Our last conservative/evangelical church–which honestly, is still a wonderful, beautiful community, we meant no disrespect by leaving, and I mean none by what I will write here–was comprised of mainly young, urban professionals, most of them single. The married couples were generally newlyweds, and there weren’t many kids. Most people moved out to the suburbs and found new churches once their kids reached a certain age. We stayed, in all 13 years. As a consequence, by the time we left we had one of the longest marriages in the church.
The church often held seminars on dating and marriage. Members were asked to speak on panels. Despite our longevity, as both members and married people, we were never asked. They probably would not admit it, but I have a hunch that this was an intentional decision by certain leaders, who were afraid of what we might say. Because I had been divorced, and not clearly “biblically” either. However, even if it had been an indisputably “biblical” divorce, I doubt they would have wanted to hear from me. For one thing, there is an unfortunate cultural phenomenon in conservative Christian circles of preferring to learn from successes. It’s fine if you have failures, and dramatic conversion stories are really in demand, because all have sinned blah blah blah blah, but if the lessons you draw from those failures don’t reinforce what the church presents as the “correct answers,” then it’s not ideal to hear from those folks. In my case, they knew I was likely to stray from the talking points.
But you actually do learn a lot from failure. And in my case, my failure came as a result of ostensibly doing everything right according to evangelical standards. I married very young, the younger the better because that way you’re less likely to have premarital sex, which I did not, Yayyy ME! I married a fellow Christian, even a Southern Baptist missionary kid like myself. We attended church regularly and read the Bible and prayed and did the couples devotionals and did all the things. But our marriage was a failure even before it began, because I never loved him. I tried really, really hard to convince myself that I did, or at least that I could. I failed.
If I had then remained single or if I had subsequently entered into another somewhat unhappy marriage, it might have proved right a lot of what I had been taught–that love is a choice, romantic love is overplayed by the secular culture, marriage is just a hard slog no matter how you cut it, that if both people are in a “personal relationship with Jesus,” they will grow inevitably grow closer together. If you are unhappy, you just need to double down on faith in The Lord. You can’t outrun your problems by leaving and marrying someone else. You are the problem, and you will be the same problem in every relationship you might have. Maybe the second time I would have married someone slightly more attractive to me or with whom I shared more in common and so the hard work would have been enough to survive.
But that’s not what happened. Instead, I met and married a man who freaking knocked my socks off in every way, and I fell head over heels into movie-love. 19 years later, I still catch my breath when I look at him. He captivates me (and yes, sometimes he infuriates me, especially when he leaves what is irrefutably trash lying around the house). Our marriage has, of course, had its ups and downs, but I think we’d both count it as a success. Certainly it is a universe away from my first marriage.
So, having had one spectacularly failed marriage and one pretty amazing one, this is what I can tell you, from my experience, such that it is. My experience is not the end-all, be-all. There are as many marriage stories as marriages. But this what mine have taught me.
You absolutely, positively CAN marry the wrong person, and if you do, it’s probably never going to be great.
When I was struggling in my first marriage, a Christian counselor (Lord, have mercy…that’s another post) gave me a book entitled, What If I Married the Wrong Person? By that point, this was a question I was finally willing to ask out loud. So the counselor gave me this book, the entire premise of which was that it is IMPOSSIBLE to marry the wrong person (cases of abuse and sociopathy kind of excepted? maybe). EVERY PERSON you might marry will inevitably be the wrong person, because over time you will see more and more of their flaws. The key is to then brainwash yourself into seeing them as the RIGHT PERSON.
While it is true that the more time you spend with someone, the more you will see their flaws, this is otherwise a load of complete and utter crap, and I know, because I married the WRONG PERSON once–a person with whom I had no connection physically, emotionally, or intellectually–and then I married the RIGHT PERSON, someone with whom I felt a very, very deep connection on all those levels. Someone who brought out the best in me. Someone with whom I felt like the best version of myself. Someone who both challenged and accepted me. Someone who both thrilled me and made me feel safe. Someone who was both a decent person, who shared my faith, but who also swept me off my feet. Someone who is relatively (and more on that point later) easy for me to love. With my first husband, it required a million workbooks and Bible studies and counseling sessions and contrived date nights and on and on and on just not to feel nauseous for a couple hours. And he wasn’t a bad person, not at all! He was a basically good person. Who was wrong for me. The dysfunction grew and grew until we both ended up kind of awful people within that relationship.
Movie-love is real, it is magical, and you should hold out for it.
