Marriage: to be happy or to be holy?
”… And they lived happily ever after”… it’s the ending of the fairy tale love story and has become the expected story line of most modern day couples. Swept away by passion and the overwhelming experience of ‘falling in love’, couples expect the wedding to seal their happiness in permanent (and effortless) marital bliss. Of course, reality is different.
Like all temporary euphoric ‘highs’, the infatuation high eventually passes also. In a few years ‘the perfect mate’ has become ‘a horrible mistake.’ How can it be that what began with such high aspiration seems so regularly to have a different outcome? A key reason is that this modern romantic story-line when combined with the self-entitlement culture, twists our understanding of marriage and its purpose. Most people today view the purpose of marriage as mutual self-fulfilment; they expect their spouse to make them happy. The self-entitlement culture tells them that they have a right to happiness.
Obviously no one wants to be unhappy and so the only logical conclusion for any marital unhappiness must be that it is their spouse’s fault. In this understanding, unhappiness signals the failure of the marriage. And so begins the misdirected process of trading one spouse in for another… and another and another. For as long as people look to marriage to be a permanent fix for their unhappiness, they will unwittingly overload each other with impossible expectations. In the Judaeo-Christian tradition the purpose of marriage is not to make one happy, it’s to make one holy.
In layman’s terms, this simply means it is meant to help us become better persons; more loving, generous, mature individuals. When we study successful marriages we see that the spouses are more concerned with giving love rather than getting it. Each spouse is continually growing both emotionally and spirituality, supported by their reciprocal gift-of-self. Happiness is therefore the obvious consequence, but this is different to saying it is its purpose. Couples who marry expecting their spouse to fulfil their every need condemn themselves to guaranteed disappointment.
Reorientating our expectations about marriage is not the same as lowering them; think of it as re-inverting our upside-down understanding. Marriage is one of life’s greatest adventures! When properly focused, it has the potential to bring deep fulfilment and joy. When we orientate our expectations towards giving love and living in mutual loving service of each other we’ll be far more likely to have a marriage that both endures and satisfies. Moreover, we’ll both be happier for it!