By Kathy Schoenborn
Jessica felt hopeless and lost discussing her marriage with her pastor. She couldn’t remember a time when she and her husband hadn’t struggled in their 15 years together. They had both come from troubled backgrounds and could see family issues repeating in their teenagers. She had kept her secret from others. Her pastor seemed to listen to her story, then asked if she was in a regular Bible study, and had other women to pray with for her marriage. He seemed oblivious to the depth of her pain, with few encouraging suggestions. She tearfully left the office, feeling like a failure and more hopeless than ever. Is our love over? Are Christians not supposed to have problems? Is everyone else as perfect as they appear? Is love even possible? Where is God in this mess?
Katie and Tom started their marriage strong, united in the Lord, full of hope for their lives together. After 22 years, four children, and numerous financial and career setbacks, they had lost the magic and hopefulness of their early years. They were tired, confused, overwhelmed, and disconnected. Everyone at church thought they were the perfect couple. As difficult as it was to be honest, Katie could not keep the secret any longer, so she spoke to their pastor and friend. He was shocked at their struggles and rather dumbfounded about what to say. He did ask if they prayed together and suggested she make sure she was submitting and that they had a healthy sex life. She left feeling embarrassed, rejected, and more confused than ever. Where was she supposed to go to share the reality of her disintegrating fairy tale? Was she disappointing God along with everyone else?
Why the Mess?
Many factors impact marriage messes. We all marry with such good intentions and bright futures, but as the years tick on these hopes can morph into the hurt and hopelessness of disconnection. From my own experience in a struggling marriage there is a way out of the mess other than hiding, coexisting, or leaving.
Existing in the mess of marriage is very lonely and disheartening. Many of my longstanding marriage difficulties were based in the natural tendency to hide in my own blame and denial, yet often our change and growth doesn’t begin until we hurt enough to face the honest truths. It can be helpful to look at our fallibility, our dysfunctional upbringing, denial and blame, expectations, romantic illusions, views on happiness, our fast-paced lives, priorities, and commitment. Once we gather the courage to face these truths, we can turn to God and learn the skills we need to clean up the mess.
Struggles in marriage should not be surprising. The perfect life and connections we desire and were made for will not happen on this earth. God has promised that we will have trouble. Blame, shame, and control have been integral in our lives since the Fall. The church can facilitate our hiding tendencies by subtly portraying that good Christians don’t have issues. But we do; and we can keep them hidden, suffering the guilt, shame, and aloneness of being defective in an organization of “perfects.”
If we come from a dysfunctional upbringing (we all do), like Jessica and her husband, we have to work on ourselves before we can expect to work on our marriages. Denial and blame can lock us out of finding solutions to our struggles. Our shame needs to be addressed and expressed for improved relational health. If Jessica alone, gets stronger and smarter about herself and her marriage, she can be much wiser about how she approaches her husband and the issues they share. Then they will be more likely to align with each other against their problems instead of fighting each other. Satan is the real enemy here and he wins when we fight each other instead of our problems. This is a spiritual battle. We can fight for our marriages with truth, training, and perseverance.
Expectations are setups for major disappointment and struggles in any relationship. When I had the naive marital expectation that love would be enough, and that my husband would meet my needs, the only possible outcome was disappointment and confusion. Most women in my classes have never identified, much less challenged, long- held beliefs about their marriages. As dreams fade, we both wonder what happened to our hopes for our marriage? Are we really meant to be together? Have we fallen out of love? To make matters worse, we attribute negative reasons why expectations are not being met, resulting in the slow decline of love.
The great news is, we alone can greatly reduce our disappointments by identifying and adjusting our expectations. When I teach Boot Camp for Wives, we spend time identifying our needs and learning how to express them effectively. When wives learn how to speak honestly and openly about their needs, as well as meet some of them themselves, they will become more satisfied, empowered, and more fully who God made them to be.
Eli Finkel has researched changing patterns of expectations in marriage. Not surprisingly, he found that our growing expectations of marriage have become higher than our skills or time commitment, causing the dilemma of the “All or Nothing Marriage.” This results in fewer great marriages today, and many more average and weaker marriages. He concluded that it is certainly not wrong to have high expectations for a very strong and personally-fulfilling marriage, but we have to decide if the time it takes is worth it to us. Each couple makes their choice.
Many factors compete for our time today. Ruth Haley Barton, in her book Sacred Rhythms says “technology has a way of compromising our ability to be present to ourselves, God, and each other.” She describes the vicious cycle of having less and less meaningful connections, and responding by filling our loneliness with more and more noise and stimulation. Although we cannot change society, we can reduce the speed of our merry-go-round, and re-prioritize our lives to put God and marriage first.
Most of us desire both marriage and happiness, but we are misled when we expect marriage to make us happy. When I moped around, expecting my happiness to come from my husband or marriage, I locked myself out of a solution. Happiness starts with God. Looking anywhere else for our contentment is a recipe for personal and relational disaster.
Commitment is the old-fashioned, but effective choice that provides us a reason to stay together although we are not always madly in love or even getting along. It gives us glue that sticks us together through difficult seasons. Ohio State did a study of unhappy married couples, where half of the couples divorced and the other half remained married. When polled again in five years, 84 percent of those who had been unhappy but did not divorce, were happy. These couples were committed to sticking it out through their season of difficulty and experienced happiness again on the other side. When we are going through a difficult stretch in marriage, we tend to think that is the way it will be forever. This study and the outcomes of many women who take my classes, defy that thinking.
I feel a little guilty for laying all these truths about marriage on you, as I remember how overwhelming it can be, from a marriage in pain, to hear about all the possibilities for help. It made me feel guilty as well as responsible for the well-being of my marriage. What I would now say to my former self would be: “Kathy, just focus on God and your own well-being. Take charge of your own life, don’t focus on changing your marriage, but get healthy yourself and get stronger, and then God will guide you in working on your marriage. Embrace and face the truth of your pain, and God will comfort and guide you out of it, and then you can learn skills to have a better marriage from a position of strength, have more peace and joy, and become fully who He made you to be.”