When I was married before, I hated romantic movies. I even hated going to real-life weddings. I thought all that romance was poppy-cock. I told myself, as I had heard in my religious culture, that all that romance stuff was just a collective brainwashing, driven by lust, and sure to burn out. Some writers and preachers even put an expiration date on it: 2 years from your first sexual encounter. Another reason to wait until marriage, because if you have sex while you’re dating, the romance will go out of your marriage that much sooner. And no, I am not making this up. This is an actual thing I heard more than a few times.
When I met my husband, I was like, Yes, this is what they are talking and singing and going on and on about. I understand now. And yes, this is MAGIC, it’s spiritual, it’s intangible. Sadly, it is hard to describe for people who haven’t experienced it. But once you do, you know. When I was with him, time was immaterial. We talked on the phone for 7 hours once. Everything around me faded into the background, which made for a pretty unproductive year or so. It was the most “born again” I have ever felt. Now, it is true that that level of rapture doesn’t go on forever–thankfully, because otherwise we would have starved to death wrapped in each others’ arms–but the intense connection continues. And, I don’t want to be graphic here, but I can tell you that the 2 year expiration date is in fact a massive pile of horse shit.
So marriage IS a lot of work (more on that later), and in my experience–and others may have another perspective–if you start out with ho-hum, you’ll quickly get to Get the F Out Of My Face. What’s “fine” in a co-worker or friend quickly makes you want to throw yourself off a cliff in a marriage. This is not to say your beloved won’t have annoying habits and traits, but you should marry someone you can’t imagine living without, not someone you can live with. That is a quote from some marriage guru whose name I can’t remember, sorry to plagiarize. That’s how I felt about Kevin once we fell in love. The idea of breaking up with him produced an immediate, visceral NO in my soul. I KNEW he was it for me, like I have never known anything before or since.
Marriage IS hard work, but it’s mainly maintenance.
No one is doubting that marriage requires effort and work. But in my experience, the work of marriage is MAINTAINING, SUSTAINING, NURTURING the deep connection you began with, not CREATING it. It’s like if you are running a marathon (which I have done!), your first training session isn’t the day of the race. You show up to the race with a body that is already ready to go. The race will be tough regardless, but if you don’t start with the right stuff, you’re probably going to fail (or die trying).
Where marriages that begin as true love matches fail is when one or both partners quit maintaining. To use another metaphor, if you go back to the houses that have been renovated by Chip and Joanna Gaines a year later, they may look like crap again, if the family has put no further effort in. And, they will for sure look crappier than Chip and Joanna left them because Chip and Joanna don’t live in the real world and you do. The house ain’t gonna always be clean and tidy and perfect. That’s OK. But if you never pick up or clean another thing again, in a matter of a few weeks even, that house will look (and smell) as though Chip and Joanna may have died in it and are buried beneath some pizza boxes.
And I’m not judging anyone whose good marriage dies. Anyone who is married knows how easily that can happen. Life invades with its many obligations, stressors, and distractions. People change and grow and lose touch with each other. Children, who I am convinced are willfully hell-bent on complete annihilation of their parents’ marriage (as I have written about on my other blog), arrive with hydrogen-bombs worth of destruction. Maintenance, whether with regard to a marriage or a second language or a body or a home, is daily work. But I find it’s work I want to do, work I take joy in. For me, I try to take a moment every day to reflect on our journey. I look at old photos and read old emails. I think about how I felt about him in the beginning. Ironically, my failed first marriage makes it far easier to remain grateful for this one. I have never, not for a single day, taken for granted what I’ve been gifted here. If I ever do, I will have torched the best thing that has ever happened to me.
But if you start with a shack full of rats, well, I’m not going to say it will never be a habitable home, but I will say you’re more likely to die in a shack full of rats.
Premarital sex is not as awful as premature marriage.
That sound you hear is a wave of evangelicals fainting on a hard floor. Because I grew up believing that having sex outside of marriage was pretty much the worst thing I could ever do. There was murder, then fornication, then everything else. I was terrified of succumbing to the temptation.
The reasons I got married at the ungodly age of 19 to someone I had no business marrying are many and complex, but I can honestly say the fear of becoming a fornicator was a big part of it. But if you just get married IMMEDIATELY then you shut that door and automatically become a good Christian forever! Yayyyy.
I’m not going to get into sexual ethics here, and on a continuum of evangelical ethics and the hook-up culture, I am light years closer to the evangelical take. What I strongly disagree with is the fear and shame (and frankly, misogyny) used to compel conformity. I think there are a great many sins greater than premarital sex, including sins committed on the regular by spiritual paragons of the church, and one of them would be marrying too early and too quickly to someone with whom you aren’t going to be happy.
Incidentally, in my humble opinion, using fear and shame to compel people in such marriages to stay together at all costs is another sin. But I’ll save that for another day.
Happy Valentine’s Day, y’all. I actually think it’s a crock, movie-love believer though I may be.