When Relationships Collide, Session 6: What Successful Couples Know

By Bill Beausay

Why some marriages make it & others don’t

successfulcouplesSeveral years ago at a wedding, I overheard a gray-haired woman turn to her friend and whisper, “I’ll give it six months.” Her friend replied wryly, “I’m betting three.” The experience of the ages said thumbs-down. But marriage is full of surprises. Today the newlyweds the two friends were deriding are happily married with a family. Who would’ve thought? There appears to be something intrinsic to thriving marriages that’s absent in those that crash and burn, no matter what the external appearances happen to be.

What makes some marriages grow while others splinter? Why is it that even Christian marriages, the ones that are supposed to be fail-safe, break just as often as any others? It’s distressing that the more books that are written on the subject of marriage, the worse the divorce rate seems to get. There’s no shortage of information; just a shortage of something else. This something else may be as simple as having an attitude of humility and a willingness to ask for help. This sort of humility seems to change the chemistry of marriage.Case in point: two nearly-identical couples — Rhonda and Steve, and Meagan and Kory.* They grew up in the same town, are about the same age, and both had great potential when they got married. And they’re Christians. These marriages have good news and bad news. The good news is that Rhonda and Steve endured a difficult period in their nine-year marriage, got help, and got stronger as a result. The bad news is that Meagan and Kory also went through a tough spell after 11 years of marriage, stayed entirely to themselves, and ended up divorced. Talking to both couples revealed truths about the value of reaching for help and the atmosphere such humbleness can create. It became clear that, for them, the difference in success and failure boiled down to three things.

Handling the challenges of building a normal relationship. In talking to both couples, it was clear that one couple was fully invested in finding a way to succeed; the other was not. One couple accepted the difficulty of making an unspectacular, sometimes boring, marriage work and sought out guidance to do so; the other couple simply quit in the face of the inconvenience. “I’m not proud to say this,” Kory told me, “but I ran out of gas. I think we both did. It was easier to give up than to try to fix our situation. After a while, we didn’t want help. We both had needs that the other couldn’t meet, and that was that. We chose the easy route.”Rhonda and Steve’s pastor gave them a different take on the issue of needs. “It’s not about your needs,” Steve said. “My pastor pointed out to me that too many failed marriages have an entitlement mentality about needs. He said that we really only need food and water. Nobody ever died from stuff like poor self-esteem, lack of attention, or not enough sex. That’s stuff you want. When he taught me the distinction, I realized what a whiny complainer I’d become, always complaining about my needs not being met. It was refreshing to say, ‘I want this’ instead of ‘I need that.’ It was just more honest. I discovered that a normal life is full of wants you’re not going to get no matter how hard you try. For our marriage to work, we had to let go of them … my pastor helped me make peace with myself on that.”Philippians 4:19 tells us, “But my God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus.” Steve explained that when he and Rhonda got the message of this promise down pat, things radically changed in their marriage.

2. Acknowledging and addressing the problem beneath the problem. “Our pastor told us the problem you complain about is never really the problem,” Rhonda explained. “This was a surprising thing to discover. There is always something else going on.” When I questioned Rhonda a little more, she gave me an example. “Steve always said he wanted a more ‘alive’ relationship. What was really bothering him was that I was spending too much time with the kids’ activities, and he basically felt ignored. Fixing what he said was the problem wouldn’t have fixed the real, underlying problem. “Our pastor’s advice was to always ask ourselves if the problem we were raising with each other was the actual problem. We learned to expect that our complaints were false fronts hiding something else. As long as we probed honestly, finding the real problem under the apparent problem was surprisingly easy. This made a huge difference.”

3.Giving yourself to Someone and something greater. One of the key elements of great faith is the ability to humbly commit yourself to God and to a purpose greater than yourself. This means letting go of your pride. Successful marriages seem to understand this key truth. “My faith really started to erode,” Meagan confessed. “In the heat of Kory’s and my troubles, we slowly drifted away from God and the church and toward selfishness. I’m certain our marriage could have been saved, but we seemed to lose it when we started focusing on our own troubles instead of the bigger picture.” Rhonda and Steve added a huge insight into rebuilding a broken marriage. “Saving our marriage was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Rhonda admitted. “I had to learn to be committed with my heart and not just talk a good story. The difference between talking it and actually owning it in my heart wasn’t an easy thing to learn. It took a lot of humility. Over time I’d become calloused about my relationship with Steve. I talked about a great marriage but didn’t feel it. Seeing the difference between talking it and knowing it in my heart made all the difference.” How do you do that? I wondered aloud. “It was pretty low-tech,” Steve said. “We basically kept asking God to help us see it until we finally could.”It would seem that great marriages find a way to become focused on something greater than the sum of two people. Couples in successful marriages are able to build on their faith. “It’s not something you get from a book,” Steve cautioned. “You get that kind of faith from humility and a relationship with someone who’s doing it on a daily basis, like a physical workout. In our case it was our pastor.”

Making marriage last may be no more difficult than acknowledging occasional boredom, admitting that what you think is the problem is rarely the problem, and humbly giving yourself to God and something greater than yourself. I think even the gray-haired old ladies would give this advice a big thumbs-up.

*Names have been changed.

“The problem you complain about is never really the problem. There is always something else going on.”

—Rhonda

HomeLife coverThis article originally appeared in the March 2009 issue of Home Life. To subscribe, click here or on the magazine cover.

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