How to Win at Marriage, pt. 1

Stop Reacting to Your Spouse out of Fear

At Citylights Church, we’re starting a new 7-week sermon series on marriage. It’s not that I’m an expert at marriage with a bunch of great personal advice to give (seriously, just ask my wife). Even after 18 years of marriage, I still have a lot to learn on this subject. It feels like I keep repeating first grade.

So why am I going to spend seven whole weeks talking about marriage if I’m not an expert on the subject? Great question. I’m not a Marriage & Family Therapist, nor do I play one on TV. Mostly I'm a Bible nerd. I love studying and teaching the Bible to people.

At Citylights, we’ve been taking the slow and scenic route in our study of 1 Peter this summer in a series called “Heirs and Exiles.” 1 Peter was written to encourage and instruct Christians on how to act during the Roman persecution under Emperor Nero. The first two chapters talks about theology, personal holiness, and how to engage authority. But then Peter throws us a curveball in chapter 3.

In 1 Peter 3:1-9, Peter unexpectedly changes the subject and starts talking about marriage. He gives detailed instructions on how to be good husbands and wives. As I was studying this passage for my sermon, I realized that there’s a lot of great advice in this passage. Very helpful and insightful advice. Originally, this short passage was supposed to be covered in only one sermon. But I found the lessons on marriage too good to gloss over.

So I’m starting a 7-week series called “How to Win at Marriage” based on 1 Peter 3:1-9. Here’s what it says:

1 Peter 3:1-9

1 Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, 2 when they see your respectful and pure conduct. 3 Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— 4 but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious. 5 For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, 6 as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.
7 Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.
8 Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. 9 Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing.

I didn’t choose that title at random. That idea came directly from the passage of Scripture. In those verses we find 3 clear promises to those of us who put its lessons into practice. What are those promises? I’m glad you asked.

Here are the promises given to us if we follow the instructions found in this text:

Promise #1 - Wives will over their husbands.

Ladies, that’s a pretty good promise, don’t you think? It says that if you follow the principles, you will win your husbands over. And you won’t even have to nag him! It says that husbands will be won over by their wives, even “without word.”

Actually, I think that’s a win for both sides. Wives will finally get to hear their husbands say, “Okay, honey. You’re right. I was wrong. Let’s do it your way.”

And husbands won’t have to endure incessant nagging and arguments rehearsing their every failure.

Promise #2 - Husbands will get want they really want too.

Guys, listen up. Do you even know what you want? Do you really want to win that argument? Or do you want to be happy? Believe me, sometimes it’s just impossible to be both right and happy in marriage.

The Bible tells husbands, that if they follow these guidelines, their “prayers may not be hindered.” Did you get that? It says that God will start to answer your prayers and give you what you really want. That’s definitely a win for the guys, right?

Promise #3 - Both will obtain blessings from God.

Now this is a win for both husband and wife. The Bible says that God will bless you if you put into practice these principles. Verse 10 says, “that you may obtain a blessing.” Don’t you want your marriage to be blessed by God?

That’s why I’m calling this series, “How to Win at Marriage.” This Bible passage promises those three "wins" if we practice its principles in our marriages. 

So let me give you a brief overview of the entire sermon series. This series will cover the seven habits or decisions that will transform your marriage. I’ll show you seven commitments that will help you win at marriage. Of the seven commitments, three are for the wives, three are for the husbands, and one is for both to implement.

So having said all that, let’s talk about the first commitment or habit. Although this one is specifically given to the wives to apply, husbands can benefit from putting it into practice too.

COMMITMENT #1: Never react to your spouse out of fear.

1 Peter 3:6 says, “do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.” That’s from the English Standard Version. Let’s see how that verse renders in other translations:

NIV - “do what is right and do not give way to fear”
NLT - “do what is right without fear of what your husbands might do”
HCSB - “do what is good and are not frightened by anything alarming”
NAS - “do what is right without being frightened by any fear”
Berean Study - “do what is right and refuse to quiver in fear”
MSG - “do the same [as Sarah], unanxious and unintimidated”

Well, let’s jump in and try to figure out what this verse is trying to tell us. I have a few basic questions that I want to try to answer.

