When we think about marriage and how its supposed to look, context matters. It can look different in each culture. My first degree was in East Asian studies and I’ll never forget a class I took about marriage across cultures. The professor said matter of factly, “Americans are doomed to be unhappy in marriage because they’re stuck in the Disney fantasy of happily-ever-after. The rest of the world stays married longer because they’re not under this illusion.” I’d never thought of it that way before. I mean most women love a good princess story and what good is a princess without a prince, right? It got me thinking about how the stories we really like are the ones we wanna tell with our own lives.
When we find the perfect person to join our hearts with, we want to spend the rest of our lives together. We envision ourselves pledging undying love to one another and then riding off into the sunset together. I’m not sure we ever have an image in mind beyond that. Or maybe we simply flash forward a few years and imagine ourselves sitting together in front of the fireplace, while our little children play quietly at our feet. Like that ever happens! I can think of a few stories our marriage might tell after the blissful beginning.
The Story of Me
This is the story of an imperfect person marrying a purely unselfish partner. “My every wish is his command. He loves everything about me and tells me so regularly. When I am in a grumpy mood, he’s cool with it. Sometimes I lose my temper and take it out on him but he never feels hurt. If he does, he keeps it to himself so I never have to apologize or make amends. I buy whatever I want. I eat whatever I crave. I go wherever I please and Honey just goes along with it all. Life couldn’t be more delightful. Do I meet his needs? Of course! His only need is for me to be happy all the time. This is truly the perfect marriage.”
Let’s sort this one in the Disney fairytale category, shall we? By the way, it can also be a “He” writing this story. There are no purely “unselfish” partners who live without needs of their own, though there are some of us who went into marriage with this fantasy. This isn’t a marriage. This is a master-servant relationship. Unless I’m the master, this is a lousy deal! Yet, there are some who experience marriage exactly like this.
The Story of Disappointment
This is the story of most of us, who start out starry-eyed with best of intentions to love and serve our mate whole-heartedly. But now he says,“I do my best to make her happy but it’s never enough. I honestly don’t know what she wants from me. We can’t ever have a conversation without getting into an argument. It’s always about how I’m not doing something right or how I’m not romantic anymore or not listening to her like I used to. I feel like giving up on the whole thing.” She says, “I’m so tired of giving all the time and getting nothing in return. He’s emotionally shut-down and I can’t take it anymore. I feel like I do everything around here and I would like just a little appreciation for it. But no, he just sits in front of the TV every evening, while I grow more and more lonely. I could walk away from the whole thing and never look back.”
Right here is where many of us quit. We walk away feeling disillusioned and hopeless. We didn’t find our perfect soul mate. We lost our happily-ever-after. We have no idea what went wrong. Maybe we were telling the wrong story.
The Story of God
The story God wanted to tell when he created marriage was His own. It began in a garden with all the beauty of creation, in which he placed the crowning jewel of His imagination, Us. He pursued us with loving kindness daily, offering Himself and meeting our every need.
The happy couple decided they didn’t trust God with their future so they rejected Him, choosing instead to run their own lives. They rejected communion. This broke God’s heart.
God chose to suffer himself, feeling the loss of his beloved; experiencing the disappointment of broken relationship, broken trust. He could have scrapped the whole grand plan, walking away from us and leaving us to deal with our own mess. But he chose another path.
God sent his only begotten Son to die in our place, paying the penalty for our disobedience. Jesus forgave us, justifying us and restoring to us our communion with God the Father that was lost in the Garden.
Reconciled to God, we now have access to all that He is. We are loved deeply and forgiven freely when we miss the mark. We love Him because He first loved us. Though we fail to keep our commitments to Him, He never fails to keep his to us. His faithfulness is not contingent on our faithfulness to him. This is covenental life. A life of mutual self-giving, leading to ultimate human flourishing.
What a story! When I see my marriage as a new telling of this ancient love story, I can live in hope instead of disappointment. I can share in the sufferings of God when my spouse rejects me or fails to meet my needs. I can choose to die to Self, forgiving my partner for hurting or failing me. Having chosen to forgive, then be reconciled to my mate and share in restored communion. I can tell this story over and over again, each time celebrating the God who authored it.
It’s ultimate glory is when both partners are committed to the retellng of God’s love story. But even if only one partner is committed to telling God’s story, there is meaning and purpose in the suffering they experience. For those solitary story-tellers, the story may feel stuck in the chapters on suffering and reconciliation. But herein is great beauty. You too are living the covenental life modeled by God himself, for your commitment to your spouse is not contingent on their service to you.
I must say on this point, that this is not the case when one partner is being physically or emotionally abused. This is never part of God’s love story and there is no glory given to Him when this occurs. This is not a story of martyrdom. If this is your experience, get help immediately. You can forgive your partner without reconciling with them.
When we seek the fairy tale, what our hearts are deeply hoping for is covenental marriage with its unconditional love. Without God in our lives, that’s all it will ever be, a fairy tale. But with God’s help, we can tell a story that the world is longing to hear; that there is a love that endures hardship and disappointment and loves deeper and wider than we can even imagine. This is the story I hope your marriage will tell.