Posts Tagged ‘marriage’

Psychologists confirm: married couples need to lower expectations

February 18, 2014
Keller's book mostly agrees with this psychologist's diagnosis.

Keller’s book mostly agrees with this psychologist’s diagnosis.

This op-ed in the New York Times was a wet blanket for Valentine’s Day: A psychologist from Northwestern University, Eli Finkel, and his team of researchers, argue that, in general, we married couples in America need to lower our expectations in order to have a happier marriage.

Our central claim is that Americans today have elevated their expectations of marriage and can in fact achieve an unprecedentedly high level of marital quality — but only if they are able to invest a great deal of time and energy in their partnership. If they are not able to do so, their marriage will likely fall short of these new expectations. Indeed, it will fall further short of people’s expectations than at any time in the past.

A couple of hundred years ago, before industrialization and the growth of cities, married couples’ expectations for one another were low: they “revolved around things like food production, shelter and protection from violence. To be sure, Americans were pleased if they experienced an emotional connection with their spouse, but such affinities were perquisites of a well-functioning marriage rather than its central purpose.”

From about 1850 to 1965, as people migrated from farms to factory jobs in cities, “American marriage increasingly centered around intimate needs such as to love, to be loved and to experience a fulfilling sex life.”

Since around 1965, “Americans now look to marriage increasingly for self-discovery, self-esteem and personal growth.” As Finkel says, our attitude toward marriage is reflected in that famous line that Jack Nicholson uttered to Helen Hunt in As Good as It Gets: “You make me want to be a better man.”

If you’ve read Tim Keller’s book The Meaning of Marriage, none of this should surprise you. He calls this emphasis on marriage as a means of personal growth a “Me-Marriage.” He says that few potential marriage partners can possibly live up to our high ideals:

To conduct a Me-Marriage requires two completely well-adjusted, happy individuals, with very little in the way of emotional neediness of their own or character flaws that need a lot of work. The problem is—there is almost no one like that out there to marry! The new conception of marriage-as-self-realization has put us in a position of wanting too much out of marriage and yet not nearly enough—at the same time…

[Some people] do not see marriage as two flawed people coming together to create a space of stability, love, and consolation—a “haven in a heartless world,” as Christopher Lasch describes it. This will indeed require a woman who is a “novelist/astronaut with a background in fashion modeling” or the equivalent in a man. A marriage based not on self-denial but on self-fulfillment will require a low- or no-maintenance partner who meets your needs while making almost no claims on you. Simply put—today people are asking far too much in the marriage partner.[†]

Both Finkel and Keller agree that if a Me-Marriage is going to succeed, it will require a lot more work than most couples are willing to put into it. Keller would likely say that those couples who will put in the necessary work are those fortunate few who are at least relatively “well-adjusted, happy individuals, with very little in the way of emotional neediness of their own or character flaws that need a lot of work.” The problem is there just aren’t very many of those people around! And since Keller is a theologian and not a psychologist, he gets to explain this deficit in terms of sin.

Regardless, both Finkel and Keller agree that since many if not most of us aren’t willing or able to make a Me-Marriage work, we need to change our expectations about what marriage can do for us.

Keller, however, unlike Finkel, wouldn’t say it’s a matter of “lowering” expectations: instead, it’s properly centering our expectations on the cross of Jesus Christ. If we understand what Paul is saying about marriage in Ephesians 5:22-33, then we understand that marriage isn’t about me in the first place. As with the rest of life, marriage is about denying myself and loving my neighbor: the one who lives under my roof, raises a family with me, and shares a bed with me.

Does that sound disappointing? It shouldn’t. God knows it’s the only path to true happiness and fulfillment anyway. The least effective way to achieve happiness is to aim for it directly, as the Me-Marriage does.

For those of you who are taking my “Meaning of Marriage” Bible study, I’m sure I’ll say more about Finkel’s article this Sunday!

Timothy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage (New York: Dutton, 2011), 34-5.

Screwtape on marriage

June 12, 2013

Last Sunday, during the second part of my sermon on spiritual warfare, I shared a few insights from The Screwtape Letters about ways in which Satan attacks us. There were many more insights I would have liked to have shared—but that’s what this blog is for!

In the following passage Screwtape discusses with Wormwood the Satanic lie of being “in love” as the basis for marriage. I could have used these thoughts in my recent sermon on marriage. (Remember that “the Enemy” is God and “our Father” is Satan.)

