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Sheltering or Suffering
Marriage is not “until one of us cannot take it anymore”. It’s until death do us part. Unfortunately, too many people rationalize their way out of their commitment when their circumstances change. It is at this point a person’s dependence on their partner is revealed. The subtle “I deserve better than this” awakens and begs to be released from the promise. What happens when we look to a relationship for more than it can provide? It becomes an idol.
If pursued according to God’s design, marriage will be a shelter protecting husband, wife, children, and maybe even others. But, to a struggling couple, marriage can be like a tomb. Have you ever felt like the walls were closing in on you? Have you ever thought, “How can we possibly live under the same roof?” A conflicted couple will start to feel their relationship is suffocating rather than sheltering. The air is stale. Breathing is arduous.
Your Marriage Reflects Your Focus
When marriage becomes a place of suffering, momentum can keep you spiraling down. If you continue to focus on what is going wrong, you will lose sight of all that is positive. One way to stop the downward momentum is to accept an honest assessment of your situation.
Underneath the suffering, there can be a dependence on your spouse for your happiness. You think, “Marriage is supposed to make me happy,” or “Marriage is supposed to meet my unmet needs.” The problem with this is when the marriage does not meet your expectations, it is convenient to conclude the marriage is defective and must be discarded. Focusing on what isn’t there doesn’t replenish positives. If you focus on what is not happening the way you want it to happen, it will slowly consume you to where you are imprisoned in an unhappy marriage – because you are unhappy. You might begin to think, “I have got to get out at all costs.”
I Have What it Takes
Where there are difficulties it is nice to think you can make up the difference. But, sometimes loving another person is like trying to squeeze water from a rock. Have you ever felt discouraged because you did not have it in you to love a difficult person? Have you felt things like:
- If I could do such and such, then my partner would be happy and our relationship would get better.
- I’d be better off giving to someone who appreciates my efforts.
- My spouse soaks up any love I give and offers nothing in return. It is like I am giving to a black hole.
- I can love you out of your deficiencies – and then you will be able to love me in return.
- I cannot love you; I am a failure.
It is hard to face that you are not enough for your partner. It leads to feeling insecure. Actually, this is a good sign because God never intended for you to have what it takes. Where you go next is critical. When you realize you cannot love your partner, will you look to God for help?
By the time a marriage is failing, it is taking place increasingly as a closed system. A closed system has increased panic and decreased rational thinking. We focus on our survival to the point of eliminating anyone or anything standing in our way. When two are responsible, and you realize you do not have the resources to make it work, it is easy to blame your partner for failure. With fixed resources, two alone cannot sustain each other. It puts too much pressure on one person to meet the needs of the other.
It takes two people to make a marriage work, but only one to cause it to fail. But likewise, it only takes one to cause you to fail. That you is you! It is possible to focus too much on marital success. A lack of progress does not equal failure. When you care more about the success of your marriage for the sake of its benefit than your partner’s wellbeing, you’ve lost before you’ve begun. People abandon their partners when they do not want to go down with a sinking ship. In a panic, they cut the line which tethers them to their partner. But instead of catching their breath and diving after their partner, they walk (or run) away. Cutting the line does not have to mean abandoning – it can mean removing unhealthy dependence which will breathe new life into a marriage.
Letting God In
In a closed system, the pain of the relationship cannot escape. The pain can only be passed back and forth. Marriage is not supposed to be an “us two alone in this together”. In the midst of intense emotional struggle, it is difficult to identify other options beyond the immediate relief of giving in (okay we will do whatever you want) or giving up (I cannot take it anymore). But there are other options to consider. Have you really tried trusting that you’ll be okay even when your marriage is struggling? Do you believe God is with you no matter how your spouse behaves?
Letting God in means there is another source beyond your partner. It means accepting what your partner can give and looking to God to provide the rest. You will not die if your marriage is struggling. When relying on God, your survival does not depend on your marriage; instead, you have the freedom to contribute new life to your marriage. God is the vine. Read John 15:1-17 and consider if there are any ways you are inappropriately leaning on your spouse.
Marriages are always moving from one season to another. Sometimes we find ourselves in winter–discouraged, detached, and dissatisfied; other times we experience springtime, with its openness, hope, and anticipation. On still other occasions we bask in the warmth of summer–comfortable, relaxed, and enjoying life. And then comes fall with its uncertainty, negligence, and apprehension. The cycle repeats itself many times throughout the life of a marriage, just as the seasons repeat themselves in nature.
GARY D. CHAPMAN
I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.
Matt Pavlik is a licensed professional clinical counselor who wants to see each individual restored to their true identity. He has more than 20 years of experience counseling individuals and couples at his Christian counseling practice, New Reflections Counseling. Matt and Georgette have been married since 1999 and live with their four children in Centerville, Ohio.