to selfishness, another enemy of our marriages is Satan. Because he knows that your marriage could be used for God’s kingdom, Satan fears it. Thus, he works tirelessly to destroy Christian marriages. Ephesians 6:12 clarifies this for us: "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (NIV)."

Identify the weak areas in your spiritual relationship and then consider what sacrifices you can make to strengthen that part of your marriage. Use the power of God’s Spirit to help you ward off the Enemy’s attacks.

Here are some practical ways you can declare open war against evil in your marriage:

  • If you are too busy, consider which activities you can give up to strengthen your marriage.

  • Work out your spiritual connection so that the man is the leader in your home (Ephesians 5).

  • Let go of stereotypical ideas about what leadership in the home should look like. Women, encourage your husband to lead in ways that reflect his strengths. Some examples may include providing for the family, connecting to God through the outdoors, encouraging your children or volunteering at church. Men, be willing to try new roles or activities that best support your wife.

  • Maintain a healthy devotion time so God can show you where you need to grow. Repent of and abandon the sin in your life.

  • If your spouse is feeling ignored or overlooked, pick up your interest level. Invest some time in pleasing your spouse.

  • Open your closed or hardened hearts to God. This will help both of you be better able to resolve conflict.

  • Forgive as God forgave you. Let go of resentments.

  • Because every marriage has two enemies, selfishness and Satan, it’s essential that couples stay engaged in the battle for a thriving marriage. Rather than allowing discouragement to weigh you down or frustration to drive you apart, acknowledge your differences and enlist in the fight against your sin nature. Developing your own art of war is a great plan for proactive engagement that keeps the Enemy at bay and your hearts united.

Date Night

Here are some suggestions for a date night designed to increase the commitment level of your marriage.

  • In honour of Chinese philosopher-general Sun Tzu, author of The Art of War, cook a Chinese meal together or buy Chinese food at a sit-down restaurant or take-out chain.

  • Ask your spouse the following questions:
    What was the most important part of our wedding vows?
    What things do you see that demonstrate I have "burned the boats" and am committed to you?
    What was most difficult about "burning the boats" for you?

Adapted from Crazy Little Thing Called Marriage, a Focus on the Family book published by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. © 2015 Greg and Erin Smalley. Used with permission.

Dr Greg Smalley

Dr. Greg Smalley is vice president of Family Ministries at Focus on the Family.

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