Today’s post comes from Gary Thomas, who offers what might be a surprising spiritual secret for marital satisfaction.
Some desires in marriage are never going to be fulfilled and need to be “crucified.” In fact, various studies have suggested that more than fifty percent of marital issues will never be resolved. You can fight against this all you want. You can resent it. You can say it’s not fair. But it won’t change what is. If you want your marriage to move forward, you have to live with what is.
Fortunately, life in Jesus provides a brilliant but severe remedy for living with unfulfilled desires and unmet expectations: the cross. We need to constantly remember that our lives shouldn’t be defined first and foremost by our marital happiness, but by seeking first God’s kingdom and righteousness. That pursuit will, in the end, produce happiness, but we have to keep first things first.
So here’s the spiritual trick. Transform the focus of your expectations from what you expect of your spouse to what your God expects of you. We can’t make any one person do what we think they should do (that just leads to futility and frustration), but we can surrender to what God would have us do in light of that (which leads to peace with God and divine affirmation).
Patricia Palau discovered that accepting the role of the cross in her life helps her check her own desires.
“Perhaps some things are improved by a lack of inward focus. Instead of focusing on our marriage or our desires, Luis and I have focused on the call of God on our lives. We have lived for a cause that’s bigger than both of us. And after forty years, we like each other, get along well, and have fulfilled one another as much as is possible.
“Our fulfillment is doing the will of God. Our heart prayer is, Not my will, Lord, but Yours. This focus kept me from saying ‘I deserve more help than this’ when Luis has been gone for two weeks, leaving me with four little boys. I didn’t think, I can’t believe Luis has to leave again so soon, two or three weeks after his last trip. For me, the Lord’s command to ‘take up your cross and follow Me’ has meant letting Luis go while I take care of things at home. No, it isn’t ‘fair,’ but it brings life— eternal life— to others. And I gain peace, contentment, and satisfaction.
Patricia’s attitude works just as well for wives married to construction workers as it does for wives married to famous evangelists. Patricia surrendered to God’s will, whatever it was. Raising children, supporting a husband, running a small business, staying involved in one’s church— all of these activities can constitute a call “bigger than both of us,” even if such a call will never get celebrated in a history book.
Feel free to say, “This stinks!” but then add, “And Lord, how would you like me to respond in the face of its stench?”
Regardless of your situation, the Christian life does require a cross. Your cross may look different from Patricia’s, but you will have a cross to bear. Resentment and bitterness will make each splinter of that cross feel like a sharp, ragged nail. A yielding, surrendered attitude may not make the cross soft, but it will make it sweeter, and at the end of your life, it may even seem precious.
When Patricia as a mature woman married for more than four decades testifies that she has gained “peace, contentment, and satisfaction,” she means she has found what virtually every woman wants and yet very few find. Why? Because so many women look at the cross as their enemy instead of as their truest friend.
In a woman who raised four boys with an often absent husband and who endured two years of chemotherapy? How can this be? Patricia understands something the world mocks: “In the end, nothing makes us feel as good as does obedience to Him.”
If you don’t die to unrealistic expectations and if you refuse the cross, you’ll find yourself at constant war with your husband instead of at peace. You’ll feel frustrated instead of contented, and disappointed instead of satisfied. Why? We often forget that both partners in a marriage have their expectations, and sometimes these expectations conflict.
Martie found this to be true in her own marriage:
“When Joe and I became engaged, I had a set of assumptions about how our married life would be. One of those was that Joe would be home most evenings and we’d spend hours together talking, sharing activities, and dreaming together, just like we did when we were dating. But those expectations didn’t materialize. After we were married, Joe juggled school and a full-time job in addition to his commitment to me as his wife. He often came home late and I would be upset about having to spend the evening without him after working hard all day at my frustrating job. I felt Joe was breaking some unspoken promise about spending time with me. But you see, that was the problem: I never spoke with him about my expectations. In my mind he was breaking a promise, but in his mind he was simply fulfilling his responsibilities.”
Eventually, Martie talked to Joe about her desires, and the two of them worked out an arrangement to spend some evenings together. Because of his vocation, Joe is not home every night, as Martie once dreamed he’d be. But he is home more evenings than he probably envisioned as a single man. Neither received all they wanted, but both bowed to something bigger than themselves. That’s why I say that harmony, joy, and peace will never grace a home ruled by expectations instead of by the cross.
In her book It’s My Turn, Ruth Bell Graham got pretty blunt in this regard: “I pity the married couple who expect too much from one another. It is a foolish woman who expects her husband to be to her what only Jesus Christ can be: always ready to forgive, totally understanding, unendingly patient, invariably tender and loving, unfailing in every area, anticipating every need, and making more than adequate provision. Such expectations put a man under an impossible strain.”
And men, we can do the same thing with our wives, can’t we? We take little parts of every “all-star” wife we know, then cut and paste them into some Frankenstein fantasy, and expect our wives to be all of them in one person. This wife earns more than her husband, why can’t you? That wife wants sex even more than her husband does. What’s your problem? That wife has Bible study and prayer every morning before her family wakes up. How come you’re always the last out of bed? That wife works out six days a week. When’s the last time you’ve even broken a sweat?
The foolishness of these expectations is that they always make us feel worse about our marriage and never encourage our spouse to “improve.” We feel worse and worse, and a “picked on” spouse tends to become more and more stubborn. That’s a losing game, far more foolish than the victory of the cross. Marital hope is found in a glorious but bloody solution: crucifying our expectations. Sometimes, the choice comes down to this: crucify our desires or“crucify” our spouse for not meeting those desires.
If you choose the latter, ask yourself in advance how well a pilloried spouse will be able to suddenly start meeting those desires, or even want to?
If you want your marriage to survive, crucify the desire and resurrect your marriage.