Marriage can be a tough gig these days. We live in a culture that almost expects marriages to fail and so it is more important than ever that we take steps to immunise our relationships against divorce. We need to build our marital resilience.
How can we do this? It starts with a well-grounded understanding of what marriage isn’t and what it truly is.
Firstly, marriage isn’t a ticket to happiness. A lot of couples get themselves into trouble because they make a very simple mistake: they expect marriage to make them happy.
In practice, this mindset translates into an expectation that their spouse will make them happy. So whenever they are not happy, they project their unhappiness onto the other, making their spouse responsible and introducing an unfair strain to the marriage.
This mindset has been augmented by our entitlement culture. We’ve been told that we have a right to be happy and that if we’re not happy we should do whatever we can in order to pursue it.
In time, this expectation becomes a demand, and then an ultimatum: if you don’t improve so I can be happy, I’m leaving.
Yet, both psychologists and common sense recognise that happiness is internally driven. If we expect our spouse to make us happy and meet all our needs, we’ll not only be disappointed, we’ll put an impossible burden on them and our marriage.
Here’s the thing: marriage isn’t meant to make us happy, it’s meant to make us better, more mature, more holy.
There is nothing in the marriage vows that said we were obligated to make each other happy. In marriage, we are called to love each other generously, and when we both do that and do it well, gratitude and fulfilment usually follow.
But it’s more the giving of love that generates happiness than the receiving of it.
And, heaven knows, sometimes, giving love is not easy! The other might be grumpy or rude or difficult in a thousand possible ways. Learning to love is challenging and this is what marriage is meant to do: teach us how to love and to grow in virtue.
In other words, marriage is a pathway to personal and spiritual growth. This means that at times it’s going to stretch our tolerance and test our patience.
And this is a good thing! This is how we mature.
Personal growth and spiritual maturity happen through lived experiences, especially in the stress points and disappointments of life. It’s easy to be kind and pleasant when everything is going well in our life; anyone can do that.
Real growth comes when we learn to be that way when we are hurt and challenged.
And it’s when we are growing that we feel most content and fulfilled. It’s when we are growing that we become holier.
Marriages don’t break down because love dies. They break down because one or both spouses are blocked to growth. They break down because one or both refuse to recognise that they are responsible for their own happiness and undertake the internal growth needed to deal with their unhappiness.
This is not to say that marriage is meant to make us miserable! Misery happens when we handle these growth opportunities badly, inflicting unnecessary pain on each other.
Conversely, when we embrace growth, we take responsibility for our own happiness and we’re less likely to blame the other and make each other miserable. This openness to growth is a fundamental quality of a successful marriage. It’s what builds our marital resilience.
A resilient marriage is one where spouses see challenges for what they are: an invitation to grow deeper in love rather than a reason to retreat from each other. These couples know that when they work through a tough challenge their marriage will be stronger, not weaker. They know that they can rely on each other to keep growing.
In a resilient marriage, even in difficult times, we are can be confident that it will pass because we know that things can, and will, get better.
Marriage is a bit like riding a bicycle. If we stand still, chances are we’ll fall off. However, if we keep moving forward, growing as a person, the bike stays balanced and we can enjoy the exhilaration of a marriage that is flourishing because we, as spouses, are flourishing.