RELATIONSHIP QUESTIONS (#13 in a series)
To access previous posts in the series, use the “Relationship Questions” link under “Categories” and the “Older Posts” button.
As someone who’s been married for a while, what’s your best advice for establishing long-lasting and fulfilling marriages?
Back in May, I completed a 12-post series based on questions put to me by a group of unmarried Christian young adults. I recently had the opportunity to meet with another, similar group who read the series and had further questions. Based on their questions, therefore, I’ll extend the series for a few more posts, beginning today and posting on subsequent Thursdays.
This first question is probably the biggest one. And my answer may seem paradoxical: if you want a long-lasting, fulfilling marriage, stop seeking fulfillment from your marriage.
No, I’m not saying that you should expect marriage to be nothing but misery and pain. But if we’ve learned anything from the research on the psychology of happiness, it’s that the things we typically expect to bring us lasting happiness don’t. Aiming at happiness, in other words, is not the way to be happy. That’s not exactly a new idea, for I think even Aristotle would have agreed.
Likewise, I think, the apostle Paul.
Note that there are two ideas in the question itself: a long-lasting marriage and a fulfilling one. Those aren’t the same thing, for we all know long-lasting marriages which aren’t fulfilling. But the assumption seems to be that it’s the sense of mutual fulfillment that makes the marriage last, and that this is the way it should be if the couple gets things right.
That’s a particularly modern idea of marriage that even today isn’t true of couples in every culture. People marry for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to romantic love. Many couples stay together out of sense of obligation and commitment that is part personal conviction and part social expectation, whether they find the marriage particularly “fulfilling” or not.
So here’s the question: to what extent is the expectation of fulfillment part of the problem? If I believe that marriage is supposed to make me happy, will that increase the likelihood of my being unhappy, and undermine the stability of the relationship itself? (And by the way, think back to a question we dealt with in an earlier post: to what extent are such expectations part of the reason why it’s so hard to be single in the church?)
Again, I’m not saying marriage has nothing to do with our happiness, nor that happiness doesn’t matter. Nor am I claiming that there’s no such thing as a long-lasting and fulfilling marriage. But I am saying that we need to recognize the extent to which we shoot ourselves in the foot by accepting cultural assumptions as if they told us the truth about what marriage is supposed to be.
Well, what then? If I had to redefine the notion of fulfillment on an individual level, it would be something like this: being “fulfilled” means finding a meaningful place in a story that’s much bigger than yourself. Aiming at happiness in the sense of personal emotional satisfaction is too narrow an understanding of fulfillment. I believe there needs to be a more transcendent dimension, a sense of purpose and meaning in which your life counts for more than just keeping yourself happy. The by-product of a life so lived isn’t a constant state of positive emotion, but a more settled sense of contentment.
What about marriage? Try this: don’t think of your spouse as the source of your fulfillment, but as a partner on that big-picture journey mentioned above. For Christians, that means spouses who see each other not just as husbands or wives, moms or dads, but children of God, citizens of God’s kingdom, people whom God has gifted to do kingdom work.
I know. That all sounds pretty lofty, and much more needs to be said. But let’s start there. Better to aim higher and work backward than to start from the wrong premises and go forward.