Is there anything better than the excitement of the early dating period with someone that makes you feel like you are walking on air? I loved dating my wife and then the adventure of those first years of marriage, but, as I glance up from writing this blog at Joanne after over thirty years together, I know that right now is something profoundly better that I am lucky enough to experiencing. I love and appreciate my wife so much more now because I have begun to understand what both marriage and true love really are. Okay, so I may be a slow learner but I can tell you that it is a great feeling to be excited about the next thirty years of sharing this journey with the woman I love, my best friend and my partner for life.
There seems to be a leeriness today about getting married. Will it work out? How can I know for sure? Will I be fulfilled? People are delaying commitment or start living together in efforts to be sure that there are no surprises. Despite proposing to Joanne after only three months and saying the words “I do” exactly one year from our first date, I am a proponent of finding the right person that you can share core values with and to grow and change with instead of apart. I also think that we can kid ourselves that we will know everything about our future spouse or that the type of love that will bind us is the “feeling of love” that attracted us in the first place. It is a good idea for any couple getting married, or for those who have already tied the knot, to know what exactly they are getting into with this marriage deal. I think there are four key characteristics of marriage that are important to recognize and nurture together.
Permanence: One of the most important aspects of and keys to a true marriage is its permanence – a vow and commitment to each other for life, without knowing what is before you – for better or worse, in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, until death do you part. Without losing the dignity of each individual, two persons have made a sincere gift of themselves to each other and become one, to love and honor each other as husband and wife no matter what comes. This close and intimate relationship can so profoundly influence your whole life, through hopes and disappointments, successes and failures, pleasures and pains, joys and sorrows that are hidden from your eyes. Once we put conditions on a marriage or allow the possibility of divorce, it changes the entire character of the marriage. (Please note that couples that get “married” without a true commitment or are in a dangerous or abusive relationship may not be truly married and not always healthy to remain physically together.) One of the beauties of a committed relationship for life that is based on sincere unconditional love for each other is that each person can be completely vulnerable. They can, maybe for the first time in life, truly let down all their guards, and reveal all that they are, no matter how ugly, and know that they will be still loved and will not be abandoned. We can begin to see and experience our true selves through the loving eyes of another that will not reject us. How much of our lives is spent creating protective walls of armor to protect our true selves from being hurt or rejected. Marriage is the place that we can freely rest in the love for who we truly are and then grow. This is a profound gift we can also give back to our spouse.
Partnership: In my wedding band, Joanne inscribed the works “To my best friend 9-13-86.” That meant a lot to me that she believed I was her best friend. She hasn’t thought that every day of our marriage (sometimes quite the opposite) but we know that there is no perfect marriage and it is often hard to really love. True friends understand true love and learn to love when the feelings are not there. It sounds less romantic than the feelings that come from infatuation and desire but there is a deeper beauty to love that is an act of the will to truly want the best or the good for the other – as other and not for anything in return. Marriage and friendship are a journey to a deeper kind of love. It is important not to go into marriage for what you will get out of it but in a voluntary and complete surrender of your individual life, an unreserved gift of self-sacrificing love for the other. It sounds hard and almost like you are losing something but marriage and friendship give each one of us the opportunity to find our true selves ironically through a sincere gift of self to other. At first, giving generously of one’s self can be difficult, love can make it easier and bearable, and perfect love can make it a joy. One of the biggest things we learned at a Marriage Encounter Weekend that we attended was a technique of writing how we felt about a specific topic and then having the other person read what we wrote. The key was for the reader to be able to let the other person know that they were truly understood. There are few things as powerful in feeling seen, heard and understood. It allows us to listen to each other in a deeper way and see how much it means to the other.
Faithfulness: As I mentioned, being vulnerable with each other is being intimate and gives you access to who you really are. Exposing who you are instead of who someone thinks you are is a risk. Real love is a risk. We are not called to become who the other person wants us to be but who we were created to be. That is what a true friend will desire for us as well. We need to trust each other deeply and make each other feel safe so that when the storms come, the relationship will last, when we do hurt each other, we can forgive and become stronger. We have to ask the question: “Is there anything my spouse could reveal or do to make me stop loving them?” We are human and we will fail and we will hurt each other. The marriage has to be something more than the sum of the individuals and be greater than those failings and hurts. Forgiveness and a desire to let nothing stop me from loving you is difficult and requires grace and great love. Faithfulness and forgiveness are so important to allowing a marriage to grow.
Fruitfulness: In marriage, we are called to selflessness, fearlessness and gift of self to each other. Deep friendships and love can and do exist outside of marriage but when a man and woman become one, they are called to be open to the miracle of new life and raise them in a healthy, loving family. Any sociological study can tell us how vital it is to the emotional and physical health of each child to have a loving home. The culture has worked to reduce the natural purpose of sexual to pleasure and emotional bonding, both of which are good and real, but separating the full nature of the act from its design makes it less. The act tells our spouse with our body that “I give myself completely and fully to you” but couples have often removed the sincerity of that gift. No all couples can have children but they can still be fruitful in their generosity to others, their example of love, and their openness to make difference in the world as a couple.
Many of the brief comments above can seem hard to do, too demanding or almost impossible to do as a couple. Don’t be surprised if I agree completely with this thought. The most important ingredient to making a marriage what it was designed and meant to be is recognizing the importance of God in the marriage. God designed us in his own image. Christ showed is that that image is a community of love in the Trinity – God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit as three persons in one God. Our marriages are a sign of that love as three (woman, man and God) become one in marriage through love and grace. Without God at the center to provide the glue, the strength and the focus for any couple – we are really making marriage less than the God made covenant it was meant to be instead of the man-made contract we often try to make it into. Letting go and trusting in his plan, making a sincere and permanent unconditional gift of self to the other, and sticking with your best friend through thick and thin can be one of the greatest adventures life has to offer.
“Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh?” So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Matthew 19:4-6