Are Your Strengths Sabotaging Your Relationship? | Bryan Stoudt
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Are Your Strengths Sabotaging Your Relationship?

Not long ago, my wife and I had a hard time connecting deeply with each other on a spiritual level.

It was strange because we would both say we were following Jesus seriously. We were both pursuing him personally… spending time in the word, praying, and engaging in meaningful, transparent relationships with other Christians.

And we would share with each other about what we were up to in ministry, which we often did together. 

It’s just that, when it came to deep, personal sharing of our hearts, something was missing. 

While I don’t pretend to understand it completely, one day my wife shared something important that really helped.

She told me, ‘You don’t really talk about your weaknesses or where you’re failing. That makes it hard for me to share my struggles with you. I’m not sure you can identify with me.’

Ouch. 

Instantly I knew there was a lot of truth to what she had shared. I was kind of flooded with emotions in the moment, so all I could manage was a quiet, ‘Okay. I’ll think about it.’

And, ever since, I have been. 

I’ve come to realize the image of strength and self-sufficiency I was projecting was really a weakness. And, it was hurting our marriage. 

It may be hurting your relationship, too. Let’s dig in a little deeper.

Strengths Are Good, Right?

At first, it may seem strange to say our strength can be a weakness. A liability.

I mean, strengths are good things, right? 

For example, when you have an interview as you apply for a school or job, they ask you about your strengths, positive traits that help you stand out. 

At the gym, we try to build physical strength.

When we see someone persevere through a hard time and love others well, we say they’ve shown amazing strength of character.

When my wife and I do premarital counseling, we talk about the strengths each person brings to the relationship, and how that can help their future marriage thrive.

And there’s even a wildly popular assessment called StrengthsFinder, which ferrets out the essential, positive qualities that make you ‘you’. 

So again, how can our strengths - something so genuinely and truly good - end up being so harmful in our closest relationships?

The Strength Of God In The Weakness Of Christ

The Apostle Paul gives us a clue:

‘For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.’ (1 Corinthians 1:22-24)

Paul is talking about how the main people groups of his day, Jews and Greeks, demanded different versions of human strength. Jewish people tended toward miraculous ‘signs’, while Greeks prized great feats of intellect.

While these are very different on the surface, they are alike in that they’re all about people being strong in and of themselves apart from God.

The problem wasn't miracles or wisdom in and of themselves. Those things can be good, even phenomenal. But, only when they are submitted to God and his overarching plan.

For Jews and Greeks of Jesus' day, a God weak enough to die - ‘Christ crucified’ - was essentially foolish, weak and worthless. And it’s easy enough to see examples of how that apparent weakness doesn’t appeal to most people today. 

The Problem With ‘Strength’ In Our Closest Relationships

Christians - you and I - are different. We’ve given up on our own ability to please God through our efforts, acknowledged our sin, and sought refuge in Christ. 

We are those who have been saved by grace through faith, ‘not a result of works, so that no one may boast.’ (Ephesians 2:8-9)

If we’re honest, though, we don’t always live like that.

Instead of confessing our limitations, weaknesses and sins, we do our very best to be - or, at least appear to be - strong. 

But that’s not honest, even for the most put-together person on earth. We’re all ‘weak’ on account of both our natural weaknesses and character flaws.

And that’s what my wife was getting at that day. Even though I wasn’t consciously curating my life to appear strong, I wasn’t actively sharing my struggles and sins with her, either.

That made me unrelatable. And, led my wife to feel unsafe in sharing her weakness with me, let alone allow me an opportunity to help her with her struggles. (And, after all, relationships are partly about helping one another become more like Christ.)

Of course, because she lives with me, it’s not hard to see plenty of weakness in my life. For example, if I don’t eat breakfast, I can’t think my way out of a wet paper bag. I have to eat before I can be productive, whereas she’s fine with skipping breakfast. 

But because it’s pretty obvious that’s just the way God made me, it’s not that hard to admit that. The harder things to share are the interior struggles I’m wrestling with. Ongoing anger and frustration toward people close to me, for example, or getting angry and demanding in a million quiet moments throughout the day. The places where I feel like I’m just treading water instead making meaningful progress.

Is this starting to make sense?

When we don’t - or won’t - share our weaknesses with our boy/girlfriend, fiancé(e) or spouse, it makes it very difficult for them to be honest with us about theirs. 

And that’s a tragedy because God wants these relationships to be places of safety and sanctification. Especially marriage, which is meant to be a living picture of the gospel. (See Ephesians 5:25-33)

As counselor Ed Welch puts it in his fantastic book Side By Side, sharing our own need (weakness) with others helps them trust us enough to help them in their need. 

Blah, Blah Caveats (But Don’t Skip This)

So let’s land the plane by making this practical. I’ll speak first to those of us who tend to be ‘strong’ and then those who tend to be more ‘weak’. 

First, a few caveats. 

  • I’m not saying either group is better than the other. Even though we might feel that way at times.
  • These aren’t mutually-exclusive categories. Even if we seem to live in one country more than the other, we all have dual citizenship at the end of the day.

An Action Plan For ‘The Strong’

Those of us who tend toward ‘strength’ are often driven, Type A, git-er-done people. We like strategic thinking, execution and can often be seen with our Full Focus Planners. We hate making mistakes and love ticking things off our to-do lists.

