As Americans, we often pride ourselves on self-reliance, on independence, and on our own personal rights. These principles are identified in our country’s founding documents and in our history.
When we enter marriage, often these principles “spill over” into our expectations of what our marriage relationship should be. At first, it seems to work. Each partner is so much “in love” that they want to give and give and give to the other. In return, they receive the love and respect that first attracted them to their spouse. But with time, something begins to go wrong.
Is My Marriage a Contract Relationship?
Think for a moment about why we create contracts in the “real world.” Some are simple statements of agreement, while some are very detailed. In general, the more detailed the contract, the less trust there is between the two parties. The contract itself is a document to protect the “rights” of each individual. It identifies the responsibilities and expectations of each party. If someone does not “live up to” their side of the bargain, the deal is off.
No one realizes that they have this concept of marriage on their wedding day. Both the bride and groom are each convinced that they have found the love of their life. And the expectation is that this person will naturally fulfill all of their needs. We say “they complete me.” This feeling seems natural and exciting, but it often causes us to enter marriage from a selfish, self-centered perspective.
Is My Marriage a Covenant Relationship?
If we look at the “covenant” relationship, especially as modeled for us in Scripture, it is a promise from one party to the other with no strings attached. The agreement identifies the commitments that one party will make to the other – no matter what. The focus is on what is good for the other person. It is a selfless commitment.
It can also be dangerous. We don’t know what the response will be from the other person long-term. That’s the idea in most marriage vows: We are committing to God and to the other person specific commitments “till death do us part.”
The Dangers of a Contract Relationship
Unfortunately, most of us enter marriage with the “contract” mentality. It is not intentional. And we would never admit it to ourselves or to our new spouse. But almost every other situation and relationship we have encountered in the past is based on some type of unwritten contract.
After the “honeymoon” period, reality begins to set in and we begin to want to protect the “personal rights” that we are confident we deserve.
We begin to “keep score.” We compare how much we are giving to the marriage as compared to our partner. We want to maintain (as a minimum) this 50-50 relationship — where we receive at least as much from our spouse as we give.
What we find is that in our desire to “protect ourselves” and ensure that we are treated “fairly,” we become selfish, irritated, angry, and then bitter.
Another method that many couples use to cope with issues is what Timothy Keller calls a “Truce-Marriage” relationship: “They may look happily married after 40 years, but when it is time for the anniversary photo op, the kiss will be forced.”
What is a “Truce Marriage?” It is when each spouse “negotiates” with the other. Each one agrees not to nag or “bug” the other about certain things that irritate them. No one changes for the other, but instead “keeps score.” Or they both simply agree to “live with” certain things and not talk about them.
In my counseling practice, it is not unusual for couples that have been married for 25 or more years (and are now empty nesters) to meet with me for counseling. They have discover that something is missing. And they are wanting to discover a completely new relationship that involves giving of themselves to the other with “no strings attached” and no expectations.
How Can We Change?
As with many truths in Scripture, the way to a fulfilling marriage relationship does not make sense to our human thinking. We must be willing to give up our “rights” and focus on the other person.
Scripture commands husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the Church. It also commands wives to honor and respect their husbands. God wired husbands and wives with different needs.
One reason that we are commanded so specifically is that it is not in their human nature for husbands to love their wives unconditionally. And it is not natural for wives to honor and respect their husbands unconditionally.
We must be willing to take a risk. We must be willing to follow the principles in I Cor 13 with no thought of how our spouse will respond.
“Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.”
Loving and Honoring Unconditionally is Impossible to Do!
Unless we are aware of our own natural desires for protection, “keeping score” and demanding fairness for ourselves, we have no opportunity to change.
And even then, we must be willing to release our own self-centered perspectives and allow God to give us both the desire and ability to do what we cannot do on our own.
What is surprising is that when we are willing to give 100% of ourselves, we often gain more in the relationship that years of trying the 50-50 approach to marriage.