The Rise and Fall of Marriage

A friend recently shared Daniel Carrillo’s tweet and I had to laugh.

marriage tweet

 

From @DanielRCarrillo on Twitter.

 

In fact, I laughed until I cried.  Literally.  And the two were only moments apart.

The laughter because of the hilarious accuracy; the tears because of the bitter truth.

My marriage often feels empty, like two distant people simply occupying the same address.  And don’t even get me started on grocery lists!

Laura and I have been married for over 26 years, and this relationship isn’t what I once thought it was going to be.  For those that know us, some of these admissions will come as a shock (after all, we’re the perfect match, together since the 10th grade, voted “Cutest Couple” as seniors in high school); but here’s the brutal truth of our perfect marriage:

The “D” word has been brought up more than a few times.  Thoughts of betrayal have invaded our marriage, along with accusation, jealousy, rage, and hurt.  Deep depression has sucked the life out of our home too many times to count, along with can’t-ever-forget

Cutest Couple

 

Goofy teenagers with no clue of the pain their relationship would invite.

 

whispers of suicidal thoughts (tragically romantic, right?).  There are times I can’t stand the sight of my wife, and she’ll admit the same.  I’ve endured long periods when I’m so angry and wounded that a part of me would rather push her in front of a moving train than even hold her hand (oddly at times when her touch is something I desperately crave).  And the thought of making love to her?  Yeah, right.  Just punch me in the mouth and drive a stake through my heart.  Laura and I are sometimes so disconnected that decades of marriage almost feel like (at best) a mistake, and (at worst) a complete waste of our short time here on the big blue planet (and I’m not talking a few days of disconnect; I mean months and sometimes even years).

I’ll just come out and give you the nailed-to-cross truth about my marriage:  It’s incredibly healthy and my wife and I love each other with passionate urgency (though we often suck at it).

BLhatsWe’re used to hearing fellow Christians fighting for the “sanctity of marriage” (can of worms that I’m not going to open here); however, the statistics are intriguing (sources provided at the end):

  • Upwards of 50% of all marriages end in divorce.
  • Those who remarry are more likely to divorce.
  • On average, Christians are as likely to divorce as everyone else.
  • Some research shows that the “religious” are actually more likely to divorce.
  • “Religious conservatives” are more likely to divorce than “religious liberals”
  • Jewish couples are 97% less likely to divorce

The data seems clear:  If you want to save your marriage, you should consider becoming a liberal Jew–it will really up your odds of making it!  Unfortunately, there are so many factors involved in those percentages that it’s not that simple.  (I almost didn’t mention the stats for fear they would muddy the waters.)  But there is one set of numbers from The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages that stands out to me:

There are two fatal flaws in most marriages.  One is buying into the lie that another human being can fill a tangible, very real emptiness that we all possess.  In the postmodern era, there’s probably been no greater assault on our hearts than the line from the movie Jerry Maguire: “You complete me.”  The very notion is amazingly cruel, setting an impossible bar of unreal expectations that doom our relationships.  A wedding doesn’t bring two halves together to make a whole; marriage is the union of two broken people who commit to limping through this world together.

jm

In the postmodern era, there’s probably been no greater assault on our hearts than the line from the movie Jerry Maquire: “You complete me.”  It is cruel to expect that from someone you love.

The second (but no less villainous) tragedy that haunts our relationships is not a question of whether or not we’re “doing” religion, but HOW we’re doing it.  We’ve all seen the destruction from the pastor having an affair with the organist; the deacon’s wife hooking up with the old flame across town; the couple who faithfully attends every church service, pretending that everything’s roses and cream, but suffering through agonizing loneliness and loss of heart.

In and of itself, checking off the “Christian” box on the survey form won’t do jack-crap for the health of your marriage.  If only saving my marriage could be so easy, I’d wear nothing but “church clothes” and strap myself to the pew while shout-singing every agonizing verse of that lamenting dirge blaring from the pipe organ.  And I’d do it with a determined, face-like-a-flint smile that only looks maniacal to everyone else.

