When I got married at the tender age of eighteen, I had the most unrealistic expectations about marriage. I’d bought into our culture’s idea about love. In 1970 (which seems like eons ago), the trendy advice for couples was all you need is love…all together now! Or the famous line from the movie, “Love Story,” where the young-in- love couple comes up with this brilliant deduction: Love means never having to say you’re sorry. Really? Shortly after Randy and I were married, I learned we both needed to say “sorry” a lot!
Even though times have changed, there’s still this idea, a fantasy/Cinderella complex that expects marriage to be about making me happy and fulfilled. My husband should be “Prince Charming,” anticipating all my needs. And if he can’t do that, then we have a problem.
I felt disillusioned and unhappy from the get-go with my marriage. Sure, there were good times. But since it was impossible for Randy to meet my expectations, I often felt hurt and disappointed. I focused on him and his faults, never really considering that I had any! Talk about immature.
Back then, I didn’t have a framework to understand that God (who invented marriage) has a specific plan and purpose for couples. When I became a Christian several years into our marriage, I began the gradual process of God transforming me from the inside out. Not an overnight fix, but the beginning of changing my flawed perspective.
When we talk about going in the right direction in our marriages, we need to look at our expectations. Are they realistic—or some romantic fantasy like mine?
Author Gary Thomas in his excellent book, Sacred Marriage says:
Marriage is more than a sacred covenant with another person. It is a spiritual discipline designed to help you know God better, trust him more fully and love him more deeply. What if God designed marriage to make us holy more than to make us happy?
That’s quite a concept—and totally opposite of what most of us think.
1. GO toward love
How do we know what the “right” direction is? This is where we need a good biblical understanding of marriage. The Bible always points us toward love– not my “Love Story” idea, but God’s definition.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. (1 Corinthians 13: 4-8)
In a recent sermon, our pastor reminded us that marriage is not a contract. A contract makes sure my needs are being met. It’s a conditional agreement protecting my rights and limiting my responsibilities. I can cancel the contract whenever I want to.
In God’s plan, marriage is a covenant: an unconditional surrendering of your rights while increasing your responsibilities. Wow! Who would want to enter into a relationship that requires so much–that’s so uncertain–where your rights aren’t guaranteed and you can easily get hurt?
That’s where we miss the boat. When marriage is viewed only as a contract, the commitment isn’t as deep and binding as it needs to be in order to weather life’s storms. It’s easy to give up, throw in the towel, call it quits.
2. GO toward being intentional
Believe me, I know. Randy struggled for many years with alcoholism. I finally reached the point where I wanted to be done. I didn’t think there was any hope. A friend I met through Alcoholics Anonymous encouraged me to leave room for God to work. I had learned in Al-Anon, a support group for family members and friends of alcoholics, that changed attitudes can aid recovery. I knew I couldn’t fix or change or control Randy. But my attitude toward him could make a difference. I could learn to be intentional in my relationship. He didn’t need a judge, he already felt guilty. He didn’t need me to parent him or constantly treat him with contempt. My A.A. friend told me, “Randy is a child of God. He needs your love.”
How do you love someone who isn’t easy to love? You learn to be intentional with your responses. I’m choosing today to love my husband. Instead of looking at everything that’s wrong, I’m going to be intentional about seeing what’s right.
Journalist Lauren DeBellis Appell, defines marriage:
It’s a mindset, that is willful, intentional and deliberate. A mindset that understands, by definition, marriage is a lifelong commitment. Marriage is an intentional choice. It doesn’t stop at “I do.” Marriage is a purposeful decision to choose the other person over and over again.
Is it easy? No! Is it worth it? Yes—in countless ways. There’s something so heartwarming and contented about “doing life” with your best friend—being on the journey together as a team, on those ordinary days, knowing we’re in it for the long haul. When you are intentional about loving your spouse, this close relationship can happen.
Author and therapist Leslie Vernick, who writes about destructive relationships, says:
Regularly thinking negatively about your husband (or wife) increases your dissatisfaction with him and your marriage.
Make the intentional choice, a daily spiritual discipline, of focusing on qualities for which you feel thankful.
3. GO toward praiseworthy thinking
Philippians 4:8 tells us how we ought to be thinking. No, it isn’t easy. It’s tough to have the discipline of taking the higher road. I wanted to constantly recite the list of Randy’s failings—almost to anyone who would listen. This passage from Philippians encourages a better way. Think of whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.
Because of the reality of sin, every marriage has difficult moments. We’re not marrying gods and goddesses. We’re marrying people that the Bible promises will stumble in many ways. How can that possibly be easy? Once I accept that marriage is inherently difficult, I’ll no longer resent it when my marriage is difficult. Marriage can be rewarding, soul-forming, but never easy. -Gary Thomas
4. GO toward respect
I listened to a woman’s story on the radio some time ago. She was unhappy in her marriage. Instead of giving up, she decided to intentionally treat her husband as if she loved and respected him. She didn’t expect anything in return, but only wanted to offer him unconditional love. To her surprise, after some time passed, she noticed her feelings changing. She didn’t have to think so much about choosing to love him. It came naturally. Even more surprising, her husband started responding to her with love.
However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband. Ephesians 5:33
5. GO toward having healthy boundaries
Love doesn’t equate to being a doormat. There are times when going in the right direction means having healthy boundaries; making difficult choices, drawing lines with love. It is never OK to be frightened by an angry, abusive spouse or tolerating unacceptable behaviors that come with addictions. If you are in an abusive marriage (whether it’s physical or emotional), there’s lots of help available from counselors and support groups.
I needed a lot of support to deal with Randy’s alcoholism. I had to become strong enough to set the boundary: I will not live with your drinking and its consequences. It took time to be able to follow through. Sometimes the most loving stance we can take is setting boundaries.
Because of God’s grace, I can look back and appreciate how far Randy and I have come together. We don’t have a fairy tale marriage. Those don’t exist. Even spiritual giants like Billy Graham admit that marriage is far from perfect. When he was asked what the secret of his 60+ years of marriage was, he stated, “Being happily incompatible!” I’m grateful Randy and I persevered and honored our marriage covenant. It’s about the closest thing to “happily-ever-after” I could have imagined.
If you’re struggling in a difficult marriage, how may I pray for you?