Living with an imperfect marriage
Many couples marry while happily holding onto intentions of gracefully dodging major conflict. They see a few possible waves in their relationship, but their visions are filled mostly with a smooth, calm sea of contentment and companionship. In their minds, marriage will be perfect (or at least close to perfect). They believe they will live and love happily ever after.
This belief is prevalent among many Christian couples, according to Neill Hunter, a licensed associate marriage and family therapist. "Many couples go to church each week and see other couples, smiling and happy, as if they haven't a care in the world. This can cause a couple to ask, ‘What's wrong with us?'"
Despite the idealized image of love that many of us hold onto, the reality is that every marriage is made of two imperfect people. Since "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23), the likelihood that sin (selfishness, for example) won't enter the home is more than remote. A marriage involving two imperfect people can never be free of mistakes.
But that's the beauty of it. All the bumps and wrinkles that couples encounter along the way can actually help them to sharpen each other and to grow as individuals in their relationship with Christ. In fact, the bumps are part of the adventure of marriage.
Ricky and Marilyn and Doug and Margo are two couples who've learned not only to accept their imperfect marriages, but to embrace the mistakes they've made, learn from them, and move on.
Expectations: Ricky & Marilyn
"They dream in courtship, but in wedlock wake," wrote poet Alexander Pope. Though they haven't stopped dreaming together, Ricky and Marilyn have learned the importance of realistic expectations in their 20-plus years of marriage.
"When Ricky and I married, we thought every single day of our lives together would be perfect," Marilyn says. "We believed we would wake up each morning with a smile on our faces just because we were together."
According to Marilyn, the smiles faded abruptly in their first month of marriage. One incident in particular caused friction. Ricky went hunting with his brothers, leaving early one morning and returning after dark. Marilyn, angry because she assumed he'd be back by noon, didn't speak to him for days. "Finally, I broke down and told him I thought he was choosing hunting over me," she says.
"I had no idea Marilyn was so upset," Ricky says. "I didn't even think to tell her I wouldn't be back until after dark. I assumed she knew."
The couple says they both learned a lot from this incident. "I needed to tell him why I was upset," Marilyn says. "He couldn't know how I felt unless I told him." Ricky learned to offer more specifics to accommodate his detail-oriented wife.
Marilyn says their biggest problem was that they never discussed their expectations for marriage. "We thought we'd be like Ward and June Cleaver. I would cook and clean, he would come home, and we'd have dinner and talk about our day," she says. "[But] the reality was that we both had demanding jobs and other responsibilities."
At this point in their marriage, Ricky and Marilyn are not only able to laugh about mistakes they've made, but they've actually learned to love the imperfections and to embrace each day and whatever it brings. "I know Ricky isn't perfect, and he surely knows I'm not," Marilyn says, smiling.
Even though it took many years, tears, and sleepless nights to get here, Ricky and Marilyn say they love each other more now than ever. Their advice to couples struggling with the reality of marriage? "Live each day to the fullest and accept and love each other as you are."
Comparisons: Doug & Margo
Unmet expectations can even lead to resentment in marriage, says Margo, who's been married to Doug for 18 years.
"Instead of viewing your spouse as a gift from God and asking how you can bring out the best in them," she says, "you can beat them up mentally and verbally and feel as if you've missed out on something."
Margo says this is how she felt early on in her marriage to Doug. "We got married right out of college, were both virgins, and had prayed for our future spouses," she says. "In my mind I had done all these things to ensure that I would have this wonderful, easy relationship with a person who was going to adore me and be the person I wanted him to be."
She was disappointed. So was he.
For the first seven to eight years of their marriage, their relationship was anything but easy.
One major issue that fed her disappointment was Margo's tendency to idealize other couple's relationships and compare her marriage to theirs. "One of my best friends once told me that every night her husband rubbed her head so that she could sleep. I thought, Doug doesn't do that."
Doug says they had to work at not comparing themselves to others. "We learned to accept who we are and not look at what other couples were doing," he says.
Margo had to keep her eyes on her husband, his unique gifts, and their relationship. After 18 years, she says she has expectations for Doug, but they're based on knowing and trusting him instead of an unrealistic ideal.
Another issue Doug and Margo dealt with was their tendency to be critical of each other's relationship with God. "I had in my mind what her relationship with Christ should look like, and she had in her mind what mine should look like," Doug says. "So when we had a conflict or needed to work through issues, if I didn't respond to her and to God the way she perceived I should, she thought it wasn't working, and vice versa."
If they were facing a big decision, for example, Margo struggled because she didn't see her husband kneeling in prayer at 6 a.m. each day. "I did pray," he says, "but I was less structured. I might have been praying at 10:30 p.m. when I couldn't sleep."
Eventually, they had a life-changing epiphany. "There was a definite season in our marriage where it just wasn't fun," Doug says. "But I [came to] realize that God gets to shape and change Margo. He doesn't need my help, and I don't get to choose how He does that."
Rather than regretting their past mistakes, Margo and Doug are thankful for the way the bumps along the road - and the wrong choices they've made - have given them a greater intimacy with each other and with God.
Seize the Opportunity
The happily-ever-after, problem-free, image of marriage can be appealing. But love in the real world is actually deeper and more meaningful than what any fairy tale romance can offer.
Every couple has problems, but working through those problems together can lead to a new level of intimacy. According to Hunter, couples can view a fight as something that moves them further apart or as an opportunity to go to a deeper level. In fact he says, that's part of the mystery of relationships. "You can look at [conflict] as an opportunity to find out a little more about that person."
Doug agrees. "I know Margo in little ways that nobody else does. And a lot of that is because we've talked through some tough issues," he says. "The reality is that we are both imperfect. And two imperfects don't make a perfect. They make a marriage."