Married but happy
Michael and Jennifer arrived at the long-awaited wedding they had planned and saw it unfold like a beautiful dream. Everything about it was elegant and carefully designed.
Michael reflected on all that had happened during the last two and a half years. He felt sure that they had been the most wonderful years of his life. And Jennifer felt like the happiest woman in the whole world. Being with Michael and knowing they would now be together always filled her with deep emotion.
Michael and Jennifer were experiencing the special feelings of people who believe they have found their “soul mate.” They felt that their dreams had come true and that their needs would be satisfied.
Almost every human being wants to establish a home with someone who is his or her “other half”; someone who will share the intimacy and life experiences that cannot be shared with anyone else. They believe that in this way they will be completely fulfilled.
The first couple
The beginning of the Bible record indicates that God created human beings with an inborn desire for a life companion with whom to establish a home. God said: “It is not good that the man should be alone” and then created a “help meet for him” (Genesis 2:18, KJV). Only then did Adam become a whole being.
Many people have problems finding their “help meet.” Too often, they find someone who is not a help but a hindrance, and they end up feeling it’s better to live alone than in bad company.
Why marriages fail
Many fail to find a “help meet” because they ignore one or more of the steps required for a successful courtship. Those who fail in courtship are very likely to fail in marriage. Couples who have difficulties in the dating stage of their relationship diminish their chances of having a successful marriage. They start off on the wrong foot and stumble all the way. (See “Characteristics of a happy courtship.”)
From this day forward
Standing before the minister, Michael and Jennifer promised each other “to live together after God’s ordinance in the holy state of matrimony…to love, honor, and cherish… in sickness and in health, in prosperity and adversity…and forsaking all others, keep only to each other, so long as you both shall live.” Both of them firmly answered, “I do!”
During the ceremony, the minister quoted Tertullian’s words which have inspired couples across the centuries:
“How beautiful is the marriage of two Christians, two who are one in hope, one in desire, one in lifestyle, one in the religion they practice. Nothing divides them, in flesh or in spirit. They pray together, worship together, fast together; they instruct each other, they encourage each other, they strengthen each other. Side by side they visit the house of God and take part in the divine banquets; together they face difficulties and persecutions and share their consolation. They keep no secrets from each other; never avoid each other’s company; never bring sadness to each other’s heart. They visit the sick and help the needy. They sing psalms and hymns to each other, seeking always to praise the Lord in beauty. Hearing and seeing them, Christ rejoices. To such he bestows his peace.” (Quoted by William J. McRae, Biblioteca Sacra, 1987).
When Jennifer’s father gave her away to be married, he felt a knot in his throat. Her mother felt faint as she saw her little girl leave home for good. What a hopeless dilemma parents face—they suffer when their children get married, and they suffer if their children never marry. But that suffering does not compare to the agony of seeing them fail in marriage.
What was in store for Michael and Jennifer in their new married life? Were these young sailors, being hurled into life’s ocean in their little boat called marriage, prepared for the surprises awaiting them beyond the horizon? Would they survive the storms, or would they be destroyed by the fury of the problems encountered in the crossing? They were determined to triumph, whatever the obstacles. Oh, how they wanted happiness! And yet the statistics, the odds, were against them.
Against all odds
Divorce statistics are alarming. Out of every two marriages performed each year in the United States, one ends in divorce within the first seven years. Could Michael and Jennifer be that failed marriage? According to J. Carl Laney, in his book The Divorce Myth, the Census Bureau of the United States reports that in 1920, there was one divorce for every seven marriages; in 1940 it was one out of every six; in 1960 one out of four; and in 1977 one out of every two marriages ended in divorce. Between 1967 and 1977 the frequency of divorces doubled. In the 1980s divorces constituted 53 percent of the total number of marriages. At that rate, says Laney, there will soon be one divorce for every marriage. (See side bar: “Wrong reasons for getting married”)
Marriage is still the favorite relationship
With such a record, who wants to get married? Well, almost everybody! A high percentage of the population will eventually stand before the altar. It is estimated that 96 percent of men and women get married. Of those who divorce, half will marry again. Due to its perceived benefits, humanity is completely devoted to the idea of marriage. In spite of the pain experienced by those who divorce, marriage continues to be the favorite relationship for the majority of men and women. In contemporary society this relationship still provides, among other advantages, the opportunity for satisfying the felt need for intimacy and security. (See side bar: “Benefits of marriage”)
In spite of the advantages offered by married life, modern marriages don’t seem to hit the expected target. In their book Mirages of Marriage, William Lederer and Don Jackson report that barely 10 to 15 percent of married people enjoy a happy relationship. Early in their married life, many discover marriage isn’t exactly what they expected or were searching for in life.
