I remember the first time I sat before a married couple on the verge of divorce. As the contempt poured from their lips, my heart sank. My mind drifted back to all the weddings I had attended—how the bride and groom beamed, how they couldn’t wait to spend their lives together, and how they eagerly made vows to one another. I imagined that this couple’s wedding day was probably like this, too. I began to wonder, “How do two people go from the joy of their wedding day to the brink of divorce?”
There are many answers to this question. Situations can be complicated, the fault is often not evenly distributed between husband and wife, and sometimes it is biblically justified. The point of this post is not to wade into those weeds. I simply want to reflect on a few lessons I’ve learned since the day I began asking that question. What are some of the common factors in the breakdown of a marriage? Here are two of the most common:
We enter marriage with unrealistic expectations
Every one of us enters marriage with a vision of what it will look like and, if we’re honest, our vision is typically a fantasy. While dating and engaged, we can wear rose-colored glasses, underestimating both the weaknesses and sins of our future spouse and our own. Our dream for marriage rarely includes how hard it will be to agree to a budget, what it will feel like when our spouse says “no” to sex, the reality that marriage can feel lonely at times, how mundane daily life can feel like as the years go by, how our spouse’s weaknesses will profoundly impact us—not to mention the relational strain that comes through work pressure, raising kids, demanding schedules, and the challenges of aging.
Though we probably wouldn’t admit it, we typically enter marriage believing that we will always feel loving toward our spouse, that we will consistently feel deep intimacy with him or her, that this relationship will fulfill my deepest longings, etc. It is true that marriage can be wonderfully fulfilling and provide great joy, but it’s also true that it can be deeply painful. Whether we’re single, engaged, or married, we need to pay attention to our expectations. Are they realistic? Do they take into account the reality of life in a broken world?
We enter marriage with a distorted view of love
There might not be a more important question than, “What is love?” Every one of us is designed to experience it, and we all want it. At the same time, there might not be any other word that is more misunderstood. Part of the problem is that we use it in a wide variety of ways. I can say that I “love” Bazbeaux’s pizza and that I “love” my wife. I can say that I “love” basketball and that I “love” Jesus. We talk about falling in and out of love. Hopefully, we mean different things by these statements, but I fear that often it is very vague what we mean by love.
Here are just a few of the ways that we can distort “love”:
- Love means being nice and pleasing others
- Love is mainly or only a romantic feeling
- Love is a positive feeling of pleasure or enjoyment I get from someone or something
But God defines love differently by embodying it in Jesus himself. “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God…. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:7a, 9-10). Love means willingly giving of ourselves for the good of another without the demand that it be reciprocated. This is how God has loved us through Jesus. And in knowing this love, we are empowered to love our spouse. “We love because he first loved us” (4:19).
How would your marriage change if you committed to loving your spouse, not because of what they can do for you or how they make you feel, but because you are profoundly loved by Jesus and called to reflect that same love?