Parable: The Woven Ficus Tree
Early in our marriage we purchased a small ficus tree for our living room. Having never owned one before, we thought it was a pretty special little tree. In looking at the trunk, it was evident that this was actually not one, but three ficus trees, woven together (like a braid) and growing as if it they were one. The top of the tree was lush, full and green and we were completely unable to tell where one tree began and the other ended. The branches and leaves of the tree were completely unified into one beautiful little tree-top.
Our little ficus tree was exquisite, yet, overtime, it took on a spiritual meaning, causing us to value it even more. The intertwined trunks of the tree reminded us of marriage; where three individuals, husband, wife and God, can be united and grow together as one. In marriage, as with the ficus, each individual part is valuable on its own, yet together, they are even more magnificent, because three strong parts united, make an even stronger whole.
Unfortunately, the story of our ficus tree does not have a happy ending, however, the wisdom gained from the experience has blessed our marriage ever since.
Our Ficus Tree’s Demise:
Here’s what happened: Sadly, I’m not known for having a green thumb but I loved this unique little tree and was determined to keep it alive. I thought I was taking good care of my tree but became frustrated one day when I noticed that several of its delicate leaves had fallen to the ground. One day, observing that the soil was dry to the touch, I gave it some water and put it in a different window, where it could receive more sunlight. In spite of my efforts, each day I would find that more leaves had fallen to the ground, until finally our poor tree was leafless. Not wanting to be the cause of its barren branches, I began hoping that it was a deciduous tree and that beautiful blossoms would break forth in the spring. Research on ficus trees taught me otherwise. Determined not to chalk this one up as another casualty on my long list of deceased houseplants, I decided to try the old, “talk to your houseplants” tactic. It had never worked before, but I was out of ideas. That afternoon, as I got up-close and personal with my ficus, to begin a nurturing conversation, I was finally able to discover the tiny culprits – the true cause of our ficus tree’s demise. Running up and down the woven trunk were hundreds of the tiniest little brown, pear-shaped bugs I’d ever seen. APHIDS! These puny pests do their damage by inserting their mouths parts into plants and sucking out the life sustaining liquid within. In small numbers, these little critters are not deadly, however, I’d let them go unnoticed until they’d overtaken our special tree. Those sneaky little bugs had literally sucked the life right out of it. At that late stage there was no way to undo the damage and it was literally too late to revive our little woven ficus tree.
As sad as this little parable is, for us there was wisdom learned as we once again compared the tree to marriage. In the beginning most new marriages are filled with vitality (not unlike our ficus tree). Yet, some statistics show that couples report being the happiest in the first two years of marriage. After that, research indicates that many couples report a decline in the happiness of their marriages. While it’s likely that some of the decrease in wedded bliss could be due to daily stressors and the increased responsibilities of family life, it is also quite possible that those marriages are experiencing a vitality zapping plague of “marital aphids.” It’s possible that those reportedly less happy couples may not have fallen out of love, they just haven’t grown more in love, due to life-draining and love-depleting marital aphids. Those sneaky little pests can suck the joy right out of your marriage.
Until the death of our little ficus tree, I had never heard of aphids nor was I aware of the damage they can cause. Those tiny pin-head-sized creatures were killers! Likewise, young couples (even older couples, for that matter) may be unaware of marital aphids and the destruction which those seemingly insignificant little bugs can have upon a marriage. Newlyweds as well as oldie-weds need to keep their guard up and build defenses against them, however, this can only happen if they first identify what marital aphids look like. So what are marital aphids? They are any communications or actions in marriage, that are motivated by selfishness and negativity and which, overtime, have the power to, suck the life right out of marriage.
Well known marriage researcher and expert, John Gottman studied interactions between husbands and wives. He has researched, written, and taught extensively on the subject and has identified four destructive patterns of communication that often lead to the demise of marriage, in other words, divorce. Gottman called these destructive patterns “The 4 Horsemen,” however, for the sake of this article, I’ve nick-named them “marital aphids.”
4 Destructive Communication Patterns (Gottman)
- Criticism – Attacking your spouse’s personality or character. Using phrases like, “You always…” or “You never… (fill in the blank).”
- Contempt – Attacking your spouse’s sense of self with the intention to insult or psychologically abuse him/her. This is any communication (in word, tone or body language) that indicates that you think your spouse is a fool, stupid, disgusting or incompetent. This includes name calling, hostile humor, sarcasm or mockery.
- Defensiveness – This is about seeing self as the victim, to ward off a perceived attack. It’s responding defensively to complaints, criticism or contempt by denying, arguing, making excuses, whining or counter-blaming, rather than taking responsibility and/or trying to solve the problem.
- Stonewalling – Withdrawing from the relationship (physically or emotionally) as a way to avoid conflict when disagreements occur. Stonewalling conveys disapproval, separation, disconnection, icy distance and stony silence.
“Flooding” is a fifth destructive pattern, described by Gottman. This happens when one spouse overwhelms the other with one of “The 4 Horsemen,” to the point where they feel “shell shocked” by criticism, contempt, defensiveness or stonewalling. Flooding can also lead to further stonewalling.
The good news is that there are remedies for aphids and remedies for marital aphids as well. A quick Google search will tell you that the nasty little aphids that destroy your houseplants can be eliminated by plant-friendly, aphid-eating, ladybugs. Marital aphids too can be eliminated. They are destroyed and displaced by marriage-friendly, marital aphid-eating “love bugs.” Unlike ladybugs, love bugs can’t be bought at the store. They are created. This can happen when couples make an intentional effort to replace destructive habits of communication and selfish behaviors with positive ones (AKA “love bugs”).
