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.
There has been some interesting research which provide insight into one of the ways commitment improved a marriage. It has been documented that the act of choosing something or someone, making a commitment, actually changes the way we evaluate attractiveness, beauty, goodness, even if we don’t remember making the choice. Our brains actually rewire to prefer what we choose, what we make a commitment to. Jesus described this in Matt 6:21, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”. The act of investing in someone makes them more important to you. You will have a tendency to like them more, to find them more value, to feel romantic attraction.
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.
I have seen how turning toward Libby, being open to her has changed me in all sorts of ways, both big and small. On the small scale, is my musical taste. As I look at the music I have been listening to, I can see Libby’s influence. There are some artists I might not have know of but for her introduction. Some of these artists I would have liked because they play in a style I naturally enjoy. But Libby’s influence goes beyond that. There are songs, albums, and artists I love now become Libby loved them. They meant something to her, so over time they came to mean something to me. There are also songs I have come to love because they remind me so much of Libby. I have come to cherish the moments that music brings to Libby to mind. Whenever this happens, I try to to take a moment, to turn to God with a grateful heart, and thank Him for the the influence Libby had in my life. One of the big ways that Libby has changed me is in the area of prayer. Libby loved to pray. She embraced a contemplative life. I tend to be action oriented. I like doing things. I don’t like quiet. There was a time that if I tried to pray for more than ten minutes I would find myself falling asleep. The thought of spending an entire day, much less a weekend without other people, on a silent retreat where all I was to do was listen carefully for the Lord, to be talking with him seemed impossible. Yet, today, I love to pray and I try to schedule quarterly silent retreats. These are just two ways Libby has changed my life because I turned toward her. There are countless others.
Of course, sometimes letting someone influence you isn’t always pleasant. Letting someone influence you means you have to be vulnerable. It’s leaving yourself open, defenseless. It will bring great blessings, but you will also get hurt. Why? Because no one is perfect. You married a sinner. They will hurt you. Sometimes in ignorance, sometimes with intent. But without this risk, and the hurt, there is no chance for happiness, joy, growth. There are several people I know who have dating many people, several for extended periods of time, but never have found someone to marry. When we have talked about the people they dated, there wasn’t always a clear reason why then didn’t move from dating to marriage. Mostly, it was about how they never felt the passion and connection they were hoping for. As I look who my friends dated, I see some really great people. People who were mature, loving, who went on to have great marriages with others. In some cases I think my friends had impossibly high standards, they want to marry someone who doesn’t exist in this world. But for a number of the people I known like this, I find myself wondering if part of the reason they haven’t been able to commit to someone, to decide to marry is because they are unwilling to be vulnerable. To take the chance, to experience both the pain and joy that true intimacy with a fellow sinner brings.
Intimacy started with being open and honest with the other person. Not to hide things. I believe we should strive to live openly and honestly with all people, but it does becomes much easier in the context of a committed relationship. Without a commitment, we have to wonder, if I show this part of myself, what will the other person do? Will I lose them? Will they reject me? If you have confidence in their commitment, it’s much easier to reveal the things you find shameful, that embarrass you. If the other person has a commitment to love you, then when you open up, and share honestly, you have someone who will help you see those hurtful things be healed.
Honesty also means you have to let the other person know how they are influencing you. It’s critical for your partner to know that they have an influence in your life, and how it’s going. This affirms that they are important to you, and lets them know that they are playing a significant role in your life. Sometimes what you communicate will be can be painful for them, because you were hurt. Sometimes you will communicate in an inappropriate way that hurts them. That’s why you will need to successfully….
Deal with Conflicts
I recently heard someone say “You are guaranteed to marry the wrong person because no one on this earth can be your perfect match.” I have never heard truer words. Lets face it, you are a sinner, your spouse is a sinner. This means that you will have conflict. If you don’t have conflict it’s because you are keeping a self protective cocoon around yourself that will prevent you from truly enjoying the relationship. You will hurt each other. It’s a fact of life. The question is how do you respond. Successful marriages have learned how to deal with conflict. A key ingredient in this is to maintain respect for the other. To avoid contempt and distain. To be able to honor the other, even if you don’t see eye to eye. Alas, this is very hard to do, and we blow it all the time. That’s why there are two key skills for us to learn.
You will be hurt by your spouse. That is a given. The question is, what are you going to do? Some people will try to ignore the hurt, pretend like it didn’t happen. The phrase “It’s no big deal” is one way this approach is often communicated. The problem is if you have been hurt, saying “It’s no big deal” is dishonest. You are lying to your friend, your spouse. Another approach to bury the offense. To stuff the hurt, the anger you feel. The problem with this is that eventually the holding tank will overflow, and everything will come rushing out. Of course, some people just strike back which I assume you understand can be very damaging.
Rather that any of these responses, we are called to extend forgiveness. To choose to love the other person, and not take revenge. To love them, we need to have an accurate view, so we need to be able to be honest about their sin, their struggles. We look honestly at these flaws not to find holes in their armor, to be used as weapons but out of concern for them. To be a help. We are called to ask the question “How would Jesus love this dear person? How can I extend love and forgiven to them?”
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.
The second key ingredient to resolving conflict is realizing everything doesn’t need to be immediately resolved. We need to have patience. Understanding this does several things. First, it can let charged emotions settle down. Often, when we have had space, things become clear and what we think is a critical issue turns out not to be so important. Allow the influence you share with each other to have time to work.
Sometimes there will be disagreements that you can’t seem to bridge. Something that each of you believe is very important, and can’t seem to come to agreement on. In these cases, it’s typically best to learn to agree to disagree. The key to this working is to treat the other with respect and honor. To acknowledge that even though you don’t agree, that you can see and appreciate their perspective.
I believe commitment, vulnerability, forgiveness, and the humility to apologize are key to a successful relationship… but are times when this is not enough. When your partner threatens your heath and safety, especially in the case of spousal abuse you need to protect yourself and at least separate, possibility divorce. This is something that shouldn’t be taken on lightly, nor should be considered if the other person has “merely” disappointed you.
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