William L. Self

Carolyn Shealy Self

The New York Times Magazine recently featured an article about the demise of suburbia. One of the obvious but still shocking causes of the failure of suburbia has been divorce. In 1978 alone, there were two million marriages and one million divorces in the United States. The nuclear family, consisting of the breadwinning father, homemaking mother, and 3.1 children, all cozy and happy, is getting more difficult to find. When we hear of another divorce, we ask, What is happening to marriage?” And we wonder, “Will it happen to me?”

We need to take a realistic look at what marriage really is. Marriage is a union of two individuals. Both come with their own ideas, attitudes, and ways of doing things and handling problems. Suddenly they have to learn to live with someone else’s ideas, attitudes, and ways of doing things and handling problems. How well the marriage works depends on how well spouses understand themselves and how well they can tolerate and accept the differences of their mates. Someone said, “All marriages are happy. It’s the living together afterward that causes trouble.” We are often impatient when love and marriage do not solve life’s problems, but romantic love is worthless if it is not grounded in reality.

Reality is sometimes not only a shock but also a surprise. Nobody likes surprises like these: he comes home tired and irritable; she is not always sexually responsive; someone has to take out the garbage and clean the bathtub; money will stretch only so far, and you thought Daddy was going to provide the extras forever; she’s a night person, he’s a day person, etc.

We all expect some magic in every place—jobs, home, vacation, children, marriage. We all want the ideal, the perfect in everything. We need to learn that when a good thing happens, when a good relationship develops, it is the result of working creatively with realities, one at a time. A fantasy concept of marriage on the part of either the husband or the wife needs immediate help from a competent counselor. Never hesitate to seek help. It will be a growing experience for both husbands and wives.

Giving up “fantasy” or “magical” notions about marriage does not mean you lose the beauty and mystery of this most intimate relationship. It does mean that you can realistically approach each other without having to wear a mask or hide a part of yourself. It frees the couple to express—without fear of being misunderstood—their innermost feelings and longings. You can dream together and make realistic plans together.

Your marriage is not soundly built until married love has taken the place of romantic illusions. Married love develops after marriage. This means that even sturdy, married love requires attention if it is to remain healthy. From the very beginning, you need to creatively nurture your relationship. Little things mean a lot. Bill and I give loving greetings and farewells and affectionate glances to each other in a crowd. We are interested in each other’s activities, and we enjoy doing many things together. Continual nurturing must take place, however you accomplish it. Marriage is the most intimate human relationship. It is a beautiful and delicate mystery that is never completely revealed; there is always more to discover.

A healthy marriage needs goals and priorities. Set goals together—marriage goals, lifetime goals, individual goals. I don’t mean high-sounding goals like these:

WIFE: “I will make our home a calm, quiet haven of rest; it will be well-organized and run smoothly.”

HUSBAND: “I will provide my family with all the things they need to be happy; my wife can always depend on me for all her needs.”

WIFE: “I know my husband isn’t perfect; he drinks too much sometimes and he doesn’t always follow through on commitments, but I love him so much and I’ll make him so satisfied and happy that he will change.”

HUSBAND: “We will buy a house in two years, go to Europe in three years, and start our family in five years. We will be happy.”

HUSBAND and WIFE: “Our goal is to have a successful marriage; a nice home in a nice neighborhood; two cars; intelligent, well-behaved children (a boy first, then a girl); and an ego-satisfying job, total sexual fulfillment; no sickness; and no conflict.”

These may sound far-fetched to you, but they are examples of the ways some people idealize marriage. One couple I know got into an argument nearly every evening after he came home from the office and before dinner. The wife had gotten into the habit of greeting her husband with a recitation of all her woes of the day. He had no time to shed the troubles he had accumulated before she hung more on him. He became more and more withdrawn, and she resented this feeling of isolation. This situation could have been resolved by allowing each spouse a little space. Allowing the husband a little time to shed the office—a glass of juice or a cup of tea in a quiet spot, with nothing but pleasant conversation or no conversation and no children for even ten or fifteen minutes—would have worked wonders for the relationship.

One of the most beautiful women I know, Mrs. Baker James Cauthen, in talking about how Dr. Cauthen had been able to carry the world in his heart and deal with the day-to-day “nittygritty,” said: “We agreed early that he would not have to rehash his day’s work when he came home. I have found my fulfillment in many areas of service and, of course, I’m always ready to listen when he needs me to be a sounding board.” This dear couple has been through all the traumas that a long, useful life can bring and are living proof that two people whose commitment is to God and to each other can come through it all with grace and dignity. This commitment has been the overall goal in their lives.

As the years have gone by, they have examined and adjusted their daily and weekly priorities so that they are in keeping with their lifetime goals.

Sometimes I hear a remark like, “Jane and Bob have an ideal marriage.” Chances are that while Jane and Bob may have a good relationship and life together, they also encounter the thorns and booby traps common to human relationships. We should never succumb to the temptation to pattern our lives after someone else’s, because what is ideal for one couple may be intolerable to another.

Marriage can be happy, satisfying, successful, and rewarding. It is not a static state of perfection; it must always be a moving, alive relationship, adjusting and changing to accommodate life’s situations. Did anyone say to you when you got married, “Now you can settle down?” They were saying, “Now you’re grown up. Now that you are an adult, nothing will change anymore.” Nothing could be further from the truth. This would be like saying to a person who has just become a Christian, “Now you’re saved; that’s all you have to do.” The Christian life is one of dynamic growth. The New Testament is growth-oriented, and inspired writers often rebuke Christians for failing to grow.

Marriage and families should also experience growth as they move through the changing cycles of life. This cannot be automatic or always upward. Life is a constant “becoming.” We have to ask, “Becoming what? Where am I going? Where are we going? Continued growth creates vitality, excitement, feelings of accomplishment, and the ability to cope with crises in one’s marriage. There are peaks and valleys in any relationship, and family life is no exception.

Bible Passages
Ephesians 4:15-16; Philippians 1:9-11; Colossians 1:9-12; 1 Corinthians 13

This article is excerpted and adapted from the practical resource, Survival Kit for Marriage, by Carolyn Shealy Self and William L. Self. The entire book is available for purchase at <www.ministerialassociation.com>