14 “Love Bug” Actions to Wipe Out a Plague of Marital Aphids
- Assume the Best – This is one of the number one rules in our marriage. Negative thoughts about your spouse are usually distorted by negative emotions. Analyze and correct any distorted thoughts by disputing them with more accurate evidence. Assuming the best about your spouse and about his/her motives is a powerful way to heal and strengthen any marriage.
- Listen Actively – As needed, try to echo back or rephrase what you hear. This will help you get clarity and it will also demonstrate your interest and your desire to accurately understand what your spouse is communicating.
- Speak Softly – Thoughts and feelings can be more positively expressed when voices are used in a conversational level. Be sure that your tone of voice reflects warmth rather than sarcasm.
- Positive Body Language – 55% of the communication you send out is non-verbal so be sure that your body language communicates interest and attentiveness. Avoid eye-rolling, exaggerated arm movements and hostile stances. Replace any negative body language with positive body language, such as maintaining eye contact, pleasant facial expressions, etc.
- Build a Culture of Appreciation – Noticing and expressing appreciation for your spouse’s strengths as well as his/her acts of kindness and service will have a powerful, positive effect on your communications and on your relationship. Appreciation in marriage is like water to a thirsty ficus tree. Generously expressing appreciation each and every day, in private and in public, is an essential ingredient to a flourishing marriage!
- “I Statements” – When disagreements come up, discuss them without blame. Using “I statements” or “I feel” statements such as “I feel upset when dirty socks are left on the floor.” This states the problem without name calling or blame and will result in a better chance of resolving the conflict. On the other hand, statements like “You are such a slob! You always leave your dirty socks on the floor!” are sure to cause contention.
- Accept Responsibility for Mistakes and Be Willing to Express Apology – Defensiveness fans the flames of discontent, yet taking responsibility and expressing apology can have a calming effect on you and your spouse and bring about resolution and peace much quicker.
- Sense of Humor – Laughter can be therapeutic and a source of bonding. Being willing to laugh at yourself and at life’s sometimes funny/frustrating circumstances can be a great source of stress relief. It’s important, however not to laugh at your spouse or make a mockery of his/her feelings.
- Nurture Friendship and Cultivate Kindness – Regular and thoughtful acts of kindness towards each other nurture the relationship and create a happy bond of friendship. Besides the fact that best friends in marriage have more fun, marriages built upon a foundation of friendship are more likely to weather the storms than those that are not. In his book, “7 Principles for Making Marriage Work,” Gottman explains:
“Friendship fuels the flames of romance because it offers the best protection against dealing adversarial toward your spouse…. It takes a much more significant conflict for [couples who are friends] to lose their equilibrium as a couple than it would [if they were not friends]. Their positivity causes them to feel optimistic about each other and their marriage, to assume positive things about their lives together, and to give each other the benefit of the doubt.”
10. Value and Honor Your Spouse – It is so important to VALUE and Honor the unique character strengths, personality, gifts and talents of your spouse. Obviously when you married your spouse, you valued him/her enough to want to be with them forever, right. Valuing means mindfully noticing the uniqueness of your spouse and continuing to be in AWE of him/her.
11. Cheer Your Spouse On – When you value your spouse, you encourage him/her to continue growing and thriving as an individual. It’s important to make time for individual growth (as well as growth as a couple) because two strong parts make an even stronger whole. This involves encouraging your spouse as they pursue paths of personal growth and learning and supporting them as they strive to become their best possible self.
12. Quality Time Together – Regular date nights are vital in building your relationship. Take time to be sweethearts and keep the courtship alive. Play together, work together, exercise together, serve together, make memories together, build together, dream together, even laugh, dance and sing together. Just enjoy BEING together. That means making a point to mindfully cherish and savor your time together.
13. Completely Commited – This means being 100% in the game. Marriage is about being “WE oriented,” not “ME oriented.” Being completely committed to your spouse and to your marriage means that you hold your spouse and your marriage as a top priority, above all other hobbies, interests and other people. In a word, it’s LOYALTY at the truest and deepest level.
14. Unite in Faith, Meaning, Purpose and Values – Finally, when it comes to tiny critters on a ficus tree, a wash of diluted dish soap can be used to get rid of aphids. The best way to get rid of marital aphids is to start with a fresh clean wash of repentance and forgiveness. This may not seem easy, but if you remember, our braided ficus tree included three trees in one. When husbands and wives unite in shared meaning, values and faith, they are inviting God in as the third member of their marriage. With Him comes the power to cleanse, to forgive, to heal and to strengthen. Just knowing that God is with you and that He cares about the success of your marriage is an empowering thought. In her book, “The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages,” Shaunti Feldhahn, Harvard-trained social researcher, popular speaker, and best-selling author, shared some research and statistics on what makes for a happy marriage. She reports that couples who are active and completely committed, not just to each other, but also committed in their faith are much less likely to divorce. Here are a couple of other stats that she discusses in her book: 53% of Very Happy Couples agree with the statement, “God is at the center of our marriage.” 30% of Struggling Couples disagree with that statement. Feldhahn further stated:
“Highly happy couples tend to put God at the center of their marriage and focus on Him, rather than on their marriage or spouse, for fulfillment and happiness.”
Conclusion & Happy Ending:
Our woven ficus tree has been dead and gone for over 25 years, however the lessons we learned about guarding our marriage against sneaky, life-draining, love-depleting, joy zapping, marital aphids has stayed with us. Couples who work together to eliminate the marital aphids of poor communication and replace them with nurturing habits and behaviors that uplift and strengthen, will find that their marriages are more solidified and spiritually satisfying. Perhaps this parable can have a happy ending after all!
The amazing thing about woven ficus trees is that overtime, the three trunks can merge together until they literally become ONE. Overtime, as hearts intwine, through patience, effort, and love, the same can be true for marriage. Happy Valentines Day!