  1. What is fear?
  2. What are our common relational fears?
  3. How do we react to our relational fears?
  4. What are the results of fear to our relationships?
  5. How do we stop reacting out of our relational fears?

Q1 - What is FEAR?

I looked up the definition of "fear" on the internet, and this is what I found:

"Fear is an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief someone or something is dangerous, a threat, or likely to cause pain."

That’s pretty good. But I think I can do better. Here’s my definition of fear.

"Fear is a visceral emotion that triggers a reaction of defensiveness when our safety is being threatened."

St. Augustine said this about fear:

"Fear is the response of the human heart when its one thing is threatened."

So, fear is an emotion that you feel when your safety is threatened. This makes sense if you’re a wildebeest on the Serengeti. You see a rustle of grass, and your heart jumps because you’re afraid Simba’s mom is going to eat you.

But it’s the same thing you and I feel when we get into an argument with our spouse. At that moment, your safety is threatened. You no longer feel safe. The emotion of fear jumps up and forces you to respond out of an instinct of self-preservation (we’ll talk about this more in a little bit).

Q2 - What are our common relational fears?

Of course, in marriage, we don’t fear that our spouse will rip out throats and eat our liver. If you do have that fear, I don’t think I can help you. That’s way over my pay grade.

So if we don’t fear death in marriage, what is it that we fear. Author and relationship expert, Gary Smalley says that there’s at least ten common fears in marriage.

[Note: You can find the original article at this LINK]

In a relationship, I fear that I am (or will be)…

1) REJECTED - “He/she doesn’t accept me as I am.”

2) ABANDONED - “He/she will ultimately leave me.”

3) A FAILURE - “I’m not successful at being a wife/husband.”

4) HELPLESS - “I will be controlled by my wife/husband.”

5) INADEQUATE - “I am incompetent as a wife/husband.”

6) UNLOVED - “My wife/husband has little affection or desire for me.”

7) DEFECTIVE - “Something is deeply wrong with me.”

8) WORTHLESS - “I have little value to my wife/husband (or if they leave me).”

9) NOT ENOUGH - “I’ll never be good enough. I don’t measure up.”

10) UNIMPORTANT - “I’m a low priority to my wife/husband.”

That’s quite a list of fears. There’s probably a few in that list that are emotional triggers for you. If you experienced that fear, it would cause you to react to protect yourself. A lot of times, we react instinctively. We don’t even know we’re doing it.

This leads us to our next question.

Q3 - How do we react to fear?

When we are afraid, the reaction is primal. When something scares us, there are three basic responses. It’s ingrained in our genetic code since Hector was a pup (shout out to Chick Hearn) and even before. We do one or a combination of three behaviors: fight, flight, or freeze.

1. Fight

When you feel your safety threatened, you square your shoulders and bare your teeth and face your enemy. You engage and try to dominate. Because doing so will make you feel safe again.

This is pretty common. We see this behavior in betta fish, silver back gorillas, and even Christian marriages.

2. Flight

If you’re not much of a fighter, you may prefer to runaway instead. Running away and avoiding the point of danger makes you feel safe. You’re a bird that flies away at the slightest rustle of leaves. You don’t wait around to see what made the sound, you just fly away as quickly as you can.

You see this in relationships when one person avoids conflict at all costs. The “flight” reaction could also be internal. You don’t runaway physically, but emotionally you run and hide.

3. Freeze

Freezing is the defense mechanism of a turtle pulling its head back in it’s shell. You don’t fight or run away. But you stay there in your protective shell. You think that if you stay in your shell, no one can ever hurt you.

So those are the three primary ways we protect ourselves from all kinds of danger. This is true whether the danger is physical, emotional, or relational. It’s just a survival instinct that kicks in when you don’t feel safe. You don’t want to get hurt, so you have to protect yourself in some way. What’s bad about that? If you didn’t protect yourself, you wouldn’t survive very long. You’d become prey in the wild jungles of life.

So even though this protective survival instinct is helpful in a lot situations, it’s not very helpful in creating a healthy marriage. So, what’s the real problem with reacting out of fear? Here it is. Are you ready?

