High on my list of values sits “having a strong and healthy marriage”. Yet I know so little about what it takes to create it. I believe my own marriage is pretty good (not pretty good as in “meh, okay” but pretty good as in pretty darn good). I know many couples who seem to have a fire of affection for one another even amid toddlers. I watch my cousins live out marriages that support their partners and offer one another a kind of trust and freedom that I don’t see in other places. My parents and in-laws have set before us a model of faithfulness and love. I can spot good marriages, I just can’t prescribe them.
I see these relationships and deem them good from the outside. Yet I know my own from the inside and and wonder, “is this what it’s supposed to look like? Am I doing it right?” I watch other marriages from afar (like the one across the street) and wonder what happened 2 years ago that set them on this course?
While digging around in the gospels, I only find Jesus telling us how hard marriage really is. The pharisees questioned him on divorce and after Jesus gives his two cents the disciples decide that perhaps it’s better to not even get married at all. What a resounding endorsement for our fine institution.
I turned to the Old Testament to find the original writ of divorce came up empty. (It could be there. I was using a lackluster concordance.) I did, however, read some legal footnotes in Deuteronomy 24. Here Moses says that if a man divorces his woman because she is “displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her” (we’ll call that roomy when it comes to interpretation) the she’s free to marry another man. But if she ends up back on the market – due to divorce or death of her second spouse – her first husband cannot marry her. It’s detestable.
I have a hard time believing that love redeemed is detestable. But you know what is? A heart so wrapped up in finding the best thing out there that he misses the gift in his own bedroom. Yet once another man validates her worth, he decides “yes, why, she is quite wonderful, isn’t she?”
If you’re looking for the best spouse on the block, you can stop looking. I married him. JJ is patient when I’m flighty and grounded when I have my head in the clouds. He loves me when I’m pregnant and miserable and making everyone else miserable. When I feel like I’m drowning he pushes me toward dry ground. When it comes to my fears in marriage, very little sits on his shoulders.
What scares the bejebus out of me is the fact that he cannot save me from my own sin*. No amount of love or devotion that he can offer me will ever give me the 100% guarantee that I’ll stop looking for approval somewhere else. Our nature seems to be bent toward gratifying our own desires (which might be why adultery seems to be the highest risk factor of divorce), and I’m no different than the rest of humankind. That thought, no matter how great the marriage, is sobering. Even the best marriage cannot keep me from my temptation to put myself first.
Instead, I must look to my responsibility for self-control. I have to wonder if adultery is the heightened version of a life already living for self-gratification, which seems to be the real problem. If so, far fewer marriages hit the rocks because of another woman and many more crack from the weight of getting what we want or the belief that we always should.
Marriage provides me an opportunity to practice daily the act of loving others as I love myself. When I stop looking at marriage as a way to fulfill me and begin to see it as a way to live with and love another, then I find myself fulfilled. But not without a lot of hard work and eating a little humble pie now and then. I suppose the key to happiness in marriage is finding a person who will lovingly wipe away those crumbs rather than shoving your face into a fuller bite.
*Sorry to use theological words. It’s the best term I could muster.