Here’s the wrap up to the series.
How does a marriage crumble? First, it happens a little bit at a time. A little erosion, “It’s no big deal.” We think. Until one day you’re standing on one side of the Grand Canyon and your partner is on the other. I think there’s a book out there that suggests we not sweat the small stuff and it’s all small stuff. In marriage it’s the small stuff that, over time, causes us to crumble.
I’m not suggesting there aren’t big issues, I mentioned some back in part one. But more often I think pressure comes more subtly and wears us down to the point that we’re so brittle, our relationship worn so thin, that a little pressure is all it takes to make us crack.
Marriage, I tell anyone who’ll listen, is hard work. Madeleine L’Engle said, “It takes a lifetime to learn another person…” Despite what movies and Christian romance novels would suggest, loving another person can be a very demanding experience. When we do it right we’re facing the challenge of not only discovering who someone else is but also seeing for the first time who we really are in ways that only a marriage relationship can uncover. In an “instant gratification” society this truth can be tough to swallow – but a great marriage, full of laughter, love, joy, adventure, peace and solace, comes at a cost.
Our tendency today is to run when it gets hard: in friendship, work, business, parenting, church and marriage. We’ve been led to believe that when it’s “right” it’s also easy. The illusion is that in the early days of relationship it often is easy. Over time the “glamour” wears off and we make choices about what we’ll live with, what’s worth it to us, and we discover if constancy is part of our character or not.
The success or failure of a marriage is rarely seen in how we handle the moments of great celebration or the moments of terrible crisis. It is found in the small moments of every day: a look, a gesture, a touch a thoughtful act or a thoughtless one. The act of marriage is all about laying down our life every day, and some days every hour and some hours every minute, for the one we love most. Never underestimate the power of an ordinary day in an ordinary life.
Think about grindstones and the water torture.
I’ve got a tree next to my house. Slender branches, thin leaves but believe it or not a summer of rubbing gently against my vinyl siding actually starts to wear right through the siding. What one person can brush off as an idiosyncrasy and call “no big deal” to another person who lives with it day in and day out it’s like living with their forehead just making contact with a grindstone or having “just a drop” of water dripping on them every other minute of every day of every week of every year for the last… you get the idea. As friends we might easily forgive little acts that could mentally and emotionally wear us down, maybe even make us physically unwell, if we lived under it, against it or with it all the time.
From the outside we perceive a happy, picture perfect couple in an ideal marriage. We have no idea of the private conversations, words said and unsaid, moments where touch, gesture or word was needed but withheld. We haven’t heard the crazy talk reserved for the spouse when everyone else is sleeping or away. We weren’t there for the conversation in the car on the way to or from the event. We don’t catch the pages of meaning in the look shot across the room to the partner at a dinner party when they stopped to talk to “that” person.
I’m not suggesting these things as justification, merely explanation, and I hope, on some level, an appeal for compassion towards those who are crumbling.
I always feel like it’s a privilege, even a sacred moment, when couples going through difficult times open up their lives and share part of their story with me. It’s never easy, there’s never a perfect thing to say or way to avoid feeling at least a fraction of the pain they’re going through. I usually feel a similar sense of the immediate presence of God when I’m meeting with couples to talk about getting married. Thankfully, my experience of Jesus has been that he’s not a “fair weather friend” who shows up for the party but runs for the temple when everything is shaking the floor is giving out underneath of us. There’s this bit from the prophet Isaiah, writing as God’s secretary of the moment, where God says that when we pass through the fires, the flood, he’ll be there with us. Not waiting on the other side but right there in the middle of our mess, our trouble, our disaster. No promise of an explanation, no promise of a “get out of catastrophe free” card, just a simple, humble but powerful statement that even at the worst of times – and I think that has to include “even at the worst of us” – he will be there with us. “Being with” is an attribute, a vocation, and I think the church, by and large, would have a lot more credibility with the world if we actually tried it ourselves.
If you know someone who is feeling their marriage start to crumble, don’t run, don’t come up with clever answers or platitudes or reasons why – just be with them. Practice being a friend.