Valentine’s Day is Saturday and love is in the air. At least that’s what the plethora of red roses and heart-shaped boxes dotting the consumer landscape would lead you to believe.
Whether you’re in the for-better-or-worse ebb and flow of marriage, divorced, or separated, you’ve likely learned it takes more than being struck by Cupid’s arrow to make a marriage not only stay together, but thrive. After the swooning, butterflies and heart palpitations subside, the real marriage begins.
I think back on our wedding day and I fully expected to be on a continuous upward trajectory of happiness and complete satisfaction from that day forward - my “happily ever after.” Looking back, we were virtual strangers pledging to live and love together until one of us dies. It makes me laugh, really.
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Flash forward almost 15 years and we're raising children. We’re working hard. We’ve buried a beloved parent. We've cheered each other on and we've cheered each other up. We’ve cried together. We've had financial success and failure. We’ve forgiven and been forgiven. We’ve learned that neither of us is perfect. And through all of it, we’ve learned that even though we love each other dearly, vows are needed. Covenants require much. And marriage is hard.
But God never leaves us while we struggle through hard situations. He never leaves us at all (Deuteronomy 31:6; Psalm 139:1-16; Matthew 28:20). And as the author and creator of marriage, God elevated marriage to the highest earthly relationship. He even officiated the first wedding Himself in Genesis and concludes with a wedding in Revelation between Christ and His Church. Marriage – my marriage, your marriage -- is important to God.
But even from its elevated position, or maybe because of it, marriage can be the most difficult relationship we enter into. Just by its definition, marriage puts you in closer proximity to another person than any other relationship. The goal of the parent/child relationship is to grow that child into a mature adult who will one day leave the home. But there is no intended end to marriage except death (note to single people: choose your spouse wisely).
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In my decade and a half of marriage I’ve learned being happily married is not the same thing as living happily ever after. The former requires lavish amounts of prayer, grace, effort and forgiveness. The latter assumes none of those things are needed and is woefully unprepared when the need for them arises.
But how do we go from being stuck in a hard marriage to a thriving, healthy and -- dare I say – happy marriage?
I spoke with John McGee and Robert Green, leaders of Watermark Community Church’s Re-Engage ministry in Dallas, a marriage ministry devoted to helping couples move toward oneness.
McGee told me healthy marriages have at least one person who is committed and says, “I’m all in. I’m not leaving.” They close the door on all other options – divorce, affairs, emotional abandonment, excessive work, etc.
In addition, according to McGee, healthy marriages have individuals who are committed to self-examination. He explained that even fractured marriages can begin to heal when an individual starts to see themselves as the biggest problem in the marriage and takes the focus off their spouse (Matthew 7:3).
He said at Re-Engage, each spouse is encouraged to “draw a circle around themselves and fix everything in that circle” as a place to start healing. McGee added, “It’s easy to focus on the faults of your spouse, but when you see your own faults, you can to build from there.”
According to Green, who helps churches across the country implement Re-Engage, Watermark started the program out of necessity.
[sharequote align="center"]After the swooning, butterflies and heart palpitations subside, the real marriage begins.[/sharequote]
“As our church began to grow, we were overwhelmed by the number of couples seeking counseling for their struggling marriages. We simply couldn’t see all the couples with our one staff member dedicated to marriage counseling. However, we wanted to make marriage a priority because God has made marriage a priority,” he said.
The church built a 16-lesson curriculum around that goal and the Re-Engage ministry was introduced.
“Churches often make children’s programs a priority – and rightly so – but leave out the marriage aspect. To be concerned about kids is to be concerned about marriage. A strong marriage is foundational to a strong family,” Green added.
Green said that while Re-Engage participants are asked to take the divorce option off the table, “undivorce” is not the goal for marriage. Instead, the focus of Re-Engage is to enhance marriage – no matter what the condition. On their site the Re-Engage staff encourages couples to go through Re-Engage just for a tune-up or a total rebuild, “whether your marriage (is rated) as a one and you want to get to a two, or an eight and you want to get to a nine, Re-Engage is a safe place to reconnect, reignite and resurrect your marriage.”
Yes, marriage can be hard. But I look back at pictures from our wedding day and realize that was the day I loved my husband the least. My love hasn’t grown because we had that silly upward trajectory of happiness. No, I love him more today because we’ve struggled hard, grown closer with each trial and committed to love each other well. That and he’s made it his mission to make me laugh every single day.
This Valentine’s Day, I encourage you to aspire beyond chocolates and roses and invest in the heart of your marriage. I’ve heard it said “luck looks a lot like hard work.”
So does love.
“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13)
Julie Hildebrand is a wife of one and mother of three who writes about parenting, marriage and faith. Contact her at Julie@juliehildebrand.com.
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