Many marriages turn from Romeo and Juliet to Romeo versus Juliet. From “two in one” to “two in everything.” It seems that after the honeymoon, the honey vanishes and the couple is left with the burden of the moon. In Intimate Life Styles, sociologist Mervyn Cadwallader states the following about contemporary marriages:
“The truth that I observe is that contemporary marriages are a shattered institution. They expel voluntary affection and love that is unselfishly given and received with joy. Beautiful romances are transformed into boring marriages and eventually the relationship turns corrosive and destructive. This once beautiful romance becomes nothing more than a bitter obligation and contract.”
What could have been a great blessing is transformed into a terrible curse. As a result, many marriages end up in divorce.
A thorn in the flesh?
Marriage is not easy. Not only is it difficult to find our “help meet,” it’s hard to adjust to living with that person. The Apostle Paul suggests that married partners will have “trouble in the flesh” (1 Corinthians 7:28, KJV). This affliction begins very early in marriage, many times during the honeymoon and is due to the normal adjustment period. It is here where two minds seek to agree on everything and find that it is not only difficult, but virtually impossible to do so.
For many, the honeymoon ends too soon. The sweetness that is so important in a happy marriage begins to dwindle drastically. From the moment of the first disagreement, which can begin as soon as the wedding is over, to a few days of living together, the couple discovers that “love is blind, but marriage soon opens its eyes”.
Romeo and Juliet go on their honeymoon, and in a few days Romeo turns against Juliet, and their home becomes a battlefield. It’s a war that has no victors, only losers. (See side bar: “The most common marriage problems.”)
Marriage can be happy
It is possible to have an enduring, happy marriage if both partners sincerely desire it and make every effort to achieve it. Although most marriages go through critical periods, difficulties can be overcome.
What makes a happy marriage? What factors must be achieved in order to attain it? In a survey I conducted among 100 couples, I found the following factors to be vital. They are listed in order of importance.
- 1. Clear and constant communication between married partners. Dr. Norman Wright considers communication the key to a happy marriage.
- 2. Mutual love and expressions of affection, not only in word but also in deed. This includes caressing, kissing, hugs, holding hands, and saying “I love you.” Couples need to continue doing the same things they did when they were dating.
- 3. Religion in the home. Let Christ be the center and everything else will follow. Faith practices include Bible reading, family worship, church attendance, and prayer.
- 4. Mutual respect and understanding between partners. This means being conscious of the burdens and responsibilities each carries and helping each other as much as possible.
- 5. Paying attention to family finances. This includes achieving the highest possible degree of solvency through the planning and execution of a family budget.
- 6. Take time being together as a couple. Even though work and homemaking responsibilities are important, it is inexcusable not to spend time together strengthening the marriage relationship.
- 7. Share healthy recreation and entertainment; enjoy life together.
To achieve a happy marriage, the couple must be convinced that they can make it happen. Except for the death of a partner, there is no difficulty that cannot be resolved in a Christian marriage relationship. Couples should identify the problems they are facing, agree on their solution, and make a decided effort to address them. Cutting and running is for cowards; failing to be there is for deserters; turning one’s back is the mark of the ungrateful; abandonment is the thankless way out; “there’s nothing we can do about it” is the expression of the ignorant. There is no situation that cannot be overcome when husband and wife are committed to the success of their marriage and present a united front. In complicated cases, the guidance of an experienced Christian marriage counselor will be very valuable. And God is always there to help. (See side bar: “How to have a happy marriage.”)
What about Michael and Jennifer? They made up their minds to be happy, and achieved it. They claim the key to their success is that they spend a lot of time together. They had a bad quarrel a few days after the wedding. Michael decided to leave home. As he was leaving, Jennifer ran out to the car and said, “If you’re leaving me, I’m going with you!” Michael laughed and gave her a hug. Since then, they have learned to love each other “for better or for worse”.
Alfonso Valenzuela (D.Min., Ph.D., Fuller Theological Seminary) is a family therapist who teaches courses in the area of marriage and family studies at Andrews University Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan, U.S.A. This article is based on his book Casados pero contentos. He is also the author of the books Juventud enamorada, Cómo fortalecer la familia, Padres de éxito, and Casados y enamorados. His email address: firstname.lastname@example.org.