This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #65, on the subject of Being Married.
These young couples, they don’t know–
They just think we’re old.
We took the silver years ago–
We’re going for the gold!
I have often thought about writing a piece about being married. My wife has argued that I am in no position to give people advice about marriage, and she has a point. Ours has been a rough marriage from the beginning. However, that beginning is now–well, these web pages stay up a long time, but as I begin this I note that we are closer to our golden anniversary than to our silver. It has been a long time. I have been married twice as long as I was single.
I don’t presume, though, to give you any insights I have learned for how to keep a marriage together from my own observations. Rather, over the years I have heard a lot of advice, and I have found some of it to be quite valuable, incredibly valuable. I do not remember where I got it all, but I’ll try to note those points I can credit.
- Before we married, my father said that I needed to ask one question, and have an answer: why are you marrying this person?
My father’s experience gave him this, and it’s worth recounting. He had been dating a girl–I’m not certain whether he was still in high school or already in college, but she kept talking about what they were going to do when they got married. Finally one day he interrupted this by saying that he was not certain he was ready to marry just yet. He was quite surprised three months later to read that she was marrying someone else. Some people, he suggested, were in love with the idea of being married. That’s not a satisfactory reason to marry; you need a reason to marry this person.
The value of this particular bit of advice cannot be overstated. Believe me, the day will almost certainly come when you are going to ask yourself this question: Why did I marry this person? If you have already answered it, you will know the answer when the question comes. It can get you past some serious complications, knowing the answer, and particularly if it’s a good answer. Even if you are already married, take a moment and give yourself that answer if you can. If you’ve answered it adequately in the good times, the answer will be there in the time of crisis.
- I think I had already heard or read this somewhere before we married, but I remember that one of the many counselors we visited in attempting to work out our difficulties in the early days repeated and reinforced it: divorce is not an option. That was our attitude going into this, and it’s an important one. Sure, people get divorced, even people who had no intention or expectation of doing so. However, if your attitude is, “If it doesn’t work, we can get divorced,” you’ve got a vulnerability, a weak spot in your corporate armor. The thing about marriage–about any commitment–is that it takes work, effort, in a word commitment. If you’ve given yourself an emergency exit when you’ve built the thing, you’re going to be more inclined to use it when things get tough. Face it, life has tough times, and there will be times when it will look like it would be easier to quit than to fight. If quitting is off the table up front, fighting is the only choice, and you are more likely to put the effort into getting through.
I should caveat that not every marriage can be saved. Some relationships are so broken that one party or the other is not willing to embrace the grace and forgiveness needed to heal it. Some people are so broken that they need to be mended themselves before they can be part of someone else’s life (but if you are that person, finding a different partner is just seeking to ruin someone else).
- This one comes from Bob Mumford, but I’m not entirely sure whether he was applying it to marriage or to church relationships. It’s true either way: God gives us the person we need, not the person we might want. Mumford did say that God made one man and one woman, and they’re very different. That’s an important part of it. God is working to form you into his child; your spouse is part of that process, pressing you to become more loving. That means it will sometimes be difficult–as someone has said, it’s easy to love those that are lovely, but God calls us to love when we really don’t feel loving at all. You’re not always going to be happy with His choice, but ultimately His choice is going to be best for forming you into who you ought to be, and thus for your ultimate happiness.
- The ideal spouse is an illusion, and the more so when you think that it is some spouse other than the one you already have.
C. S. Lewis addressed this somewhere, noting that to some degree the fact that you have been married has already been part of the process that makes this person your “other half”. Be married to someone for a week, and both of you change–maybe not in the ways either of you wishes, but the process has begun. That process is rocky, sometimes painful, sometimes seemingly counterproductive, but it is moving both of you toward what God wants you to be.
