The Good Marriage in a Relationally Traumatized World
by Dr. Dan Zink
In any relationship, glimpses of God’s glorious love intertwine with snapshots of human brokenness. A marriage is no different. In his grace, however, God also leads us toward holiness as he refines our hearts through the difficult parts of marriage.
Marriage is supposed to be tough. It is also a lot of other things—most of them good. It is exciting, fulfilling, sustaining, encouraging, enduring, and so forth. But it is tough. Some might prefer I chose a different word, a more comfortable word such as “challenging,” “stretching,” or even “difficult.” But wouldn’t choosing comfortable words be an effort to soften the blow, to make gentle with the hard truth? I think so, because if we are honest, marriage is tough.
We are seven sentences into this article and I expect that most readers want to argue with me. Most of us have a strong preference to believe that marriage is anything but tough, so who wants to listen to something different? Who wants to think that marriage is supposed to be something other than a mysterious merging of two children of God to share emotional and physical completeness and pleasure as well as to raise godly offspring while together advancing God’s Kingdom? I know marriage has glorious purposes and can be lived out in glorious ways. And I hope that all couples do just that. But the chances that we will experience glorious marriage relationships and missions are diminished if we look for, expect, and seek only positive or comfortable things in our marriage relationships.
Having a glorious and fulfilling marriage is most likely when we embrace the tensions inherent in marriage, when we embrace marriage as good and hard—a hard that is good—intertwining the two until we know that one cannot be sustained without the other.
Marriage is supposed to be tough. But for what purpose? God uses marriage to grow us. As marriage exposes, flays, and keeps us unsettled, it creates the necessary context for us to grow. It takes difficult times and difficult things for us to grow and to be pressed to do the hard work needed to change. I mean really grow—not only spiritually, but also emotionally, resulting in a wholehearted, whole person, deep maturity.
Most of us do not date, get engaged, and get married expecting marriage to be challenging. Our central motivation to marry is the perks of marriage. Most of us assume that although marriage might be hard for many—including the kind of hard that results in failed relationships and broken marriages—it will be different for us. We usually assume that the difference will look like smooth sailing on tranquil seas with smiling faces and happy hearts for years to come. After all, marriage is a God-created, God-given, unique relationship. But there is a dark side to this wide-eyed, marriage-is-only-good attitude that we maintain while turning a blind eye to the challenges and struggles that are inherent in marriage.
A major problem in marriages today is the lack of connection between spouses. This limited connection is due largely to a lack of self-awareness regarding the inner emotional life. This low connection, low emotional content style of relationship occurs because so many have learned to play it safe in relationships. They do so by not honoring feelings, not trusting, and not talking about these things. As a marriage counselor, I observe many marriages—some strong, others not. A common factor in these marriages is that spouses struggle to be a couple. This struggle flows from their difficulty to be clear with each other about their own hearts, from their inability to talk about what they feel and to trust each other in the process. Couples often come to counseling expecting information to fix the relationship when what they need is greater emotional self-awareness and to be clear to themselves and each other about their hearts. What they need is the courage to face their fears in order to address their feelings. It is then that they grow toward the maturity that enables them to respond with freedom, thoughtfully and lovingly instead of reactively. If we recognize such a problem in ourselves, we open the door to finding a way toward fuller and richer marriage relationships. Pursuit of the good marriage must be built on conscious efforts to become aware of those times when we are not attending to our own feelings, to see when we are not trusting, and then to exercise the courage to talk about these things with our spouses. Good, rich marriages are built by turning “don’t” feelings and their compatriots into their opposites—do feel, do trust, and do talk.
How do we pursue good marriages in a relationally traumatized world? There are no simple answers to this question, and we must proceed with caution. We too easily make the mistake in this information-centered society of presuming that good marriages will be achieved if we have correct and ample information. We need to realize that becoming “marriage experts” does little to establish good relationships. Marriage experts are most expert in what their spouses do wrong. This tears down the marital relationship rather than building it. We must look more deeply than the information level for guidance and growth in marriage.
Each person’s relationship with God is fundamental in maturing him or her into a person who sees below the surface, who sees life more fully. Growing in relationship with God is not primarily about gaining information and becoming “God experts.” Growth in relationship with God is having a continual, honest, wholehearted experience in which God’s love for us and our love for Him becomes clearer. In this way, a relationship with God prepares spouses for progression in their marriage relationship.
The best place to begin is for husbands and wives to share more of their feelings with each other. Many may protest that they already do that. But perhaps this sharing is not what we think it is. It may not include the kind of depth that builds connection over time. One sign that our sharing is not deep enough is if it generally revolves around anger at other people or each other. Anger is the easiest feeling to talk about and requires little awareness of what is stirring deeper within. For example, perhaps you are angry with your co-worker about something. What else do you feel? Fear? Shame? Guilt? Betrayal? Abandonment? Injustice? Have there been other times when you felt like this? When was the first time? The most recent time? The most difficult time? What damage, if any, to your heart does this reveal? What legitimate, but perhaps unmet, longing does this highlight? Exploring such feelings together will take many couples to a depth of sharing that has been lost in logistics, business, and thoughtless avoidance of feelings and discussion of them.
If the best place to begin is sharing more feelings, an important condition for this sharing is greater self-awareness in each spouse. This is not easy. It runs directly counter to typical marital attitudes and behaviors. Most of us are certain that our marriages would be nearly perfect if our spouse would just get his or her act together. All spouses try to fix each other. They have a mentality that says, “If I can believe you are the problem, I do not have to think about my contribution, disappointments, or pain in this relationship. I don’t have to be honest. I don’t have to feel or trust or talk. I don’t have to exercise the courage to face my fears.” But grace applied exposes this attitude and requires us to recognize our needy sinfulness. Grace drives us toward self-awareness.
How do we pursue a good marriage in a relationally traumatized world? Ultimately, the key is honesty. Deep honesty pays attention to what one feels and speaks those feelings. This honesty resists the pull of fear which draws us toward being numb, blind, and silent. It courageously asks God for the courage needed to remain honest. In the process, our good marriage looks the way God said it could—we know each other deeply and accept each other anyway; we are naked without shame (Gen. 2:25).
Dr. Dan Zink, associate professor of practical theology and counseling, served for 11 years as a family counselor, caseworker, and supervisor of public children’s services before coming to the Seminary. In addition to his teaching responsibilities, Dr. Zink was the founding director and a five-year head of New Hope Counseling Services, a ministry of nearby Chesterfield Presbyterian Church. This article originally appeared in the Spring 2008 issue of Covenant magazine.