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It's Not About Satisfaction

Why marriage has a purpose even when it isn't working

On the verge of divorce, Stephanie entered counseling hoping to find some reason to stay in her marriage. "I just want to be in love with my husband. Is that too much to ask?" she exclaimed. After fourteen years of ups and downs, she was fed up with her self-absorbed, fickle husband. Although Todd was not abusive or unfaithful, he did not make an effort to meet Stephanie's emotional needs. His work, hobbies, and friends seemed more important to him than his wife.

Stephanie had attempted many suggestions to jump-start her marriage. She encouraged Todd and tried to understand his emotional needs. She pled with him to invest in their marriage. She examined her own attitudes and how they affected Todd. After about ten sessions, Stephanie despondently announced that her case was hopeless. "I don't think there is much you can do for me; I will just have to wait it out until I can't take any more from him."

Restoring a marriage is not always about trying harder, being enlightened, or waiting out the tough times. There are some cases that seem hopeless, regardless of good intentions. A wife's vows to her husband, and his to her, can be literally impossible to keep without a spiritual perspective.

Proverbs 14:1 says that "the wise woman builds her house, but with her own hands the foolish woman tears hers down." Wisdom and effort are essential ingredients to building a solid marriage. However, they alone are often insufficient. A wife can go a long way to provide an environment that allows for an intimate relationship. However, she cannot make it happen.

"Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it," says Psalm 127:1. Wow! It is only the Lord who can ultimately build Stephanie's house. Without him, all of her labor is in vain.

To be a wise spouse, you must recognize the importance of God in all that you do. You cannot build your house without him. Perhaps this is why all of your efforts have felt like beating your head against a brick wall. Although you can influence your spouse, you cannot ultimately change his or her heart.

The temptation to give up on marriage because it is disappointing or unsatisfying is what overwhelms many spouses. This is particularly true in a culture that is so focused on self-fulfillment.

If marriage is ultimately about getting our own needs met, then marriage is over when intimacy fails. However, marriage can also be viewed as something beyond our needs. It is often the ultimate test of our values and character. Like no other relationship, marriage can highlight our fears and selfishness. It is essentially a ministry. The way we respond in marriage reflects our core beliefs and our very reason for living.

Being a faithful and loving spouse ultimately relies upon our choice to be faithful to God. Especially when a husband or wife is unlovable, continuing in the marriage is only possible when our life means more than finding pleasure, fulfillment, and happiness. When marriage is viewed as a calling or ministry, hope resurfaces in the midst of broken dreams. The hope is no longer that the frog will turn into Prince Charming. There is, instead, hope that God can be glorified through what seems like a tragedy. It is only in seeking God and his plan to build the "house" that forgiveness and unconditional love can infuse life into a dead marriage.

If being married is not about getting needs for intimacy and companionship met, then what is the purpose? Although God's design is for a husband and a wife to become one, the reality of marriage falls far short.

Marriage is a mystery that is meant to awaken and illuminate our hunger for Christ. Throughout the Bible, there are references describing marriage as a metaphor for Christ and his people. It is through the marriage experience that a woman can understand her longing for a bridegroom who will love and sacrifice unconditionally. The emptiness and disappointment that surface in marriage are not supposed to signal the end of hope, but begin the need for true hope. Marriage is not meant to satisfy, but to ignite the passion for which we were created—intimacy with God.

Although God may ask you to persevere through a marriage that is disappointing and unfulfilling, your needs are important to him. He does not ask you to ignore your longing for love and companionship, but to trust him with them.

Psalm 146:3 says, "Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal men who cannot save." Even the best spouse cannot provide salvation—spiritually or emotionally. No matter how good your marriage, you will go through times of drought. Your spouse was never meant to satisfy you completely, nor you him or her.

Perhaps the most touching conversation Jesus had with a human while on earth was with the Samaritan woman as recorded in John 4. This woman had been married five times and was currently living with someone to whom she was not married. She was thirsty for love. Try as she might, the affection of a man never satisfied her. She probably hoped that the next guy just might be the hero she was longing for. Jesus knew her thirst for love, just as he knows yours. He said to her, "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life" (John 4:13).

Is your well dry? Do you feel as though you have little to give your spouse? How can you love when he or she has given you nothing?

The answer is Jesus. Imagine a well of love springing up inside of you. No longer are you dependent on your spouse's touch or compliment to make it through the day. Only Jesus is able to love perfectly.

You can only invest in your marriage when your life and your happiness do not depend on the success of finding the hero in your husband or savior in your wife. If wives are desperate for knights in shining armor, they will not be able to vanquish their insecurities and disappointments long enough to invest in mortal husbands. Instead, you must depend on God and his provision for your ultimate worth and stability. Only then can you freely obey God's wisdom rather than your fears.

Intimacy with your spouse is a goal worthy of your attention and efforts. However, there are many happily married people who are spiritually dead. A great marriage is a good thing, but it is not the best thing. Both the excitement of a growing marriage and the despair of brokenness are chances to seek and glorify the Lord. What an inspiration the apostle Paul was in his letter to the Philippians when he wrote, "I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation. … I can do everything through him who gives me strength." (Philippians 4:12-13).

Adapted from Finding the Hero In Your Husband, by Julianna Slattery, Psy.D. (Health Communications, Inc., 2000). Used by permission.

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

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