In May, Carrie and I will celebrate our 25th anniversary. That certainly doesn’t qualify me as an expert on the subject of marriage. But I have learned so much through the process of building a family with her, as well as observing (and sometimes awkwardly trying to help) the marriages of friends, family members, and people I’ve ministered to. A handful of good books have helped clarify things for me, as well. I wish I could go back to that naive, love-smitten kid I was in May of 1992 and tell him what I know now. But, since I possess neither a DeLorean nor a Flux Capacitor, time travel is impossible (and even if I did, there’s that whole “messing up the time-space continuum” thing). So I thought I would write down the lessons I have learned so far, just in case they might help someone struggling in marriage, or someone planning to be married in the future. I know I have a lot still to learn; I pray that I have over 25 years left with her to learn those lessons. But for the next several weeks, I’ll share here the most meaningful things I’ve learned.
I’ll start with this: There is no such thing as a “soul mate.” There. I said it. The twenty-one-year-old me would have disagreed passionately. In my young adulthood, I thought with all my heart that there was one special woman God had chosen for me…just like there was one special person for everyone. Furthermore, I was absolutely certain I had found her. And since God had brought us together, we would have a marriage so blissful, so perfect, the world would stand amazed.
Where did I get such an idea? Believe it or not, the idea of a soul mate comes not from Scripture, but from ancient Greek thought. As Plato put it,”…and when one of them meets the other half, the actual half of himself, whether he be a lover of youth or a lover of another sort, the pair are lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy and one will not be out of the other’s sight, as I may say, even for a moment…” I found that quote on a website called “The 45 Best Soulmate Quotes.” Yes, apparently that’s a thing. Our culture loves the idea that there is a perfect person for each of us out there somewhere. It’s the main idea behind most romantic movies; note that movies almost never focus on what it takes to make a relationship last. Instead, they tend to be about the obstacles a man and woman have to overcome in order to find each other and fall in love. It’s all about the dashing Prince placing the glass slipper on Cinderella’s foot, not on what life is like for Cindy and her man five years later, when there are bills to pay, kids to feed, and the Fairy Godmother is nowhere to be found.
Our song lyrics buy into the notion as well. The most common theme in popular music by far is the notion of “true love,” which means finding that person you were destined for, who makes life worth living. Talk to unmarried people, and you’ll see we have completely bought into this idea. In our minds, the soul mate we’re looking for is someone who will meet all of our expectations in a lover, without asking us to change in any way. We’re looking for the ideal version of ourselves, only in the body of an attractive member of the opposite sex…who also happens to be crazy about us.
For twenty-one-year-old me, it was even worse, because I had made this idea part of my theology. In my defense, I had some help with that. My engagement and early marriage days were during a time when Bible-believing Christians were so eager to build up the institution of marriage, our leaders over-sold some ideas. One was the idea that Christians, especially committed believers, and ESPECIALLY Christians who had put off sexual intimacy until their wedding day, had happier marriages (including more torridly satisfying sex lives) than unbelievers. Joel Gregory in his book Too Great a Temptation tells the story of his predecessor at First Baptist, Dallas, the legendary WA Criswell, preaching a sermon on this very subject. He referenced some recent studies about marital satisfaction among Christians, baptized it in Scripture, and his takeaway line was, “Young men, marry a First Baptist woman. She’ll love you so good, they’ll have to carry you off in a wheelbarrow.” The huge congregation was initially stunned at hearing such saucy stuff from their white-haired patriarch, but after a moment’s silence, the place went up in laughter. That message was forevermore known as “the wheelbarrow sermon.” Interestingly, Gregory reports that when people asked Mrs. Criswell what she thought if it, she said, “WA doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
But I thought I knew. I had found a godly woman who had agreed to marry me. We had done everything right, as far as I could tell. We were destined for marital greatness.
And then we got married.
I won’t go into detail about the first year of our marriage. I will simply say this: I was devastated at how hard it was. So much so, I questioned God. How could He do this to me? I had tried to do things His way. Didn’t He owe me happiness as a result? We had rarely argued during our 2 1/2 years of dating and engagement; now we fought almost daily. For years, she had been the person I couldn’t do without. I had driven an hour each way to see her three times each weekend. Now, we often couldn’t stand the sight of each other. It’s almost as if getting married was the worst possible thing that could happen to our relationship.
I learned two invaluable lessons that year: One, in order for this marriage to work, I had to change…and so did she. We both needed to grow out of our selfishness and pettiness, and the sooner, the better. Two, I couldn’t look to her as the source of my happiness. Marriage doesn’t work like that. The infatuation of the early days of falling in love is thrilling. So is the anticipation of an engagement. But those kinds of feelings are temporary. It’s like eating the most spectacular dessert ever; it tastes amazing, but you can’t live on it long-term. I knew then that I needed to deepen in my relationship with Jesus, the actual Bread of Life…only He would give me the joy, purpose and identity I was foolishly looking for in marriage. The good news is that, as I did this, the growth I would experience would (hopefully) make me a better husband, too.
I’ll talk more in a later blog post about how things changed (both in me and in our marriage) after that, but for now, I’ll just say that it was a long process of learning what it meant to be a good man. I’m still working on that. So is she. (Okay, that last sentence was a joke…sort of). The good news is that, over the years, we have built something wonderful. I look forward to seeing her each day, and the high point of my week is our Friday breakfast date. I look back over these twenty five years, and see so many ways she has supported me, helped me choose the right path, and filled my days with joy and laughter. It took work for us to get to this point, but it has been well worth it.
I remember seeing a published study in the years just after I stopped believing in soulmates. It said that people who were in arranged marriages had far greater marital satisfaction than people who chose their own mates. It’s hard for us in the Global West to believe such a claim. We think freedom is always best, including the freedom to choose one’s own spouse. But as I thought about it, it made sense. A man in an arranged marriage knows that he is stuck with this woman, so he might as well learn to love her for who she is. He has no reason to compare her to some mythical person who meets all his needs; he went into the relationship without those overly romantic expectations. So whereas the American model leaves him thinking, “My soulmate is out there somewhere. I just married the wrong person,” his actual situation leaves him with one viable option: Love the one he has. And build something beautiful with her.
I’m not arguing that we should begin arranging marriages for our kids (although as a Dad, the idea is appealing). But here’s what I am saying:
If you’re not married, choosing the right person to marry is crucial. A life of singleness is not an empty life (see 1 Corinthians 7, where Paul calls his singleness a gift), and is far better than marrying someone for the wrong reasons. Before you marry, ask yourself, “Does he/she make me a better person?” From a Christian perspective, that means “Does he/she draw me closer to Christ, and to becoming the person He is trying to create in me?” Ask someone who knows you well that same question–your parents or a close friend who will definitely tell you the truth. If the answer is no, walk away. If the answer is yes, and you choose to marry…it will still be hard work! I absolutely married the right person, and it has still been incredibly difficult! But the work will be so very worth it.
If you are married, there is a person God has in mind for you to love, to believe in, to support, to pray for, to seek to please, and to enjoy completely. That person is the person to whom you are currently married. If you are unhappy in your marriage, unless you are being abused by your spouse, leaving them won’t bring you the happiness you yearn for. Ask God to help you love them as they are, to love them as He does. In other words, ask God to help you love your spouse the way He already loves you…He sees all the flaws, but He chooses to love you anyway. In fact, against all the odds, He delights in you. And He can produce that kind of love in your marriage, too. Give Him that chance…and then go to work building something beautiful.