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When Marriage Gets Tough
Believe it or not, there are some good reasons to stay married - even when you want to call it quits.By Dawn Yrene
"Divorce isn't the unforgivable sin," a friend hinted, not so subtly, after hearing my remorse over marrying a man with whom I had so little in common. From our first meeting and throughout our dating, Kevin and I had been proof that opposites attract. He was the wild type-a tattooed, leather-clad biker whose first love had been his Harley until he'd met Christ six months before meeting me. To be honest, Christ and the Harley still vied for first place. His closet was filled with bike parts, and the motorcycle "herself" rested in the middle of his living room when not in use. I, on the other hand, was a straight-laced "good girl" who listened to Christian music, worked a Christian job, and spoke fluent Christianese. I had my own "idols," though, and at 26, marriage was one of them.
Kevin and I met at a Christian singles retreat. By the end of the retreat, I'd made a new friend-but assured myself that was all. We were just too different to be more.
Kevin talked little, but when he did, it was often about the Bible. He was refreshingly genuine.
We began to pray and attend Bible study together. After a few months, he proposed. Despite all the good memories we were making, we were also beginning to disagree often. I assured myself, however, that marriage would make us "one" on issues of childrearing, spending, and the many other annoying differences we faced.
As any married person could have told me, that was an erroneous assumption. Marriage only magnified our differences. We fought regularly, and our life together hurt. Soon I found myself pondering my friend's advice. After all, I reasoned, Christians aren't perfect. What if I married the wrong person? Why stay married if it's all about fighting? Why be unhappy?
In my questioning, a small inner voice reminded me what I'd prayed shortly before I met Kevin: "Lord, instead of looking for a man who fits my list of wants, give me a man who needs me as his helper, as Adam needed Eve." Despite our differences, Kevin needed a helper, and the helper God had selected was me. I, too, needed Kevin to balance me, challenge me, and encourage me to trust God. Through the painful trials of marriage, especially our frequent, severe arguments over spending, in-laws, disciplining our children, and even trivialities such as how much and which TV programs to watch, God was purifying me, teaching me to obey his desires even when it wasn't comfortable. He was also rewarding me in quiet ways only I could see-a psalm that comforted me, a brilliant sunrise that reminded me of his greatness, a sermon that seemed tailored to my situation.
Nearly 13 years and 5 children later, I've found that my difficult marriage has blessed me with great happiness as well as the strength to endure great pain. Kevin and I are still more like black and white than gray. We need Christ to hold us together. But our roller coaster ride has shown me that, contrary to worldly opinions, there are good reasons to stay in a difficult marriage.
We all have prisons. Whether it's a nagging temptation, a tormented past, sickness, poverty, loneliness, or a difficult marriage-we all have situations that at times make us feel trapped. The apostle Paul showed us how to cope with these feelings: writing from a jail cell he said, "I have learned to be content whatever the ircumstances" (Philippians 4:11). Paul's repeated trips to prison didn't prevent him from worshiping God. Being bound to an incompatible spouse doesn't have to stop us from thanking God while in our "prison" of a difficult marriage, experiencing peace, and receiving the good gifts God wants to give us daily. We have a choice: we can focus on God's blessings and lessons for us, or we can harbor anger, which eventually turns to hatred and bitterness. In 1 John, the apostle John says hatred, if left unchecked, will cause us to stumble (2:10), and keep us from loving God (4:20).
The times I considered divorcing my husband, I knew I'd ultimately be exchanging one prison for another. Not only would I be separating my children from a parent they love-placing more pressure and guilt on me as a mother-but bitterness and unforgiveness could create its own kind of trap. As the old saying goes, "Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars-a cage."
Difficulties make us better people. We all hate suffering. But without it, who would we be? When Kevin and I married, I was a chronic people-pleaser. When my attempts to win Kevin's unceasing approval-by wearing my hair a certain way or apologizing every time I sensed he was angry-failed, my painful emotions turned me to God, who became my strength. I eventually learned to care more about God's opinion of me. I may not have learned that lesson otherwise. The more I sought God's approval during those dark days, the more Kevin softened toward me-and me toward him. We've both learned God can take a heart of stone and make it flesh (Ezekiel 36:26). Those years of suffering have made us more considerate parents, friends, and mates.
Difficulties strengthen our prayer lives. The Bible makes it clear that God wants people to stay married. Yet he hasn't made marriage particularly easy. When our vows are tested with sickness, poverty, or tough times, it's only by crying out to God in our inadequacy that difficult marriages can change and grow. During our darkest moments, the psalms remind us God understands our situation and will help. In my marriage, the times forgiveness has been hardest have also been the times I've experienced God's rewards in the most amazing ways. Isaiah 64:4-5 says, "No eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him. You come to the help of those who gladly do right."
My marriage is undeniably better when I pray for my spouse. With this incentive, I've learned to pray for everything: simple blessings for God's mercy and peace in our home; complicated requests, such as how to communicate in a way Kevin will understand; and even prayers I don't really want to pray-that I may recognize my sin, and that God will change me into the wife Kevin needs. When I pray honestly, I discover God's answer is always "yes."
