“The reality is that some spouses never change, and some marriages don’t get better.”
– Charles and Michale Misja, Thriving Despite a Difficult Marriage
I’ve come to the conclusion that all marital problems stem from one major flaw: they involve people. Sinful, selfish, imperfect, ever-changing (or never-changing!) human beings. A few months ago, I found myself right back where I was at the end of last year – emotionally distant, angry and ready to give up on my marriage. Once again, I found myself struggling with my own expectations and felt that Jon and I were caught in a cycle that would never end. Once again I found myself asking the question: “should I leave?” But then I realized there was another question, a bigger question, from deep within my heart demanding an answer: “what if everything I’ve always said I believe about marriage is true?”
What if God’s desire is that, except in extreme circumstances for which my own marital problems don’t qualify, marriage be a life-long bond, regardless of how hard it gets?
What if marriage isn’t as much about getting my own needs met or desires fulfilled, as it is about loving and serving someone else, no matter the difficulties?
What if marriage is the ultimate ministry, the ultimate mission, the ultimate battleground at which the most selfish, sinful parts of my nature are slain?
What if, as Gary Thomas so eloquently put it, God designed marriage to make us holy, more than to make us happy?
In the following days, I struggled with these questions and could come up with only one solution I could make within my understanding of who God is, and who He wants me to be: I would have to give up hope. My hopes for marriage, for Jon, for the way I thought relationships ought to be and what “love” ought to look like. I would have to lay down my desires and expectations. I would have to truly accept my marriage, and Jon, for exactly what they were instead of what I thought I wanted them to be. I would have to make thankfulness for what is a part of my daily routine, rather than constantly striving for change. Sure, I could divorce my husband and go chasing rainbows somewhere else, but no matter where I went or who I found I’d be taking my own flawed, human self with me and “Mr. Perfect-Until-I-Got-To-Know-Him-Better” would, too. I’d be trading current problems (and standards, and expectations) for new ones, while irrevocably destroying precious, beloved parts of my life in the process. Instead, I asked myself the cliche question “what if this is as good as it gets?” and determined to find a way to “thrive despite” … or maybe even “because of.”
After speaking with a friend about what I was going through, I wrote the following:
I feel like I have to let go of my desire for a lot of things that I want and expect from a marriage because they’re never going to happen. But in the same way that I have to believe it’s possible to be happy no matter what my circumstances are, I also have to believe that a good marriage – a fulfilling marriage – IS possible. So I think… I think I’m going to spend some time in prayer today.
Today, I’m going to pray for my marriage. I’m going to pray that God does absolutely whatever he has to do to break whatever destructive, harmful, sinful things [have led us to this place]…
But I’ll only pray this once.
I’ll only be able to pray this once.
Because I really do believe that in order to heal, in order to move forward I must – MUST – lay down my expectations for my marriage. I have to somehow give up expectation without giving up hope and the only way I know how to do that is to allow myself to hope, allow myself to pray, allow myself to believe. ONCE.
And then lay it down. (And keep laying it down, and keep laying it down, and keep laying it down because I don’t believe this is going to be a one-time deal.) And let Him, if He chooses to do so, do the rest.
Since then, I’ve come to discover an interesting thing about expectations. You can’t hold expectations in one hand and thankfulness in the other. At least, I can’t. Not in this. I’ve kept my commitment to strive to be thankful for what is, instead of striving to make things the way I think ought to be, and an interesting change has taken place. It’s becoming easier to find things to be thankful for (and there really is so, SO much to be thankful for!) I find myself less critical, not just outwardly, but inwardly as well. I’m less angry, less irritable, less likely to inflict wounds with my words and more content, in general. (An interesting thought to explore would be whether there is a correlation between the number of things we try to be thankful for and the number of things there actually are to be thankful for. It seems to me that the more we do of the first, the more there are of the second.) I sense a settling within myself, a peace as I make the effort to cease looking to Jon and my marriage as a source of happiness. Interestingly, though, I feel my marriage has gotten better, although I wasn’t seeking that. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that my marriage hasn’t really changed at all, but, similar to what happened last year, I have. I’m beginning to understand, just a little, what Paul meant when he wrote: “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.“
This may be an education that requires multiple lessons, but for now, in this moment, I am learning.
“The first purpose in marriage- beyond happiness, sexual expression, the bearing of children, companionship, mutual care and provision, or anything else – is to please God. The challenge, of course, is that it is utterly selfless living; rather than asking, “what will make me happy?’ we are told that we must ask, ‘what will make God happy?’ [Paul writes]: ‘those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again’ (2 cor 5:15)… Happiness may well be beyond [us] but spiritual maturity isn’t – and I value character far above my emotional disposition.”
– Gary Thomas, Sacred Marriage