The Facebook post caught my eye. It was focused on pointers on how to make long term relationships work and had insights from couples who had been through tough times.
A couple of things made me think. One was the phrase ‘long term relationships’ – that’s being inclusive, I guess, because not everyone is married. Marriage has always been for the long haul – “till we are parted by death” as the traditional vows put it. (Though some have opted to vow “for as long as love will last”.)
The phrase ‘long term’ doesn’t necessarily mean for life. That’s one major difference between marriage, and long-term relationships. (Celebrities’ serial marriages are an aberration, and divorce can be regarded as marriage failure, but it is not a denial of marriage or of validity.)
The other phrase was ‘making it work’. The assumption behind that was that a relationship needs work put into it in order for it to last. That’s certainly true, I thought, whether it’s marriage or-long term relationships.
The very fact the post was highlighting the need to put work into a relationship shows where our culture has moved to. In previous generations, making a marriage work was taken for granted.
My parents married at the age of 19 and 20, my father was called up for army service in World War 2 and sailed for Italy after six months of marriage. I was born while he was away, so he didn’t meet me till he returned when I was just over 2 years old. On their 60th wedding anniversary my mother commented, “When we married, we expected to have to work at it.”
What marriage is (and is not):
The more I thought about it, the more I realised that marriage has so much more to offer than being just one version of a long-term relationship. I would never have imagined that marriage would need defending, or that the advantages of marriage would need to be spelled out, but it seems that they do!
Marriage is a commitment of the will. When a couple make their vows to each other, they are making a commitment of their wills; they are promising to do certain things. (Some couples get confused between what a vow is, as compared with an expression of feelings. Couples who write their own vows sometimes simply offer a statement of how they feel about the person they are marrying. That is not a vow.) One of the best definitions I have heard of marriage is that each person is making a commitment ‘to the other’s best good.’
Marriage is not a wedding. The wedding is the occasion when couples make their vows, but it is not the marriage. A wedding is a special time for family and friends to gather and support the couple – and celebrate. When couples get married, it’s not primarily about having a wedding with all the trimmings, or celebrating; instead it’s about beginning a commitment together.
Many couples now don’t bother with a wedding, maybe because of the cost, or because they feel they don’t need to have one. “We’re committed to each other anyway,” many say. Undoubtedly that’s true, but they do miss out on the opportunity to make a public affirmation of that commitment, and on the support that friends and family can give. Getting married publicly cements the commitment in the lives of those who gather – and it also helps affirm that commitment in the couple’s life also.
Marriage belongs in the community. A couple, unless they are total hermits, are part of a community. They are a separate entity, belonging to a network of family and friends, and interacting with them. As a couple grows together, they can often become more than the sum of the two parts, and can contribute in a stronger way to community life than they may have done as individuals. There are many married couples who have given a huge amount to their communities, each supporting their spouse in ways that makes their contributions even more effective.
Marriage is the best environment for children to be raised in. Children don’t make a marriage, but marriage is the best context for children. Growing up with two parents, in a stable family life, provides children with the best possible outcomes.
Research has shown that children growing up with the model of a good marriage, with parents who love, respect and support each other, enjoy so many benefits that are not found to the same extent in other alternative family environments. Such children enjoy a security and stability, and educational, sporting and cultural benefits, as well as many social opportunities. They know they belong, they have the input of a father and mother as role models, and usually there’s a wider extended family that they are part of too.
(Of course, solo and divorced parents, will often do their utmost to do and be the best that they can for their children, and many children turn out well as a result, especially if extended family are available. The challenges for such families are so much greater though, and some children inevitably miss out.)
Marriages are not perfect. And they never will be. Each marriage is made up of two imperfect human beings. Because of that imperfection some marriages won’t last, some have to be abandoned because they are toxic, or unsafe, and of course people make mistakes and should never have married each other. Some people’s negative experiences of their parents’ marriage too, or that of others, means that their expectations of marriage are very low, or unrealistic. Because of that, some people could never marry.
Because marriage is so important, it then means that a separation or divorce can be devastating. Not only for each spouse, but also for the children. More research is being done on the impact of divorce on children, and the awareness is growing of just how negative a divorce can be. Inevitably children are split down the middle, because in essence they belong to each parent.
Divorces too have such an impact on families and the community – and the ripples spread far and wide. (My daughter when she was six, was really concerned that we her parents would separate, because her friend at school was experiencing the separation and divorce of her parents.) This is where the wider community of the church is so important too – and where churches have such a significant role – to welcome and include the solo parents, the divorced parents, those whose relationships are faltering – and the children affected.
There’s nothing better than a good marriage in this life! Having a spouse who is utterly faithful, who is your best friend, who you can share joys and difficulties with, who you can laugh with, who brings out the best in you and who supports you, who forgives you, who is always there for you, whom you can have adventures with – the list is endless. Having a spouse whom you can support, whom you can respect and be proud of, who overlooks your foibles, who complements you with skills and interests and opinions, and who surprises you – how good is that?
All these things come from the bedrock of the commitment that a marriage is based on – and it is made even stronger when that commitment is also a shared commitment to God and his church family. That commitment can become even stronger when there are tough challenges to deal with, but no couple is an island to itself, and that’s where the support of a church family, of other friends and family also comes in. The nuclear family in previous generations was not an island, but was part of a wider network and whanau. Today, increasingly people are rediscovering that’s how it is meant to be.
When we marry, we are not just in a ‘long term relationship’; rather, we are committed to each other, as couples – and as families – “for better or for worse.”
Liz Hay rejoices in living in a beautiful part of God’s creation in a high country mountain basin; and she also rejoices in hearing stories of God at work in people’s lives. One of her favourite activities is reading fascinating biographies that illustrate the wonderful ways God works uniquely with each person.