For the most part, people get married these days because they believe it will make them happy, and that’s ok. Marriage is supposed to be a joyful relationship. But, a lot of folks discount a very important piece of marriage that makes it a joyful experience. They underestimate, or completely ignore, the formative aspect of marriage. That is, they expect to settle into a relationship where they are loved and coddled and not expected to make any changes. Growth cannot take place without change. Change is not always easy or fun. People generally want their marriages to be fun and easy, not challenging or something to work at.
When working with couples, I sometimes use a vegetable garden analogy. I ask the couple to imagine that they decided to start a big vegetable garden in order to enjoy fresh veggies that they both like. The garden will be of a size that requires the work of two people. Then I have them list all the things that would be required to keep the garden healthy. They will need to provide water, sunlight, and fertilizer. The ground must be tilled (hoe, hoe, hoe!). Weeds, insects and animals will need to be kept at bay. The vegetables will need to be harvested, cleaned and prepared before being enjoyed. In other words, it takes a lot of consistent work to reap the benefits that are so pleasurable. One person cannot do it alone without part of the garden withering. Want a great garden? Expect lots of work from both of you!
So, marriage takes work. We hear that often, but neglect to embrace it. We don’t want to work, we want to be loved and coddled. This is where the formative part comes in. Work builds character. Individuals with character have a better chance of a happy marriage. There are lots of unhappy marriages because people lack character. They want to eat the vegetables, but they don’t want to work in the garden. They have not discovered their innate love of work and character-building. Humans are not naturally opposed to work when it yields a reasonable reward. Work is a healthy, fulfilling aspect of personhood.
We do not usually hear someone say, “I can’t wait to get married so that I can learn to love the work involved and build my character!” No, people want the romance and the sex, but not the work. They want the unconditional love, but they don’t want to love unconditionally. They want their spouses to sacrifice for them, but they don’t want to live sacrificially. They want respect, but they aren’t respectful. They look at marriage with a “what’s-in-it-for-me” attitude instead of asking, “What’s best for this marriage God has given us?” They scrutinize or covet other marriages instead of working in their own “garden.”
To “grow old together” implies that some growth will take place. Growth means change and change can be difficult. “For better or for worse” is not just a romantic notion. It means that you are choosing to enter a relationship that may challenge you in ways you never could have imagined. These challenges may be emotional, spiritual or physical. You will need to mature and grow as an individual. You will need to be accountable to your spouse and hold your spouse accountable when it comes to nurturing the marriage. You will need to bend your will to God, the institutor of marriage (as in Ephesians chapter 5). You will need to forgive and ask for forgiveness. You must swallow your pride and seek genuine, godly humility without degrading yourself. You must not try to thwart God’s total design for marriage, including the procreative aspect.
The better you become as a person, the better your marriage will be. Focus on the changes you need to make, not things your partner needs to improve. God is the potter, and we are the clay. Let it be! God will surely use your spouse to mold you. Some of it will be fun, and some of it might be grueling. All of it will find an ultimate reward in this life or the next. Marriage is a vocation. The goal is for spouses to help each other and their children on the road to sainthood. Faith, hope and love; the greatest is love (a godly, sacrificial charity), and that is where true happiness abides, for God is love.