But, friends, it’s not that easy.  And here’s why:

In our marriage, Laura and I are rarely in the same place at the same time, and when we are, it can become a heartbreaking struggle of endurance.  And–GET THIS!–that is normal.

In his book The Screwtape Letters, CS Lewis presents some ground-shaking insight into our lives.  He proposes that we (humans) are amphibious creatures, “half spirit and half animal.  [We] occupy both the spiritual realms and the earthly realms at the same time. This means [we] go back and forth, have ups and downs, high and low tides in [our] spiritual lives.”

screwtape-letters-by-izabela-wojcik

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis (Image from The Catholic Catalogue)

As Lewis describes it, we live according to the “law of undulation,” sometimes spiritually high when our spirits are very much in the presence of God, and sometimes in the dregs of spiritual loss and desolation, so far away from God that the emptiness feels like we are literally starving to death (though rarely do we understand why).  This is where God most often comes through for us if we let him.  But we rarely allow him to come through; instead we grab the reins and go off searching for something–anything!–to fill that void.  We look first at what’s closest to us (we are creatures of convenience), and that’s usually a spouse.

Okay.  I don’t want to tiptoe around the issue, so I’ll just say it:

 

The demands and expectations that we put on our spouses are not only sinful, but also devastatingly cruel.  In essence, we’re asking another unfinished, life-damaged person (which we all are) to become more than any of us can ever be: God.  The towering level of unspoken, assumed, and accusatorial thoughts that will creep into your marriage from this idolatry-adultery will only cause both of you to crumble.

One of the most heartbreaking, soul-shifting, marriage-saving things I ever said to Laura was, “I love you. I will always love you. And I will always be here if you need me. But—and I want you to hear me very clearly—I don’t need you in my life in order to be happy.” It was a moment when I announced to her, “If I ever have to choose between you and God, I’m choosing my relationship with God.” That went over like you would expect—like a turd in a punchbowl.  When I saw how my words pierced her, a part of me panicked and wanted to take them back.  But I didn’t flinch.  I couldn’t.  I loved her too much to ask her to be my God.

About a year later, Laura admitted that she finally understood exactly what I meant. She loves God more than she loves me—and I love her even more for that!  It takes the pressure off of both of us and gives us a whole lot more space and freedom to live.

You see, friends, if God gives you a partner to share this life journey, it’s not meant to be a replacement for him.  Laura and I have close friends who are either struggling through their marriages or they doom every relationship they start because that other person has replaced God in their hearts.  “Save me!  Love me!  Redeem me!  Fulfill me!”   In the early days, the romance can almost sustain the possibility of that lie, but not for long.

In Genesis, we see God’s intent in all of this.  He provides Adam with Eve as his Ezer kenegdo.  This often translates as helper or partner.  Some translations go even deeper, showing that Eve is Adam’s life-saver.  Elsewhere in scripture, this term is only used in reference to God himself, so you see the ease with which we can innocently substitute our spouses for God.  However, I remind you that we all bear the image of God; we are reflections and reminders of his strength, his love, his tenderness, his ferocity, his joy, his beauty, his passion–and the list goes on!–but we were not meant to become his permanent replacement for those things.

Back to Lewis and the Law of Undulation.  As I mentioned, Laura and I are often in different places spiritually.  It can be maddening when she’s “up” and I’m “down” … and then we flip-flop.  How do you love someone who’s rarely on the same page?  For me, the most difficult times are when I’m caught in the middle of my spiritual highs and lows.  It feels like my feet are nailed to the ocean floor and my hands are tied to 747 about to take off.  It’s like my soul is being ripped apart.  I become filled with confusion, angst, irritation as my heart longs for something right in front of me but just out of reach, and in those moments I can’t even recall what that thing is.  It’s hard living between two worlds.  It’s even harder living with someone who’s also living between two worlds but on a wildly different flight path.  Every now and then Laura and I meet on the same spiritual plane, but it’s rare.  Our undulations have unique rhythms.  Sometimes my spiritual “ups” (or “downs”) might last for months–or years!–while Laura is fluctuating at breakneck speed.  Sometimes we find ourselves together, deep in the valley.  And this is where the damage is done.

