Chapter Three: The Complexities of Relationship
Relationships aren’t always easy. Differences come up, communication breaks down, and sometimes it’s simply tough to figure how to work it all out. Even the best-matched couples can struggle with seemingly “irreconcilable differences.” Did you ever wonder what he is feeling? Ever wish you knew what women really wanted? We can all feel at a loss for answers! This chapter is designed to help you get closer to answering some of these very important questions.
Everyone is interested in marriage, but very few possess the attitude and skills to make a marriage successful. Part of the reason why that is so difficult is because people place false expectations upon marriage. Marriage is an institution of purpose, not an institution of convenience and comfort. While many people desire to get married, you have just as many desiring to get out of marriage. Why? Because marriage is difficult! This is not a biased opinion of a married man stuck in a failing marriage. Nor am I basing this conclusion on a ton of research that demonstrates that marriage is not working. This is based on the scriptures.
Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 7:28 that marriage is trouble in the flesh. I would even say that marriage is inherently difficult, especially when you understand the intricate differences that exist between a husband and a wife. Author Maggie Scarf writes in her book, “Intimate Partners”, that opposites first attract and then later on attack. Her research suggests that the things that opposites were initially drawn to become the issues that caused them to become distant. Differences in the interim can make life interesting and break the monotony of one’s personal life. However, over time, people realize that their personal desires and lifestyle were not that bad, and once again begin to desire them. They realize that they cannot exist as they want to within the context of marriage, and eventually they become dissatisfied and frustrated.
This is a part of what I call the relationship cycle, which consists of a five-step process:
Euphoria (the green zone, “go for it”) – consists of unrealistic expectations based upon nothingness.
Reality (the yellow zone, “be cautious; they are not who you thought”) – discovery zone, you are not just alike and don’t really enjoy the same things from the same perspectives; you are different!
Conflict (the red zone, “I can’t get pass this”) – strong differences on how things should operate and the relationship should work. Conflict moves the relationship into a potential collision if the differences are not resolved appropriately. Differences can become the haven for bitterness and resentment. At this point, the marriage moves into the critical decision point of free moral agency based upon self-preservation.
Negotiations or offense – This is the stage where a relationship must weigh its pros and cons; whether or not the potential for mutual satisfaction exists, or future disaster.
Mature love or divorce – Divorce can be mental or physical. This stage either recreates a new cycle or ends the cycle.
The Bible and Marital Complexity
Paul uses one of the greatest and most respected institutions on earth to discuss the ramifications of a covenant. He uses the metaphor of marriage to discuss the topic of covenant. In doing so, Paul selects marriage, the union and institution, that best reflect and model God’s relationship or desired relationship with His creation. Marriage was so sacred in antiquity that one had to be given a written paper of divorce in order to be relieved of one’s obligation to the marriage. When Christ came, He stated that the written letter of divorce was given, not because it reflected God’s attitude towards breaking a covenant. A letter of divorce exemplified the condition of the human heart and its inability to get over personal offense. Christ stated that divorce should not take place except in the case of adultery – and that is only if a person so desired. The Roman Catholic Church interpreted marriage as a sacrament, or that, which imparts grace. They see marriage as an institution that imparts grace to the participants in order to forgive them for the personal inadequacies that would be expressed in the marital relationship. In essence, grace was required for two imperfect beings to co-inhabit a space and bring children into the world for procreative reasons. The act of childbirth is a grace that God granted couples.
However, make no mistake about how the Roman Catholic Church felt about the union of marriage in their gut, because they prohibited their clergy from sexual and marital union due to the nature of the conflict and high maintenance that was required to live with another human being. Thus, marriage was a covenant of grace and, for the Roman Catholic Church; it was an act of God giving you a context to receive grace for your sexual proclivities. Of course, the Protestant position is not the same as the Roman Catholic Church. Marriage is not a sacrament, or that which imparts saving grace, but it is an institution and covenant that requires all the grace God can give! One of the first things Martin Luther did, after gaining his freedom from the bondage of the Roman Catholic Church and its traditions, is get married and ‘get busy’!