Meanwhile, the axiom that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence does not mean that it is, but that it appears to be so. When you look at your reality, you see the bad parts; when you look at your fantasy, you see the good. The fantasy is unlikely to be as good as the reality. For one thing, you will be bringing your self into the next relationship, and you have just as much potential to spoil that one as you had to spoil this one, plus a bit more because you have added a track record for failure in the first relationship. If you could not make the first marriage work, you have less chance to succeed with the second.
It is true that the percentage of marriages which end in divorce has been rising over the years. However, part of that is because second marriages are less likely to survive than first ones, and third marriages less than seconds. Your best shot at long-term marriage is usually your first one. If you let that break, you prove that you are the kind of person who will let your marriage break.
- The way forward in life is always into God. If our direction is taking us closer to God, it is moving us forward; if it is the right way forward, it will take us further into God. That often can help as a measure of which is the right path, as if we can see that one path takes us toward and the other away from God we can be pretty certain that if we’re seeing it clearly the former is the right choice. It also should be seen as assurance: if this is the right path, whatever it looks like from here, it is going to bring us closer to God. God says that He hates divorce. As a rule of thumb, then, breaking a marriage is moving away from God, and affirming one is moving toward God.
- You are going to have to give up your expectations.
You probably will say that you don’t really have any expectations, but that’s not really possible. You formed an image of what a marriage is like, of how it works, from the relationships of your parents and other adults among whom you were raised. You are to some degree going to emulate that, and to some degree reject it; but similarly you are going to expect that your spouse has some of the same expectations about how it works as you do–and your spouse is going to have different expectations, for both of you.
That means the wife is not just going to fall into the role the husband expects, and the husband is not automatically going to be what the wife expects. Here are some “typical” clashes:
- Each party has a belief about which of them manages the money and pays the bills. Sometimes they won’t agree, and money is one of the top tensions in marriages. Even when it is agreed as to which of you will balance the checkbook and cover the regular bills, there is still going to be an issue concerning the control of the “extra” money–what do you have to do to be able to buy yourself a new outfit, or a quick lunch? Your parents probably had systems for this, but it is probably not the case that you both grew up with the same system.
- In some houses, the man is expected to fix anything that breaks, because that’s what men do; in other houses, if something breaks you call a repairman or buy a replacement. This is a simple example, but your relationship will be filled with things each of you thought, without ever considering it or recognizing that you thought this, was the way it would work.
- It has gotten more complicated. In today’s world, we cannot assume we know who washes the dishes, or who cooks the dinners. Child care expectations are no longer simple. There are also cultural expectations. Interracial marriages mean cross-cultural marriages, which means that his family and her family both have ideas about what a bride or a groom ought to be and do, and they are not going to match. You both will find yourself trying to explain to your extended families that this is not how things work in your spouse’s family, and that you have to adjust–without making them think you married someone who does not know how to be your spouse. Complicating it, you probably are not completely convinced that your family is wrong. After all, that’s how it worked when you were younger.
- Then there are the wealth of holidays. It is not even just which holidays you celebrate, but how you celebrate them. Do you have a Christmas Tree? Is it cut, balled, or artificial? Does it go up the day after Thanksgiving, or the last weekend in Advent, or Christmas Eve? When and how does it come down? On what holidays do you have a big dinner, and on which ones is snacking the order of the day? You expect that such celebrations will continue as they did when you were young, but so does your spouse, and there’s not a very high probability that those expectations will match.
These are just obvious ones. The point is that you expect each other to be and do certain things, and you expect that you yourself will fall into a specific role, and the role you envision for yourself is not going to match the one envisioned by your spouse. That’s normal. All of us take years figuring out how to make our relationships work, and you should not expect less for yourselves.
- This was actually one of the first things I realized, and one of the hardest to apply; I still fail at this frequently. You must learn to express your love in two languages–the one you understand, and the one your spouse understands.
Near the end of Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye starts singing to his wife Goldie a song that asks, “Do you love me?” Her first reaction amounts to, what kind of question is that and why are you asking me this now, but they have had three daughters reject parental guidance and marry for love (and a slippery slope it proved to be, as the first married a good Jewish boy and the third a gentile Marxist). Ultimately, though, she lists all the ordinary household chores she has done for him, like cooking and cleaning and washing, along with bearing and raising his children, so she concludes that that she must love him: “I suppose I do.” He replies, “And I suppose I love you.”