The Enemy’s demand on humans takes the form of a dilemma; either complete abstinence or unmitigated monogamy. Ever since our Father’s first great victory, we have rendered the former very difficult to them. The latter, for the last few centuries, we have been closing up as a way of escape. We have done this through the poets and novelists by persuading the humans that a curious, and usually shortlived, experience which they call ‘being in love’ is the only respectable ground for marriage; that marriage can, and ought to, render this excitement permanent; and that a marriage which does not do so is no longer binding. This idea is our parody of an idea that came from the Enemy…

In other words, the humans are to be encouraged to regard as the basis for marriage a highly-coloured and distorted version of something the Enemy really promises as its result. Two advantages follow. In the first place, humans who have not the gift of continence can be deterred from seeking marriage as a solution because they do not find themselves ‘in love’, and, thanks to us, the idea of marrying with any other motive seems to them low and cynical. Yes, they think that. They regard the intention of loyalty to a partnership for mutual help, for the preservation of chastity, and for the transmission of life, as something lower than a storm of emotion.[†]

Let me highlight that last line: They regard the intention of loyalty to a partnership for mutual help, for the preservation of chastity, and for the transmission of life, as something lower than a storm of emotion.

C.S. Lewis, “The Screwtape Letters” in The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperOne, 2002), 236, 238.

Jim and Pam and 1 Corinthians 13

May 1, 2013
jim_and_pam

The end of this Office episode, in which Pam recalls her pastor reciting 1 Corinthians 13 at her wedding, is startling and powerful.

An uncomfortably long 30 seconds elapse before Pam returns Jim's embrace.

An uncomfortably long 30 seconds elapse before Pam returns Jim’s embrace. There’s nothing glib about the show’s portrayal of marriage.

The Office appears to be concluding its nine-season run on a high note, as this most recent episode, “Paper Airplanes,” makes clear. Jim and Pam, the show’s romantic leads, have been struggling in their marriage recently. Last year, with little input from his wife, Jim invested in a friend’s startup business in Philadelphia. He found his dream job with the new venture and has been splitting his time between Philadelphia and Scranton, where he continues to work part-time for Dunder-Mifflin until the new business gets on its feet.

Pam, meanwhile, feels lonely, isolated, and overwhelmed. She’s juggling the demands of parenthood and career, while Jim is mostly out of the picture. Worse, she fears that her marriage is falling apart.

In this episode, the couple recently started marriage counseling. To say the least, it’s not going well. The cliché-ridden exercises that their counselor has assigned them—such as “speaking your truth” to one another—seems to have made things worse.

At the end of the episode, Jim is leaving the office in Scranton once again for Philadelphia, his problems with Pam unsettled and getting worse. Pam sees that he’s left behind his umbrella. She runs out to the parking lot, where Jim is boarding a cab, and hands him the umbrella. “Have a good trip,” she says, and he kisses her awkwardly on the cheek. As she turns to walk away, Jim runs to embrace her.

She looks stunned. Several long seconds pass. She doesn’t return the embrace. Cutaway to their wedding, a few years earlier. Their pastor is shown reading 1 Corinthians 13: “Love suffers long and is kind. It is not proud. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. Love never fails… Now these three things remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.” Pam remembers these words.

After 30 full seconds, she returns his embrace. They kiss. “I love you,” she says. Cue the credits.

If the scene doesn’t choke you up a little, your heart is made of stone. ;-) Among other things, it’s one of the most pro-Christian moments in network television that I’ve ever seen. I’ve written in the past about how thoughtfully the show has dealt with both religion and marriage. They continue the tradition here.

For the time being, you can watch the episode for free on Hulu by clicking here.

Tying ourselves to the mast

April 30, 2013
This book is simply one of the best I've ever read.

This book is simply one of the best I’ve ever read.

In my sermon last Sunday, I talked briefly about the surprising good news of marriage’s “no escape clause.” It’s good news, I said, that we’re “stuck” to the person to whom we’re married, at least in the short run. Even with no-fault divorces, divorce remains (thank God) costly and difficult.

How can we make sure we’re “stuck” for a lifetime? Which is another way of asking, “How can we keep our Christian marriage vows? How can we remain true to the covenant into which we enter on our wedding day?”

