Can you marry the wrong person?
When Keith and I started speaking at marriage conferences in 2004 and 2005, we were still using curriculum from FamilyLife USA. And the emphasis in that curriculum was in preventing divorce. I remember one of the major teachings was this:
You didn’t marry the wrong person; once you’re married, they become the right person.
And then much of the teaching in the conference focused on how the reason that people feel distant in marriage is that you have expectations. Let go of expectations, and you’ll feel better. Divorce doesn’t actually make anyone happier. God meant for marriage to refine you to be like Christ; He’s more concerned with your character than the fact that marriage makes you feel fulfilled.
Of course, there’s elements of truth in all of that. But it is not the complete picture of why people have problems in marriage.
FamilyLife Canada moved away from that curriculum within a few years, and instead of talking about how to keep marriages together, we started talking about practical ways to build oneness, and it’s a much healthier conference today.
But for years, the emphasis in the evangelical church was talking people out of leaving their marriages.
I know I leaned to that side, because at the time I didn’t understand the dynamics of being married to someone of really bad character. I still do lean to that side quite a bit, because I do believe that in most cases, children do better if parents stay together, if the problem is that one spouse is lazy, or takes the other for granted, or doesn’t invest in the relationship at all. When the marriage problems are more about anger issues and abuse, children actually do better if the parents split up.
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What I have come to believe over the last few years is that it matters who you marry.
When you marry someone with bad character, who is selfish or lazy, then there is very little that you will be able to do to create a marriage which is nurturing and life-giving. No matter how giving you are; no matter who much you let go of expectations; no matter how kind you are; if someone has bad character, you can’t change that.
You can change the dynamic in your marriage so that you stop trying to appease your spouse, and start drawing boundaries, as I talked about in this two-part series on what to do if your husband won’t change, and in our January series on how iron should sharpen iron. But it’s going to be a long hill to climb.
Here’s what I said in another post on how it’s actually healthy to have some expectations in marriage:
Why does Christian teaching often focus on how expectations are wrong?
I think that we’re so scared of couples getting divorced that when a couple has a problem that is difficult to solve, the better course of action seems to be to deny the problem is real. If solving the problem involves one spouse changing their behaviour, and that spouse truly doesn’t seem interested, then we’re stuck. So the only solution is to take the miserable spouse and tell them they’re wrong for being miserable.
Ironically I think that philosophy actually harms marriages far more than it helps. When people are miserable because of how they are being treated, you can certainly tell them, “You’re wrong for wanting to be treated well.” And they may push down their misery for a time. They may be able to throw themselves into The Word and grow closer to Jesus (which is definitely a good thing!). They may be able to find other outlets for their needs, for a time.
But ultimately when we are living a lie, that lie catches up with us, even if we’re growing closer to God at the same time (and I would say that growing closer to God often makes that lie harder to live with).
Now, I have seen marriages where someone is lazy or immature change over a 40-year period as a spouse grows up. Sometimes we’re wounded and broken, and it takes a while to deal with our stuff before we become a person who is nurturing to those around us. In those marriages that I know, I’m so glad that the spouses did stick it out to see that transformation.
But quite often that transformation doesn’t happen when the problems are not related to immaturity, but rather due to downright selfishness.
I am not trying to argue for divorce here, though. What I am trying to say is that character counts. We need to teach people to recognize red flags BEFORE these marriage crises happen.
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Over the last 15 years, as I have been writing and speaking and blogging in the marriage field, I have seen many marriages blow up because a husband had an affair on an unsuspecting wife. What makes a lot of this even more tragic is that often these wives have made being a good wife and mother the main aim of their lives. Their identity has been invested in doing this family thing right. They poured out all of their energy into this, and taught other women how to love their husbands well, and this is what they got in return.
Yesterday I read about a woman I once followed online whose husband divorced her a decade ago, out of the blue, after some serious moral failings on his part (which she didn’t name). She said that after that divorce, she put herself back under the authority of her father and her brother, and then a few years later she met a man they approved of and she remarried.
Now, this woman had been a Christian her whole life. She had children. She was almost 40 years old. She was more than capable of making her own decisions. Yet she felt that she had to go under the authority of her husband and brother again, which I find concerning.
But more than that, I wonder if in the Christian world we often elevate people of bad character because we misread red flags?
Let’s say that a man is very opinionated, and knows Scripture well, and loves being in charge in church? We’ll say that he’s a natural spiritual leader, and that he’ll lead his family well, and that this means he’s great husband-material. He’s a go-getter.
But these things–being opinionated; spouting Scripture to show others why they’re wrong; yearning to run things rather than to let others run things are also classic signs of very controlling personalities who do not like to listen and who do not take correction well. Speaking as someone who does tend to try to run things and who is also opinionated, I’m not saying this type of personality is wrong, any more than any type of personality is wrong. But it isn’t necessarily RIGHT, either. How people react to correction, and whether people are willing to listen to others are both so important in making a good marriage. And yet we often admire the “go getter”.
We also often look for head knowledge before we look for people’s actions. My personal theory is that because modern evangelicalism defines itself by what people believe rather than by how people act, we’ve reduced Christianity to a set of right beliefs.
Just because we believe salvation is by grace alone, though, does not mean that works shouldn’t matter. Yet we’ve tended to over-emphasize beliefs, and as long as someone can explain doctrine, we don’t notice if they never wash a dish, or if they never help others, or they don’t think to get up while others are clearing the table (seriously, the number of church events I’ve been to where my husband is the only man clearing the table or offering to wash dishes is astounding).
But again–what’s going to make a good marriage? The fact that someone can quote Bible verses to tell you why you’re wrong, or that someone is willing to jump in and play with a baby, change a diaper, or do the dishes? Is it that someone can explain doctrine, or is it that you feel like a team?
There are so many other issues, too–whether or not a person will work, either at a job or at home. Whether they will share the load. Whether they will take care of themselves and responsibility for themselves. And the list goes on and on.
But when it comes to our rhetoric about marriage, I don’t think we emphasize red flags enough.
And if we’re going to tell women that they pass from the authority of their fathers to their husbands, we also teach women to ignore red flags. “Let the men decide.” We teach women that if they think something is wrong, then likely they are the problem, because men are supposed to lead, and thus the man is usually right. And if other people are telling us this guy is a great catch, we listen to them, rather than to our own reservations.
And then we create marriages that are not life-giving, and so we have to create conferences to convince very unhappy people to stay.
This is why I get so frustrated. This is why I often find myself very sad when I look at the comments and the emails that I get–that it all seems so very avoidable if people were taught to watch for the marks of real good character, and not just the marks of “biblical manhood” or “biblical womanhood”. And if women were taught that it’s okay to confront a man when you think he’s doing something wrong; that they don’t have to defer to their male peers; that their thoughts do matter–then maybe we wouldn’t marry people who didn’t care about our thoughts or experiences.
What do you think? Can you marry the wrong person? How can we stress character more? Let’s talk in the comments!
I tried to balance this idea that you shouldn’t have unrealistic expectations with the fact that we should have some expectations in Thought #4 in 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage–my husband can’t make me happy.
Sometimes that means that we’re expecting too much. But sometimes it also means that God wants us to take responsibility for doing what we can to address our own legitimate needs.
And quite often that means setting boundaries around what we will accept and what we just can’t.
If you have trouble navigating this in marriage, take a look at 9 Thoughts!