This topic is a bit on the fringes of sex within marriage, but it’s one that gets brought up a lot, particularly in the discussions about spouses that refuse to have sex, or has had an affair, or is addicted to porn. Is there a point where you can say “This marriage isn’t performing the way it should, it’s time to end it?”
There are two camps out there in regards to what is an acceptable “exit point” for a marriage. One camp believes that there are times, when, it is acceptable/advisable to divorce. The other camp believes that “till death do us part” means what it says, that the vows spoken are binding until death separates them from their spouse. And basically, it boils down to whether or not you believe your marriage vows are contingent upon performance. Whether or not you believe that those vows didn’t have some implied conditions set forth, which were silently agreed to by all. Perhaps some inalienable right that cannot be set aside, regardless of what words were spoken.
I understand the appeal and rationale of a performances based marriage. All our lives, we’re told to do whatever we can to be happy, to fight for our rights, because no one else will, to stand up for what we want. That we can do whatever we want, be whatever we want. Then we get to marriage, and it’s not surprising that most of us go into marriage with the base premise that this is for me, this is what I want, and when it stops being what I want, well, then the marriage is broken.
Now, add to this that we live in a disposable age. Nothing gets fixed anymore. Gone are most of the repair shops, instead we have massive factories pumping our new disposable products. We have disposable cameras, disposable phones, disposable razors, disposable everything!
And so, we get performance based marriages, that, when it stops functioning as intended (it’s not working for ME anymore), it too gets disposed of, because no one works to fix anything anymore. We get marriages based on an unstated contract of “I’ll be good to you as long as you are good to me”, or more accurately “I’ll give you want you want as long as you give me what I want”. Now, some people are probably reading this thinking “So? What’s the problem with that?”
The problem is that marriage, which was intended to be
- a covenant
- a binding of two people into one
- a knowing of one another fully
- a place where ultimate trust can be born
- a place where real intimacy can exist
- a thing that can produce immeasurable joy when you put real work into it
instead turns into
- a contract
- a business agreement
- a pitting of a husband against a wife
- an subconscious swindle of trying to get as much out of the marriage as you can while putting in as little as you can
- a daily battle to see if I’m going to win today, or are they
- if you lose, you want out, if you win, you gain a constant fear that perhaps your spouse isn’t getting enough out of the marriage and they will leave
and in the process, the entire point is lost, and, by definition of the fundamental values of this performance based marriage, the potential, of what marriage was supposed to be, is utterly lost. And what you are left with, if it reaches its new potential (which few do), is a mere shadow of what could be.
And it’s tragic, in the truest sense of the word: by attempting to get the most out of marriage, they doom themselves to never experiencing it’s richest fruit.
So, what does a non-performance based marriage look like?
Well, I think it looks like what the Bible describes.
Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart. – Proverbs 3:3
I’ll be honest, I don’t know if this verse is originally about marriage, but this was the verse we picked for our marriage, so for me, this is one of the strongest marriage verses in the Bible. It is such a strong verse for being faithful and loving, and I will remember it my entire life. This is the verse that got me through the hard times of our marriage, and the verse that I thank God for in the good times.
Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman, ‘ for she was taken out of man.” For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. – Genesis 2:22-24
Of course, there is an implication of sex here, but I believe it goes beyond that. In the same way that God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are one, we are to be one with our spouse, and ideally with God. Not that we lose our individuality, but that stand together, with a clear purpose, and with wills so aligned, they are as one person, but with the benefit of multiple perspectives. This is where a marriage that is united really shines.
May your fountain be blessed, and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth. A loving doe, a graceful deer– may her breasts satisfy you always, may you ever be captivated by her love. – Proverbs 5:18-19
There is a sense here that you will be happy with your partner, despite remembering what their body was like when you were young and infatuated, that it will continue to satisfy you, to be enough, when you get old and succumb to the rigors of age. And that’s true. I know, objectively, my wife probably did look better as an 18 year old, when we were engaged, but now after 4 kids, stretch marks, a c-section scar, and breasts that have fed them all, God she’s gorgeous. I am still utterly captivated, and she knows it, and she trust me, and because of that, she feels free to be naked in front of me, she doesn’t rush to get clothes on when I’m in the room. And people will say “you begin to care less about the looks”, but I’m still enthralled with the looks. And neither of us is worried the other is going to “trade in” for a better model, so there is no fear, no anxiety.
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her - Ephesians 5:22-23
Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them. – Colossians 3:18-19
I think this is easier in a non-performance based marriage. Submission out of fear of the other person leaving is slavery, not submission. It needs to be from the heart, and it needs to be voluntary. No one can cause another to submit and still quote the above verses in truth. Now, the problem comes when people use this verse against their spouse:
Husband – “Wives must submit!”
Wife – “Husbands must love!”
Husband – “I’m not going to love until you submit.”
Wife – “I’m not going to submit until you love me.”
and round and round we go. Instead, it should go like this:
Husband – “I need to love more”
Wife – “I need to learn to submit”
Husband – “Thank you for making it so easy to love you”
Wife – “Thank you for making it so easy to submit”
It took my wife and I a long time to learn this lesson
In truth, we’re still learning it, but the little bit we’ve learned has made all the difference, it has completely changed the dynamic of our marriage. Because you can’t do it without being self-less. There is no way you can submit without setting aside your wants, and there is no way you can love your wife as Christ loved the church without setting aside your wants. Then, once the field is clear of wants, you can start deciding the wants that serve both of you, and your family.
So, it’s not as if you never get what you want, in fact, in a sort of paradoxical way, by giving up what you want, you can actually have more of what you want. Sometimes things you didn’t even know you want. And this reflects so much of scripture, the idea that by giving up what you think you want, you’ll get what you really want. This is spoken of in many passages about heaven, but I think it has implications in this life as well.
There are so many marriages out there which will never reach this level of freedom, never receive the joy that it can bring, they are so wrapped up in getting what they want out of marriage, that they will miss what marriage was intended to bring them: more than they could have hoped for. There are others where one spouse is really trying to create that kind of marriage, but the other isn’t on board. To those, I say, keep at it, don’t give up. Continue to work on your part of the marriage. I have seen too many turn around to give up hope.
What about you? Are you trying to squeeze what you can out of marriage? Or are you putting into it so that it can grow into something bigger?