worth the work: thoughts on marriage
A big brown couch in a quiet coffee shop corner. Two cups of hot tea. Three dollars. Ben and I believe in cheap dates.
One of my favorite dates was basically free. It was the year Ben was unemployed. He’d been down in Roanoke all week working a short-term job to pay our bills. I was so proud of him and missed him desperately. When the warm September weekend rolled around and he was home, David stayed with friends for a few hours, I packed a picnic dinner, and we visited a historic battlefield where there were hiking trails and benches viewing the Potomac River. Who needs money to have a little romance?
At our coffee shop date this weekend, the two cups of hot tea—Passion Plum and Raspberry Red—didn’t really matter. What mattered were two hours of uninterrupted conversation. It’s been months since we’ve gone on a date and we needed it. Somewhere along this 4+ year journey of marriage that is comparatively so short but can seem to us so long—somewhere along the journey, newly-wed-ness faded and kids came and a house was bought and jobs got busy and the lawn needs to be mowed, the walls painted, are we out of diapers again?, and why is the credit card bill so high? Romance can seem like a tiny flickering flame that we keep trying to fan so that it doesn’t blow out altogether.
Somewhere along the journey we’ve discovered that marriage is actually hard work. A few months ago as we drove over the mountain to attend a friend’s wedding, and both kids miraculously fell asleep in the backseat, I told Ben, “So I have this thought about marriage.”
“Okay, this probably is going to seem unromantic, but this is what I’m thinking right now. What do people really need for a healthy, successful marriage? What do they really, really need? And I’m going to say all they need is this: two people who by God’s grace are willing to give their marriage the work it needs. You don’t need to have compatible personalities. You don’t need to be sexually attracted. You don’t need to be ‘soul mates.’ Whatever, whatever, whatever. All you need is two people who believe God has called them to this marriage and are really willing to obey Him and make it work. Because all the rest follows from that.”
If anything else is the basis for marriage, how will it last? Personalities that were once oh-so-compatible on the wedding day have now drifted and shifted and changed over time. And if sexual attraction is the primary reason you’re married, you may be in trouble as you go through health challenges, parenting, aging, or just your monthly cycle (sorry if that’s TMI, but it’s true, right?!).
If you are willing to give your marriage the work it needs, the rest can follow. You work to keep your personalities compatible. You work to keep sexual desire alive. You get a baby-sitter and find a quiet coffee shop where you can actually communicate. You make choices, and feelings follow.
It’s frightened me how easily marriages can fall apart. It’s no surprise that they do, so frequently and so quickly. I’ve realized for me and Ben, that as soon as we stop working on our marriage, as soon as we become passive and let ourselves feel whatever we happen to feel and drift with the current, we will naturally drift apart and our marriage will be over. Without hard work, it just happens.
Instead by God’s grace we make the choice that God has called us to this, that marriage is worth it, that I will work on this thing. I am grateful for a memory I have of the week Ben and I got engaged. Ben proposed on a Friday evening, and we spend the subsequent weekend in a romantic daze. Before I knew it, I’d ordered a wedding dress. But somehow in the busy-ness of the following week, I started getting cold feet. “Whoa—this is a huge life change coming my way! What am I doing? Am I really supposed to marry him? I mean, I want to, but is that enough? I can’t break off an engagement—that would be scandalous! And I’ve already ordered the dress. But I can’t marry someone just because I’ve ordered a dress. What should I do? My whole life hangs in the balance! Aaaaaah!”
I stilled my panic by taking an evening away from Ben to go for a long walk and pray. I ended up sitting on a bench in an Old Town cemetery and seeing my life clearly before me—what it would look like as single and what it would look like as married. I wanted to marry Ben, but I could clearly see how I could serve God and be active in ministry either way. It became the simple question of what would glorify the Lord the most, and I felt really strongly that, momentarily putting all feelings aside, marrying Ben was the right choice.
I am grateful to have that memory. There are plenty of moments when marriage is happy delightful work, but especially when marriage happens to be painful and hard and sanctifying work, I’m grateful to remember—I’m in this for the Lord. This is His calling. I take this road to glorify the Lord, not because it always comes naturally, because it certainly doesn’t.
So there we were on the couch in the coffee shop. My friend Naomi had sent me a great link for twenty good date questions and we only had time to answer about five. Maybe once upon a time I would have thought that would make the conversation forced or fake, but it was actually really helpful. We talked about ways each of us could grow. We talked about memories we shared and what we appreciated about each other. I learned that Ben finds it really romantic when I write to him. In fact, the best way to resolve an argument is to shut my mouth, sit down at the computer, and email him my concerns. I would not have guessed that, but it’s good to know!
The tea cups emptied, the coffee shop closed, and we walked through the cold dark to our car to drive home. Back to the craziness of children—he wanted to play “the chasing game” and she’d taken two ounces from the bottle. Back to our church’s “Project Marriage” CDs on my desk and Paul Tripp’s What Did You Expect? by my rocking chair. Back to how did it get so late, why is Elanor still awake, and how early do we need to wake up to be on time for church?