That blessed arrangement ...

Wednesday, 04 March, 2009

Marriage: I keep thinking it ought to have a manual. And then I keep thinking how impractical and impossible that would be. Still, the thought goes 'round and 'round in my head, surfacing every so often as the various bits and pieces currently occupying my consciousness bond and twist together to form threads outlining what I've really been thinking.

I've just finished the Twilight series (and the temptation is to regurgitate more word vomit, but I think I'll spare you. For now). Let me reveal something slightly spoiler-ish: Edward proposes to Bella. It's not a big deal and you were probably expecting it anyway, but what interests me is Bella's reaction: she's so typically child-of-divorce because, initially, the whole idea freaks her out. She loathes it. She'd rather do anything but (which is sort of ironic because spending forever with Edward is what she wants). But you have to remember she's never seen a working marriage, and she, like the rest of Generation Ex, could probably be forgiven for being wary of something so unfamiliar.

Hence the marriage manual. Gordon (and I think I'm allowed to say this) has been working on a marriage course. If I were to guess what sort of marriage course Gordon would come up with, I would say that it would contain a lot of Bible stuff—Genesis 1, 2 and 3, Matthew 19, Ephesians 5, 1 Peter 3, 1 Corinthians 7 ... maybe even Revelation, etc.—that is, the theology of marriage—marriage being an earthly reflection of the union between Christ and his church, with an earthly purpose of procreating—filling the earth and subduing it, etc. I would even guess that it would contain some of the practical stuff about how to be married—the great material that Keith Condie covers in his article in Briefing #348 about learning to love one another in communicating, connecting on a deep emotional level, taking the time to maintain the relationship, learning from the wisdom of those who have studied marriage, etc. It's funny; I have the head knowledge of all of that (even if I'm not always very good at putting it into practice)—I've consumed things like Michael Hill's The How and Why of Love, Larry Crabb's The Marriage Builder (err, well, most of it), the section on marriage in Guidance and the Voice of God, Phillip Jensen's Love, Sex and Marriage talks and even The Five Love Language—and yet the thing that helped me most in my understanding of marriage is still Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee's The Good Marriage.

Why am I talking about this? I guess I keep thinking of Bella and people like her—people who don't understand marriage, who have never seen good marriages at work, and who don't really grasp what they're in for when they exchange vows and rings, and make massive and scary promises to one another. I suppose, in one sense, one cannot really know what one is in for when one is making those massive and scary promises; if you did, you'd certainly think twice about making them (and not all of us have the benefit of Xander's visit from his future self in Buffy Season 6!)

But what I'm thinking of is the difference between head knowledge and heart knowledge—understanding the theory and putting it into practice. Knowing the theology of marriage and all the good stuff about communication and compromise helped me to a point; where it fell down is where I just didn't understand what marriage looked like. Sure, it's supposed to look like Ephesians 5:25-31—

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”

—that's the ideal. But that's just it: that's the ideal—Christ and the church. We don't always live up to the ideal. We hardly ever live up to the ideal. What does it look like for sinful human beings, joined in this thing called marriage? What does it mean from day to day, week to week, month to month, year to year? What is this thing we call cleaving from and cleaving to?

I feel as though the thing I'm talking to is rather nebulous, so I should probably explain a bit more why The Good Marriage is helpful. I already did in that blog post but let me reiterate in point form. It was a helpful book because

So I thought about a manual. I don't really know what a manual would look like. It wouldn't quite be the same as The Good Marriage and I'd definitely want the theological and communication stuff in there. (Somewhere. Maybe in a different form to how such things are conventionally expressed.) I guess I'm saying it needs some pictures—some stories and examples of people who have already travelled down that road and survived, their marriages as strong as ever. People like Bella need to see there's nothing to fear—nothing to loathe; marriage is beautiful, even as it's hard and challenging and crazy and whatever other adjectives you want to throw in there. Even so, it is alien—compared to singleness, that is. As Al Hsu says in The Single Issue, we are all born single, and singleness is our natural state; marriage, in a lot of ways, is profoundly unnatural in that it involves two people acting as one (or trying to). That's bizarre. If I may, let me suggest it's a faint echo of the Trinity (I say this remembering Michael Hill's college interview question to me: “What is the relationship between God and your marriage?”). I think the bizarreness is why we need a picture to help us grasp it. Talking about the theory and spouting imperatives (i.e. dos and don'ts) isn't enough.

