Let’s face it – marriage can be a tough gig these days. Living in a culture that almost expects marriage to fail, couples wonder what they can do to immunise their relationship against the tragedy of divorce.
Marital resilience starts with a well-grounded understanding of what marriage is and what it isn’t.
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 must make them happy. So whenever they are not happy, they project their unhappiness onto their spouse, making their spouse responsible and adding stress to the relationship.
This mindset has been augmented in recent decades by an entitlement culture. We’ve been told that we have a right to be happy, that if we’re not happy we should do whatever we need in order to pursue it.
Yet, both psychologists and common sense recognise that happiness is internally driven. Rich people aren’t happier overall than people of average means for example. People who expect a lottery win to solve all their problems are almost always disappointed, because it’s not the amount of money that we have in absolute terms that makes us happy, but how well what we have measures up against what we expect or believe we need.
Similarly, 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’ (ie whole).
In other words, marriage is a pathway to personal and spiritual growth. Its purpose is not our individual happiness and fulfilment. 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 don’t happen in a vacuum. They happen in 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.
Marriages don’t break down because love dies. They break down because one or both spouses are blocked to growth and change. 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 do that.
There is nothing in the marriage vows that said we were obligated to make each other happy. This is because happiness is an outcome, not the purpose, of a life well spent. In marriage we are called to love each other generously, and when we do that, happiness usually follows.
Of course, marriage isn’t meant to make us unhappy and miserable. Misery happens when we handle these growth opportunities badly, inflicting unnecessary pain on each other.
Marriages seldom stand still. They are either going forward or backwards. A resilient marriage is one where spouses are intentional about their relationship; seeing challenges for what they are: choices to grow deeper in love rather retreat from each other. These couples know that when they work through a touch challenge their marriage is stronger, not weaker… not because of the challenge but because of how they chose to respond to it. This is the kind of resilience on which long-lasting marriage relies.