Monday, December 09, 2013

Why are so many Christians seemingly silent about their marital woes?

In an online forum I participate in, one of the participants through this question out there.  They asked, "Why are so many believers silent about the challenges they are facing in marriage? What don't they reach out for help?"

This is a very good question.  Having some experience with this, I do have some thoughts on it.  Here is what I wrote:

Why are so many believers silent about what we face in our marriages? I honestly believe a large part of the problem is that the Church can tend to make an idol out of marriage -just in a way that is different from the broader culture. Our culture makes an idol out of marriage by presenting it as a sort of "heaven on earth" fairy tale that, just like in the movies, will fulfill all your felt needs, give you all the happiness you crave, and will have you two skipping through fields and having movie-style, passionate sex for the rest of your lives. Obviously, when reality hits and people realize the other person cannot make them "happy", they decide they need to go find someone else. And so on, and so on.

But the Church exacerbates the issue in a different way. The Church presents a high and lofty picture of a "godly Christian marriage", and it often looks something like this: both people love the Lord completely, want to do Bible studies together, want to pray together every day, want to do "date nights" once a week, want to go to all the marriage retreats together, read and apply all of the principles of "Love and Respect", watch Fireproof when things are tough, go to church every week together, and live happily ever after with their joyous Christian smiles on their faces. And the thing is... some people have something close to that. So reading Love and Respect might be all they need to boost things up a notch. But many people DONT have that, and when the Church presents such an idol, such a standard, that lacks the realism of life in a broken world and smacks either boldly or quietly of legalism, they feel ashamed. They feel like they don't fit in. They feel embarassed, like although they are saved by grace through faith they are screwed when it comes to their marriage, which has failed by their poor performance. And they honestly don't know who to talk to because they don't want a book handed to them, nor do they want the pad answers that the Church is so used to providing.

In other words, in the Church's battle to "save" marriage, at least for Christians, they may have inadvertently set up a standard that only creates a kind of spiritual pride for some and despair and shame for others. Marriage is not the be-all-end-all. Paul even said that if you can be single, maybe that is better. Less to worry about! We need to step it down a notch or three. Our focus has in some ways only made things worse and alienated people that have real sin in their lives and marriages. While we would never admit to such with our mouths, in practice and emphasis we have forgotten that marriage is trench warfare, full of sin. And some experience the full-brunt of the discord between man and woman seeking closeness and partnership far more than others.

And the Church should present that as a real and common part of normal, but we don't. It's like we're afraid to admit that is normal, like a Pharisee afraid to admit he is a sinner, for fear that admitting such might mean we cannot fix everything or provide an answer to every problem. We are, oddly enough, merely offering a Christianized version of "Progress", of making a heaven on earth where one cannot be made, and perhaps covering up the rough edges when we see we can't.

So, short answer? Shame. And not the "good" kind of shame that leads people to closeness with the Lord. I mean the bad kind of shame that makes people feel like they are hopeless to pull up their bootstraps and be like "everybody else." When people see that they don't live up to what appears to be the normative Church marriage experience, when they see that they don't even come close to the simplicity of problems spoken of in marriage sermons, when they read these ridiculous marriage books that seem to help others but offer them nothing but more despair and a sense of hopelessness, they feel ashamed and alienated.


The other thing I think is worth noting is that marriage is a very private thing. Many Christians maybe have gone to ask a pastor for help, often alone when their spouse has no interest or doesn't believe it will help. But such problems are not like when a family member is ill. You cannot go around the church community lamenting your painful marriage -it doesn't quite work that way! I think the person's spouse might not appreciate it! :) So, by its very nature the subject of marriage warrants a kind of hidden, silent form of counsel.

I don't think all of us need to be a "mess" in order to be an ear for others. I'm certain that people with silently painful marriages would not wish them on anyone. But we (and I mean that corporately, for I recognize that many individuals are not like this -my pastor being one of them) need to ditch the "image". The "Christian marriage image" is what alienates people. Some people need to know that, while God can certainly do any miracle He so chooses, their marriages may never BE that. And that is OK.

In other words, I believe the Church needs to re-adjust its goals about marriage. Because what happens is a person *does* seek counsel, many times alone, many times because the spouse is not willing, and they *do* have hope at first. They think, "I *can* have what the Church tells me my marriage should be like." And they read the books, they talk with their pastors, and they pray like mad. But then things don't get better. Yet, they keep trying. They pray harder, they try harder, they talk to more pastors and counselors, and they read more books to try and "fix" themselves or their spouse (a recipe for disaster). And the cycle continues, sometimes for years, maybe over a decade.

But along the way something happens. A deep shame and cynicism takes root. All the things they tried to apply haven't "worked". They feel cheated, and worse, they feel in despair because they can't get what they believed they could have. They feel like they have been beating their head against the wall. And eventually they give up. Maybe not on their spouse, but on the hope of having anyone from the Church help them and on the idea that they can have a "Christian marriage" like the "real Christians" at Church.

What could have been done differently? I wouldn't presume to know exactly. But somewhere along the way, the Church would have done well to give this person the truth: their marriage does not have to look like anybody else's because their marriage is a ministry given to them.

When we are taught to aim at some standard by our own efforts on a matter such as this, and in a way such as this, there will always be two results. There will be people who sit in some degree of comfort, thinking they have pulled it off or just need to step it up a bit here and there. Maybe they become proud. Maybe they think they should teach others and say, "Hey men, we can do better than this. All of our marriages can be like this." But there will also be people who only suffer more because of the despair of failure they feel and the alienation they feel from the people who think they know better.  It shouldn't be that way.

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