I've come to the conclusion as to why most people have superficial marriages.
Okay, so this is not a profound epiphany, and I know I've reached this conclusion at various stages in my marriage, but I was reminded, once again, that communication takes work. Usually, when you hear someone say, "Communication takes work," your mind probably goes to "talking takes work", but the truth is, talking is the easiest part of it. What is difficult is truly listening and accepting what your spouse has to say, especially when he is addressing character flaws.
It's even worse when you know you have these flaws but have been attempting to fix them (and hide them in the process).
I've been reading a book by Gary Thomas titled Sacred Marriage which hits upon this very topic. He points out that marriage, like the process of Christianity, is to lead us towards sanctification. "Marriage certainly has it's challenges," Thomas writes, "but when these are faced head-on, our marriage can nurture our devotional lives in enriching ways. One of the ways is by unmasking our sin and our hurtful attitudes and thus leading us into the spirit of humility. [...] What marriage has done for me is hold up a mirror to my sin. It forces me to face myself honestly and consider my character flaws, selfishness, and anti-Christian attitudes, encouraging me to be sanctified and cleansed and to grow in godliness."
In their book The First Two Years of Marriage, the Harts point out, "Sometimes what is hard to take in the first years of marriage is not what we find out about our partner, but what we find out about ourselves. As one young woman who had been married about a year said, 'I've always thought of myself as a patient and forgiving person. Then I began to wonder if that was just because I had never before gotten close to anyone. In marriage, when John and I began... dealing with differences, I saw how small and unforgiving I could be. I discovered a hardness in me I had never experienced before."
Speaking for myself, I know that, in the first three years of marriage, whenever I felt provoked to anger and hatred, I blamed my husband. I saw how "he" had changed me into this person I hated, and then I realized he hadn't changed me into this person- it was there all along. There are very few people in our lives that we completely open every personal crevice of our lives to. Even those of us who dated around do not fully experience this- although we may experience outrage and anger, it's completely different when we join lives with someone, exposing intimate parts of ourselves- not just our body, but our routine, our reactions, and who we really are when we aren't trying to impress or woo.
I realized I wasn't that great of a person. I realized that I was very hard on my husband, but very lenient on myself. I allowed myself to get away with bad behavior, but looked down and berated my husband for similar attitudes and actions (moreso inwardly than outwardly- I would criticize him more than I should have, but a lot of it I kept to myself, allowing myself to stew and grow bitter).
I find that we are all like this- and having been able to peep into the windows of certain marriages, I realize even more how much of a double standard there is. Maybe the reason we are so hard on our spouses for certain behaviors is because we know we are guilty of the same.
I have friends who tear their husbands up and down for their unfaithfulness, yet have also been unfaithful. They complain that they cannot trust their spouse, yet, if the same standards were held up to them, their spouses should not be able to trust them either.
Why is it we cannot give our spouses the grace and mercy that we so often give ourselves? Is it because we are ashamed, or because we don't want our spouses to know that we too are capable of doing things that are sinful and wrong and hurtful?
One of my favorite excerpts from the book is this, "It is unrealistic to assume that the initial pledge of marital fidelity will be an 'easy' one to keep. Otto Piper points out that 'there is always an element of mistrust implied in the marriage contract.' The reason we promise to love each other 'till death do us part' is precisely because our society knows that such a promise will be sorely tried--otherwise, the promise wouldn't be necessary! We don't make public promises that we will regularly nourish our bodies with food or buy ourselves adequate clothing. Everyone who enters the marriage relationship will come to a point where the marriage starts to 'rub' somewhat adversely. It is for these times that the promise is made. Anticipating struggle, God has ordained a remedy, holding us to our word of commitment."
"If there is one thing young engaged couples need to hear, it's that a good marriage is not something you find, it's something you work for. It takes struggle. You must crucify your selfishness. You must confront, and at other times confess. The practice of forgiveness is essential."
Brandon and I were discussing some of these things as we read our nightly couples devotional. The devotional caused us to ask some hard questions of ourselves, questions I would have much rather avoided and just gone to bed, but I know, by avoiding them, we would have missed out on a greater blessing.
Confrontation and criticism is never an easy pill to swallow. When we see our mistakes and our wrongs laid out before us, even in the most gentlest of ways, we immediately feel like sweeping them under the rug. When Brandon pointed out a few of my flaws he felt like I needed to work on (and, he acknowledged that he had noticed I had been working on them over the last few weeks), I felt so exposed.
