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208 pages
Aug 2006
Bethany House Publishers

Married But Not Engaged

by Paul & Sandra Coughlin

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It Doesn't Have to Be This Way

A complaint is an intimate moment in disguise.
  —Dr. Paul Coleman

Sometimes they shake Paul's hand and have a hard time letting go. Some give him the preacher's handshake and grab his elbow too. Though their grip may change, their eye contact is surprisingly similar and noticeably intense, and their questions are always about the same gender.

This is what happens when Paul tells women what he does: he helps men, especially Christian men, overcome passivity and the damage it creates. He shares his testimony:

I used to think it was wrong and sinful to express what I really thought, to exert my will. For years I lived out a dangerous caricature of "gentle Jesus, meek and mild" that made life, especially marriage, boring and dreadful.

These women, whose goodwill Paul respects and admires, say, "You just described my brother ... son ... boyfriend ... grandson." But by far, the noun accompanied by the most emotion is husband; for these women, intimacy is like a beautiful dress in a magazine: something they hope for and dream about but wonder if they'll ever have. Their husbands are married but not engaged.

Even the fact that Paul gives their nebulous misery a name, the Christian Nice Guy (CNG) problem, provides relief. What Paul teaches brings clarity to what for so long was an obscure and dark presence in their soul and in their marriage. It helps them see how their intuition is confirming something real and profound about what's really happening (I don't know why, but he's not telling me the truth, he's avoiding me and others, he's hiding from life) even while their husbands tell them not to worry, that everything's great.

Paul received this note from a CNG wife:

Your book No More Christian Nice Guy describes my husband to a T. He's the great pretender. He wants people to think that his life is great when it's not. But others don't see it because he's so "nice" to everyone. He's nasty behind the scenes and I walk on eggshells. I wonder sometimes if I'm losing my mind.

Another writes:

When we were presenters during the Marriage Encounter getaway weekend, my husband identified the "mask" he wears most as Mr. Nice Guy. When he took the quiz on your Web site, he answered yes to nearly every question. He has said that he wants to be a Good Guy, to use your label, versus [being] a Nice Guy.

Somewhere along the way [in his life], he decided that anger and conflict must be avoided at all costs. So he (similar to his mom) became a great pretender and avoider, focusing on whether or not his life looked good regardless of whether it truly was good. Our finances are in a huge state of crisis. He's been unfaithful, which was devastating to our marriage. What a crazy cycle, and I'm trying to see the big picture and live as healthy as I can, realizing I can't control what my husband does or doesn't do, or even what he believes or understands.

Here's a common scenario for the CNG wife: the guy she fell in love with and married, who she now struggles to understand, respect, and even like, is low-voltage (until he has a sudden surge or anger overload), a sideline husband/father. He's easygoing (until he explodes), and he goes out of his way to never ruffle feathers—even when he should. Like mascara, he runs when deeper emotions are expressed. He's a Nice Guy, so he smiles, but you can tell his expression is not born from peace, contentment, or happiness. Like a baby smiling from gas pain, Christian Nice Guys smile in response to something that bothers their stomach: fear, anxiety, and the terror of encountering conflict.

The following test will help you discern if your marriage is infected by CNG-ness. If you answer yes to two or more questions in each category, he's seriously into being nice instead of good (to the detriment of your marriage). One yes in each category still spells marital trouble. Five yeses overall means his "nice" tendencies make marital intimacy difficult to obtain and maintain.

Any of these three results means this book is definitely for you.

Nice Guy or Good Guy?

Faith Life:

  • Does he dismiss, or never discuss, Gospel passages where Jesus isn't nice?
  • When pondering "WWJD," does he assume a gentle response?
  • Does he think conflict and anger are sins?
  • Is he the guy at church who never says no to an assignment?
  • Does he think being a Christian is about being pleasant, showing impeccable manners, and subjecting himself to the will of others?
  • Do you feel he uses Christianity as a way to hide from life?

Home Life:

  • Does he have a relational history in which he's tried to rescue troubled women?
  • Does he lack leadership in your family?
  • Does he make you the emotional center of his life?
  • If he is regularly unclear about his sexual desires, does he become angry, sullen, or give you the silent treatment when they go unmet?
  • Does he have a hard time standing up to his mother?
  • Do you resent how his passivity influences your life?
  • Is he hard to respect because he appears weak?
  • Does he avoid setting (let alone achieving) goals?
  • Does he seem directionless to the point where you have begun to question whether you have direction as well?

Work Life:

  • Does he say one thing to one person but something different to another?
  • Does he smile, even when he doesn't like what's happening to him, and then rant about it later?
  • Does he hide his mistakes, even when there are few or no consequences?
  • Does he find himself working for abusive bosses?
  • Does he make less money than you know he should?

