As anyone who has been married for 30 years (or even 10) can attest, marriage is hard. Most engaged people, too, would say that they expect hard times are going to come. But despite expecting it, when those hard times do finally come many couples find themselves confused and wondering if their struggle is a sign that they made the wrong choice, chose the wrong partner, or have just fallen out of love. For Christians, there are often other questions as well.
"If I was a better Christian would I struggle with so much anger toward my wife?"
"Our sex life has completely dried up, am I failing in my commitment to love my husband?"
"Isn't marriage supposed to be easier for faithful Christians?"
"Is our pain a sign that God isn't in this marriage?"
"Would we have these problems if I had a partner with stronger faith?"
When couple's come in for counseling asking these questions, it is often helpful to step back and ask a different one. What is the purpose of marriage?
We've learned some scripted answers to this question such as, "to glorify God" or "to live out the relationship between Christ and his Church". These answers aren't wrong, but when taken simply at face value, some may find that they don't have a lot of guidance to offer couples experiencing pain and brokenness beyond "you're not doing it right."
Let us ask the question a different way. Why would a God who loves us, wants good for us, and is committed to walking with us through the process of growing prescribe commitment to a single person for the rest of our lives?
The answer? Because it doesn't work. At least, it doesn't work as we are. When marriage gets hard, and it always does, something is going to give. Physician and family therapist Carl Whitaker said that relationships are like violent chemical reactions. When the fire gets hot one of two things will happen: we will leave or we will grow. Leaving is almost always easier. The only way people stay to endure the fire of relationship is if something stronger than the intensity of the reaction holds them in.
Whitaker uses the imagery of a crucible to elucidate this truth. A crucible is a large and dense container of immense strength which is designed to contain metals as they are brought to high enough temperatures to be purified and transformed into new alloys. If there is a hole or a weakness in the crucible itself, the metal will find a way out and the reaction will fail.
Christian marriage is a crucible. If one is committed to loving and serving his spouse, and to accepting Christ's love for himself, then he has no choice but to challenge the lies, fears, and hurts that riddle his heart and stand in his way. Christian marriage is not designed for perfect people who are going to get through marriage without any problems. It is designed intentionally for the purpose of struggling for our own good. If your marriage has problems, it doesn't mean that you chose the wrong spouse or that your faith is lacking. It means that your faithful commitment, thus far, is doing its job. It might also mean that there is something for you to learn and an opportunity for you to grow. That is the purpose of marriage.
People who are religiously committed (that is, have a commitment that they yield to as greater than themselves, trusting in it for their own good) to marriage, to the well being of their spouse, and to their own wholeness have created a boundary around themselves which eliminates escaping the heat, willfully injuring their partner, or sacrificing their own growth as options for coping. Trapped, as it were, they experience the pain and frustration that comes periodically with attachment to, and feedback from, another human being. They are forced to find a way forward.
That way forward requires effort, honesty, courage, and vulnerability; the payoff is nothing short of intimacy and all the healing, security, and freedom that make it real. None of this is possible if a way out is allowed. The most beautiful thing, to me, about marriage, is that it's a crucible to which we willingly subject ourselves. Wedding rings can be taken off and have to be put back on every day.
When the fire gets hot, you don't have to navigate it alone. Talk to friends, older couples, and members of your family who are safe for you AND your spouse. When you get stuck, as we all do, don't be afraid to find a therapist who can help you ask the right questions as you wrestle with what God is showing you.
A final note: A relationship, particularly a marriage, is an agreement of sorts which inherently requires two participants and a common understanding. Even God does not force us into relationship. If you are in a relationship with someone who is violent towards you emotionally or physically, or who is actively engaged in another ongoing relationship which contradicts your mutual values, he or she has already left the marriage. These are the choices of another and are never your fault; neither is it a failure of your own commitment if you decide to walk away from the relationship. To the contrary, refusing to settle for a corrupt version of the thing and ending the relationship might be the greatest act of commitment you can carry out. Valuing fidelity and desiring good for yourself and for one another is the material the crucible of Christian marriage is made of. Without those elements, growth is not possible, only destruction.