I picked up an eye-opening book a few years ago called In an Average Lifetime. Compiling data from a variety of sources, author Tom Heymann provides a wacky list detailing the amount of time that a "normal" American spends on certain activities throughout his or her life.
For example, if you are an average American, during your lifetime you will eat 1,483 pounds of candy, including 801 pounds of chocolate. You will buy 47 boxes of Girl Scout cookies, drive 413,226 miles, sit in traffic for nine months, change TV channels 325,893 times and spend one year looking for misplaced items and a total of five years waiting in line. You'll spend $6,881 in vending machines, have three flat tires and lock yourself out of your car twice. That is, of course, if you're normal.
But we all know people who defy the averages. There are those who lock themselves out of their car twice a year, buy Girl Scout cookies by the case and are up to seven figures on the remote control. Having grown up driving through fields and brush country while working on a farm and hunting, I have long since stopped counting the number of flat tires I've changed. That makes me think that for the national average to be three, there must be swarms of lucky guys out there who have never had to struggle with stuck lug nuts on a cold winter's night. I guess all those guys just aren't normal—and they're probably okay with that.
When it comes to what is and isn't typical in marriage, however, we tend to be much more concerned about being normal. We don't worry if our vending machine expenditures to date don't even approach $500—hey, we're healthier than most. But to hear that average couples have sex 2.3 times per week while our frequency is 1.8 begins to make us feel like, well, somehow we're just not normal.
Or you observe couples who always seem to be involved in myriad activities around the church, frequently go out with other couples, and both the husbands and the wives seem to have strong best friends outside the marriage. It looks exceedingly normal, but you and your mate find that you benefit more from being involved in only one church ministry, going out together, alone, and having each other for a best friend. You both like it this way, but others give the impression that your approach to marriage somehow isn't quite normal.
The list of comparisons and the quest to find what's normal goes on and on. How many kids should we have? How often do other couples fight? Does everyone struggle with finances? Just what is normal? Well, the short answer is: it doesn't matter.
Ask a Better Question
The important question is not what is normal? but rather what is healthy? One of the reasons you married your mate is that you believed this person was the best match for your needs, values, goals and dreams. If you only needed someone to be normal with, you could choose a partner at random, get out the "normal marriage checklist" and go about being married.
But in modern Western culture we have marvelous options. We choose a mate and then, also out of choice, we are free to apply the principles God has given us to create a healthy marriage. It has nothing to do with being normal. Rather, it's based on what is best for the couple within the parameters of a committed, Christ-centered relationship.
What, then, does this type of relationship look like? In short, a healthy marriage can be measured by six interrelated criteria:
- a sense of oneness
- an atmosphere of acceptance, openness and resolution
- passionate sexual intimacy
- an unswerving commitment to God and to each other
- a spirit of forgiveness
- a sense of a marital mission
1. A Sense of Oneness
With a spirit of oneness, couples realize and experience the uniqueness of what "God has joined together" in marriage. They believe God has called them into a relationship in which they can become much more together than they ever could individually. They have a couple mindset, meaning that if I am one with my mate, I take him or her into consideration in every decision I make. I value what my mate thinks and who he or she is. And I realize that us is more important than me.
Couples who have a sense of oneness have learned the practice and power of what I call T.O.Y.S.: Think Outside YourSelf. You are aware at all times of what it means to look out for your mate's interests and desires. Couples who are one realize they are stewards of the love and life that God has given them, they relish the mystery of oneness and they are determined to use their marriage to honor him.
2. An Atmosphere of Acceptance
Couples with healthy marriages value acceptance and openness and share a commitment to resolving conflict. One of the greatest gifts you can give your mate is to accept him or her for who he or she is: God's gift to you. (I must, however, add the caveat that this does not mean you simply endure abusive or addictive behavior.) But barring such destructive behavior, most husbands and wives keep trying to change their mates into whom they think they should become. That sort of remodeling project is the opposite of acceptance, and it doesn't make for a healthy relationship.
