Monday, September 14, 2015

Marriage: Give and... Take?

Have you ever sat in a church pew just sure that the person beside you really needed to hear the message being given? You just knew that the words were meant not for you, but for that other person, right? I had that experience recently. Not in church, but sitting in our psychologist's office. He'd listened to us discussing a tough topic for awhile and then mentioned that a lot of people believe a good marriage is one with give and take. He asked us to re-frame that just a bit... with give and receive. I nodded my head in understanding and agreement as he spoke. He then asked us what we thought about that concept and I volunteered that it fit right in with what my parents always taught me – marriage isn't 50/50 it's 100/100. He nodded yes, but added a "but" that should've told me I wasn't entirely tracking. He reiterated that he wanted us to think about that concept of give and receive – rather than give and take – in the context of the topic we'd just been discussing. Uh huh. I got it. My husband needed to focus less on taking and more on giving, being happy with what he was receiving, right? I didn't actually voice that out loud, of course... but anybody could see who that statement was meant for, right?

Okay. Maybe not.

Later that evening my husband offered me a gift involving his time and attention – emphasizing that he wanted nothing in return. I should have been thrilled – he was listening; he got it. He was giving, not taking. I was surprised to realize, though, that I was conflicted. Briefly, I considered the possibility that he was doing this "just because" he was supposed to, not because it was his idea or that he really wanted to. I knew that wasn't fair, though... and even if he was doing it just because of our counseling session, he was still offering in an effort to show love, care, and support. I needed to accept it for the gift it was. Closely following that thought, though, was the realization that even though he had stressed he wanted nothing in return, I wasn't comfortable with that. I knew I'd end up feeling guilty for taking without giving. And I'd feel obligated to reciprocate. I'd "owe" him. As I considered that thought and what to do with it, the next thought surprised me: I realized – quite suddenly – that I never receive from my husband without feeling like I need to give something in return.

As I thought about that, I remembered times when I've given to him and wanted nothing in return. And I asked him what he thought at those times. His answer? "I feel loved." But for me to consider receiving? Just receiving? I feel the "should's" and "ought to's" weigh on me with the strong undertones of "you owe him." It hit me with blinding clarity – I hadn't learned to receive! I thought about how awkward I feel if someone gives me a Christmas gift and I have nothing to give in return. I even thought about my daughter's neighbor bringing food over for her the night we moved her in... and how I taught my daughter that you never return a container empty. And I realized... I don't think we're taught how to receive well. Not a gift. Not even a compliment.

It's taken me years to learn to appear to receive a compliment. I used to always deflect. I've finally learned to smile and say "Thank you," but if I'm honest even with that I have to admit that I'm still deflecting inside. I don't really know how to receive a compliment well. And I don't know how to receive a gift well. I feel obligated to return the favor. And that... that makes it... not a gift. That takes the joy away from the giver.

Webster defines the word gift as "Something voluntarily transferred by one person to another without compensation." Did you catch that? "... without compensation." We can't repay a gift. Any attempt to do so, by definition, changes it from a gift. Instead, it becomes an obligation – and something the giver never intended.

I'd like to think I'm good at giving. I enjoy meeting a friend for lunch and treating her. I squirm inside, though, when she only allows me to do so with the promise that "next time it's on me." That's not my intent. I mean for it to be a gift, a blessing. That response moves it from being a gift to a debt; from being a blessing to an obligation. But I'm realizing that I do the same thing. It's hard for me to accept a gift and offer nothing in return. I want to pay it back. I don't like to be on the side of receiving. Whether it's a compliment, a gift, or help – I'd rather give than receive. That even sounds biblical, right? It's better to give than to receive – I'm sure I've heard that somewhere! (Acts 20:35). So I can justify it... it's a good thing, right? If I am always giving, though, I don't leave my friend or my husband, or even my God, space to give. In my failure to receive well, I rob them of the blessing of giving. Our psychologist's words echoed in my mind – give and receive. The words were more for me than I thought.

So that night I told my husband what I'd realized... and admitted to him that I needed to learn how to receive. I needed to LET myself receive – without feeling the obligation, the "should," the overwhelming feeling that I needed to pay him back. I needed to learn the vulnerability of just receiving... of just enjoying the gift. And so that night I accepted his gift as just that – a gift. I'm sure I've got more work to do, but the beginning was beautiful. I rested in the love, in the gift – without the obligation. And what's more – he was able to enjoy it... to enjoy me freely receiving. And his enjoyment brought an even bigger smile to my face. It was a beautiful moment that touched us both deeply.

It seems our counselor was on to something: a good marriage – or any relationship – is not one where you've learned the art of give and take... it's one where you've learned to give and receive. That one little word change... so close... and yet so different. So... freeing.

So... how well do you receive? Do you, like me, feel a need to reciprocate, or pay back something which was freely given? Or are you able to allow the giver the blessing of accepting it with nothing but a smile and a heartfelt thank you? If not, what prevents you from receiving well? If you do, then feel free to share how you've learned to give and receive!