Why some marriages make it–against all expectations

My mother once asked if when couples come to see me with marriage plans, do I try to talk them out of it. She was teasing, but that’s not entirely a joke. If the preacher can, he perhaps ought to.

The problem is by the time they get to the pastor’s office, their minds are made up and no one can talk them into changing their plans. Unfortunately, in many cases, neither can you talk them into changing their mindsets.

But, we keep trying.

We preachers deliver sermonettes to them in the office, counsel them on what they’ve learned about themselves and each other, and hand them books to read, all in an attempt to get some new ideas into their minds and some growth into their relationship.

We give them Gary Chapman’s book, Five Love Languages, and say, “Don’t come back until you’ve read it. We’ll be talking about its insights at the next session.” Once, when the groom-to-be said he had not had the time to read it, I lowered the boom on him. “Remember I told you I’m not charging you anything for my services? Well, if I’m going to sacrifice a little, you ought to, also!” I looked at him and said sternly, “Read the book!”

Mom said, “Well, do you ever think about canceling your part in a wedding?” I said, “Every pastor thinks of it, but the reason we don’t is that we don’t know which marriages will make it and which won’t. Some I thought would last forever did not survive five years. And some I wouldn’t have given a plug nickel for have lasted forty years now.”

I thought of her own wedding to Dad. These days, many pastors would not have married them. Lois was 17, Carl was 21.  They hardly had a dime to their names, had had little actual preparation for marriage, and were actually being unequally yoked. If Dad was a Christian then, he wasn’t much of one. Mom, on the other hand, was raised in church. It was years before they came together on spiritual matters. And yet the marriage lasted. When Dad died, in November of 2007, they were looking toward their 74th anniversary and told each other–and anyone who would listen–how much they loved each other.

What makes a marriage work and actually last when from all appearances it doesn’t stand a chance? Here are some observations I’ve made over nearly six decades of joining couples in wedlock.

1. Someone must be determined to make this marriage work.

In the ceremony, I sometimes tell the couple that what makes them married is not anything I say, it’s not signing their names on legal papers, or any of the other activities that comprise this wedding. What makes them married is the commitments they are making to each other: “For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, til death do us part.”

There is no way to force a spouse to remain in a marriage if he/she wants out, but many a marriage has survived the toughest of tests because one of the partners was determined to hang tough and not walk away. Eventually, the other person came around, got his/her life straight, and they ended up with a marriage worthy of the name.

At a Christian college, a professor dropped by the president’s office. “I just wanted you to know,” the prof said, “I’m divorcing my wife.” The president said, “May I ask why?” He answered, “I don’t love her any more.” The president said, “Love? Man, marriage is not about love. Marriage is about commitment!”

That’s news to a lot of people. They think it’s about getting their needs met, having all the physical pleasure they want, someone “being there for me,” sharing expenses, or satisfying their parents and society.

Marriage is about commitment.

In this day when more and more people choose to live together without the formalities of marriage, we hear things like, “We don’t need a piece of paper to prove our love” and “This is a new day.” Maybe you don’t and maybe it is, but no one has ever improved on the original plan of a man and woman who decide to join their lives coming together in an open ceremony and making a public once-and-for-all commitment to seal the deal.

Years ago, when writing one’s own vows was all the rage, we sometimes ended up with some rather bizarre ceremonies. One couple informed me they did not want the phrase “until death do us part” in the service. The woman said, “So many people say it and then get a divorce, so they obviously don’t mean it. We’d like to be honest.”

I said, “What do you want to say?” She said, “So long as love shall last.”

I said, “That will be about Tuesday.”

She said, “What are you saying?” I said, “That there will be plenty of days you want to strangle each other and wonder what in the world you were thinking when you took this person. Your love has to be based on something stronger than whether you feel love at a particular moment.”

She said, “What do you suggest?” I said, “Until death do us part.” I explained, “In order for a marriage to work, you need to lock yourself in and throw away the key.”

Someone has said, “Divorce is like the escape hatch on a submarine. If you intend to descend into matrimonial waters, you’d better seal it off, otherwise you’ll not survive.”

2. Someone must be mature enough to control the tongue and not say everything he/she is thinking.

The groom and I had stood outside the sanctuary door for 15 minutes past the time when the wedding should have begun, waiting for our musical cue to enter. Finally, an usher rounded the building, found us outside on the steps, and said, “The bride isn’t here.” The groom was incredulous. “What do you mean she’s not here!”

The usher said, “She and her mother were still at the church decorating at 1 o’clock.” The wedding was to begin at two. “She was in her jeans, and they still had to get back to the air base to change.” The Air Force Base was eight miles up the highway.