Here’s the big idea:

Reacting out of fear creates an ever intensifying cycle of protective behavior that will damage your relationships.

When you react out of fear to something our spouse does, it causes a negative change reaction that will cause your spouse to respond in fear to you in return. It’s an ever-increasing cycle of negativity that destroys many marriages.

Bestselling author and marriage expert, Gary Smalley calls this negative cycle the “Dance of Fear.” That reminds me of the first dance at my wedding. I’m a terrible dancer. I was so nervous because there were hundreds people watching me. It didn’t help that my wife and I danced to “Always and Forever” by Heatwave. It was the long-play version too. That dance went on forever!

The “Dance of Fear” is a continuous cycle of negative reactions to fear that goes on and on.

Dance of Fear

The emotion of fear is not good soil for healthy marriages to thrive. Fear leads us down a dark relational path that’s difficult to come back from.

Don’t believe me, listen what one of the wisest to have ever live say about where fear will lead you.

"Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering."

Okay, some of you nerds will immediately recognize that’s a quote from Yoda from “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.” That’s what Yoda said about the fear in young Anakin’s heart. Just because that line came from a terrible movie that doesn't belong in the Star Wars canon, it doesn’t mean we should disregard it.

There isn’t a lot of truth in what Yoda said. Fear doesn’t lead to many good places in life, especially in the context of relationships. Fear leads to anger then to hate, and then to suffering. Anyone who's had to sleep on the couch after an argument knows that fear is the path to the relational "dark side."

Q4 - How do we stop reacting to our relational fears?

So, how do we stop this dance? Let’s get practical. I want to suggest seven steps to help you break this cycle of fear in your relationships. (Note: this was adapted from an article by Danielle B. Grossman, MFT. You can find the original article at this LINK.)


1. Name your fear.

What is it that you're actually afraid of? Go through Gary Smalley’s list of the ten common relationship fears that I listed above. Are you afraid of being abandoned? Of losing control? Of being unloved?

Figure out what you’re actually afraid of. This is the first step. Once you figure this out, it will help you understand why you react the way you do. Most likely the reason you’re reacting to your spouse so negatively has little to do with them or what they just did to upset you. Most likely, you’re upset because your spouse did something that reminded you of something else that you’ve been afraid of for a very long time. They just pushed the wrong button and set you off.

Once you recognize that you’re actually responding out of fear to your spouse, defusing the situation becomes easier. When you take control of your emotions, you can begin to stop the “Dance of Fear.”

2. Share your fear.

Once you name your fear, whether it’s abandonment, helplessness, or whatever, you need to put that on the table. You have to be vulnerable with your spouse. Tell them exactly what you’re feeling. Tell them what you’re afraid of and why.

It takes a lot of courage to be this vulnerable. But marriage isn’t for cowards. You need to muster up enough courage to be vulnerable and honest. Then open your mouth and say:

“Right now, I’m afraid that you won’t accept me.”
“I’m afraid that you won’t love me.”
“I’m afraid that you’ll see me as a failure.”
“I’m afraid that I’ll never measure up to your expectations.”

3. Listen to their fear.

Wow. That #2 is a doozy! That’s probably the most difficult step. It gets easier after that.

After you wipe the snot from your face from your ugly crying episode (and husbands, I’m talking about you too), you can now stop being defensive. Now you can begin to listen to your spouse. Ask them what they're afraid of and, here’s the key, shut up and listen.

Really. Zip it. Just listen. Don’t be defensive. Don’t try to mansplain or womansplain, or whatever. Listen. Hug it out. Just seek to understand their heart.

4. Recognize your fear triggers.

After you have listened to each other’s hidden insecurities and emotional fears, you need to figure out how you trigger each other’s fears. Usually one person’s fear will lead them to a defensive behavior that will trigger the other person’s fear.

For example, if the wife is afraid of being rejected, she may go into “flight” mode and run away from the situation to protect herself from being hurt. Then the husband will sense his wife pulling back, which triggers his fear of not being desired by his wife. So he also reacts defensively in fear which triggers another one of his wife's fears. And this is how the “Dance of Fear” starts.

