If you were going to live on Mars or Venus, how would you prepare? Would you put more into the festivities before you launch or the necessities after you land? Some people spend a year planning a wedding with little thought about how to be married. “If the flowers don’t wilt, the candles stay lit, and the weather holds, then all will be well.”
It only takes a few minutes to get married, but it takes a lifetime to put a marriage together. Yes, initially, some things should just work. We often call it chemistry. But what dupes you into making a lifetime commitment won’t take you the distance. Marriages that continue to work are inhabited by two people willing to make them work.
Too many Americans view marriage like the lottery: “I just need to find the winning ticket—the right person.” It’s not a romance buzz-kill to set aside this false ideal. I have taught, studied, and strived in marriage for 25 years. It is a noble and blessed pursuit. But I can say definitively that you always marry the wrong person. Why?
You are not yet the person you could be.
I live in the South which means that instead of just saying “Hello,” we ask, “How are you?” I certainly don’t mind this greeting, but I regularly find myself stumped by the question. Once I even blurted out: “It’s too early to tell!” (Oops.)
Can you name the way you feel? If not, then you probably cannot tell how your moods affect your very important people. It takes effort to become more self-aware. It won’t happen automatically. You may still love the music you listened to in high school, but hopefully you learning more about what makes you tick. You are not yet the person you could be.
You do not really know each other when you marry.
Lewis Smedes said, “My wife has lived with five different men since we wed, and each of those men was me.” A healthy marriage is a lifetime of discovery.
Picture an iceberg. At the top are thoughts which we know full-well. But right at the waterline are feelings which are not not always clear. Under the waterline things can get even murkier.
Far down the iceberg are hopes and visions, wounds and fears that motivate so much of what we think and do. Most couples need to find better tools and skills of communication to help each other discover what is under the waterline. Most couples need to learn communication that is generous.
Generosity is an acquired taste.
Imagine hearing a complaint directed at you. If your next step is to disagree, then you have just changed the subject. Now here’s a stranger truth: even if your next step is to agree, then you still have just changed the subject.
Conflicts present opportunity, but you have to stay in the other person’s moment. What’s under the complaint? What hope or dream? What fear or wound? People stop discovering each other mainly because they let an impulse to defend or please lead them to change the subject.
Generosity is an acquired taste. It takes the patience of an operator at a drive-through fast-food window. When you simply repeat back what you’re hearing without judgment, new insight can emerge. A fast food operator doesn’t need to agree or disagree. They don’t need to defend themselves if they hear it wrong. They just reflect what they hear until the truth becomes clear.
Repairs take practice.
Ruth Bell Graham said, “A happy marriage is the union of two good forgivers.” Why happy? Because real forgiveness hits the reset button. Repairs encourage people to push that button. A repair begins when each person owns 100% of their 10% percent. That’s usually about how much responsibility we’re willing to concede at first. 10%. But that’s enough to get started.
Negotiating blame does not repair. Blame is when you take responsibility for the other person’s crimes rather than your own. We are natural experts in other people’s sin. Repairs take practice.
Is there one right person for everyone? You might point out how some people are more suited to commitment than others. And it’s true, some people’s backgrounds and wiring make them a hazard to any spouse. They are ticking time bombs of abuse and infidelity.
But think about it, just like Covid spreading around the world, it takes just one person marrying the wrong person to set off an entire pandemic of mismatched couples. If you’re preparing to wed, plan also to be married. If you are already wed, it’s never too late to start putting a marriage together. But it may need to start with a few repairs.
If one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive (Col. 3:13).
Duke Divinity Professor, Stanley Hauerwas:
Destructive to marriage is the self-fulfillment ethic that assumes marriage and the family are primarily institutions of personal fulfillment, necessary for us to become “whole” and happy. The assumption is that there is someone just right for us to marry and that if we look closely enough we will find the right person. This moral assumption overlooks a crucial aspect to marriage. It fails to appreciate the fact that we always marry the wrong person.
Clifford W Foreman says
Thanks for your wise insights on a very complicated phenomenon. I need to teach Marianne Moore’s poem “Marriage” later this month. She’s an objective observer–she never married.
Tim Filston says
Yes, I prefer her objectivity to Scotty Wolff’s “expertise.” He holds the world record in number of marriages– 29 times!