I thank God for my husband and the blessing he is to me. But we’re fallen, which means we both mess it all up – sometimes in spectacular ways. I don’t think we’re alone. So when it gets to this point, what’s to stop us jacking it in and starting over with someone new? What gives us the strength to stand, when every impulse screams ‘get out?’ I’m not talking here about circumstances where you or your children are in danger. I am talking about situations where one or both of you are seriously unhappy and it seems like there’s just one way out; and it’s not together.
Earlier this week, I was flicking through a problem page at the doctor’s surgery. A woman wrote in: ‘My husband and I have been happily married for ten years. I love him dearly and he’s my best friend. But physically, we seem to have lost our spark. What should I do?’ The agony aunt replied, essentially: ‘Life’s too short to settle for a sexless marriage. You need to end this and find someone new while you’re still young’.
I don’t agree. If we had taken this advice, our marriage wouldn’t have hobbled past honeymoon. Not just because physicality waxes and wanes (an eating disorder is not an invitation towards intimacy), but because falling out of love, (at least in the Hollywood sense), is an prerequisite for real love: for better, and for worse.
It’s easy to be romantic when you’re surrounded by roses. It’s easy to be generous when you’re showered with gifts. It’s easy to agree, when you want the same thing. It’s easy to love, when that love is returned. But when the honeymoon ends, when reality replaces hormones and your eyes meet over Weetabix instead of sunsets – that’s when you really start loving. And it’s why, as Christians, our marriages need three people instead of just two.
Larry Crabb is a counsellor with decades of experience. He says many relationships are a “tick on a dog.” This means that one spouse feeds off the other to give them their sense of worth and identity. The problem is, most marriages aren’t a union of two dogs or even, one dog and one tick. Left to ourselves it’s a case of two ticks, no dog. And when you’re both empty and both thirsty, ‘Hollywood love’ is no longer enough.
Marriages (and relationships generally), are hard work. Not “hard work” in the sense of annoying habits you learn to put up with. Open warfare, with words tossed like grenades and lives blown apart. Despair, loneliness and guilt. Anger and bewilderment. Times when, try as you might you cannot see any future.
At these times, how should we respond? Well, don’t be surprised and don’t panic. Marriage involves death! Husbands sacrifice for their wives like Christ for His church (Eph 5:25). Wives submit to their husbands (Eph 5:22). It feels like dying – and in a sense, you are – at least to your old self. And that’s how it’s meant to be. But Ephesians doesn’t begin with chapter 5. It begins with chapters 1-3. In the midst of your (normal) death-like marriage… there is resurrection life and grace from the One who rose from the dead and carries you with Him. Chapter 3 ends with the prayer that we will “know how wide and high and long and deep is the love of Christ.” (Eph 3:14-20) If you’re going to avoid being a “tick”, you’re going to need to fill up elsewhere. Jesus offers you “all the fullness of God” – and all of us need it, especially as we relate to those we love.
So is that it then? Just pray for grace? Not quite. Ephesians chapter 4 is all about church. This is the place where we “speak the truth in love” to one another (Ephesians 4:15). Marriages – ignoring all the hype – can be very lonely places and our church communities need to be shining light into those dark areas. When you and your partner just seem to be winding each other up, trusted friends in the church can be a vital lifeline – bringing perspective and hope and drawing you both out into community.
So if you’re finding it hard, don’t despair. There is Someone who completes you (and your spouse isn’t it). He gives us grace and He draws us into a community that along with our marriage, preaches the gospel to the world:
This mystery [of marriage] is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:32)