To love, honor, and cherish?
Of course. Forever.
For better or worse?
Sure. I guess. How bad can it be?
In sickness and in health?
Yeah … I want someone to take care of me if I get sick.
For richer or poorer?
We both work at a dotcom … we won’t have to worry about being poor!
Till death do you part?
Umm … I don’t think I like that part. Can we rephrase that?
"Good Morning America" recently ran a feature that caught my eye. It made me angry. It was all about GenXers and their "practice" marriages. Apparently, the number of 18- to 29-year-old divorcees has increased from 253,000 in the 1960s to about 3 million in 1998.
The strange thing is, there seems to be a consensus that these short-lived temporary marriages has taught the divorcees valuable lifelong lessons about marriage. Pamela Paul’s book, The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony, claims when these divorcees get older and marry again, they’ll be able to make it work, because they learned what a marriage is supposed to be.
I’m not one to assume just because there is a consensus a good conclusion has been reached. In the words of some anonymous folk hero and bumper sticker writer, "Never Underestimate the Power of Stupid People in Large Groups."
Something’s not right here. A generation known and distinguished for their lack of commitment to anything, and a strong sense of moral decision-making (or at least the ability to justify the behavior by adapting to any moral code that permits) decides they want to follow their hearts and get married. So they celebrate their engagement by moving in together, spending the next year picking out china patterns and blowing mom and dad’s money on professionally printed invitations, flower arrangements and tuxedo rentals. Within a year, they have a beautiful ceremony in a packed church, a reception with the best DJ and caterer they could afford, then a swanky honeymoon on a cruise ship.
Somewhere along the line, they neglected to take some serious time to reflect on the question the words "I DO" answer, and as soon as the pressure hits, the foundation they have built their home on starts to crumble. The finances start to quiver. Their sex life isn’t as fun as it was before they were married. He has a drinking problem. She thinks she might be pregnant. Any random crisis moves into their home, forgets to wipe its feet, and leaves its muddy footprints all over everything they rely on.
Of course, the $99 no fault divorce special the lawyer with the quarter-page photo ad in the yellow pages offers seems like a great shot. And now that he moved out to Seattle and she is back home with her parents, they want to pull a typical GenX response and adjust their values to justify the whole thing: "I’ve learned so much about relationships. I now know what marriage is all about. I’ll be more careful next time."
It sounds great, until next time, when kids enter the picture, when there are houses and property to divide and when there is a lot more at stake. They may have learned a lot about what marriage is not, but the very fact that they ended the first marriage means that they never learned what a marriage is.
So in our own relationships, before and after the big day, what principles can we apply to avoid making ours a "starter-marriage"?
First of all, I think it is important to learn the meaning of two words: love and forever. Love is not St. Valentine’s Day cards and syrupy sweet flutters in your stomach. If you were told as a kid that love is when your heart jumps in your throat and your palms get sweaty, then someone lied to you. That is purely hormones, emotions or that day-old tuna fish sandwich. Yes, love sometimes feels good, but feeling good is not what love is.
I’m reminded of a scene in "Fiddler on the Roof," when Tevya asks his wife from an arranged marriage of 20 some years if she loves him. Her response is, "Do I what???" She eventually comes to the conclusion even though they did not choose to marry each other, they have learned to love each other. People for centuries (and even still in some cultures) had little or no choice who they married, and those marriages actually had a higher success rate then people who spend years trying to find their perfect match.
If a couple spends their engagement planning a beautiful wedding and reception, and neglects to spend time reflecting on the rest of those 50 years they are signing up for, they will not get to experience those 50 years.
Which brings us to the word forever. Marriage is a specific calling. It’s not a temporary calling. It is permanent. It’s not something to enter under the auspices if you can’t get along that you can call it off. Long before that hot-blooded man says, "I DO," he has to listen to the question. Including the part that says, "Till death do us part." Long before that teary-eyed woman watches that ring slip over her knuckles, she needs to know what it symbolizes. A circle has no end. It keeps on going. A marriage has to have a foundation built on a conscious decision to stick it through the tough times. And it seems to help if that decision was made before they ever stuff into their fancy duds and before they ever send out the invitations.
Marriage is a calling. Without God’s call, it’s not a marriage. It’s a couple of people legally cohabiting. And not everyone is called to be married. I think we forget that the Apostle Paul told the Corinthians, "A man does well not to marry. But because there is so much immorality, every man should have his own wife, and every woman should have her own husband" (1 Cor. 7:1-2 TEV). "Now, to the unmarried and to the widows I say that it would be better for you to continue to live alone as I do. But if you cannot restrain your desires, go ahead and marry — it is better to marry than to burn with passion" (1 Cor. 7:8-9 TEV).
Somewhere along the line, our generation listened to the "Sleepless in Seattle" and the "Runaway Bride" philosophies that say love is beyond our control. We believe love is destiny and consists of butterflies in our stomach and passionate kisses in the backseat at Lover’s Leap. And in the process we forgot what love really is. We forgot that love is what remains when all of that fades away. We forgot that love keeps on loving even when it hurts to do so. Love keeps on loving through depression, through illness and poverty. Love even knows when to let go when God has other plans.
The love that we need to know is a picture of Christ’s love for us. "For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:38-39).
The call of marriage is bigger than clashes of personality and mistakes that go unapologized for. If a couple’s love for Jesus is the foundation of their love for each other, then nothing will be able to separate them — no matter what societal trends say.