Meanwhile, three hundred guests sat in the church auditorium fidgeting, looking at their watches, and waiting. We sent someone in to announce that all the wedding party had not arrived yet and we hoped to get started soon.

The groom grew more furious by the minute. I knew this marriage was in trouble if someone did not act fast.

While we waited, I gave it a try. “Hank, I need you to listen to me for a minute. Henrietta is going to arrive any minute and you two are going to get married. But you’re going to have to decide whether you want to ruin your honeymoon and start your marriage in the worst possible way. If you want to sabotage it, be sure to unload on her and give her a piece of your mind for the way she held up this wedding and embarrassed you.”

He was listening, but silent. I continued, “This may be the hardest thing you have ever done, Hank, but you need to bite your tongue and not mention this to her, at least for a couple of weeks. If you unload on her today, you’re going to have a fight and this is the worst possible time to fall out with one another.”

Unfortunately, Hank wasn’t able to control his anger. On the way to the reception, he told his bride exactly how he felt about her negligence. The air at the reception was frosty, the honeymoon was icy, and a polar freeze took over that marriage. They did not last a year.

3. Someone must be able to do a lot of forgiving.

I have a theory that by the time a couple has been married five years, they each have grounds for divorce by contemporary standards. If he kept up with every time she lost her temper, spoke harshly to him, did not keep her word, and failed in other ways to show true love to him, he would have quite a list. If she carried around a notebook and recorded every failure of his, in five years the incriminating evidence in that list would convince any judge.

So, throw away the notebook. Love does not keep account of wrongs (I Corinthians 13:5).

Ideally, both husband and wife are free and generous in forgiving failures and overlooking slights and offenses. But I don’t know any ideal marriages.

Marriages are all works in progress.

In a dysfunctional marriage where one partner forgives nothing, the other must forgive everything, otherwise the union will not last.

In the case of my parents, particularly in those early years when my Dad worked hard in the coal mines to provide for a family that would end up with six small children, but was given to weekend absences with his drinking buddies, it was my Mom who did the forgiving and overlooking. Eventually, he “came to himself,” as the Scripture says of the prodigal son (Luke 15:17), and became an equal partner in their marriage. But had Mom not been determined to stay in that marriage, had she not taken her commitment seriously, restrained her tongue, and done a tremendous amount of forgiving, they would not have made it past their third or fourth anniversary.

4. Someone must have hope and faith.

What keeps the struggling young wife and mother going when she’s getting no help from her husband but only stress and heartache? Why does she decide to stay with him when all her instincts and every friend tells her to get out?

There’s only one answer that makes sense: she has hope that it will not always be this way. She’s counting on God to answer her prayers and her husband to change.

Her faith in God gives her hope for her husband.

In my Dad’s case, it took a heart attack and a brush with death to awaken him to what was most important in his life–his family and his God. At the age of 49, he was forced to take disability for the rest of his long life. Gradually, we watched him mellow and mature, his character deepened and sweetened, and eventually he became the man Mom had bargained on when she married him many years earlier.

The good news is it doesn’t always take that long. I saw Cynthia sit in church with her small children and heard her prayers for her husband Russell. She adored that man–their love was never an issue–but things in his life were not right and the marriage existed under tremendous strain. As their pastor, I watched their son growing up without proper leadership and guidance from his father and could see the beginnings of trouble in his spirit.

Then, one day, Russell showed up in church alongside his family. Then he came more frequently. One Sunday morning, he was down the aisle to announce that he had received Jesus Christ as his Savior and Lord and was ready to be baptized. Soon, Russell blossomed as a believer and Cynthia beamed with the joy of seeing her husband lead out the way she had prayed for and the way God ordained.

I never told a soul, but I saw something else that was so thrilling: their young son got back on track, his attitude changed, and he became one of the nicest teenage boys in the congregation.

The correct order is faith in God if you would have hope for your husband.

A wife–or husband, either, for that matter–must never reverse that order and put your faith in your spouse. Ruth Bell Graham once said a failure of many wives is to expect their husband to be to them what only Jesus Christ can be.

Over the years, I’ve seen many a wife grow impatient in waiting for their husband to change his ungodly ways. It soon became clear that they had taken their eyes off the Lord and put them on their mate. It’s a sure recipe for frustration and failure.

Put your faith in God, not in your spouse. Let the Lord be your Lord, be faithful in the way you live and behave, believe in God’s promises, and look to Him for everything you’ll need to endure those sleepless nights, the tearful comings and goings, and the heartaches and frustrations life doles out.

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