We have some close friends currently fighting this battle.  From the outside, it’s easy to see two completely broken people in the valley together, but feeling completely alone.  Abandoned.  Desolate.  They’ve lost their way and their connection to each other.  They’ve both suffered an incredible amount of loss and hurt in their pasts (and some things they don’t even know about each other).  Those piercings have left unhealed wounds that show up in many forms: silence, withdrawal, mistrust, doubt, criticism, cynicism.  When you’re in the midst of it, all of these things are easily misinterpreted as the absence of love.  But getting down to the nitty-gritty, here’s the deal:  Both of them are starving for God and all that he offers, but they’re both looking to each other–the image bearers of God–to do what only the Father can do: fill that undeniable void.  With that comes even deeper assaults and wounds against their hearts.

Friends, never doubt for an instant that (1) you and your marriage have a spiritual enemy, and (2) that he’s there in an instant to put his fiendish spin on the situation.  Revelation 12 lays it out–Satan was cast down, was defeated, and went off to wage war against the children of God.  As his image bearers, that’s us.  And one of the ways he tries to take us out is by poisoning our relationships:

I’m hurting and lonely and he doesn’t even care enough to touch me.

I feel like I’m going down here and all she does is demand more of me–and I don’t have it!

We’ve lost something and he’s selfishly withholding his love from me when I need it most.

She loathes me and doesn’t even think I’m a man.

He doesn’t think I’m beautiful.

He/she doesn’t love me anymore.

I need you but feel nothing from you.

He/she can’t give me what I need.

This is over.

The problem with all of these thoughts are the hellish twist of truth and lies.  Our friends are in the throes of loneliness and desperation.  It’s like watching two people drown together while getting pissed off at each other for not being a lifeguard.  Meanwhile, there’s an oxygen line just above their heads–God reaching for them both, longing to rescue them.  Restore them.  Love them.

Gang, hear me.  It’s just like the advice given before every single airline flight:  reach up and put on your own mask first.  If you both reach for God first, it’s only then that you’ll be able to become your partner’s Ezer Kenegdo.  It’s only then that you can continue your journey together and discover how to help each other along the way.  In our greatest weakness we can find God’s strength, and that’s where I found the ability to become a life-saver for Laura (and she for me).

Marriage won’t ever be easy–we live in a fallen world that has become tilted against everything good.  You must fight for it.  But to do that, you’ve got to get some clarity on what’s really going on.  Understanding a little of your own spiritual journey (along with your undulations) will certainly help.  Realizing that your partner is suffering the same realities will also go a long way in the restoration of your relationship.  And, trust me, you’re going to need each other.  Don’t give up on that.  Remember, after God created the earth and placed Adam in the garden, he looked around and saw that all of it was good … except for one thing:  It’s not good for man to be alone.  So he created Eve.  Ezer Kenegdo.

In his loving wisdom, he knew we’d screw it up.  He knew evil would come against us and rip us apart.  And he knew we’d need each other to find our way back to him when we become so incredibly lost.

A few final thoughts before I leave you to wrestle with all of this:

  1. Prayerfully ask God to reveal the story of your own life to you.  We so rarely understand our own wounds and scars that we make it very hard for others to try to love us.
  2. As you become aware of those things in your past that hurt you deeply, ask Jesus to come into those places and heal them.  And once some healing begins, share some of that with your spouse.  It will help more than you know.  Laura has just begun to realize that I’m not slamming dishes around in the dishwasher because I think she’s a worthless idiot who can’t put a plate where it’s supposed to go.  Rather, it’s because there are wounds deep within me that are still being healed and redeemed; young, vulnerable places that I still rage against by trying to gain some mastery and control in a world that feels out of control.
  3. Know your spouse’s story!  As those become revelations, be tender toward each other’s wounds.  Be careful not to put deeper scars into those most vulnerable places.  I’m ashamed of the times I’ve done this (and continue to do this) to Laura.
  4. Cut your spouse (and yourself) a little slack.  You can never give each other what we all ultimately need–God.  If I suggest for Laura to “complete me” in Jerry Maguire fashion, it’s not romantic.  It’s cruel to us both.  In essence, I’m asking someone with two bad eyes and crippling arthritis to perform open heart surgery on me.
  5. Remember, you’re both broken.  Quit expecting so much from each other and start expecting a little more from Christ.