Life in General:

  • Does he feel embarrassed when people compliment him?
  • Does he inspire in you a dissatisfying level of romantic interest?
  • Does he think it's selfish to have normal wants and desires?
  • Does he think that avoiding conflict will improve his life?
  • If someone is angry with him, does he automatically think he's wrong?
  • Does he hide his flaws, even from people he trusts?
  • Does he usually analyze life instead of feeling life?
  • Does he live as if feelings are a waste of time even for "weaker" people?
  • Does fear often keep him immobile and indecisive?
  • Does he rage or abuse in ways that just don't make sense to you?

Diagnosing a CNG Marriage

In the wacky world of niceness, the vices of fear and passivity masquerade as virtues. Paul and I didn't even know our marriage was stuck there until God's fantastic grace helped us realize it. Help is on the way for you; please keep reading. This book is meant to bring you hope and be a salve of healing for your careworn heart.

At one time I (Sandy) answered yes to some of those questions, and when it comes to marriage and the Christian Nice Guy issue, we've had three unforgettable teachers: Professors Pain, Suffering, and Misery. Thank God we dealt with them before they gained tenure. We want to encourage you and show you how to do the same.

For you who say "My husband's a nice guy, but ...": Married ... But Not Engaged gets to the heart of the matter, explaining what intimacy is (and isn't), why it's missing, what happens when it's absent, where his seemingly inexplicable behavior comes from, and what can be done to bring change and growth.

None of the many books about creating greater intimacy exposes Nice Guy wedded woes like this one. Recognizing and facing falsehoods about men—about masculinity—is a crucial piece of the information you need to graft increased insight and wisdom into your marriage. This may be part of why other messages about intimacy haven't worked or haven't changed your relationship: they didn't substantially address this perplexing matter that influences countless (and especially Christian) marriages.

If what you've read so far describes your struggle with real intimacy, then deep inside you also know that you stand on shaky ground. You just don't respect your husband the way you want to, and you're pretty sure he's not being straightforward and truthful, but his words are so nuanced that he's never caught red-handed. He hides from emotions, and he's terrified of criticism. Your heart is growing or has grown cold toward the man you once found desirable and captivating but now find frustrating and flat. If your coldness reaches an advanced stage, your heart will begin to wander.

* * *

One of Sandy's friends had left her CNG. "Why did she leave?" I (Paul) asked, when talking with Sandy and another woman. Immediately they replied, nearly in unison, "Because he was too nice." Five potent words bore the crux of the issue into me more deeply than any sermon on marriage in memory.

"Too nice!" I yelled. "Isn't that what the church has taught men to be?!"

He was nice—nicest person you could meet. But if you were in his home, you'd notice that he wasn't all there. If he were a photo, he'd be both background and foreground. His personality lacked distinguishing edges and features because, tragically, he'd cleared his life of them in trying to become the "ideal Christian man." If he had an opinion, he kept it to himself. He seemed incapable of expressing difficult or heavy emotions. Conversation was light, always breezy and on the safe side.

Like most CNGs, he was a man in search of a personality: pleasantly evasive. He used all his energy on keeping up appearances. His seemingly contrived smile wouldn't go away. He followed a rigid life-script, and he showed no vitality. You'd leave his company drained, fatigued, knowing that you'd just spent time with someone you didn't know and couldn't know. Sadly, his wife apparently felt the same way.

The fear in a Nice Guy's heart makes it impossible for him to achieve the abundant life Jesus came to give but warned is hard to find. Fear prevents loving another person and truly accepting love in return. Fear, the archenemy of all CNGs, keeps intimacy at arm's length.

Sometimes, before your own eyes, you find you're becoming a Mrs. Christian Nice Lady. Seeking to keep the peace, you take on the same dishonest pose. But inside, you know this is peace-faking, not peace-making. Your troubled soul reminds you, adding to the already present anxiety of tiptoeing around the issues and staying parted from the facts. Please be assured: You are not powerless, you are not alone, and you can make a phenomenal difference.

* * *

Some stereotypes—pointedly, stereotypes about domineering or controlling wives—might suggest that the women who hold on when they shake my hand want their husbands pliable and agreeable. The opposite is true. "I wish he would tell me what he really thinks—even if it bothers me," says one. "I wish he would stand up to me and say no sometimes," says another. "I can't get my husband to express any feelings," a third bemoans. To one sitting next to me on a plane, who stated that she walks on eggshells but doesn't really know why, I said, to her surprise, "Sandy used to say the same thing."

All these women, young and old, want to know, "What can I do?" While their love for a troubled man is touching, the state of their sour marriages is alarming. They confess their constant confusion and increasing indifference. Some just want to hide. Many have difficulty sleeping. Their world has lost its color and its depth.

Here's what they need to know: They can help their man transform from a shut-down and unreliable Christian Nice Guy into a loving, protective, and passionate Christian Good Guy. A man with such opportunity is in a good place, for he has yet to chew through all of his wife's goodwill. Though the clock is ticking, there's still time.

Excerpted from:
Married ... But Not Engaged by Paul and Sandy Coughlin
Copyright © 2006; ISBN 0764202413
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.