Marriage, in my opinion, is one of the toughest contexts for human relations in existence. In fact, the Apostle Paul advised those who could keep themselves pure sexually to avoid it, but not feel guilty if they chose to marry. Marriage has the potential of creating an environment where one can feel like a trapped animal that begins to fight for its existence and preservation. Additionally, the difficulties that exist in the male and female relational context have served as fertilized ground for the worldwide homosexual phenomenon. It is extremely difficult to love someone who it is different from you, who have opposite tendencies than yours. Then when you consider that marriage is supposed to last a lifetime, these differences become even more glaring (you might or might not appreciate them for the rest of your life). Thus, one solution is to opt for relationships with those who have fewer differences, because they are the same sex – it’s just easier and simpler. Yet and still, marriage is the context that the Bible uses to discuss His covenant with the church. This is also the context that God uses as a metaphor to discuss His relationship with Israel. In scripture, He calls the wilderness a “honeymoon experience” and states that He, “â€¦saw that for all the causes for which backsliding Israel had committed adultery, I had put her away and given her a certificate of divorce; yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear, but went and played the harlot also.”
Having lived over 50 years now, I have experienced two marriages with a combined experience of over 25 years, as well as a number of failed dating relationships. I feel like I can say a little something about relationships. Marriage and relationships are the source for some of the most devastating pain in our world – from the parental, sibling, and dating to the marital relationship. Marriage can be harmful and helpful, humbling and hurtful. It is my strong opinion that nothing makes marriage work but time, maturity, the fundamentals for a tolerable marriage, and six factors of toleration. The six concentrations will be discussed in the sequel to this book. Time is needed to accept the things you cannot change (or in many cases, even attempt to change) and maturity is required to not interpret differences as negatives. The fundamentals for a tolerable marriage are so important that even if you implement the six factors of toleration, without the fundamentals, the marriage will fail.
This appears to be what God does on a much higher level. He allowed the time and longevity of His relationship with Israel to take place, and He didn’t hold their weaknesses against them forever. The strongest traditional variables in a marriage are forgiveness, conflict resolution, humility (not self-righteousness), and sacrifice. I refer to these as practices of toleration: the ability to forgive, to resolve conflict, and to humble one’s self to the point you don’t view yourself as superior to your spouse in any area of your relational life. Marriage is the place where you must compromise, not simply enjoy! It can also be said that it is the place where one learns to die to one’s self, or sacrifice. We must revisit our idealism about marriage and what it brings. Failed expectations tend to be one of the most crucial attitudinal disappointments that married couples go through. The problem with this type of disappointment is that research has found that neither partner goes into marriage with well-defined expectations. Thus, it is impossible to meet undefined and/or unrealistic expectations. Marriage is a very complex union, and we have statistics to prove it. Let’s consider the following research to measure the successfulness of marriage as a whole:
Facts about Marital Distress and Divorce
Scott M. Stanley & Howard J. Markman
Younger people in the U.S., who are marrying for the first time, face roughly a 40-50% chance of divorcing in their lifetime under current trends.1
Of first marriages that end in divorce, many end in the first three to five year period. (As one example, for first marriages ending in divorce among women aged 25 to 29, the median length of marriage before divorce in 1990 was 3.4 years).2
Adults and children are at increased risk for mental and physical problems due to marital distress.3j0351873
Mismanaged conflict and negative interaction in marriage predicts both marital distress and negative effects for children.4
Marital problems are associated with decreased work productivity, especially for men.5
A variety of studies suggest that the seeds of marital distress and divorce are there for many couples when they say, “I Do.” These studies show that premarital (or early marital) variables can predict which couples will do well and which will not with accuracies of 80% and up to 94%.6
Many more couples live together prior to marriage than in the past – recent estimates are in the range of 60+%. These couples are less likely to stay married, probably mostly due to the fact that they are less conservative about marriage and divorce in the first place.7
Money is the one thing that people say they argue about most in marriage, followed by children.8 But, there are many reasons to believe that what couples argue about is not as important as how they argue.9
Married men and women in all age groups are less likely to be limited in activity (a general health index) due to illness than single, separated, divorced, or widowed individuals.10
Children living with a single parent or adult report a higher prevalence of activity limitation and higher rates of disability. They are also more likely to be in fair or poor health and more likely to have been hospitalized.11
The “triple threat” of marital conflict, divorce, and out-of-wedlock births have led to a generation of U.S. children at great risk for poverty, health problems, alienation, and antisocial behavior.