Well, we certainly don’t do it simply by finding the person with whom we are “compatible”—I don’t care what Match.com or eHarmony promise. (Notice how both those companies’ names imply compatibility.) Compatibility doesn’t amount to much, because, at best, it’s only a snapshot. Marriage partners change. Compatibility today doesn’t guarantee compatibility in the future. As Christian ethicist Lewis Smedes pointed out, “My wife has lived with at least five different men since we were wed—and each of the five has been me.”[1]

Or as contemporary Christian ethicist Stanley Hauerwas (who coined what’s become known as the “Hauerwas Rule”: “You always marry the wrong person”), wrote: “We never know whom we marry; we just think we do. Or even if we first marry the right person, just give it  a while and he or she will change… The primary problem is… learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.”[2]

How do we do it? Timothy Keller’s book The Meaning of Marriage is filled with wisdom and practical guidance. In my sermon, I intended to share some positive statistics about marriage, which Keller cites in his book. One, based on longitudinal peer-reviewed research, says that fully two-thirds of unhappily married couples will get happy again within five years if they wait that long. I love this analogy:

When Ulysses was traveling to the island of the Sirens, he knew that he would go mad when he heard the voices of the women on the rocks. He also learned that the insanity would be temporary, lasting until he could get out of earshot. He didn’t want to do something while temporarily insane that would have permanent bad consequences. So he put wax in the ears of his sailors, tied himself to the mast, and told his men to keep him on course no matter what he yelled…

What can keep marriages together during the rough patches? The vows. A public oath, made to the world, keeps you “tied to the mast” until your mind clears and you begin to understand things better.[3]

Keller explores the power of the promises we make. He quotes Smedes again:

The connecting link with my old self has always been the memory of the name I took on back there: “I am he who will be there with you.” When we slough off that name, lose that identity, we can hardly find ourselves again.[4]

1. Timothy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage (New York: Dutton, 2011), 92.

2. Ibid., 38.

3. Ibid., 87.

4. Ibid., 38.

God always has a “Plan B”

April 29, 2013

I grew up in a Southern Baptist church tradition that tended to emphasize the importance of discerning and then doing God’s will for the individual believer’s life. “God’s will,” in other words, was one blueprint—inflexible and individualized for each person. If you followed it, you would be blessed; if you failed to follow it—and we used the language of “missing it”—too bad for you. You were “out of” God’s will.

Do you know what I’m talking about?

Roger Olson does. He grew up in a different-yet-similar Pentecostal tradition that taught the same thing. As he points out, our theme verse (of course), ripped out of the context in which it referred to Israel in a particular time and place, was Jeremiah 29:11: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”

I can totally relate to the fear that he expresses here:

When I was growing up in church, a church that held “testimony time” every Sunday evening (and my dad was the pastor so I had to be there whenever the doors were open for worship, Bible study or prayer meeting!) a sweet little older lady often spoke of how cursed her life had been because she didn’t follow God’s will for her life. That struck terror in my heart. I was taught by my spiritual mentors that that is the result of “missing God’s will.” I formed the impression, as do many young Christians, that God has a blueprint plan for my life and that it’s my job to find out what it is and follow it—to construct my life according to it. Where to go to college was one big issue for me. Whom to marry—another major issue. What profession to pursue. What job to seek and which job offer to take. All these have been major decisions of my life. And let me assure you that God has led me, but not according to an inflexible blueprint such that any deviation from it brought only misery and a cursed life.

What is the better and truer alternative to this kind of individualized blueprint? As Olson says, citing the work of a theologian named Friesen, “God has a general will for every believer’s life and, when God does want a believer to do something, he tells them, they don’t have to struggle to find it out, and even if they disobey God always has a ‘Plan B.’”

God always has a “Plan B.” Exactly!

This discussion relates to my sermon on marriage yesterday. In the sermon, which I’ll post later this week, I severely criticized the idea of a “soulmate”—that out of about 3.5 billion possible candidates there exists one ideal mate just for you, so we all better make sure we’ve found that one person before we get married. As I said, this is a theme in nearly every romantic comedy. This idea tends to make us extremely picky on the front-end of marriage, but, worse, it also makes us second-guess ourselves when we struggle in our marriage: “I married the wrong person. This person obviously isn’t my ‘one true love.’ She’s not my soulmate. If she were, why would marriage be so difficult?”

As I argued (and many nodding heads in the congregation confirmed), marriage is difficult no matter whom you marry. Our spouse, after all, is the only human being who gets to see us at our absolute worst. How can that be easy? We human beings are all such terrible sinners. Therefore, there is no “soulmate” out there with whom marriage won’t be, at times, incredibly difficult.

Fortunately for us, we leave room for God’s all-sufficient grace. Which is another way of saying, there’s always a “Plan B.” By that, I don’t mean, let’s get divorced and start over with God’s new plan for us. Although even divorce—which in the vast majority of cases (I believe strongly) is a tragic mistake—can be redeemed by God. No, I mean two things: First, that once we’re tempted to imagine that we married the “wrong” person and our marriage isn’t working out as we planned, there’s the good news of God’s grace: God shows us Plan B within this existing marriage. Second, even if we did marry “wrong” person—by which I mean a less suitable partner than we might have otherwise chosen—there’s the good news of God’s grace: even this “Plan B spouse” can work out.