 

Be well, my friends.  I pray that our Father can use a fragment of my ramblings to first bring you closer to him and then restore you to your Ezer Kenegdo.


 

As promised, here are some sites with the marriage stats I mentioned:

Source: https://contemporaryfamilies.org/impact-of-conservative-protestantism-on-regional-divorce-rates/

Source: http://www.apa.org/topics/divorce/

Source: http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2014/february/marriage-divorce-and-body-of-christ-what-do-stats-say-and-c.html

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7 thoughts on “The Rise and Fall of Marriage

  1. Pingback: The Rule of Five (…or Why we left church) | Bert Fulks

  2. Jay Pritchett: “Why do we choose partners so different from ourselves? It’s not fate or chance or cliches like, “the heart wants what the heart wants”. We choose our partners because they represent the unfinished business from our childhood. And we choose them because they manifest the qualities we wish we had. In doing so, in choosing such a challenging partner and working to give them what they need, we chart a course for our own growth.” 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Ignite your Relationship! | Bert Fulks

  4. But what about a situation where you are not equally yoked? I was raised Christian and had faith for most of my younger years. Grew up in an abusive and dysfunctional family where physical violence was a lurking threat at any moment. Felt untethered and met a man who seemed calm, loving, gentle, quiet, and unlikely to physically attack as my father had done to my mother, self, and siblings.

    Now, after 15 mostly very unhappy years together and three children, the wheels are falling off. My husband is in name only. He has taken to sleeping in another room, rejects all physical contact and affection, and was raised in a non-religious Chinese home. He has no faith at all though sometimes takes an interest in Buddhist meditation. (Hasn’t practiced in at least a year).

    My spiritual path has led me all over the map but is now returning to REAL Christ-following. Churches seem repugnant to me because all I felt was judgment and that I was not good or holy enough, I couldn’t fake a happy marriage and put on a nice smiling face every week and wear that mask.

    I want to divorce my husband because he is spiritually dead inside, has contempt for Christianity, and I don’t see how we could ever become Christians together and have a mentally healthy, loving relationship united to raise our children with morals and values. My husband resists every attempt to instill my rebellious 13 year old son with any sort of morality or even love and enjoyment for nature, the arts, anything other than the material pleasures of this world (indulging my son and spoiling him by attempting to buy his love and loyalty, and often pitting my son against me).

    Thank you so much for your blog, and sorry for my long confessional.

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  5. Allison, that is heartbreaking to read. I’m touched by your willingness to share that sacred territory of your heart. The urge to wear masks, act like everything is fine, and pretend that we’ve got it all together does so much damage. I hope you realize that you’re not alone. So many suffer life’s struggles in silence, never realizing that the people around them are also struggling. I think one of evil’s greatest tricks is convincing us that we’re on our own, that we have something to be ashamed of, and that we need to hide and isolate ourselves. Don’t do that. I urge you to reach out to people you can trust (and I know how risky that can feel) who will help strengthen and support you. Maybe that’s somebody in a church out there somewhere. Maybe it’s a counselor. It might be friends or family members. Pray about that and for that, and then keep your heart open for the lifelines God throws you.

    Without any assumptions about how your situation will (or even should) work out, know that I’m rooting for you and your family. I’m a product of a broken home. As painful as it is to admit, the end of my parents’ marriage ended up being a blessing. I don’t offer that to encourage you one way or the other; I’m no fan of divorce, but I know that life is messy and sometimes things don’t go according to our own plans. I pray that you keep seeking our Father’s heart for you, you find strength, and that you walk in love.

    Be well, friend.

    Like

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