I feel this is why it is so important for us to have this time every evening to discuss our lives together. It's much easier to take bits and pieces of constructive criticism than to have it bottled up and poured over your head one day. I know, because that's exactly how it use to be. We would try to "hold back" and instead, we would end up saving up all of our complaints- and little issues, which could have easily been address and fixed without much of a fuss, became big, festering sores- and when we finally got to a point where all of it came out (usually in the middle of a big argument), it wasn't constructive at all. We were more focused on beating each other up and making sure the other person had more flaws on their sheet than we did.
And who really hears much of what is said, or honestly takes it to heart, when sins, mistakes, and flaws are approached in that matter?
It's definitely much easier and gentler to have these daily discussions. It's not that we always have constructive criticism or correction for each other every day- we don't- but sometimes.... often, really.... as we go through our devotionals, we personally realize our own short comings and confess and apologize. Other days, we just have interesting conversations which lead us deeper into the Word of God.
Lately, more than ever in my life, God has really been beating me over the head with one word:
When I first began my real walk with God, I realized that life- my spirituality- wasn't really about me at all. It's about God. It was a bigger shock when I learned my marriage wasn't about me either. This is the reason so many marriages fail- we make it about us. Think about it- the reason we pursued the relationship was because it made us feel good. We may have done nice things for our mate, but it usually was tied to the fact that doing nice things for our mate made us feel good, made them love us more.
The following lesson has been a difficult one for me to learn and follow because it's against my self-serving human nature. Selflessness isn't just doing things for other people- it's doing things for other people even when we don't feel like it.
The bible tells us to offer a sacrifice of praise to God- and this use to strike me as such a funny phrase. "Sacrifice of Praise?" Really? Then I realized that God expects me to praise Him all the time, not only when I feel happy and satisfied, but even when I don't feel like praising, even when I feel down, sick, or upset.... even when things are not going my way. That means I have to sacrifice my own feelings and look at the other side of things.
Marriage is the same way. So often this week there have been things I have not felt like doing, but about a month ago, I made a vow that I would take on a servants attitude and would serve my spouse whether I felt like it or not. I would make anticipate his needs, make preparation for those things I knew he appreciated, and do what he asked. I would try to do it on his time, instead of my own!
I'm a big procrastinator, so this was a huge struggle for me. There are also things I really hate to do that Brandon really likes to be done, and I will avoid them like the plague, and then get upset that he's upset with me, even though I accomplished many other things (but, obviously, avoided the thing that meant most to him, or that he asked me to do).
I am really good at justifying things as well. I'll do what I want and then relax- telling myself "I deserve it", or giving some other excuse as to why I shouldn't just continue to work hard. Not that I cannot have a time of rest or nap, but I need to be productive, instead of making excuses and leaving things undone that could have very well been accomplished in a days work.
So, needless to say, this month has been a huge struggle for me- sometimes it's been easy going, especially when I have the energy or feel motivated, but a lot of times I just want to kick back and do enough to get by. Yes, folks, at the very heart of this gal is a lazy, lazy person.
Anyway, last week, I wrote Brandon a letter- thanking and praising him for all he is and has done, and telling him of my vow.... not to make myself look good (because, really, it makes me look bad... as I have had a hard time keeping that vow at times over this last month!), but to have him help me be accountable.
I know that he could very well take advantage of me, but the more I give, even when he knows I don't feel like giving, the more appreciative of me he is.
One thing I have noticed these last few weeks is that our level of intimacy has gone up several notches. I feel like a "young whippersnapper". It reminds me of those days when we didn't want to be apart, when were constantly snuggling and kissing.
It really feels great to desire my spouse, and the more I serve him (I'm not just talking about in bed) without thinking about what I'm going to get out of it, the more my love grows for him, and the more LOVED I feel.
It's been an amazing journey. I always feel like I'm learning something new and growing in my marriage- and now I understand why. God uses our marriages to teach us lessons. Our marriages are often mirrors of God's/Jesus' relationship with us. I mean, just look at the children of Israel. They were back and forth with God- often unfaithful, often complaining.... and then there would be times of intense "romance", where they came back to God and they were lavished with gifts.
And while the process has been painful at times, the outcome is preferred. I am SO grateful for my marriage- you all know all- I'm constantly thanking God for what he has done in our lives. I feel so blessed to be where I am, and I know that with God... anything is possible. That's why I ache when I see people's marriages breaking down... because I remember how that feels, and I know how God can turn it all around. Sometimes, I think to myself, "God, how can this get any better? How could I possibly love my husband more than I do now," and then... He shows me, and I'm amazed!