At some point this weekend, I was scrolling through Facebook and came upon a promotion for a church event that someone had shared.
The promotion read, “ENGAGED COUPLES: We've got bad news...marriage is a complicated, and sometimes messy, journey. But it doesn't have to be! If you want to enjoy a beautiful, life-long relationship, you'll need more than romance, shared interests, and mutual attraction. You need realistic expectations, radical commitments, and most importantly...you need grace. Join us for the marriage conference that will radically transform your relationship.”
The event was called, “What Did You Expect?”
Here’s the thing: There is work to do in the church when it comes to preparing couples for marriage. I personally received a great deal of wonky teaching on the subject from well-meaning Christians, and a hard look at this promotion will tell you that there are clearly some issues where the church just can't make up its mind.
Let’s start at the top.
“ENGAGED COUPLES: We've got bad news...marriage is a complicated, and sometimes messy, journey.”
Misplaced commas aside, my sincere hope is that ENGAGED COUPLES have already learned this by simply being complicated, sometimes messy individuals who are trying to love each other well. I am concerned if this is brand new, surprising information to couples who have pledged to make each other a life-long commitment.
If you’ve been together for much time at all, chances are you have faced at least some small amount of vulnerability, honesty, and struggle in your dating relationship. Some things really do change drastically after the wedding, but the fact that all human beings are complicated and sometimes messy definitely remains the same.
Conclusion: Two humans committed to a loving relationship with one another will definitely face some complications and sometimes messes. Yes. Agreed, church promotion writer! Great job! But I do hope that engaged couples have already started to learn this. Maybe we shouldn’t assume that they are so naive.
“But it doesn't have to be!”
. . . I beg your pardon?
I thought we agreed on something here, but this is quite the twist.
So marriage is NOT a complicated and sometimes messy journey? Not even sometimes? You can actually completely avoid the complications and messes?
Conclusion: Who edited this? And how do I set up a meeting with the robot tribe programmed for perfection living among us?
Actual Conclusion: This is misleading. It does have to be, at least sometimes. This idea takes an unnecessary swing at the single nugget of truth found in the previous sentence.
“If you want to enjoy a beautiful, life-long relationship, you'll need more than romance, shared interests, and mutual attraction.”
Okay…so we are back on track. I agree: you need more than romance, shared interests, and mutual affection in order to achieve a beautiful, life-long relationship.
But this “beautiful, life-long relationship” you speak of will still be complicated and sometimes messy. They are not mutually exclusive. It’s a both/and situation. Beautiful and hard. Just like life.
You will need strong communication skills, trust, honesty, commitment, the ability to listen, empathy, forgiveness, patience, and the desire to work on your relationship. Trying to grasp these skills is complicated and messy, each person bringing their own natural abilities and baggage to the table, but the process of learning and practicing them is also beautiful, refining, and profound.
For example, a few weeks ago, one certain Hubbell declared the actions of the other certain Hubbell to be “insensitive” and “ungrateful”. The other Hubbell (who, to be fair, was being insensitive and ungrateful) told his wife to cool it with the f-bombs. Both of these things were not well-received.
(Relax, you guys. I’m not perfect. And to be fair: it was one f-bomb. Because when you’re arguing, “double-u tee eff” sounds positively ridiculous.)
We took several minutes to each calm down, process our thoughts in separate spaces, and to rethink the situation. We reconvened, eventually uncrossed our arms, listened to each other, said what we needed to, and then landed in the familiar zone of “I’m sorry. I messed up here. You mean more to me than my words and actions just reflected, and you mean more than the tiny thing that sparked this issue.” And then we talked through actual solutions more calmly, trying to prioritize listening to and caring for each other.
The entire process start to finish took about an hour. Early the next morning, we took a walk, hand-in-hand, recovered and forgiven. At one point, Kenny laughed and said, “You know, we’ve grown a lot in these last few years in our ability to move on pretty quickly from an argument. Do you remember how long it used to take us?”
Had that exact disagreement happened several years ago, it would have taken us (read: me) a minimum of two full days to process, recover, and be able to move on.
These days, for better or for worse, my husband has been given full security clearance to my unfiltered thoughts. It’s hard to even imagine having the underdeveloped communications skills of our newlywed selves. Back then, it could have been the most minor offense—like when he asked me that one time on a run, “Hey…are you running your fastest right now?”
I tell you: 48-hour processing. Minimum. Lord, bless him.
Conclusion: My hope is that it would be obvious that you’ll need more than romance and similar taste in Netflix for a fulfilling, healthy, beautiful marriage. But more importantly, what makes a marriage beautiful is not that it is free of complication or mess. Beauty and mess are forever bound to each other in marriage, just like they are in each and every one of us—beautiful and messy and loved all the same. And our messes are often the very things that usher more beauty into the light.
