There will be mistakes. We will make errors and we will mess up in this marriage business. Obstacles and challenges will be part of every romance. The critical issue is how we respond to these inevitable stumbles.
We attended a beautiful wedding recently in country NSW and came away inspired by the depths of faith and authentic love embodied by the bride and groom. The prayers in the wedding liturgy, the speeches and the story of their romance have provided us several ideas for this column which we will unpack over the coming months.
One of the things mentioned was the idea of making altars from their stumble-stones. Making stumble-stone altars… it’s not often that a simple phrase can immediately communicate something profound, but this is surely one of them.
Stumble-stones: not stones that have stumbled, but stones that make us stumble. They come in all shapes and sizes and each represent their own peril to our marriage.
Pebbles, Rocks and Boulders
Some stumble-stones are a regular underfoot – a constant nagging, pebbly character flaw that pushes its way into our relationships without invitation.
It might be a propensity to impatience, laziness, dishonesty, self-pity or any number of minor deficits in our character. Nothing catastrophic, just rough edges on our developing virtue.
Like loose gravel on a footpath, these stumble-pebbles undermine our footing, slowing us down and eroding our ability to love authentically. They seem harmless enough, too small to be a serious threat, until they become the cause of serious discontent in our relationship and upend us.
We are often struck by how trivial some of the complaints seem to be in a troubled marriage: he leaves his clothes on the floor, she doesn’t refill the car, he dominates the remote control, she loses the keys, etc. (or in our case he dominates the remote and loses the keys!)
None of these alone are sufficient cause for serious upset, but many little pebbles can become quite a load of irritation, each incident adding another pebble to the pile.
A single, minor character flaw for which we fail to apologise or seek to address, can easily become a ‘stumble-rumble’ that steals the joy from our marriage and makes it vulnerable to other, more serious threats.
The bigger threats
Then there are the larger, stumble-rocks that represent major assaults on our marriage. These might be an external event like a job loss, the death of a loved one or a global pandemic. Some are internal, like a health challenge, an infidelity incident or the discovery of a major deception.
Like a trouble-maker throwing rocks at passing cars, these stumble-rocks hurl through our lives at unexpected times and cause havoc.
If our marriage is in reasonable shape, such rocks can pull us closer as we knuckle down together to face the new challenge. For example, we received an email this week from a man whose home and investment property were both at risk of foreclosure due to the pandemic lockdowns. Yet he rejoiced that he and his wife were closer than ever because of this.
If our marriage is already weak from too many stumble-pebbles, an event such as this can be catastrophic. Like being caught in a landslide, we are swept along and personal survival takes priority over rebuilding our bruised and broken marriage.
And the stumble-boulders? These are truly massive issues like addictions and serious mental health disorders that plough through our lives and crush our capacity to create a genuine partnership of equality and intimacy.
Like glacial boulders that carve out valleys and reshape the landscape, these challenges cannot be overcome by the couple alone, but need professional expertise and community support if the marriage is to survive them.
Whatever the nature of our stumble-stones, it’s how we respond to them that makes the difference between a derelict marriage and a holy one.
Earlier this year, we were coaching a man who was working to save his marriage. He willingly recognised that he had been too focussed on his work and had neglected his wife. He was sincerely trying to reform his behaviours and to recover his marriage.
In situations like this, in addition to practical strategies, we always address the spiritual warfare that is going on. We were encouraged to hear that he had already sought out spiritual direction and was bringing all his concerns to the Lord in prayer.
We can’t predict whether our marriage will recover from major difficulties, or the accumulation of smaller ones. What we do know, is that our chances are better when we invite God into our struggles and make our suffering an offering.
And even if we fail to save our marriage, we will still have grown in holiness and will be in better shape to support our children by being dedicated to doing this journey with God.
In fact, the longer we have been married, the more convinced we have become, that the only way to sustain our marriage, is to rely on God’s grace. There are many, many fault-lines in our relationship. Any one of them could be a major risk to our ongoing unity.
Our dependency on God sustains us, especially when things are tough in our lives and between us. His presence is as necessary now as it was at the beginning of our romance. We’ve learnt that every difficulty we face, every disappointment we cause, every hurt we suffer, and every injury we cause – all need to be offered up and surrendered to God.
That’s really what is happening when we choose to let go of an irritation or a disappointment, when we choose to forgive, when we choose to refrain from criticism or hit back – we are making an offering to God on our stumble-stone altar.
We prefer, therefore, to see the stumble-stones in our marriage as blessings rather than problems; as a means of building something together – a marriage that includes God as an integral part of our relationship.
Over years of loving, our stumble-stone altar amasses more and more stones. Each one is a tribute to our marital resilience and a reminder that God walks with us in both our difficulties and triumphs.