One could write a whole book, and many have, about what makes a good marriage. Rather than trying to make an exhaustive list, I am going to highlight just three things. I believe if these three areas are attended to, a marriage will ultimately succeed, blessing the partners and the community they are part of.
The Bible makes clear that the start of a marriage is a commitment, a covenant, between two people and God. This commitment is for the life. Not just when things are easy, happy, or good. The heart of marriage is choosing to bind your life to another. To care for them, to love them. It seems silly, in light of this to spend any time talking about the importance of commitment… but it seems our culture has lost sight of how important commitment is, and how choosing to commit to someone changes us, makes the marriage stronger and better.
So the question is, what are we committing to? It’s making the other person a priority. Choosing to serve them. To put them before yourself. To choose to sacrificially love them. And lets face it… you are going to need to be sacrificial. Romance often blinds us to our love’s flaws. When the fantasy of an ideal marriage partner meets the harsh reality that you married a sinner, you are going to need to sacrifice if you want things to work out. Christ provided the model. One of the most encourage passages in the Bible for me is Romans 5:8 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. This verse reminds me of the great love that God has toward me. That Jesus sacrificed Himself for my sake. I realize that whatever is before me, is much less than Jesus went through. God initiated love toward me, and based on that I can choose to initiate, to love others with His strength.
Some people I talk to seem to think a focus on “commitment” is very unromantic. They want passion and romance. I actually believe commitment is the soil that great romance grows best in, that can keep it thriving through the years. One of my favorite “romantic” stories is a bit unusual but touches on how commitment effects romance. I had a friend we can call Paul. He worked with a delightful women I will call Karen. Paul was attracted to her, physically yes, but even more to her courageous spirit and kind heart. Unfortunately for Paul, Karen was married so Paul was careful to be just friends, not to get romantically or inappropriately involved, to honor her wedding vows. A few years into their friendship Karen’s husband showed his true colors and deserted her and their two young children. Paul continued to be a friend to Karen, but was now able to hope for more. Several months after the divorce he asked Karen out on a date. She said “No”, than she was too overwhelmed by life as a single parent. He counter offered, he just wanted to spend time with her, so he would be happy to do practical things with her if she wasn’t free for a “date”, and/or if there were tasks she could give him so she would have time to go out, he would do those tasks for her, and then take her out. Over a period of a year Paul was an amazing friend to Karen. Karen came to truly appreciate Paul, but if you would ask her, she would have denied being “in love” with him. She was “in love” once before and she got burned. She couldn’t image being “in love” ever again. After a year Paul knew Karen was who he wanted as a wife. He also understand Karen well. His proposal wasn’t very romantic in the classic sense. His proposal was “Do you think you would be better off with me in your life, or without me. If life will be better with me, lets get married.”. Karen thought about his proposal for a number of days. Eventually she accepted Paul’s offer. She didn’t jump up and down in excitement. She didn’t feel deep romantic attraction, but she did know she was loved and that life with Paul by her side would be good. That was several decades ago. Since then they have had several children of their own. Today if you ask Karen if she is in love with Paul, her answer is an unqualified yes. Romance bloomed out of their shared life, the commitment they made to care for each other, because they continually turned toward each other.
Intimacy: inviting influence, being transparent
In the book Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work John Gotmann shares what makes strong marriages based on the analysis of thousands of married couples. He identified seven key attributes, but nearly all these attributes could be summed up as turn toward your partner in care.
Deal with Conflicts
Years ago a friend introduced me to a very powerful tool. He observed that conflict is never one sided. He suggested take a piece of paper, and divide it into two columns. The first column is the list of ways the other person has hurt or wronged you. The second column is the list of the ways you have wronged them. Make a list of all the ways the other person hurt you. Once you have a complete list, consider for each of the ways you were hurt, how you responded. Was it’s appropriate, or did you do something that hurt them in response. If your response was inappropriate, list that in the second column. Now split the paper in half. In a bit, we will get to the page with the list of your offenses.
You have a detailed list of how they have hurt you. What do you do with this? It’s time to put it aside. How best to do this varies person to person. Some people might find reading through the list, saying “I forgive you” for each item in their mind, and then tossing the paper in the trash sufficient. I know some people who burn the paper as a symbolic action. I know still others who write “Play for by the blood of Christ” over each item and then destroy the paper. The key is once you choose to forgive the person, that needs to be the end of it.
At the heart of a truly apology is an acknowledgement that you are wrong. That you have sinned. I want to say “How hard can this be? We know we are sinners.” Yet, each of use knows how hard this is. We have our pride. Typically issues aren’t just one sides, so a sense of fairness and justice can also stop us from apologizing, especially when we think the other person is more in the wrong.
We are called to apologize. To see ourselves clearly. To allow the Lord to show us when our attitudes aren’t right and admit when we are wrong, when we have sinned. It shouldn’t surprises us… we have been saved by grace. When we discover these things, we should turn to the Lord with a grateful heart. Thank Him for both making us aware of the issue, and for His loving forgiveness. Then we can turn to our spouse and apologize. When it’s in our power, we should not just apologize, but make things right. Sometimes there is no way to “make it right”, to undo the damage we have done. It will be up to the other person to decide what they will do.
Earlier I suggested that when you realize there has been a conflict to make a list, with one half the list being what you need to forgive. The other half of the list, are the things you need to apologize for. Apologizes are typically best short, with no equivocation, nothing that could be interpreted as blame toward the other person. You apologize for what you said and did.
Just because forgiveness has been extended, and apologizes have been made, doesn’t mean an issue has been resolved. It just means that first aid has been applied to the wounds caused by inappropriate response to the conflict.
How to resolve conflict? In the context of a marriage, where we are called toward mutual sacrifice, I think the first question we have to as is “How important is this? Am I called to sacrifice?”. A phrase stolen from the apostle Paul that Libby and I was use often is “Why not be wronged?”. Why not choice to sacrifice a preference or a bit of freedom for the sake of another. When the issue is over something without weighty consequences, say the color of paint for a room, what movies to watch, etc, give preference to the one you have committed your life to. In the long run, you will reap great rewards.
Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you. – Ephesians 4:31-32