And that’s not all bad. In fact, we’re called to ‘look carefully how [we] walk, making the best use of the time… [to] understand what the will of the Lord is.’ (Ephesians 4:15-17) Our lives are short, and giving our very best best to love God and others is a life well-spent.

It's also not wrong to avoid making mistakes wherever we can. To be organized, on time and disciplined. 

But, it’s all-so-easy for people like me to find our righteousness - our value, meaning and worth - in what we accomplish and how we present ourselves to others. We soar when we think we’re doing well, but crash when we fail or feel stuck.

In addition to being inherently unstable for us, it creates serious problems in our closest relationships.

First, we’ll tend to hide (see: Adam and Eve, Genesis 3) from God and our boy/friend, fiancé(e) or spouse in an attempt to seem like we have our act together. We may even hide our weaknesses and failures from ourselves. (Hey, if I’m not even aware of it, I don’t have to admit it to you, right?)

Second, this will make it incredibly hard for the person we’re in relationship with to be honest with us about their weaknesses. It’s not fair to ask the other person to (metaphorically) undress while we're bundled up in our thickest winter coat.

So, what can ‘strong’ people do?

Two quick suggestions:

  1. Come back to the gospel and find our strength in Christ, not our accomplishments. The allure of appearing strong in ourselves is so powerful we need to admit our weaknesses and confess our sins every day. And we need to cast our attention on Christ, who 'being found in human form... humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name.' (Philippians 2:8-9) Jesus' submission to the cross and open weakness was not his undoing, but the path to glory and resurrection. It will be the same for us. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)
  2. We need to intentionally share our weaknesses, failures and sins with our significant other. For example, when they ask us how our day went or how we’re doing, sometimes we can let them know where we’re struggling and ask for prayer. ‘Honestly, I didn’t use my time well at work today and I’m feeling frustrated with myself. Would you pray for me?’ 

Over time, these two, simple practices will transform us into the kind of people who see and share our need with God and others. And our closest relationships will become much more vulnerable, honest and rich.

An Action Plan For ‘The Weak’

But what if you’re the kind of person who identifies more with 'the weak'?

Again, just as a reminder, I’m not saying you are anything less than the ‘strong’. After all, as we’ve just seen, finding our strength in ourselves rather than Christ is a massive weakness.

The truth is we are all weak, full of natural, God-given limitations and yes, sin patterns we have contributed to.

When we admit them to God and (wisely and selectively) to trusted others, it’s a beautiful thing.

But it can be very painful in a close relationship where you’re willing to be weak, and the other person isn’t. It doesn’t feel fair, and - honestly - it isn’t.

What can you do?

Well, if you're not married yet, it’s worth evaluating whether you should continue in the relationship. I can’t give you definitive advice without talking to you, but it’s worth bringing this up with the other person and seeing how they respond.

Something like this:

‘I feel like, in our relationship, I’ve been pretty open with you about my struggles and places where I feel weak. But I don’t feel like you’ve done that much with me, and it’s making it hard for us to get closer to each other.’

Are they willing to listen and start engaging around that with you? A willingness to listen and learn more is a great, encouraging start you can build on.

But if you bring it up a few times and the other person isn’t willing to press in here, I’d say it’s fair to question whether your relationship can move toward greater health and intimacy.

In other cases, there may be a willingness, but a relatively inability to pursue the sort of self-reflection that will contribute toward the intimacy you're desiring. In that case, the other person doesn't need to feel badly about that, and you don't need to feel badly about saying it's not a fit for you.

If you’re already married, of course, it’s an entirely different story. While it can be incredibly frustrating to share your heart openly without much reciprocation, it’s not a reason to leave the marriage.

What can you do about it?

Again, without knowing your specific relationship, these fall into the category of ‘suggestions to pray about’. 

  • Keep sharing your heart fully to God. Tell him about your frustration and pain in prayer. Keep reading scripture where he fully shares his heart with you. 
  • Plead with God to help your spouse see, and share, his or her need with God and you. Don’t give up: God is able to do more than we can ask or imagine. (Ephesians 3:20)
  • Appropriately continue sharing your heart and weakness with your spouse. You’ll have to decide what it looks like, but finding your true security in Christ will allow you to have compassion on your spouse, and continue to model the sort of vulnerability you’re praying for in them.
  • When they do share more openly, thank them for it. Let them know how much it means to you.
  • Occasionally, and gently, repeat your request. Not a lecture; a short-and-sweet comment usually gets the point across.

Even though I was pretty oblivious for many years of our marriage, my wife’s example of transparency and occasional challenges to share my weakness with her eventually made a big impact on me. While I’ve still got a long way to go, I’m a different person and we share far more openly than we ever did. 

Slowly, but surely, we're moving toward the 'naked and unashamed' vision God has held out for married couples from the very beginning. With God's grace, I'm confident you can, too. (Genesis 2:25)

Your Turn

Okay, here’s the part of the show we make this personal and move from theory to practice.

  1. Do you identify more with ‘the strong’ or ‘the weak’? Why? Give at least one example from your life.
  2. What are some strengths of your particular profile (weak or strong), and how is that (or could that) impacting your relationship?
  3. What are some weaknesses of your particular profile (weak or strong), and how is that (or could that) impacting your relationship?
  4. Depending on your profile, consider going to the action steps above and work through them in the coming days. Of course, it's entirely possible you identify with parts of both. Mix-and-match as appropriate.
Help me help others by sharing!
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