Actually (the thought belatedly occurs to me—duh), that's probably why Paul talks about Jesus in Ephesians 5, isn't it: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church”. Christ's sacrifice is the picture. It's the extreme picture; the principle behind the thing is what Paul is aiming at (i.e. make your wife and her needs your priority, not yourself and your needs). The picture helps us to know what to do.

This is why we need more—more pictures to help us know what to do. It's easier to imitate someone than to be told what to do. Paul Grimmond's been talking about this lately as we think about the future of The Briefing and I think he's right. We need people to show us the way—a “cloud of witnesses” like Hebrews 11-12 who have lived the life of faith (some even dying for it). They say marriage is sacred ground—private space between a man and a woman. I hope we can be a little more open about that—just enough (but not too much) so that we can be honest with one another about this crazy thing called marriage, how it works in our lives and what it means to us.


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What an excellent, thought-provoking post Karen.

However, I’m a little saddened that we need another course to illustrate how a biblical marriage plays out in the grittiness/messiness of life (a “cloud of witnesses”). Largely because that’s what should happen in our churches/Bible study groups/Christian relationships. Older married couples SHOULD mentor/adopt younger married couples into their lives, but unfortunately it rarely ever happens! Reading about the faithful, loving, enduring marriages of others might help - yes, but actually seeing/experiencing them in person is so much more powerful.

Yes, good point, Mark! Maybe older married couples don’t do it because they don’t know what it looks like to do it ...?

What would you suggest? From memory, I think I’ve seen this a bit in our friendship with Tim and Liz. They are a little bit older than us and started college the year before us. It was helpful that they both were so relaxed about it. Tim even said, “It’s not that college is hard. None of the things they ask you to do are particularly hard; there’s just lots of them.” Oops, that didn’t have much to do with marriage. But seriously I did learn a bit from watching them together—the way they treated each other in the home, at church, at Bible study as they led it together, etc. Hmm, more thoughts to orbit my head ...

I can see where the book and the course could be useful, and especially appreciate what you say about having examples and patterns.
One of the most educational experiences that I’ve had (re marriage) was going to Vanuatu and watching the others, all married, interact with each other. We were living in close quarters, and it was fascinating to see the personalities, the accomodations, the problems, the stresses. It’s something I used to see a bit more of when I was small, but being single, with single friends, and living where and how I do, I don’t get to see much of that anymore.

Very interesting article Karen.

Marriage has a low probability of success, approx 50% of marriages fail.
If you went to see a investment guru and he said - oh, this investment is great, one small catch, you have a 50% chance of loosing your money. So you go to a marriage counselor and he says - oh, you have 50% chance of failure in the next 20 years. Would you then consider to get married?

So it seems to me to be a completely non-rational decision to invest in marriage as the failure rate is so high.

Also considering “We don’t always live up to the ideal. We hardly ever live up to the ideal. ” - this means in another way that a low percentage of people live up to the ideal. Lets just say for fun, 10%.
So that means, you have a 90% chance of not living up to the ideal, so then the question is - why try to live up to the ideal if your failure rate is likely to be high?

Failure is so common in business and software development as well, 50% failure rate for most software projects and higher than that for businesses.

Isn’t it then more rational to have faith in failure than success.

I’m married and have a business by the way !


Posted by Elsie on 06 March, 2009 4:55 AM

Couldn’t sleep :(

Hi Karen, This is an awesome post smile

If I were to put together a manual about marriage I would definately include material from the Anglicare Marriage Preparation course. I found it so useful to understand how important expectations were - especially what we had gleaned from our families of origin.

Another thing - about failure. My Grandfather said something to H and I before we were married that really helped us understand the HUGE promises we were about to make. He said that a marriage promises are a covenant. The same as between Israel and God. Israel failed to live up to the covenant again and again… but God kept forgiving and pouring out his grace. We will never be perfect in our marriages… and so forgiveness and grace should be a huge part of a couple’s relationship..

Could say a lot more smile


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