It takes work for marriage to work.
After 29 years of marriage, raising four children to adulthood and planting a thriving Church during those years, my wife and I know that marriage requires intentional commitment. A marriage will not do well without intentional focus on building a strong relationship.
The pastor who married us gave me only one line of advice: “The graces you used to win her love, use to keep her love.”
When I neglect those graces, the cause is typically complacency and selfishness. When married people fail to intentionally cultivate a good relationship, they easily lose good will toward each other. I need (as a husband) to see it as my calling to take the lead in cultivating a stronger relationship.
A big marriage problem
For as much as people continue to desire to be married, we have a serious marriage crisis in this Country. Divorce statistics start at about 50 % for first time marriages and steadily increase for second, third and fourth marriages.
A growing number of people whom I care deeply about are in failing marriages. Most of them never imagined being where they are today. They went into marriage firmly opposed to divorce and determined to make it work. Facing the prospect of divorce has been devastating to them. They know that they’ve not been perfect mates, but are sincerely willing to work on their marriages. Yet they face unwilling partners. They feel they’ve tried everything to save their marriages but fear there is no hope. Life has become much harder for these people. Beyond their personal pain, their hearts ache for their children. My heart aches for all of them.
Divorce is painful and complicated
Make no mistake about it. Those who experience divorce, endure emotional, physical and social exhaustion. I’ve observed this many times in my counseling experience. Even when divorce is an escape from a deeply troubled relationship, it’s difficult and painful. The discouragements, distractions and disorienting complications brought on by divorce can make life unbearable. And, to various degrees, the effects of divorce are lifelong.
Why are we facing a marriage crisis?
There are many reasons behind marital breakdown but a primary one seems to be an unwillingness to endure difficulties in relationships (or in anything else for that matter).
“I don’t have to put up with it!” is the attitude in our culture. I am not suggesting that we become enablers or co-dependents when the behavior of a spouse is selfish, destructive or abusive. This is another problem that leads to marital demise–especially among Christians. Yet I do believe we give up too easily and too quickly. We’re often too thin-skinned and self-absorbed to cultivate deep relationships.
An iron-willed determination to make it work
A wise marriage counselor once suggested that, “the secret to lifelong love and companionship is an iron-willed determination to make it work” (James Dobson).
When a marriage goes bad, there is almost always some form of neglect involved–some failure to be intentional and to cultivate relationship; a pattern of taking for granted. These are forms of relationship indifference that afflict many marriages. This is why events like marriage weekends are good for us. We need tune-ups and checkpoints. Every so often, we need to take inventory.
No perfect marriages: (no not one)
Another threat to marriage comes in the form of misguided expectations for instantaneous bliss. Let’s be very clear that there are no perfect marriages. I say this not to excuse people from working harder on their relationships but partly because I find that many people want too much from marriage. They have unrealistic ideas of marital bliss. They’re in love with the idea of being in love until they learn that loving another person requires effort.
All married people struggle to some extent to keep their marriages healthy and strong.
It’s one thing to be in love; it’s another to love a person in the close proximity of marriage! Unrealistic and idealized versions of the relationship of marriage or of the person you plan to marry will quickly shatter in married life.
When sinners say, “I do” we cannot expect perfection! There are risks involved because there are sinners involved. You will probably get hurt but what you do with the hurt is the important part. The key to marital harmony is not the removal of all conflict (that happens in heaven), but a shared commitment to a reconciling spirit between two people who have been reconciled to God through their Savior, Jesus Christ.
Personal satisfaction and happiness
We have a huge contentment problem in our fast-pace, service-me-now, entitlement culture! Marriage is not primarily about personal happiness and satisfaction. Yes, in good marriages, this will be experienced. But personal happiness and satisfaction must not be viewed as the goal of marriage if you hope to experience them in it. God designed us so that our deepest joys are experienced in giving love.
A few closing words and a test
Marriages go through seasons– some better than others. If you find yourselves in an extended season of bitter cold winter, a check-up might help you to see the sun of spring again. If some form of complacency is behind your contentment, you might need to be snapped back into reality.
Not good to be alone — but…
In the creation of humanity, God said it is not good for the man to be alone. Since the fall of humanity, when sinners say, “I do,” it’s not easy being together! Marriage clearly offers the closest possible relationship of intimacy and companionship we can enjoy. It should be a relationship of mutual encouragement, acceptance and partnership. It should be characterized by truth, love, good will and grace toward each other.
When a relationship that was meant to be a close companionship disintegrates into one of conflict, alienation and loneliness, it leads to deep dissatisfaction and discontentment. It takes the joy out of life. When marriages disintegrate to this point, to restore them to health usually requires assistance from a wise counselor. Please seek help sooner rather than later.
Good marriages are not accidental. Intentional commitment is essential. This is why taking occasional inventory is not a bad idea. The seven-point inventory below is a combined work between myself and a fellow-leader in our Church. Please share it with others.
Seven Point Marriage Inventory
1. Ask God to give you a teachable and gentle spirit before taking this inventory. Stop right now and pray before doing this survey! Recite these truths to yourself: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5). “Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing” (Proverbs 12:18).
2. What are two things YOU could do to make your marriage better?
3. What are three things you appreciate about your spouse?
4. What is ONE thing your spouse could do to make your marriage better?
5. Share your answers to #3 with your spouse.
6. Share your answers to #2 with your spouse.
7. Ask your spouse if one of the 3 things you listed for #2, is what he\she listed for you for #4.
(If not, share #4 with each other without a condemning attitude or a defensive response)
Take time (right now) to pray about your marriage and thank God for your spouse. Ask for help if you feel your marriage could benefit from outside input.
Devotional for marriage enrichment:
Treating my spouse as one for whom Christ died
The Scripture calls me to treat my spouse (and all others for that matter) as one for whom Christ died. The foremost ethic guiding our relationships with others is the example of the sacrificial death of Jesus. If Jesus died for her, how should I treat her?
Consider a few examples:
“Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:32).
“Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:1-2).
“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25).
“If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died.” (Romans 14:15)
“So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ” (I Corinthians 8:11-12).