Staying married teaches us how to forgive. If there's one thing marriage has taught me, it's how to seek and grant forgiveness. Kevin, who'd suffered two divorces as an unbeliever, recently told me how freeing it is to be able to ask forgiveness and receive it. He said in his previous marriages, the word forgiveness was never mentioned. I've also learned firsthand the truth of Christ's words in Luke 7:47: "Her many sins have been forgiven-for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little."
I can choose to love my spouse out of love for Christ. Often it comes down to a simple choice: Will I hold on to bitterness, or will I love Jesus enough to put another's needs before my own-even if that person has wounded me to the core? Will I be kind to a spouse who doesn't return my kindness because the Lover of my soul asks me to, or will I bail out? If my spouse is a gift from God-a part of my walk with Christ-someone who can test my love for God on a regular basis, I will be able to forgive even when he seriously disappoints me. When I truly forgive Kevin for hurts he regrets causing, his love for me grows. In the same way, I love him more when he forgives me.
There's a way that seems right ... but isn't. A difficult marriage can seem like a mistake-but it may not be. Our spouse may be the best person to teach us to die to self as Christ commanded in Mark 8:35. Our needs and wants may differ sexually, communicatively-even our TV preferences can collide! In marriages where the list goes much further, from the simple differing preferences in food, holiday traditions, denominational affiliation, and cultural background, to the more complex differences of finances and spiritual life, divorce may seem like the right choice. But Proverbs 14:12 says sometimes what seems right leads to death. Occasionally after a fight, I've thought, I'll never allow him to hurt me like that again. I believed that turning off my feelings would protect me. Instead, closing myself from my husband hardens my heart and kills the inner beauty God is perfecting in me through pain. Our differences have caused many tears, especially in trying to rear emotionally healthy, happy children. But if we trust God, we can believe that divorce, while it may seem logical at times, would only destroy the good results God wants to produce in all of us.
Feelings that are absent now may not be in the future. Some couples find bitterness and resentment have made it impossible to love each other. Yet Jesus said, "With God all things are possible" (Matthew 19:26). Both Kevin and I have reached low points where it seemed we could never love each other again. Miraculously, we later found our union had become such a team, a friendship, and a wonderful romance, that we felt unworthy and amazed at God's ability to restore. Utter hatred can become passionate love when we submit those feelings to God and let obedience override the desire of the moment. When I was pregnant with our third child, Kevin seemed hopeless as he expressed how alienated he felt when I focused my attention on our two young children. His confession only added to my resentment that he wanted more of me instead of offering to change diapers. But my resentment faded several months later when birth complications nearly took my life. I could hear Kevin's heartfelt prayer for me to live as he held my hand. We both realized each day we had together was a precious opportunity to love.
My marriage shouldn't be my entire life. God has other jobs, talents, and good works (Ephesians 2:10) planned for each of us. In a difficult marriage, God may bring relief through an outside occupation or a special calling. He may use our hurts to minister to others who suffer. Focusing only on our marriage can cause us to miss out on the good God wants to do through and for us. My friend Sheryl is married to an unbeliever, but he isn't her "project." She loves him, but also loves teaching the high schoolers at church. Because she can't enjoy prayer and Bible study with him, she appreciates her time with the teens all the more. In my case, writing has been an enjoyable outlet and ministry during the tough seasons of marriage.
I can choose to see the good in my spouse. In every situation or person, there are good and bad aspects on which we can focus. 1 Thessalonians 5:18 says to give thanks in all circumstances. When I wanted our yard fenced a few years ago, Kevin and I disagreed. He didn't feel we could afford it. I wanted protection for our kids. Finally, he put up a six-foot chain link fence, even though I told him I didn't like chain link. Years later, when I look at that fence, I can feel angry at his choice, or thank God that Kevin sacrificed time, sweat, and money to keep our kids safe. I can also remember that men and women often think they've communicated clearly, when the opposite sex heard a completely different message. Maybe he didn't think chain link was that big a deal to me. Maybe it was on sale. Maybe he tuned out during that part of the conversation. When marriage is tough, there's still an opportunity to find my spouse's good qualities and thank God for them-despite the imperfections.
Help is available. Studies show that couples who take positive steps toward resolving conflict, such as taking a "time out," have happier marriages. While Kevin and I found there were plenty of people willing to counsel us during our challenging years, some gave more helpful advice than others. We sought professional Christian counseling, where we learned how to listen, repeat, and understand each other. We also attended weekend marriage seminars, which helped us shed some of the masks we wore to hide our faults, fears, and feelings from each other.
Thankfully, Kevin's Harley no longer resides in the living room. He sold it a year after we married to pay for our daughter's birth. Now we have a pet rabbit and five rowdy children in its place. Lately he's been browsing the Internet for another motorcycle.
I don't know what I'd do if he brought it into our living room. But we've made it over enough hurdles with God's help that I hope we wouldn't let a little thing like a Harley in the living room get in the way of a happy marriage.
With all our differences, we make too good a team. In fact, I've come to believe that, with God's help, differences and difficulties can be the recipe for a truly great marriage.
Dawn Yrene, a freelance author, lives in New Mexico.
Copyright © 2004 by the author or Christianity Today International/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for information on Marriage Partnership.Fall 2004,Vol. 21,No. 3,Page 44