It usually comes from someone who’s been married for awhile – heard soon enough after your own marriage starts: “Hey, sorry about that – but, you know, that’s just how marriage is.”
The contrast with pre-marital rhetoric couldn’t be more striking: “It will change your life…I’ve never felt more joy…married people are, on average, statistically happier, you know? That’s a proven fact.”
And it was all true – at first…for awhile – until it wasn’t. Until the heartache, the resentment, the complications all started…from the dizziness and magic of courtship, the fall from grace was surprisingly profound.
And that’s when it comes – “yeah – me too. Every couple experiences this, you know? It’s tough. You have to work at it. That’s just how marriage is.”
And like that, you’re in on the dirty little secret. Now that the illusion has been punctured, you’re officially an ‘insider’…’in the know’ about marriage – about what it really is. You see, it’s tough – like old beef, sickness, jobs and other things we have to ‘just push through.’
And in a way, I guess, that’s kind of comforting – “Oh, good. Phew. We’re not the only ones. Other couples struggle too!” It can also be reassuring to be around others experiencing similar challenges – ‘hey, I guess we’re all in this together’ – sort of like Weight Watchers, group therapy or Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).
But there’s a difference too. In AA, you’re gathering with similar people to walk a path of redemption towards a new life. You’re seeking healing, recovery and a mighty change. Where is the redemption in a relationship that has become chronically tense or difficult?
One theologian, Daniel Judd, writes about every relationship having a sequence of “creation, fall and redemption” – describing how a couple came back from the brink of divorce when they realized a new life together was still possible.
That’s not how we talk about this marriage stuff – at least not usually. Instead, all over the place, we are reminded that this is just how it is – how marriage is, how relationships are, guys are, how women are, etc.
How many couples end up just concluding this is the best experience they can hope for – letting go of any expectations otherwise?
And who could blame them? Don’t expectations lead to even more heartache, as we impose upon our spouse an idealized story of ‘how it’s supposed to be’? And how often have we seen out-sized expectations drive someone to look outside their marriage for answers – ditching their partner to ‘upgrade’ to another ‘better model.’
Those aren’t the expectations I’m talking about – and certainly not the way to fulfill them Monique and I are proposing. There is another way…
To a couple who’s lived for many years in a difficult relationship with little change, this sounds crazy or naive. For these couples who have come to accept their life-long exercise in patience, this may even sound de-stabilizing and dangerous…since some relationships might literally survive based on the brave acceptance that ‘this is just how it is.’
But is it – really? Is this the best I can expect for the next 30 years? To live out the refrigerator magnet in my parents’ house – an elderly couple who say, “the first 50 years of marriage are always the hardest”?
I can’t believe that. And I don’t believe it…we’ve experienced another way.
In 1988, a number of couples who had experienced redemption from substances in the 12-steps decided to experiment with what the same path would mean to their difficulties in relationships. They formed an organization with a funny name: “Recovering Couples Anonymous” (RCA).
It’s the kind of program that gets mocked by more enlightened professionals who think it’s central focus on trusting a Higher Power is an amusing curiosity.
I’m not one of them.
To me and Monique, a program that starts with an acknowledgment that we do not have the power, of ourselves, to move this relationship to the place we hope it can go …well, that feels factually true – as confirmed by years of our own experience.
But isn’t this dis-empowering and maybe even harmful – to convince someone ‘they don’t have the power’ to change by themselves? What people overlook is that in the very next breath, we are invited to acknowledge that Someone else – whatever Higher Power you know – can restore our relationship to health and intimacy. That feels refreshing. Taking God seriously is refreshing.
Funny name aside, there’s one other thing that stood out to me about this organization. Compared with the typical therapy or marriage organizations, couples on their website spoke of fundamental shifts – mighty changes…from one sort of relationship, to a very different one.
I bought the book…two books, actually. From page 255, this paragraph jumped out at me: “Because of our histories we have learned to tolerate pain. …we are used to hurting. Physically, we ignore tiredness and discomfort. We sustain personal emptiness and shame. In our coupleships, we bury our feelings, allowing disrespect to continue. As couples, we ‘adjust’ to pain. Intolerable situations exist in which both partners simply try harder.”
Just try harder. Just stick with it. Just hang in there…because, as we all know, that’s just how marriage is.
Is this what I signed up for – what we signed up for in this marriage? Not me. It’s not okay to walk away – but something also feels wrong about “just accepting” to live in relationship of low-level, chronic tension or struggle for the rest of life. There’s got to be something more…a relationship redemption that leads us to another place entirely.
That’s what my gut tells me. That’s what the RCA program tells me. And that’s what God’s word tells me—e.g., “Is my hand shortened at all that it cannot redeem, or have I no power to deliver?” (Isaiah 50:2, ESV)
What does redemption of a difficult relationship look like? I want to find out.