As time goes by, life reveals itself to be less than idealistic. This is evident not only in our careers & ministries, but also in our marriages. As more and more of my friends find that things that once worked are no longer working, I feel a deep sadness. I have mourned for the passing of marriages even when I’m not sure its protagonists have. I am a deep believer in the sanctity of marriage. A dear friend once asked me if I was committed to Chris himself, or committed to The Marriage. I had to answer, “Both.” I believe that marriage (and in fact any long-term relationship) should be guarded against interlopers, maintained against dilapidation, treasured by its members, and growing as those members evolve. You have to keep making the choice to proactively focus on the good in your partner, because drift is the enemy (particularly in distracted seasons such as the birth of a baby). In a sense you have to practice love, rehearse it, talk yourself back into it when drift begins. It’s not good enough to say “I no longer love you”, because whose fault is that? Marriages on the brink can and should be saved. But not at any cost.
When one party leaves, it’s tempting for the bereft party to say, “I’ll do anything – just stay!” But there are some things you should NEVER do to save your marriage.
You should never agree to be abused.
There is no excuse for one party to habitually hit, kick, belittle, scream at, or take literal pot shots at the other. A marriage may be saved if the party who does these things gets help and ceases to do them; but nobody should ever be required to live with that behaviour unchecked, as if it were normal, or “just their way”, or worse, “somehow my fault”. And when I say “habitually”, it must be recognised that while one incident may be an aberration, two is the formation of a habit. Abuse is not your lot. It is evil. Don’t put up with it.
You should never agree to submerge large parts of your identity.
I’m not talking about forsaking sin or working on our weaknesses. We all have many areas of our lives which hurt and impact others, which can be gradually eliminated if we are determined to become better people (“I’m too argumentative – God help me, I will learn to listen.”). What I am talking about, is the vibrant woman who is compressed into shades of beige every day. Or the visionary man who is constantly slammed back down to prosaic earth. I’m talking about “I must turn into someone completely different, if this is to work.” No. That price is too high. If they need you to be someone completely different, they might as well BE with someone completely different. You are created to be you.
I’m also not talking about the “seasons” thing. There are seasons in a marriage where a talkative wife needs to shut up and let her husband think his way through his midlife crisis. But she shouldn’t be made to shut up indefinitely. There are seasons when a man needs to hold down a boring job to stabilise the family, before he can launch one of his dreams with its full support. Yet he shouldn’t assume, being stuck in that job for now, that God never really spoke to him. These are temporary measures – not a denial of who we are. When the Bible talks about denying ourselves and taking up our cross, I believe it means not a negating of all that we’re created to be and achieve, but a submitting of the small stuff that clogs our spiritual and energetic arteries. And it means being willing to follow Christ’s leading, even into danger, rather than be self-seeking. (Lynne Hybels says it well in Nice Girls Don’t Change The World – among many other fantastic insights). We submit to one another turn by turn, but we ultimately submit to God, who fondly says, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” We each have a calling to be a unique son or daughter of the Lord, and usually, a further calling as well, which should also be developed in season.
You should never agree to isolation.
You might be a quiet person who finds company tiring, but avoid getting cut off from help, advice, support, comparison. One of the marks of a dysfunctional system is the No Talk Rule. If you and your partner have something between you so terrible you must never divulge it to outsiders … well. Make your own choice about silence, but don’t burn your bridges to the rest of the world. Let help be readily accessible, even if you never call on it. My advice, though, is to call on it. Sometimes we don’t know we’re living with dysfunction until we ask someone else what their norm is. Consultation is life’s Metamucil – “there’s a better kind of normal!” Even if only one of you is getting help – that’s way ahead of none!
Incidentally – getting help is a sign of strength, not weakness. A university student isn’t weak because they enrol in a course to learn how to perform in a given career. Similarly, a human being isn’t weak because they seek counselling to learn how to better perform in life and relationship. Counselling is awesome. You stop feeling alone and begin to feel equipped.
If you’re uncomfortable with talking, try reading. I recommend Emerson Eggerichs’ book Love & Respect … it turns out that men & women have different needs – who knew?! It’s even better than John Gray’s Mars & Venus.
You should never agree to turn a blind eye.
One party should not be doing all the losing, or all the gaining. John C. Maxwell says in Talent Is Never Enough, “When one of you is always getting the better in the relationship – changes must be made.” It is totally unreasonable, for instance, for the leaving party to say, “I’ll stay if you’ll let me continue my affair/drug habit/tax fraud/neglect of the family unchallenged.” When infidelity is the issue, make your call on what you will and won’t live with. What sort of marriage are you saving, if there are three or more people in it? Is it the sort of family life you want to model for your kids – would you accept this for them if it were happening in their marriages? (Are you worth less than them?) And when safety is an issue – or even long-term wellbeing – come down on the side of common sense. You are not saving anything by failing to help save your erring partner. You could save his or her life with an ultimatum, even if the marriage itself is not saved. You can’t always force someone to get help, but you can force them to take the issue seriously. So in the end, it might come down again to my friend’s question of “which do you love more, the person or the institution?”. It’s a tough call I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
We’re all making tough calls in this nebulous thing called Love. I wish you all God’s very best, and I have butchered the high horse I rode in on.