We learn two things from this; the first is about speaking two languages.
You think that all those things you do, which on some level you are doing for your spouse and which on some level that fact that you are doing them means your spouse does not have to do them, is expressing your love. Whether it’s going to work, paying the bills, cleaning the house, making the meals, raising the children, maintaining the yard, driving, shopping, washing, repairing, whatever it is you do, you do it, on some level, because of love, and you think that’s understood. Your spouse thinks the same thing about everything of which you are spared because your spouse handles it. Yet you don’t see that as an expression of love for you. In fact, at least sometimes you think that your spouse likes to do those things. It does not occur to you that he hates driving, she hates laundry, but does it because of love for you. On the other hand, it sometimes occurs to you that you are doing the driving, the laundry, because of love. You are expressing love in a language you understand. That is important, because it reminds you that you love this person, and will do this because of that. However, your expression of love is not being heard.
You need to speak the other language, the language that will be understood. Michelle, ma belle, sont les mots qui vont tres bien ensemble, sings Paul McCartney–in French, Michelle, my lovely, are the words which go very well together. Most of us do not need to learn another spoken language; but we do need to communicate in a way that our spouse recognizes as an expression of love–whether it’s flowers and candy or dinner and a movie, or breakfast in bed or a sporting event, or simply saying the right words at the right time, the unexpected display of affection, some way of letting that person know that there is love here.
It also helps if you can learn to perceive the expression of love your spouse is constantly making in the language you don’t understand. It’s probably there, and it is a mystery to the other person why you don’t realize it, just as you don’t understand why your expressions of love go unrecognized.
- The other thing we learn from Tevye and Goldie is that for the purpose of marriage love is not primarily somethng you feel; it is something you choose and do. Throughout history in most of the world, marriages were arranged: families chose brides for grooms and grooms for brides. It is really the “normal” way; selecting your own spouse is only a recent and limited practice. That means that most people learned over time how to love, or show love to, spouses who were selected for them by someone else. It is not really that difficult to decide to love your spouse. In the modern world, most people in arranged marriages will tell you yes, they do love their spouses. It is a choice you make. Feelings are too erratic to be the basis for commitment, but they will follow from decision.
- In I Corinthians 7:32ff Paul comments that the unmarried man worries about pleasing the Lord but the married man worries about pleasing his woman, and then says the same (gender reversed) about the unmarried and married women. What is interesting is that Paul does not say that this is wrong; rather, he seems to be indicating that if you are married, pleasing your spouse is (at least) as important to you as pleasing the Lord, and that’s as it ought to be. Sure, he says that it is better not to marry for that reason, but he also says that for most people it is better to marry, and that means that for most people there is that one person in life, the spouse, who matters as much as Christ. We don’t like to think of it that way, but Paul says that we act that way, and he does not condemn us for it. Spouses are important.
I was developing this for a “permanent” web page in the Bible and Theology section of the site, but decided that that was not the best way to do it. That’s partly because when I had eight points I kept thinking of a ninth and then forgetting it before I had the chance to write it down, and then while I was trying to think of it I remembered the one that falls ninth here, which I know is not the one I kept forgetting. I conclude two things from this.
The first is that no matter how many things I remember and put in this page, I am going to miss something, something that undoubtedly helped me through one of the true rough spots in my life and marriage, and I’m going to wish I had included it. I could hold the page until I died, and still not manage to include everything. I thus hope these points will help you now, and perhaps before we reach our fiftieth (should we both live so long) I’ll post a few more.
The second is that I am not always going to remember all of these points–and neither are you. Make note of them, come back and read them again (as long as we manage to keep the site online through your support), and think about them more than just on the read-through. They are all worth remembering; they will all help keep your marriage together a little longer.
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