real life

This is how I make my marriage work

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Picture this:  It’s the first magnificent day of spring.  You’re standing barefoot on warm, white sand in front of 150 witnesses, your hand resting in the crook of your dad’s arm moments before he’ll give you in marriage to the man of your dreams.  A pastor is delivering a beautiful sermon about eternal love when your father leans down and whispers “Don’t ever forget, marriage can be bloody depressing too.”

Come again?!  Like a record needle skidding across vinyl, I was shockingly jarred back to my senses.  I know my dad said it because he loves me.  But it was still a good four years before I believed him, and another five before I told my husband.

Anyone who’s been married for more than a few minutes knows very well that the pre-marital blissed-out-sparkly-love-fest slowly dissolves into a never-mind-the-dermatitis-can-you-check-that-mole-humdrum soon enough.  And most of us just accept it – I know I did!  At a certain point in my marriage I decided that our love for each other had settled down (matured?) and that it was completely normal to feel a bit disengaged and niggly with my husband.  Some days he’d irritate the hell out of me and I’d needle him and we’d fight … but then we’d call a kind of truce and I’d reassure myself that this was normal too.  And it was.

It was slightly inconvenient then, that a couple of years ago I stumbled upon the words of Dietrick Bonhoeffer, a German pastor martyred by the Nazis.  In a famous wedding sermon written from his jail cell for his niece and her fiancé, Bonhoeffer says: “In your love you see only the heaven of your own happiness, but in marriage you are placed at a post of responsibility towards the world and mankind. Your love is your own private possession, but marriage is more than something personal – it is a status, an office.  Just as it is the crown, and not merely the will to rule, that makes the king, so it is marriage, and not merely your love for each other, that joins you together in the sight of God and man … It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.”

I don’t think I’m the only wife who has decided that, for the sake of the children, she should only push her husband ‘so far’.  That she should only dream for ‘that much’.  And that she should only examine her marriage ‘this closely’.  Too far, too much or too close and it might all unravel.  Bonhoeffer’s words were like a bucket of cold water to all that.  The challenge was thrown: I dare you to take your marriage seriously.  I dare you to love your husband like you did when you were in “the heaven of your own happiness” because it’s not just your kids who are along for the ride; it’s “the world and mankind.” The world and mankind.  Really?  Who does this guy think he is?!

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Anyway, I contemplated Bonhoeffer’s advice.  For a long time I struggled with it because it seemed so worthy, so idealistic, so wonderful … yet I couldn’t see how my reality could ever reflect his philosophy. Even though I had a good-enough marriage, I wondered whether it was the kind that would sustain my love for my husband, or whether I’d forever be generating feelings of love through dogged determination.   Surprisingly though, it was the realisation of this dilemma that empowered me to remedy it.

My marriage, I’m grateful to say, is becoming my sanctuary.  I began to change it by looking other marriages – notably those of some older, wiser friends who radiate a kind of contentment and devotion that I admire.  And I noticed that many of these couples are generous in their love, not only towards each other, but to everyone in their sphere of influence.  There is enough love to go around.  They share their time, their home and their table because they know abundance.  In their spouse they suffer no lack of attention, compassion or understanding.

I don’t know if my friends deliberately chose to serve ‘the world and mankind’ as a means to enhance their marriages, or if it’s their strong partnerships that allow them to give ceaselessly and generously.  It’s probably a beautiful orchestration of these two elements, and something they’ve worked at for years despite the inevitable ‘depressing’ moments.  In any case, I’ll consider my marriage a successful one if it generates a flame that not only warms my heart, but that burns bright enough to draw the hungry, the helpless and the heartbroken to its light.

How do you make your relationships work ? Have you learned anything about relationships from those around you? And if you are not in a relationship now what lessons would you take into a new relationship?

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