You need to figure out your triggers. You didn’t want to hurt your spouse. You weren’t intentionally trying to hurt your spouse. You were just protecting yourself from emotional harm. It's only when you recognize how you trigger each other’s fears that you can stop the cycle.

5. Focus on the fear, not the relationship.

In order to stop the “Dance of Fear” you need to make that the goal. You’re never going to stop that negative cycle if you’re always trying to fix the relationship or prove that you were right.

You have to come to an agreement with your spouse. You need to make it your goal to eliminate fear in your relationship. Ignore the presenting issue on the surface, at least for a little while. Focus on eliminating fear in your relationship. Once you do that, it diffuses most of the other smaller issues along the way.

6. Contain fear within safe boundaries.

When you’re talking it out with your spouse, you have to create safe boundaries. One good way of doing this is by giving words of affirmation. Make it safe for your spouse to engage you in this area that feels unsafe.

Create a safe environment for your spouse. Make sure they know that the thing that they fear most isn’t going to happen. Give them assurance. Help them feel safe.

Here’s what you can say that will help you contain fear within safe boundaries:

“I know that you’re afraid of abandonment. But I want you to know that I would never leave you. You don’t have to worry about that. I’m 100% committed to you.”
“I know that you’re afraid that I don’t find you as desirable as before. But I want you to know that I am even more attracted to you now than ever. You don’t have to worry about that.”

Establishing safe boundaries for your relationship will allow your spouse to feel safe enough to be vulnerable and honest with you. This will give you the space you both need to work it out.

7. Remind yourself of the Gospel.

So what do you do if you don’t feel like your relationship is a safe place? What if your spouse has hurt you so many times and you know they'll continue to hurt you again and again. Maybe you’re so afraid of being hurt that you can’t even begin to think about even doing step #1.

Well, I saved the best for last. Step #7 really should be the first step. When you feel afraid, hurt, unloved, or insecure, just remind yourself of the Gospel. Really. Think about what Jesus did for you.

Preach the Gospel to yourself. Remind yourself of the bad news of the Gospel, that you an undeserving sinner. Then remind yourself of the good news of the Gospel that tells you how loved and accepted you are in Christ.

1 John 4:18 says,

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” (NIV)

As Elsa said in Frozen, “True love thaws a frozen heart.” (Hey, don’t judge me for quoting Frozen. Admit it. You liked that movie too.) Love really is the antidote to our problems. But it has to start with God’s perfect love for us. When we remember and embrace God’s perfect love for us, it casts all the fear from our heart.

When we think about Jesus showing His love and commitment to us dying on the Cross for our sin, our hearts will be filled with courage. We never have to fear rejection or abandonment again. Why? Because the Cross reminds us that we have been and will continue to be fully, completely, and perfectly loved by God.

Jesus’s perfect love will fill any gaps left by the stings and wounds of others. When your heart becomes filled up with God’s love, then you can start to love others. You can love others because you know that He first loved you.

So if you begin to feel fear creeping up into your heart, remind yourself of the Gospel.

Here are some Bible verses for encouragement when you feel fear creeping into your relationships:

2 Timothy 1:7 - for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.
Isaiah 43:1 - But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”
Proverbs 29:25 - Fear of man will prove to be a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD is kept safe. (NIV)
Romans 8:38-39 - For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Psalm 27:1 - The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?

I love that last verse. If we’re really loved by God, what do we really have to fear? Of whom shall we be afraid? God’s love has the special power to heal and protect our souls. When we know we are fully loved by God, being unloved by others will no longer devastate us. If God really loves me that much, of what or whom shall I be afraid?

Now if you don’t know God's perfect love personally, it’s hard to break out of your fear. It's only those that have the Lord as their light, salvation and strength that can say, "Of whom shall I be afraid?" People who know that they are truly loved by God are not people who react in fear. Perfect love casts out fear. 

Here's one last word of encouragement. When you start to feel fearful, sing this song to yourself:

Jesus loves me, this I know. For the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to Him belong. They are weak, but He is strong.
Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me.
Yes, Jesus loves me. For the Bible tells me so.

Next week, we’ll talk about Commitment #2 that will help you “Win at Marriage.” So stay tuned.

Thien DoanComment