In a strong marriage, both husband and wife feel known and accepted. Closely connected with that is openness—the ability to express your thoughts, ideas, hopes, dreams and failures freely. Along with that is the ability to hear and appreciate what your mate is telling you.
Add to that a third essential skill, that of resolving whatever conflicts arise. We may think "normal" couples never raise their voices in conflict. But as researcher John Gottman has proven, volume is less important than the content of what you say. Couples living in an atmosphere of acceptance and openness don't demean each other, put each other down or destructively criticize one another. Those habits are what lead to resolving conflicts.
3. Passionate Sexual Intimacy
You can have an average marriage without a good sex life, but I firmly believe that you cannot have a great marriage without a great sex life. But that can't be defined by frequency, variety and response since "normal" is not necessarily healthy.
A healthy sexual relationship is one in which egos and personal agendas are left outside the bedroom door. Both the wife and the husband are free to express their wants, desires, likes, dislikes, turn-ons and turn-offs in a way that celebrates God's gift of sex. They see their sexuality as a way to express their love, serve each other and celebrate the oneness created by God. And they do all of this in an emotional environment that is free of criticism and manipulation.
4. Commitment to God and Each Other
Commitment is a vital component of any healthy marriage. The vows you spoke before God were not just nice platitudes. "Till death do us part" is just what it says. (Again, I'm not talking about extreme cases of violence and abuse.) Couples who dissolve their marriages are usually the ones who, in the back of their minds, always gave themselves an out in case things didn't work as they planned (or selfishly hoped). In contrast, a couple who can look deeply into each other's eyes and pledge again "for better or worse" on each anniversary will have a marriage that is strong, above normal, and, yes, healthy.
5. A Spirit of Forgiveness
From reading the teachings of Christ, it's obvious that forgiveness goes hand-in-hand with commitment. However, far too few couples offer the gift of forgiveness to their mates.
How do you react when your spouse expresses concern about something you did or neglected to do? Do you respond with humility and gratitude for being given the opportunity to change and improve your marriage (no, that is not a joke)? Or are you more likely to launch an accusation of your own: "Oh yeah, well let me tell you what you did!" if the latter, that's a strong indication that forgiveness is not a regular part of your marriage.
I can't succeed in loving and caring for my wife as long as I harbor a long list of wrongs I believe she has committed against me. Our culture tells us we have every right to be upset. Well, you may have cause to be upset, but God calls us to confess the wrong that we have done and to extend forgiveness to others. And that begins at home.
6. A Clear Marital Mission
Couples with a healthy marriage know that their relationship has a divinely ordained purpose. Books on excelling in the business world stress the importance of understanding why we exist: What is our niche? What do we want to accomplish and why? Such a focus works wonders in the corporate world, and yet studies have shown that fewer than 3 percent of married couples have any goals that go beyond financial planning.
Part of understanding oneness in marriage involves recognizing marriage's bigger purpose. What we can invest in that will not only bring great returns to our own relationship but will also contribute to the Kingdom of God.
For one couple, a "normal" marital mission might be to minister to orphans in Romania. For another, it may be using their marriage to show hospitality to their neighbors in suburban Dallas. The more you approach marriage as a secure base from which to serve others and bring honor to God, the more you will see and experience how alive, exciting and fun marital love was created to be.
A great marriage is one that begins with a strong sense of oneness and grows to include a shared mission that enriches the lives of others. Along the way, a husband and wife practice mutual acceptance and open communication (even when disagreeing), passionate sexual intimacy, an unswerving commitment to God and to each other and generous amounts of forgiveness.
Far from being average, a healthy marriage will exceed your highest expectations and your wildest dreams. With that kind of potential, who cares about being normal?
Dr. Tim A. Gardner is author of Sacred Sex (WaterBrook) and Director of The Marriage Education and Policy Center at the Indiana Family Institute (an affiliate of Focus on the Family).
Copyright © 2000 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.