Written by Benjamin Deu, MA, LMHC, Seattle Christian Counseling
References “Intimacy & Desire” by Dr. David Schnarch
Think of your relationship like a plant. Plants are made to thrive and make more plants, but you need to handle them a certain way for this to happen. It’s not the plant’s fault if it dies. It’s yours. Marriage is the same. Just as it would be unreasonable to expect a plant to survive if you never watered it or let it get full of worms, you cannot do certain things in marriage and expect it to survive. You also have to respect the development of a plant. You will not get fruit before flowers. Like plants, marriage follows certain development stages that must be respected.
1. The initial passion fades
This is basic biology. You will not maintain that “can’t eat, can’t sleep” feeling of romantic obsession over the course of your relationship. This does not mean you no longer love your partner; your body is just doing what it is supposed to. “Romantic love is time-limited and doomed to fade. Your brain cannot maintain this revved-up state for long.” The purpose of romantic love is not to help you find a stable, enduring partnership. It’s to propel you to find a mate, secure them, and create offspring. (24-25) As fun as it feels, could you imagine being that wound-up and distracted for the rest of your life? You would never get anything done. You would wear yourself out thinking about your beloved.
2. Sexual desire problems are inevitable
During the first year or two of your relationship, that hormonal euphoria keeps you and your spouse dragging each other back into the bedroom. However, your brain eventually goes back to normal and you start seeing each other in a more realistic light.
It may seem like a sad loss that the “honeymoon” period doesn’t last. But your relationships will be better for it. As Ecclesiastes 3 says, “To everything there is a season.” God designed the preliminary euphoria of marriage to fade so that you would find something more substantial to support it with– intimacy.
It is not much of a trick to stay together when everything your partner does is “so cute!” But it takes substance and strength to maintain that love through decades of injuries, arguments, and reconciliations. It’s like the difference between talent and effort. Talent may give you a jump-start on success, but it takes hard work and perseverance to prolong that success.
3. Relationships push the best in you to stand up
The stretch of road between the end of the honeymoon period and getting the hang of “regular” marriage is a rocky one. A lot of couples depend on what Schnarch calls “borrowed functioning” to prop up their marriage. Borrowed functioning is basically where you and your spouse manipulate one another into stroking your ego. People tend to look to others for validation about their intelligence, attractiveness, and likability, and no resource is mined for validation more than your spouse.
For example– if you initiate sex with your mate, but they turn you down, it crushes you because rely on their eager response to reassure you that you’re sexually appealing. Or you may berate your spouse into feeling bad and apologizing for minor errors because it reassures you that you’re the “better” person and in control. Think of borrowed functioning as if you and your spouse were balloons and you relied on each other to keep blowing you up to remain inflated.
You and your spouse continue to inflate one another in order to maintain peace until a time comes when you no longer can. It either requires too much of a personal compromise or you are sick of it. This leads to a lot of divorces. Spouses get stuck in this rut and don’t know how to get out. What they have been doing is the only method they know, so they keep spinning their tires deeper and deeper until the marriage falls apart. This is when seeing a professional Christian counselor for your marriage problems can be marriage-saving. Especially because you probably don’t want to divorce this person, you want to divorce your problems. Christian counseling can help you see how you are both contributing to your problems, and what you can do to stop.
4. Tolerate pain for growth
Schnarch likes to talk about making marriage pain work for you. The reason people have marriage problems is not that marriage is flawed, it’s that people are flawed. For your marriage to survive, you must identify how your personalities contribute to the destruction of your marriage. This can be painful. Generating personal growth is hard. It involves accepting ugly truths about yourself and trying to change them. But it is necessary if you want this or any other marriage to work. Trials are how God matures us, “Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction.” (Isaiah 48:10 NKJV) Just as a fire is necessary to burn all the impurities out of precious metals, so difficulty is required to help us remove our weaknesses and vices.
“Being able to endure the pain and heartache of relationships makes marriage, families, parenting, and caring for others possible… It’s easier to tolerate when your pain and heartache is meaningful, when it serves some purpose, or value, or something good might come out of it.” (73) There will be times when marriage is difficult and painful, no one likes to fantasize about that part, but it’s true. You can either endure an excruciating divorce, or endure an excruciating period of personal growth and marriage salvation.
Honeymoon-period-ends Flickr user rgallant photography
Make-Marriage-Last Flickr user Francisco osorio