As you can see, marriage is producing some very alarming statistics that are having a negative impact upon all parties involved, especially the children. If you are feeling stressed out about your marriage, please understand and accept that this is normal and can be overcome if you have the right tools, the right attitude, and you work on the right actions. You probably have more reasons to work on your marriage than you realize. In my second marriage, I have come to realize what is most important and what is least important. While I believe in personal fulfillment and happiness, I realize that no other human being can make me happy. I’m using the word ‘happy,’ because most of you are familiar with this emotionally powerful term. But what is more powerful then happiness is joy, which is rooted in an internal disposition. Happiness is based upon what’s happening, the impetus is the outside that rules the emotions on the inside. Joy is based upon being free from ultimate judgment and destined for eternal life with God. Hence, ‘joyous’ is a state you must be in by yourself! People cannot make people happy, because they don’t have the capacity to do so based on their self-centered human nature. Whenever a person enters a relationship with someone and thinks that the person is going to make him or her happy forever, they have entered fantasyland.
It is an unrealistic expectation that another human being can make you happy. If you are not happy within yourself, there is nothing another person can do for you except offer you a temporary mind-altering drug of relational experiences that will soon wear off. People are referring to temporary states as personal happiness. Joy must originate from the inside; it is a state created by the person alone. Other people can only accent your joy at particular moments, but cannot be your happiness! We feel happy when people do good things for us or to us, but when they are not doing these things, we cannot stop ‘feeling happy.’ This is another reason why I argue that marriage is an institution of toleration, which is a positive thing. In my opinion, we are over-emotionally involved in marital relationships today. Our emotions attempt to eat the other person alive. We desire too much attention, which means that in order for the relationship to work, someone must give up all his or her desires and affections to cater to the affections of the other. If he or she does not, it is a sign that they “don’t really love” you.
I refer to this as relational manipulation that is characterized by guilt and emotional threats in order to move the person to do what the other person want to be done. These types of practices are a violation of a context of toleration, because people cannot tolerate threats and guilt their entire life – they will eventually seek freedom. Even in our relationship with God, He removes the power of guilt and uses the power of agape or self-surrendering love to find value in the object of His love and give us room to reciprocate. As humans, we must also create the environment of toleration. The context of toleration is correlated with the attitudes of forgiveness, conflict resolution, and humility. These three practices must accompany any relationship that will have the potential of surviving the black hole of divorce that is sucking every married couple towards its cavity of desolation.
John Gottman, a Jewish psychologist who wrote “Why Marriages Fail or Succeed and How Yours Can Succeed,” indicates in his research that divorce cannot be based upon simply having a volatile relationship, but upon a ratio of bad experiences to good experiences that is less than 5:1. Gottman’s research suggests those successful couples whose marriages were sustained and not being sucked into the black hole of marital desolation, demonstrated the 5:1 ratios. This simply revealed that for every five heated conversations or arguments, there was one intimate or loving moment of communication. In other words, Gottman’s research revealed that we must be tolerant. Gottman’s research also focused upon the pattern of divorce and the behavior and issues that were present in couples of divorce. I must admit that I have observed these patterns after serving as a marriage counselor for over 25 years.
Marriage is complex and can be extremely emotional and painful if you don’t understand that there are rules to being married. Gottman clearly articulates these rules in the ways that we communicate with one another. When we communicate from a posture of toleration or mutual compromise, we tend not to be offensive. We are offensive when we blame others for our state of being or mind. You can recognize blaming by looking for statements like this: “You hurt me!”, “You always think about yourself!”, “You make me so angry!” etc. Marriage must be approached from a spiritual perspective that is accompanied certain relational skill sets and attitudinal practices to be discussed in detail later.
Every marriage goes through periods of conflict and isolation, but what makes the difference is the quality of friendship that is present in the relationship. It is the building of a life together, based upon shared meaning and purpose – not simply romanticism, which fosters vision, value, and a spiritual legacy. These are so important, and bring the type of existential value to a marriage that allows one not to focus on the conflict, but the friendship. This is why I referred to marriage as an institution of purpose not convenience. Marriage can only work long term when mutual fulfillment is accompanied intentionality in attitudes and practices for friendship.