I am not a marriage expert. The only experts I know when it comes to being married are over 70 years old. Everyone else still has growing to do, as far as I’m concerned. But I have studied marriage in the Bible, in research, in my own life and in the lives of others. I don’t have an awesome marriage – I think I have a good marriage, and I’m always trying to grow. So here’s my humble yet confident attempt to share some of what I’ve learned.
Here’s the first piece: Happiness isn’t the goal. Marriage isn’t about your happiness.
What is the most consistent theme in movies, TV shows and books? I guess I’m not a connoisseur of romantic dramas and comedies (I prefer Science Fiction, as it’s more realistic), but all that I’ve seen says that the most important thing is to follow your heart and find the one person who makes you the most happy. Seems to me that if we would all follow Hollywood’s advice, we’d all be living perfect marriages.
So why is it that half of all marriages end in divorce?
Why is it that it is almost a cliche to joke that being married means being unhappy?
Here’s an experiment to try: Ask every person you see, “Are you happy in your marriage?” If you don’t get a resounding “Yes!” from almost everyone you ask, then maybe we can all agree that something isn’t working. (And if you do, tell me where you live, because I want to visit this utopia!)
It isn’t easy to find solid statistics as to how many couples consider themselves “happily married”. They range from as much as 95% to a mere 60%, but that’s only because happiness is somewhat subjective, and many unhappy couples choose to divorce rather than remaining unhappily married.
Which is the whole problem, isn’t it? A couple finds that marriage isn’t bringing the fairy tale, Hollywood, we-can-solve-all-our-problems-in-half-an-hour-or-less kind of satisfaction they expected, and rather than doing something about it, they decide to get out and see if they can find that with someone else. Or alone.
But that makes sense, doesn’t it? I mean, isn’t it a part of our nation’s very foundation to pursue happiness? And if I’m not happy, shouldn’t I be pursuing it any way possible?
Here’s the thing: If you make your personal happiness your goal in marriage, it’s a sure thing that eventually you are going to do something that makes the other person miserable. Likely they will respond in kind. Then you will both be miserable. And while it is possible for a couple to both just go around living self-fulfillment and making themselves happy, in reality that doesn’t end up looking much like a marriage. Couples who maintain that usually end up drifting apart. Maintaining marriage requires a certain level of selfless care for the other person.
The question is, what is that level? In his letter to the Philippians, Paul wrote, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Phil. 2:3-4). While Paul isn’t directly speaking to marriage, it is no stretch to make the application: Christ wants his people to put the well-being of their spouse before their own happiness in priority. And if it’s good for Christ’s people, then it’s the best way to live.
When you make it your goal to prioritize your spouse’s needs and desires, to encourage them to and support them first, there are a few things that happen:
1. You see the world in a more positive light. When you focus on being kind and supportive to another person, you tend to have a more positive outlook on the world in general. It becomes more natural to treat others kindly, and you are less likely to be concerned about the things that would normally get you down.
2. You see your spouse in a more positive light. We tend to get hung up on the negative qualities of our spouses, and we tend to assume the worst of their motives. But when we are looking out for that person’s welfare, we tend to start seeing the good things that person does, and we appreciate their good qualities more.
3. You feel more confident about your actions. If you’re doing the best you can to care for your spouse, even if they don’t cooperate, you can go to sleep at night without the guilty feeling that maybe your selfishness is the reason things aren’t working out. And if you do see good coming from it, you’ll have some satisfaction that you’re on the right track.
4. Your spouse might just be happier. Your happiness may not be the goal of marriage, but seeing your spouse happy because of the things you do is a pretty good end. It usually does good things for the relationship as a whole.
John Gottman, one of America’s foremost researchers on marriage, has said that the marriage that are strong and lasting and happy are ones where there is a great deal of love and respect, and are marked by consistent care and support for the other person’s well-being. Those elderly couples who have 50, 60, 70 years of marriage under their belts weren’t following their hearts and putting up posters that say “The purpose of our lives is to be happy.”
Now, I am not saying that you let your spouse walk all over you. I’m not saying you give in to whatever your spouse wants, no matter how sinful or stupid. I’m not saying you let an abusive and selfish spouse take advantage of you. You need to have some boundaries. Nor am I saying that you should never do anything that makes you happy or relaxes you. But I am saying that you should never do the foolish thing of thinking that your personal happiness trumps the good of your marriage, or comes before your spouse’s well-being. That is a recipe for disaster. I know far too many people whose marriages have been devastated because someone in that marriage bought the lie that being happy was more important than the marriage.
So I’ll say it again: Your happiness is not the goal. Not of your life, and certainly not of your marriage. Put your spouse first.
What would have happened if Jesus had decided that his happiness and following his heart had been the most important thing? You know that moment in the garden, when Jesus prayed that the cup (the suffering of the cross) be taken from him? How did he end that prayer? “Because, Father, you know I have to make my happiness a priority, because no one can make me happy but me.” Um, no. That wasn’t it. “Father, not my will but your will be done.” But by following his Father’s will he worked salvation. He put us first, not himself. You want to have an awesome marriage? Follow Jesus example, and just as he put his bride, the church, first, put your spouse first too.