This week I found out that two acquaintances of mine, both of whom are in their mid-20’s, are headed for divorce in their respective marriages. Neither marriage, so far as I know, has any children on the way, and neither marriage appears to have lasted very long at all (a year or two at most). What lessons can we learn from such disastrous ‘starter’ marriages?
I am not married myself, nor have I ever been. As the child of an ugly divorce and the recipient of more than my share of comments from both of my parents about the failures and inadequacies of both sides (I happen to believe both of them had just and legitimate complaints against the other), I have not been in a particular hurry for matrimony, desiring to be as sure as possible about the fitness of the relationship and my own readiness for the state, and having had a general rarity of opportunities in general for me to ever have been close to marriage myself yet. Nonetheless, I have given the subject a great deal of thought, and while it pains me to see so many of my peers make a mess out of matrimony, I can’t say that it surprises me very much.
Marriage is one of two lifelong covenants that most people make during the course of their young adulthood. The other is baptism. Both of them are covenants made before human (and divine) witnesses. Both of them include certain contracts, including “till death do us part,” and both of them begin with beautiful ceremonies and then dive into hard and often unpleasant work as one realizes the price of one’s commitment to God and men. There is no easy way to put it honestly: when you marry you are making a covenant oath before God that you are willing to stay with this person for better or worse, in sickness and health, for richer or poorer, until death do you part. To break such an oath makes you a traitor before the eyes of God. And, to be fair, we can break our oath of marriage both by splitting up or by committing actions that destroy the bond of intimacy within marriage (such as adultery and abuse).
But a great many marriages fail without reaching that drastic level of unacceptable behavior. Many marriages fail because people may want the happy scene of a wedding, but have not counted the cost or ensured their own commitment to working through the inevitable problems of making two separate lives become one harmonious union, or ensuring their own commitment to the person they have chosen to love and cherish and honor ’till death do they part. Don’t people take the words seriously? Don’t they think about what they are doing, or what they are about? Sadly, it appears that this is not the case often.
There are many bad reasons to get married to someone. People get married because they get caught up in infatuation with someone and want a legal and moral sex partner. Some people want an escape from a bad family background, not realizing that if one hasn’t gotten rid of your own baggage, it will harm any relationship that one is in. People might want the romance of a wedding but haven’t considered a lifetime of dealing with the thousand little vexations about life with someone else–like how late they stay up on the computer (instead of snuggling with you on the couch to watch a sappy romantic movie), or how they fold their towels, or how they leave their dirty clothes in piles on the floor, or how they tend to be snappy and sarcastic when upset or stressed out.
While dating most of us are on good behavior. We put our best face forward in the attempt to woo someone. And they are putting on their best face too, because almost no one wants to be alone and miserable with their cats or their girlie magazines. As a result of our initial desire to make things work, we miss a lot of important details in knowing people for who they really are. Most people, men and women, are far more considerate of others in dating than in marriage. Letting yourself go is more than just a matter of looks (though that is a part of the problem too). I suppose few of us want to see other people as they are, or want others to see us as we are, because we often simply want to be wanted more than we want to be loved for who we really are.
As a result of this natural bent towards deceiving ourselves and others, we fail to engage in the very important act of vetting. We settle all too easily rather than really doing our due diligence on whether the people we are getting ready to promise lifelong commitment to are really going to be good for us (or whether we are good for them). All too often we come to ministers looking not for counsel and advice on what we need to work on to make a long-term marriage work, by facing up to potential problems early, while we have the maximum motivation to work on them openly and sincerely, but merely for a rubber stamp on what we have already (perhaps mistakenly) decided.
But these have always been problems. Many cultures have a history of arranged marriages where partners little know each other before marriage. And yet there was a certain amount of commitment to make things work that is often lacking in today’s marriages. To be blunt, many people lack resilience. Most of us don’t have the personal strength to fight through trials and disappointment; instead we cut and run. Someone has health problems that affect their personality and make them different from the person that one married and fell in love with? Then one’s marriage is in jeopardy. Heaven forbid that we be able to handle changes beyond one’s control. Someone expects love and loyalty and doesn’t like someone going out with one’s single “girlfriends” to bars to flirt all the time? Such a person is obviously not the fun person one dated and married. Clearly.
We have to recognize that a marriage is a change in state–we go from people thinking and concerned only with ourselves to people who are focused on making a partnership work. As someone looking for a wife, I am looking for a partner in our shared enterprises, far beyond merely sexual partnership to such matters as intellectual and economic partnership for the greater mutual good. And I would assume that anyone considering me as a husband would be thinking about such factors as standard of living, and emotional compatibility and ability to handle conflicts without violence. I would expect nothing less of the sort of sensible woman I would want to marry. And this is even more serious if and when one has children, because then one has to think of how one is going to pass on one’s own family culture on to the next generation. Both marriage and parenthood require that one put aside one’s own selfish neediness and consider the best interests and success and happiness of others. We are ill-equipped for that sort of outer-directed focus in our present culture.
And the results are obvious. Because we lack resilience, because we lack prior planning, and because we lack the emotional maturity to consider the needs of our people and have a sense of duty and responsibility to others, we cannot form lasting and trusting relationships. We can’t have good marriages without being mature and responsible people ourselves. I certainly see in myself some areas that need work before I’m fit for a lifelong marriage, but I have a good idea what those weaknesses are, and hope for the opportunities and the resources to fix them. If you’re not even working on such matters, how can one be prepared for the shock of ending one’s glorious honeymoon vacation to the reality of someone who lives like a slob or ends up being a whiny nag when she doesn’t get her way instead of the sweet purring kitten or gentlemanly stud that one dated for years. The result is a lot of marriages that break up for reasons of folly and immaturity rather than abuse and treachery. And once we get in the habit of cutting and running from difficult relationships, it’s a hard habit to break. It only gets easier with practice. With all of this, it’s a miracle that any marriages last at all these days.