[Beliefnet, June 2003]
The bridal season is in full swing, and many of us have already clutched more little plastic champagne stems than we can count. As I look back over my own 29 years of marriage-most of them years as a pastor’s wife, with the unique perspective that gives on other people’s marriages-there are two mistakes I think a new couple can make. The first is to take marriage too seriously. The second is to fail to take it seriously enough.
Now, I’m talking about marriage, not the wedding. An overblown wedding will not guarantee a happy marriage, especially if it overblows the budget. Some pastors have noticed that the success of a marriage is inversely proportional to the scale of the wedding. So don’t make a fairytale wedding both beginning and end of the story; real fairytales last more than one day, and go on happily ever after.
Here’s where we first need to correct assumptions, though. What does a happy marriage look like? Modern life places more burdens on the institution than it can bear, and it trembles under the weight. In earlier societies, a husband and wife would have a broad circle to draw on: wise older relatives, adult brothers and sisters, church and community relationships that stretched from one end of life to the other. Recurrent events like barn-raising and childbearing would keep throwing same-gender friends together, strengthening their bonds. Married couples didn’t have to get all their support within the four walls of the home, or the bedroom. But in a mobile age the isolated couple clings to each other more tightly; marriage gets unrealistically idealized, and the smallest flaw leads to panic. Someone could write a book called "The Good-Enough Marriage."
Tolstoy famously wrote that "happy families are all alike," and maybe they’re alike chiefly in not expecting to be happy all the time. They meet problems and disappointments and take them in stride. In a real marriage, the dishes get dirty, the wife gets plump, the husband gets bald, and everyone gets grumpy at least occasionally. In the course of a lifetime together, everyone will need forgiveness, and happy families learn that giving it is the best way to insure receiving it in return.
Which brings us to the other risk, that of undervaluing marriage. No one should anticipate that the daily experience of marriage will be uniformly dazzling. But there is more to marriage than we can see, something that is truly dazzling. Of all the varieties of human relationship, it is marriage alone about which St. Paul wrote, "This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church."
In the fourth century, the gifted preacher St. John Chrysostom wrestled with the meaning of those words. He notes that Jesus’ saying, "the two shall become one flesh," takes us back to the original moment of creation. "God’s ingenuity in the beginning divided one flesh into two?[the woman] was made from [the man’s] side, so they are two halves of one organism." St. John goes on, "A father rejoices to see his son or daughter marry; it is as if his child’s body is finally becoming complete."
St. John doesn’t hesitate to acknowledge the fleshly nature of a one-flesh union, to the evident embarrassment of his congregation (when they register shock, he reminds them that it was God’s idea in the first place). While the conception of a child is a beautiful evidence of union, even if there is no child, "their intercourse effects the joining of their bodies and they are made one, just as when perfume is mixed with ointment."
"We are not sufficient to ourselves in this life," St. John concludes. The wedding glow fades, and daily marriage has its disappointments. Why put up with it? Because it is far harder to be alone. The world is too big and we are too small to make it through without being trampled. Marriage is a buddy system; God created us in his image, then split us in two, so that we would ever yearn for reunion. The continuation of the human race is one pretty good outcome of this plan, but even more glorious is the way marriage can transform each partner so that their unity reflects the image of God. The daily experience of that union will not always be transporting; it may be tedious or annoying or even wracked by tragedy. Yet we stick together, giving a boost or a reality check as needed, helping each other grow into what God created us to be, leaning on each other all the long way home.
"It is not good for man to be alone," but it is also positively good to be together. The light you loved in your lover’s eyes at the beginning grows more compellingly beautiful through the years. You meet those eyes in worship, in passion, in anger, in tears, over the baby’s bassinet, over your father’s casket. There is no substitute for the years, the life-time work, of looking into those eyes. Gradually, you see yourself there; gradually, you become one. And when husband and wife are one, St. John writes, "they have not become the image of anything on earth, but of God himself."