I suppose someone might accuse me of being naïve and overly optimistic. I don’t care. It’s only because I believe so strongly in God’s grace and his power to redeem our mistakes.

Besides, as I indicated yesterday, I’m a Plan B husband at best, and God is redeeming me!

Smart “Office” episode about marriage

February 27, 2012

Jim and even Dwight choose the path of wisdom in this episode.

Thanks to the magic of Hulu, I invite you to watch this very funny and smart episode of The Office, which I referred to yesterday in my sermon. No one talks in pop culture about being wise, but wisdom is exactly what Jim demonstrates concerning his marriage vows when he finds himself in a potentially compromising situation with The Office’s attractive new brunette, Kathy. Even Dwight, in his own way, does the same.

I need to commend this episode to couples to whom I’m offering premarital counseling.

A chilling note: Stanley, the show’s serial adulterer, walks into Jim’s hotel room and sees Kathy there. “Be careful. It gets easier and easier.” I’m sure Proverbs couldn’t have said it better.

Another grumpy post? This one about marriage and mutual submission in Ephesians

July 11, 2011

John Updike said one time that he started reviewing books (in addition to writing them) because it helped him deal with his sense of indignation. I feel like I’ve often been indignant on this blog recently—like I’m always disagreeing with people and being argumentative. I apologize if I’m coming across this way. It’s true I like to argue, but it’s not just that: Talking about the Bible, and trying passionately to communicate its relevance to our world today, is a large part of my calling, my life’s work. I believe what I preach! That people in our day underestimate how truly good and powerful and relevant the Bible is—even though, our secular-minded age notwithstanding, they have been indelibly shaped by it—is an understatement.

So I tend to get a little worked up even by seemingly innocuous little posts such as this one, by a seminary professor in the United Church of Christ named Greg Carey. He contends that for all the fuss that the church makes about marriage, the Bible actually says very little, and what it does say is often wrong or, ironically, unchristian. Here’s his payoff paragraph:
Read the rest of this entry »

Happy and lasting marriages

January 6, 2011

The gist of this latest research, according to this article, is that successful lifelong marriages occur where each partner finds happiness and personal fulfillment in the relationship. This seems kind of obvious to me, but it’s nice that research bears it out.

I made the same point in my recent sermon series on love and marriage: Marriage should make us happy—happier and more fulfilled than we would otherwise be. And our marriages should grow stronger, more intimate, and more fulfilling over time.

I go one step further, however: If we’re not growing closer together, and we’re not happy for an extended period of time, this is not a sign that we need to call it quits; it’s a sign that we need to get help!

Marriage is at times a struggle—just like being a disciple of Jesus Christ. In both cases, however, the end result should be happiness, fulfillment, and joy, even if the path to getting there is narrow and difficult. Anything worth having is worth a struggle.

“Doomed to wither and die”?

June 4, 2010

In the wake of the news about a celebrity marriage (Al and Tipper Gore’s) coming to an end after 40 years, one writer who has studied late-life divorce shares her findings. It sounds like couples who’ve been married for 20, 30, and 40 years divorce for the same reasons that younger couples divorce—only with wrinkles and grown children.

Men and women I interviewed insisted they did not divorce foolishly or impulsively. Most of them mentioned “freedom.” Another word I heard a lot was “control”; people wanted it for themselves for the rest of their lives. Women had grown tired of taking care of house, husband and grown children; men were tired of working to support wives who they felt did not appreciate them and children who did not respect them. Women and men alike wanted time to find out who they were.

One spouse might have wanted to keep working while the other wanted to retire. Often, there was an emotional void; one would say that the other “doesn’t see me, doesn’t know who I am,” while the other hadn’t a clue: “I thought everything was just fine; we never argued, we don’t fight.” One grew disenchanted with the wrinkled person across the dinner table and wanted someone new and exciting.

I hope I got this point across in last week’s sermon, but every couple, no matter how happy they may be at one time or another, is susceptible to splitting up. No one can fully imagine or anticipate what loving until “we are parted by death” means. No one can know the changes that life will throw their way. We can be certain the person we marry at 25 will not be the same person—physically, emotionally, spiritually—that he or she will be at 40, 50, or 60. Will we still love this new and different person? Read the rest of this entry »

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