By Benjamin Deu, MA, LMHC, Seattle Christian Counseling
References “The Meaning of Marriage” by Timothy Keller with Kathy KellerPeople enter marriage motivated by two conflicting feelings: they’re driven by the certainty that they will always love like this, and they’re driven by the uncertainty that they won’t have as much time as they want together. It is a heady urgency of “we have to seize this now, so we can have as much of it as possible.” Unfortunately, what they want is not possible. Even if you stay married, you will not have the same partner, or relationship, down the road. People change, and your marriage is not immune to that.
If you are not convinced, think about the person you were at 17. Now 25. Now 38. How much did each of those people have in common with one another? Probably, not much. Life changes our friends, our hobbies, even our personalities. This is why the Keller’s wrote a chapter titled, “Loving the Stranger,” in their book, “The Meaning of Marriage.”
Shining the proper light on Marriage
I once heard someone say pre-marital counseling is like talking to two drunks. They are so overwhelmed with romantic obsession they cannot see straight. Then a couple years pass, and the brain chemicals wear off. They are astounded to realize their spouse is not the perfect being they thought they were. They feel duped. They begin to rack up a list of their partner’s flaws, while simultaneously wondering whether they could have been happier with someone else. Keller suggests this “betrayal” happens because people get married for the wrong reasons. They look for a soul mate who will complete and support them, and are disappointed when their partner has their own agenda.
For people who expect marriage to be an unending source of validation, this is a serious problem. For people who understand marriage is one of earthly experiences God uses to make people more like Christ, this is just part of the process. While marriage offers some of the greatest joy and communion this side of Heaven, it is also one of the ways God molds us into better people– a frightening prospect. Becoming a better person is hard. You may not like your flaws, but it’s easy to find excuses for them. Marriage shines a big ol’ spotlight on the cisterns of your soul, and forces you to clean them out. (135-136)
Marriage Fantasy vs. Marriage Reality
“What if you expected marriage to be about helping each other grow out of your sins and flaws and into the new self God is creating? Then you will actually be expecting the ‘stranger’ seasons, and when you come to one you will roll up your sleeves and get to work.” (136) It is not much of a trick for Keller to advise people to do this. But it is entirely another thing to keep from doubting whether you should stay with someone when your relationship seems to have none of the passion it once did. Especially after you have been told your entire life that “true love” is effortless and eternal.
Falling in love is not hard. Staying in love is. “The first part of making your marriage into a relationship that enhances growth is to accept this inherent feature of married life. Marriage by its very nature has the ‘power of truth’– the power to show you the truth about who you are.” (140) As Keller points out, couples tend to be on their best behavior during the early period of their relationship. They want to make a good impression, and the intensity of their affection drives them to bend over backwards for one another. As you get more comfortable with one another, and the euphoria wears off, you start revealing more of your less lovable side.
This is when the work of marriage begins. “The merged life of marriage brings you into the closest, most inescapable contact with another person possible. And that means not only that you see each other close up, but you are forced to deal with the flaws and sins of one another… No one else is as inconvenienced and hurt by your flaws as your spouse is.” (138-9) Wow, that sounds kind of depressing doesn’t it? But how else can you become more like Christ if you are not confronted with the ways in which you are not like him? And no one is better equipped to do this than a spouse.
Marriage as a people-fixing Machine
This is why enduring the discomfort of the “stranger seasons” is vital for the success of your relationship and your growth as a believer. On one hand it is an exercise in selflessness– loving someone you find unlovable. On the other, it is an opportunity to be confronted with your shortcomings, so you can correct them.
As Keller quoted a client speaking to her husband, “I’m going to be like Jesus has been with us–accepting us in love but not allowing us to destroy ourselves with sin.” (142)
Keller describes this necessary marital toiling as keeping truth and love together. Spouses must use truth to speak to the hurtful ways their spouse falls short in the marriage. They must use love to keep the confrontation from seeming like an attack. “One of the most basic skills in marriage is the ability to tell the straight, unvarnished truth about what your spouse has done–and then, completely, unself-righteously, and joyously express forgiveness without a shred of superiority, without making the other person feel small.” (165)
Relationships are how God molds us into his image. We learn sacrifice by caring for our mate and marriage when we don’t feel like it. We learn compassion by dealing with the faults of others. We learn humility by being confronted with our own weaknesses. And we learn discipline by tackling these shortcomings.
“Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.” (Eph. 4:15 NIV)
Christian Counseling for strained Marriages
If you struggle with feeling like your spouse has become a stranger, or dealing with your respective shortcomings, consider making an appointment with a professional Christian marriage counselor. Marital valleys can be discouraging. You may question whether you truly belong together, and whether you will ever climb out of this low spot. A professional Christian counselor can help you discover what led you into this valley, and how you can get yourselves out of it.
“Stranger seasons” are a natural part of relationships; find a professional Christian marriage counselor who can help you reconnect and work through serious marriage problems.
Valleys in marriage Flickr user Library of Congress
Spouse-is-a-stranger Flickr user Ed Yourdon
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