Learning how to properly clean up a relationship-mess takes time, experimentation, effort, patience, and grace. And eventually, you will know which tools work and which ones don’t. You’ll figure out how to clean the mess up in way less time and without accidentally spreading it too far. You might even learn so much that you find a way to remove the stubborn residue left over from one of your first messes! Things might shine cleaner and brighter than ever before. But as good as it looks now—it’s always wise to keep your tools handy.
Let’s encourage our engaged couples that marriage is both beautiful and messy. There is no either/or.
“You need realistic expectations, radical commitments, and most importantly...you need grace.”
Amen! Yes! You do!
So why did you ever say, “But it doesn’t have to be [complicated and messy]” if grace is so essential?
A complicated, messy marriage made possible by grace is as realistic of an expectation as you can get! And the fact that at some point, you will both be hangry and frustratingly unable to decide on dinner, so might I suggest always having a frozen pizza buried in your freezer? That lesson is brought to you by an early-marriage #48hourprocessing.
Conclusion: Realistic expectations, radical commitments, and grace are essential to your beautiful (and still messy) marriage.
It should be over now, right? My point has been made, so I should close it with a farewell/blessings to you people/let’s all be beautiful messes, right?
Well. One more thing.
The event was called, “What Did You Expect?”
I’ll try to keep this one from reaching all-caps even though, were I to be saying this to you in person, it is at this point that I would be forced by passion to project my voice.
Do you really want to know what I expected based on Christian teachings about marriage?
Here are a few highlights of what I had learned in the church (and thankfully worked through before getting married):
1. I was taught to make a list of all of the characteristics I wanted in a “godly husband” and then pray over them regularly. The idea behind it was that God would lead the right person straight into my life at the right time, and it would be clear. This takes away from the reality that it is not always obvious when you’ve met your future spouse, that you have to put a lot of work into the relationship and make difficult choices from time to time, and that your future spouse will be a lot messier than whatever you wrote on that list!
2. Often times in Christian books for young women about the topic of romantic relationships, a future husband was referred to as a “knight”. Here is a short paragraph from the book I was given to learn about God’s hopes for my relationships called Lady in Waiting: “Do you want to marry a knight in shining armor? Then set your standards high. To be married to a man who loves the Lord and wants to serve Him is one of life’s highest privileges. It is worth whatever wait, whatever cost.” If Kenny is a knight, I can’t help but fill in the blanks on what that makes me: At best, I’m the princess/prize. At worst, I’m a damsel in distress in need of rescuing. However, both of us find this “ideal” dynamic to be an insult to the work, love, and equal partnership that make up our marriage. Also, I don’t think I have the strength to dig into the “whatever cost” bit, but I need you to know that it exists. Lord, have mercy.
3. That “knight” deserves a certain kind of woman who has made certain kinds of choices in her life, as exemplified through this quote from the same book, “Save all of your kisses for your future husband…All the kisses you give before marriage and all the kisses you give after marriage express the love that belongs to one person: your knight.” This essentially teaches that your husband should be the only person you have ever loved and creates a narrative of shame around unrealistic expectations for any prior relationship. I personally think this teaching is a double standard. Tell me where boys are taught that all of their kisses belong to their future wife. I’ll wait.
4. Finally, almost every book on Christian marriage that I was gifted during my engagement included extremely specific ideas about what made a “Godly wife” (they will cook, do the child-rearing, manage the home, sacrifice to fill their husband’s needs, desire words of affirmation) as well as a “Godly husband” (they will provide monetarily, return home at 5 pm ready for dinner, want time with their wives, be fulfilled by the wife’s sacrifice, will not speak of his emotions, and will want to feel like a man—whatever that means). These books were all printed or reprinted within the last 10 years.
So for my final point:
Church, you taught me these things about marriage and THEN (oh no here it comes). . .
AND THEN YOU ARE GOING TO SHAME ME FOR HAVING CRAZY EXPECTATIONS BY TITLING YOUR MARRIAGE SEMINAR “WHAT DID YOU EXPECT?”
There is much to work out about how we teach young people about marriage, and this type of approach certainly misses the mark. Let's be better than this. Let's approach this subject with honesty, encouragement, and realistic tools, and let's please leave the shame at the door.
Friends, what would you have liked to know before stepping into marriage?
Did your people prepare you well?
Tell me in the comments! Or send me a message here!
Okay, now I’m done.
Blessings to you people.
Let’s all be beautiful messes.
You can read the rest of my [Marriage Is] series here