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H. NORMAN WRIGHT is a licensed marriage, family and child therapist who was in private practice for more than 40 years. He is currently the Research Professor of Christian Education at Talbot School of Theology, where he has taught graduate students in counseling and psychology for four decades. Dr. Wright is the author of more than 70 books, Gold Medallion Award.
Why did you marry? Can you remember back to that time when your life was filled with dreams, expectations and hopes for the future? What part did marriage play in those dreams and hopes? What did you expect from marriage? Perhaps your answer includes one or more of the following:
• I wanted to share my life experiences with someone.
• I wanted someone to help make me happy.
• I wanted to spend my life with someone I loved and with someone who loved me.
• I wanted to fulfill what I lacked in my own home.
• I wanted to be faithful to God and love someone He wanted me to love.
• I didn't want to end up alone, especially when I was older. Marriage was that security.
All of these are fringe benefits of marriage, but none is strong enough to stand as its foundation.
Many people are propelled toward marriage without really understanding all they are committing themselves to for the rest of their lives. That's why couples experience surprises and upsets throughout the duration of their marriage.
Various writers have given definitions of "Christian marriage." Wayne Oates says: "Marriage is a covenant of responsible love, a fellowship of repentance and forgiveness."
David Augsburger defines marriage by first asking, "Is marriage a private action of two persons in love, or a public act of two pledging a contract?" Then he goes on to say, "Neither. It is something other. Very much other!"
Basically the Christian view of marriage is not that it is primarily or even essentially a binding legal and social contract. The Christian understands marriage as a covenant made under God and in the presence of fellow members of the Christian family. Such a pledge endures, not because the force of law or the fear of its sanctions, but because an unconditional covenant has been made. A covenant more solemn, more binding, more permanent than any legal contract.
Some psychologists, marriage counselors and ministers have suggested that marriage is a contract, and many people are quick to agree. But is this really true?
In every contract there are certain conditional clauses. A contract between two parties, whether they are companies or individuals, involves the responsibility of both parties to carry out their part of the bargain. These are conditional clauses-if clauses (if you do this, the other person must do this). There are no conditional clauses in the marriage relationship and the marriage ceremony. The marriage ceremony vows do not state, "If the husband loves his wife, then the wife continues in the contract." Or, "If the wife is submissive to her husband, then the husband carries out the contract." Marriage is an unconditional commitment into which two people enter.
In most contracts there are escape clauses. An escape clause says that if the party of the first part does not carry out his responsibilities, then the party of the second part is absolved. If one person does not live up to his or her part of the bargain, the second person can get out of the contract. In marriage, there is no escape clause.
Then if marriage is not a contract, what is it? It is an unconditional commitment into which a man and woman enter for life.
What Makes Marriage Last
Commitment means many things to different people. For some, the strength of their commitment varies with how they feel emotionally or physically. The word "commit" is a verb that means to do or to perform. It is not based primarily on feelings. It is a binding pledge or promise. It is a private pledge you also make publicly. It is a pledge carried out to completion, no matter the roadblocks. It is a total giving of one's self to another person. Yes, it is risky, but it makes life fulfilling.
Commitment requires you to give up the childish dream of being unconditionally accepted by your partner and expecting that partner to fulfill all your needs and make up for all your childhood disappointments. It means that you expect to be disappointed by your partner at times and that you learn to accept this and not use it as a reason to pull the plug.
Perhaps a better way to describe commitment is to compare it to bungee jumping. If you've ever taken the plunge, you know that when you take that step off the platform, you are committed to follow through. There's no more time to think it over or change your mind. There's no turning back.
A friend of mine shared with me what has made his marriage last. He said, "Norm, we each had a commitment to each other and to the marriage. When our commitment to each other was low, it was the commitment to the marriage that kept us together."
To some people, commitment to another person until death seems idealistic. They are committed when it suits them and they're not inconvenienced. But when certain problems occur, commitment is no longer valid.
Commitment is more than maintaining; it is more than continuing to stick it out and suffer with a poor choice of a spouse. Commitment is investing-working to make the relationship grow. It's not about just accepting and tolerating a spouse's negative and destructive patterns of relating; it means working toward change. It means sticking to someone regardless of circumstances. Listen to one wife's story.
In 1988, I was diagnosed with Epstein-Barr virus (chronic fatigue syndrome). It really changed my life, which had been filled with excitement and vibrancy. My husband, Kelly, has stood with me and become my protector through these years of adjustment. He has taken care of our family when my strength would not allow me. He has held my hand through depression, including ten days in the hospital. He has insisted I get needed rest, even if it put more of a burden on him. He has paid the price of any hopeful cure we have found, no matter the cost. He has been more than a husband, he has been my best friend-a friend that has stayed closer than any family member. He was my knight in shining armor when I met him and he has proven to be so throughout our 14 1/2 years of marriage. I sometimes tell him that he has been my salvation, because I don't know that I would still be going on if it weren't for his strength. I don't know that I would still walk with the Lord if it were not for his encouragement. Knowing him has been the greatest experience in my life.
