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Promise Keeping

People can break their vows in two ways: big exits or little exits

What makes a wedding a wedding? For all the paraphernalia we associate with weddings, what is absolutely essential? Most involve expensive clothes, music, ring-bearers, flowers, guest-books, ushers—and the list goes on. Hours upon hours are given to planning out these details. Often the least amount of time and thought is spent on the wedding vows. But I'll tell you a secret: That's what a wedding is. Everything else is disposable.

A marriage doesn't start with feelings. It doesn't start with physical intimacy or by meeting emotional needs. It may not even start with love. A man and woman stand in a church, a chapel, or a backyard and before each other, witnesses, and almighty God, they make a vow. They give their word. That's what a marriage is built on.

A wedding vow is a moving, wonderful, frightening thing because it is a promise for "as long as we both shall live." It's a "no matter what" promise. It's like what God does for the human race when he makes a covenant with us through Christ Jesus—a vow of unfailing, unending love.

This leads to an important question: What exactly did you commit to? The Bible says that "a man shall leave his father and mother, and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh" (Genesis 2:24). In a phrase, you are promising to pursue oneness. Oneness of heart, mind, loyalty, servanthood. Two becoming one.

How are you doing at keeping your word? Is your oneness growing stronger, or is there distance that threatens your promise to love each other? Perhaps the drifting happens rapidly, or perhaps it slowly ebbs. Where ever you are, you can learn to move toward each other daily.

There are two ways that people can break their promise and damage oneness. They either take big exits, or they take little exits. Big exits are the obvious ones: divorce, abandonment, adultery. These are the ones that get our attention. But no couple stands on a platform and makes a vow, planning on taking a big exit. So how does a couple end up there?

Every time you see people take a big exit—you can count on this—they have taken many small exits to lead up to it. They engaged in activities that eroded oneness. They withheld words and actions that would have strengthened oneness. Every day they hid a little, withdrew a little, fantasized a little, or nursed resentment a little. Never did they say: "I think I'll break my promise today." Little exits are subtle. But add up enough little exits, and a big one may be a matter of time.

Now, there's a difference between taking an exit (which destroys community) and allowing space for a husband and wife to be two separate people. "Closing exits" doesn't mean I'm supposed to want to share every waking moment with my spouse and engage only in those pastimes that we can do together. If I spend the afternoon watching football with my Christian brothers, that is not an exit. It's a life-enriching exercise in individuality that will enable me to return home and connect in a deeper and more profound way.

Every day we can choose to take exits or build bridges in our marriage. One of the most important things a husband or wife can do is identify the little exits they are most prone toward taking and then make a solid decision to close them off. Any marriage where one or both partners do this can begin to experience wonderful improvements.

What does a little exit look like? Let me give you an example. When our three children were small, Nancy was home full-time, while I worked at a church. One day she brought the kids to my office. We were going out to eat that evening, and I assumed that she would find a sitter. After finding out that she hadn't, I didn't say anything more. I didn't get overtly mad. I just focused on the kids a little more than usual. I also didn't look at Nancy, talk to her, or touch her as much as I usually did.

In my mind I was exemplary. I wasn't yelling or throwing things. But I withdrew. After you've been married a while you can calculate this so precisely—it was just enough to make her notice, but not so much to be too obvious. When she asked if something was wrong, I responded, "No, I'm fine. Why? Is something wrong with you?"

I was hurt, frustrated, and angry, but I didn't want to admit it. Not to her. Not even to myself. That moment when oneness is damaged and one spouse asks the other "What's wrong?" is critical in marriage. And in that moment, I broke my promise.

I know how hard it is to respond well. I come from a Swedish background. We're taught to say "nothing" from before we're born. We could be dying, and someone asks, "What's wrong?"


So let me give you an answer for the next time your spouse asks you that question: "Something." Of course, that means you'll have to do some work. You'll have to examine yourself, and ask why you're angry, hurt, afraid, or frustrated.

You may wonder: "What if I can't say it right?" or "What if we can't resolve it?" or "What if I look foolish and childish?" Know what? You are foolish and childish. So am I. Welcome to the human race. The Bible calls this sin. And no one knows you're troubled by it better than the person you married.

The danger in not responding and not closing off the little exits is that they can, sometimes unnoticeably, become a way of life. Consider these situations.

You're pouring all your energy into work. It's become such an ingrained habit you and your spouse don't even fight about it anymore. The truth is, you cherish your work more than your marriage.

You talk more deeply about your marriage with a few trusted friends than you do with your spouse. Although you blame him for this, it enables you to focus on his faults and not have to look at your own. You pursue intimacy outside of your marriage more often than in it.

You drift into patterns of mishandled sexuality, entertaining lustful desires by watching adult movies on business trips. You often justify this by dwelling on her faults and resenting her, but inside you know something is deeply wrong.

You escape into romance novels or fantasize about what it would be like to have another spouse. Your heart is more devoted to a fantasy spouse than to the one to whom you gave your promise.

Perhaps you retreat after dinner into a hobby or watch tv by yourself in the den. Perhaps you try to anesthetize pain by drinking too much or by shopping and spending too much money. You immerse yourself in a combination of resentment and self-pity.

The illusion is that you think you're honoring your promise. You reason with yourself: "I didn't take a big exit. I'm not having an affair. I didn't walk out the door. I'm still here. I'm keeping my vow."

Are you? You didn't stand in front of your spouse, with friends, family, and God as your witnesses, and promise: "My body will stay in the same house as yours" or "I will try to avoid having sex with someone else."

You vowed, "With this ring, I thee wed. With all that I have and all that I am, I thee endow. I take you to be my lawfully wedded spouse, to have and to hold, to love and to cherish, for richer or poorer, for better or worse, in sickness and in health, for as long as we both shall live."

Honoring your promise may be easy for you, a source of joy. But maybe you've been taking small exits and honoring your promise is difficult right now. Perhaps somewhere along the line you've taken a big exit. Whatever the circumstance, there is healing with God. We all stand as sinners in need of his grace.

You can honor your vow today. Reach over and take the hand of the person you love; put an arm around a shoulder. Take a moment to say, "I want to honor my promise. I remember the vow I took years ago, and I'm serious about it." If you commit to closing exits, you can have an amazing gift: someone who knows you, faults included, and loves you. Marriage can be that.

Jesus summarized his whole curriculum for human relationships in one command, "Love each other" (John 15:17). This is not rocket science. It's a command for everyone of us, and it's do-able. Start with the person you're married to. You promised.

John Ortberg is the teaching pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, and the author of If You Want to Walk on Water, You've Got to Get Out of the Boat (Zondervan).

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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Discontent; Love; Marriage
Today's Christian Woman, Summer, 2001
Posted September 30, 2008

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