This Friday, my wife and I will celebrate 38 years of marriage. We were both 20 when we said, “I do,” having first met when we were freshmen in high school. Many times I’ve been asked two questions: 1) how did we know that we had found the right person to marry (afterall, we were so young), and 2) what has been the “key” to staying married?
There are no simple answers, and this journey of walking out a marriage covenant hasn’t always been smooth. Much of what I think now about relationships has solidified through hindsight and many years of reflection. But I’m confident of this, if I had to do it over again, I would still choose Christine.
I Pledge Myself to . . .
Commitment isn’t an enjoyable word for most of us. Present-day American society operates from the understanding that the more options one has in any area of life, the better: television channels, smart phone apps, salsa brands and even dog food, to name a few (read post Choices and More Choices). Commitment, on the other hand, implies narrowing one’s focus, energy or affection down to a single point and saying “no” to the rest.
The average person today asks, “Why would I limit myself and choose before knowing ALL my options?” Such a response exposes a common fear: what if I commit and then something better comes along? The potential of getting stuck with a “second-rate” alternative (no matter how good it is) creates anxiety for many. We dread the possibility of future frustration, with restrictions on getting what we really want. It has become a virtue to always keep our options open as we search for the “perfect” scenario, or person. Thus we have become a generation of relational dabblers, rarely experiencing the mysterious fruit that comes from binding ourselves to another, long term through whatever may come.
I have learned that commitment, whether it be in marriage, friendship, ministry or work, unlocks doors of opportunity and satisfaction that the open-option approach keeps sealed shut. True commitment changes the way we think about and see others as well as ourselves. When chosen, it exposes and can squeeze out narcissistic tendencies as well as establish a platform for true giving. And in the end, its fruit delivers something more solid and lasting than a life-time of playing the field. If my hope for happiness centers on finding the ideal partner who will meet all my needs and desires, I will never fully commit to anyone in my heart. Afterall, the person of my dreams might be just another date (or marriage) away.
I want to make an important distinction. There are smart commitments, and there are stupid commitments. Before I give myself to another person (emotionally, physically, spiritually), I need to know with whom I am connecting. What character qualities (or personal standards) dominate the individual? Does she truly listen? Does he admit when he’s wrong and sincerely apologize for hurtful behavior? Does she communicate honestly what’s going on inside her? Does he control his physical appetites? Does she recognize in a healthy way her value as well as her faults? Does he know how to sacrifice his self-interest for the sake of others? Appearances and first impressions can be deceiving. The outer moral or spiritual trappings matter little if these and other solid inner attributes are missing.
It is foolish to commit myself to another who is not showing real movement toward life-affirming character qualities. In the end, I must take care to not fall in love with and give myself to a mirage. When I commit, it is not to an ideal or what I believe the person is capable of becoming but rather to the concrete character he or she is demonstrating now—good or bad. That is what I will have to live with.
Therefore, I must take the time to carefully observe on the front end, before I give my heart away and commit myself to any intimate relationship. The important question is not, “Can I have fun and feel good with this person?” More importantly I need answers to whether or not I can fully trust this person—to always tell the truth, to have self-control, to humbly apologize, to love unconditionally, to never give up, etc.
Accepting the Risk
It is thought best these days to cohabitate before marriage in order to know if the person is the right one. I challenge this conventional “wisdom” with a couple thoughts. Typically, the logic of living together before marriage is to avoid the possibility of a future divorce (and to save a few bucks on rent). Yet, cohabitating inevitably becomes “marriage” without the legal constrictions (or protections). To eventually breakup and move out because it’s not working is very much like divorce. It has all the accompanying personal doubts and emotional wounds that are natural with joining yourself to another and then ripping yourselves apart. It’s just easier to hurt one another and leave without working on it when there’s no required legal procedure. All this to say, it is not set up to instill any sense of relational security.
In addition, no matter how much time you spend with a person before marriage (cohabitating or not), you never fully know him or her. There is something about binding yourself to another through marriage that then opens your eyes to previously unseen things (some beautiful, some unpleasant). In other words: make a smart commitment and study the person’s character as best as you can, but realize that there will always be an element of risk. You simply cannot know everything beforehand. And yes, that can be scary, but it’s the nature of any intimate relationship.
Learning to Appreciate
It wasn’t until Christine and I got married that we realized how little we had in common. She liked to plan how we were going to use our weekend; I liked to just let it happen. She enjoyed games and outdoor activities; I enjoyed reading a book. She preferred to process her thoughts out loud; I preferred to process them in my head. She valued always having a clean house; I valued always having the freedom to clean whenever I felt like it. And the list could go on. As you might imagine, we experienced a good amount of tension, arguments and anger, as well as we accused each other of just plain being wrong about many things. Fortunately, we shared a common faith and a high value for people and relationships. This helped lead us to jointly engage in ministry activities that were part of positively shaping our marriage.
I look back now and see that we went through a process. We started by trying to change each other to fit with what we were each most comfortable. That didn’t work and never does. Slowly we began to tolerate our differences and eventually accepted them (for the most part). But we entered the most transformational stage when we set about truly appreciating our dissimilarities. We finally recognized the richness that comes from being united with someone who thinks and does things differently. I can now say that I am a better person because I have been married to Christine. I feel like a wealthy man (though I don’t have a lot of money). And I hope she can continue to say the same about being married to me.
It’s Not a Feeling
So how did we know for certain we had each found the right person to marry? We didn’t. But even as teenagers, we saw qualities in the other that we admired and over time found that we could trust each other. It was then a matter of taking the risk of committing ourselves with the mutual determination that we were not going to give up. Marriage was the commitment. And it’s what we choose again and again each day.
Ultimately, the key to longevity for us has been in honoring our vows. Commitment is not a feeling I have toward my wife. It is a decision I made long ago. It’s also a daily choice to bind myself to her and allow myself to be changed for the sake of loving her. And, thankfully, good feelings are often present.
This is what protects our relationship when circumstances challenge and feelings drift: I take you, Christine, in sickness and health, for richer or poorer, in good times and bad, when we agree and when we disagree till death do us part. And may Jesus always be honored in our commitment to each other.