When Life Changes
There will be ups and downs throughout the life of a marriage. There will be massive changes-some predictable and others intrusive-that hold the potential for growth as well as risk. Many marriages die because too many people choose to ignore the inescapable fact that relationships and people change.
A wife shared the following about dealing with the risk as well as the potential for growth:
Since we have been married fifty years, you can just imagine how much change we have gone through: three wars, eleven presidents, five recessions, going from the Model-A [automobile] to the moon, from country roads to the information superhighway. While these changes around us have been great, the personal changes that God has enacted within us through each other have been even greater. Although we often couldn't see how God was working in our lives at that time, we look back now and realize that our marriage has been a school of character development. God has used my husband in my life and He's used me in his life to make us more like Christ. So what are the lessons we've learned about how God uses marriage to change us? There are many. Through fifty years of marriage we've learned that differences develop us, that crises cultivate us and that ministry melts us together.
First, God has used our differences to help us grow. There have been many, many crises that God has used to develop us and to grow us. The first one was the big one-the crisis of being separated as soon as we got married. Ours was a wartime romance. We met at church, dated two months and got married after three weeks of engagement; and just after two months of marriage, we didn't see each other for the next two years when Jimmy was shipped to the South Pacific during World War II. When he returned, we were total strangers, but we were married to each other!
How would you have handled that situation?
I think the following comments by a wife illustrate the lifelong expression of love and commitment.
Real life death scenes aren't like the movies. My husband, too tall for a regulation bed, lay with his feet sticking out of the covers. I stood clinging to his toes as though that would save his life. I clung so that if I failed to save him from falling off the cliff of the present, of the here and now, we'd go together. That's how it was in the netherworld of the intensive care unit....
It seemed that the entire world had turned into night. Cold and black. No place you'd volunteer to enter. Doctors tried to be kind. Their eyes said, "This is out of our hands. There's nothing more we can do."
A nurse with a soft Jamaican lilt [to her voice] placed a pink blanket over my shoulders. Someone whispered, "It's just a matter of minutes."
Just a matter of minutes to tell each other anything we had ever forgotten to say. Just a few minutes to take an accounting of our days together. Had we loved well enough?
God's Perspective of Marriage
What does God's Word say about marriage? Genesis 2:18-25 (RSV) teaches that marriage was God's idea and that He had several divine purposes in mind.
Then the Lord God said, "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him." So out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper fit for him. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh; and the rib which the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man." Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.
God created marriage for companionship. As John Milton observed, "Loneliness was the first thing God's eye named not good." Loneliness and isolation are contradictions to the purpose in God's creative act. God made man to live with others, and the first other was woman.
When God said it wasn't good for man to be alone, He meant that in every way it wasn't good.
It wasn't good physically; there was no partner.
It wasn't good emotionally; there was no one to share with.
It wasn't good spiritually.
God also created marriage for completeness. The woman was to be "a helper fit for him" (v. 18). The woman assists man in making his life (and hers) complete. She fills up the empty places. She shares his life with him and draws him out of himself into a wider area of contact through the involvement they have with one another. She is one who can enter into responsible companionship. The partners in a marriage relationship are actually fulfilling God's purpose of completeness, or wholeness, in life.
The companionship and completeness God intended for marriage grow out of communication as two people share each day the meaning of their lives. As Dwight Small says, "The heart of marriage is its communication system.... But no couple begins marriage with highly developed communication. It is not something they bring into marriage ready, but something to be continually cultivated through all the experiences of their shared life." Satisfying companionship and a sense of completeness develop as husband and wife learn to communicate with openness and understanding. Andre M. Aurois is credited with saying that a happy marriage is a long conversation that always seems too short. What about it? How do you relate to that statement?
When you exchanged your wedding vows, the words "leave" and "cleave" became part of your life. Did you understand these words? To leave means to sever one relationship before establishing another. This does not mean that you disregard your parents. Rather, it requires that you break your tie to them and assume responsibility for your spouse.
To cleave means to weld together. When a man cleaves to his wife, they become one flesh. This term is a beautiful capsule description of the oneness, completeness and permanence that God intended in the marriage relationship. It suggests a unique oneness-a total commitment to intimacy in all of life together, symbolized by the sexual union.
Years ago I heard a choice description of the coming together involved in cleaving. If you hold a lump of dark green clay in one hand and a lump of light green clay in the other hand, you can clearly identify the two different shades of color. However, when you mold the two lumps together, at first glance you see just one lump of green clay. When you inspect the lump closely you see the distinct and separate lines of dark and light green clay.
This is a picture of your marriage relationship. The two of you are blended together so that you appear as one, yet each of you retains your distinct identity and personality. But now you have a marriage personality that exists in the two of you.
A Christian marriage involves more than the blending of two people. It also includes a third person-Jesus Christ-who gives meaning, guidance and direction to the relationship. When He presides in a marriage, then and only then is it a Christian marriage.
Since your wedding, how have you handled leaving your parents? How have you become one flesh with your spouse, coming together and yet retaining who you are as individuals? Why not talk about it?
What's Your Plan?
Think back to the time before you were married.
Excerpted from COMMUNICATION KEY TO YOUR MARRIAGE by H. NORMAN WRIGHT Copyright © 2000 by H. Norman Wright
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.