When I first met my college sweetheart, I loved that he was laid back and agreeable. When we spent time together, he rarely cared what restaurant we ate at or what movie we attended. “I don’t care,” he’d announce. “You can choose.” Oh. My. Word. I simply loved that setup! He left the decisions to me and just came along for the ride, all while staring dreamily into my eyes. However, about three months after my boyfriend-turned-fiancé eventually became my husband, I began to interpret his easy-going demeanor as incessant indecisiveness.
He had a hard time making up his mind when we needed to make a joint choice in our newlywed years. Would we go visit his parents during the coming weekend or stay home and paint the living room? Speaking of the living room, would we paint it pale ivory or stark white? Suddenly his “I have no opinion in the matter” ways came across to me as passivity.
I hated when he seemed passive; it caused me to get aggressive. I guess you could say we had a passive-aggressive marriage. Meanwhile, my fiancé had loved how during our dating years it seemed I could talk to anyone about anything. But about three days into our honeymoon he wondered when I was ever going to shut up! (He says if I go before him he will put a period on my tombstone because he will then know I'm finally finished talking!) My gift of gab became a curse of conversation domination. I talked way more than I listened and it drove my poor man bonkers!
These aren’t our only differences. We spend our money and our time differently. We clean the house differently. We don’t always agree on parenting decisions. We communicate differently. When conflict arises, he would prefer to wait until ... well, never ... to address it. I, on the other hand, would’ve chosen to discuss it yesterday had I known it would happen today!
It’s true that — especially in our dating years — opposites attract. A soft-spoken, reserved person might be attracted to a significant other who is decisive and talkative. A fast-paced, city girl may dream of a romance with an unhurried country boy. Unfortunately, as relationships move forward, opposites also tend to attack. As a result, the habits and characteristics we found endearing about our significant other during the courtship often are the exact things that later bother us the most.
This phenomenon arises because — for all of us — our strengths get carried to an extreme and then they morph into a weakness. The superb communicator becomes an annoyance as they ramble on and on, monopolizing conversations and boring their listeners (me). The methodical planner becomes over controlling (also me). That happy-go-lucky, life-of-the-party person becomes a haphazard spouse who forgets details and appointments. The laid-back agreeable person might hesitate from making decisions, coming across as passive.
It’s Not About You
With every strength, there is a flip side. And if the flip side is not dealt with, it can even lead to the disintegration of the relationship.
These personality disparities between husband and wife become the soil where conflict takes root. We can’t for the life of us understand why our spouse handles financial decisions differently than we would. Or why they stack the clean dishes the ... ahem ... wrong way. (The right way, of course, is how we would do it.) Or, we blink in disbelief at their unconventional method for painting a room — once the color has finally been chosen — which seems totally backward to us. These dissimilarities greatly intensify during the parenting years. So many arguments pop up when mom and dad have entirely different opinions about how to discipline their darling dependents.
However, what really makes a harmonious relationship so elusive is that we, due to our sin nature, are wired to think only of ourselves. Or at least to think of ourselves first. I’m not suggesting that we’re all complete nuptial narcissists, but we do tend to look out for ol’ number one. The apostle James wisely asks:
What is the source of wars and fights among you? Don’t they come from your passions that wage war within you?
We want our own way. We want our spouse also to let us get our own way. And striving to get it leads to conflict. Conflict, when not handled properly, causes friction and frustration. When we’re part of a marriage experiencing such struggles, we begin to wonder what’s wrong. Why can’t we just get along and be happy?
There are two realizations I have come to discover over the last few decades of being married to my college sweetheart that have helped me immensely to keep showing up and keep working on our relationship. These truths aren’t profound, but they’re profoundly true. They are: Marriage is hard, and it’s not about you.
Haven’t we been programmed to believe just the opposite? Especially in this age of social media, where creatively orchestrated engagements materialize right before our eyes on our phone’s tiny screen. Pinterest-perfect husbands and wives appear on our laptops in the form of smiling spouses eating delicious food in picturesque surroundings, with the look of love dancing in their eyes. We get the impression that if you can only find Mr. or Mrs. Right a harmonious marriage will ensue. Marriage isn’t hard. Marriage is a breeze! Well, as long as you’ve picked the right person.
And, of course, we think marriage is all about us. It’s what will finally make us happy. When we find that perfect soul mate, we’ll achieve relational heaven on earth. We’ll look deep into the eyes of our significant other and romantically utter, a la Jerry Maguire, “You complete me.”
How glorious it would be if all these things were true. But the tough reality is that marriage is hard and it’s not at all about us. And it’s really not even about our spouses.
Marriage is about the gospel of Jesus Christ.
It’s All About Him
In Scripture, we find the first mention of the marriage relationship between a man and a woman in Genesis:
Then the Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone."
And so, God crafts Eve — the first woman — to be the life partner of Adam — the first man.
Later in the Book of Ephesians we spy these words about matrimony: “‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:31-32). The husband-wife relationship is meant to illustrate the connection between Jesus and the church, pointing others to this important relationship. Elsewhere in Scripture, the body of believers here on earth is referred to as the bride of Christ. The sacred truth shown in this metaphor of marriage is that God destined there to be an enduring union between Jesus and the worldwide church. Our earthly marriage as Christians paints a vibrant portrait to the watching world of this divine design. God’s blueprint is for Christ and the church to become one. (See Gal. 3:28; 1 Cor. 12:13.)
Likewise, our relationship with our spouse is meant to mimic this pattern of unity.
So why would God ordain that our relationship as husband and wife point people to the correlation between Jesus and the church? I mean, couldn’t they just read about it in a Bible or flip on a TV preacher who would tell them about the gospel message — the account of God sending Jesus to earth to die a sacrificial death, paying the penalty for our sins, and offer us a place in heaven for eternity with him?
Well, often the timeworn saying is true: More is caught than is taught. God’s desire is that people on earth will catch married couples living out God’s redemptive plan. You see, it isn’t just pastors who deliver sermons. Your marriage is a message, and people are watching you preach. What will they see — selfishness that emerges as you seek to get your own way, or selflessness that displays patience, chooses forgiveness, and keeps showing up and showing Christ?
Decide today to keep tucked tightly in your mind — even during the frustrating times in your relationship — the reason God invented marriage in the first place. It isn’t to make you all giddy, fulfilling what you perceive to be your every need. It isn’t even about making your spouse happy. It’s about your relationship demonstrating unconditional, sacrificial, and redemptive love thereby depicting the good news of the gospel to those who are watching.
May your marriage to your oh-so-different-than-you spouse mirror the gospel and bring God glory.
This article is adapted from HomeLife Magazine.