So many good books have been written on marriage, with titles like “10 ways to build a happy marriage”, or “how to improve communication, solve conflicts, improve your love life and spend quality time together”, “how to have a new husband/wife by Friday” or perhaps even “marriage for dummies” but sometimes I think that not enough is written or said about the role of acceptance in a good marriage. Yet in my mind this is one of the key ingredients that is missing from many more or less unhappy marriages, which could otherwise be reasonably happy and fulfilling to both partners. We live in a world where we are bombarded with preconceived ideas of what a happy marriage should be, ideas which are very prescriptive in nature. The reality is that every single marriage is made up of two individuals, who are entirely unique and who bring into marriage their unique personalities, quirks, weaknesses, strengths, preferences and ambitions. It stands to reason then that no two marriages will ever be completely the same. The trouble with us is that we tend to think that if our marriage is not like the marriage of so and so, whom we particularly admire, then there is something badly wrong with it and we must be headed towards disaster. Personally, I’ve nothing against Christian books on marriage and relationships and though they are not all of equal value, I have read quite a few that have been very helpful. At home we have bookshelves full of good books on marriage, and parenting and they were worth the reading. It is good to be informed about how to be a better wife and mother among other things. Books have helped open my eyes and increase my understanding of why, for example, my husband thinks so differently from me and how to live with him in a growing relationship, how to be a better communicator, and what things to prioritize. I am very thankful to those who have shared their wisdom in this way with people like me. But I am also very aware of the fact that, while we are so busy educating ourselves to know how to do marriage and parenting better, we are not always so good at rejoicing in the good gifts, which God has already given us, and, while striving to improve ourselves, our marriages and our families, we are failing to practice a certain amount of acceptance, which would make our lives a happier place to be, both for us and for our spouses and children ( and at the end of the day perhaps a more convincing argument for God’s ordained pattern for marriage than our many words). As a result we find ourselves missing out on some of the blessings, which are already ours. Our idea of happiness is wrapped up in some future ideal and we fail to enjoy what we already have for the simple reason that it is not perfect. I think we fall into the mistake of thinking that our goal in marriage is perfection and this in turn robs us of the joy that is within reach right now. I have done this. I think of the joy I have missed out on in my marriage because I have lived dissatisfied and focused on what I didn’t have or what my husband did or didn’t do, instead of counting my blessings. I think of needless conflicts we have had, because I was comparing myself and our relationship with that of others and feeling like it didn’t measure up and consequently I didn’t allow myself to enjoy the things that made our relationship unique. I think of times that I have fretted over things, which at the end of the day did not matter one little bit, but because they didn’t fit in with my image of what a “good” marriage should be, I let them spoil my peace and steal my contentment.
Sometimes we can “practice” discontentment for so long in a marriage that we completely lose sight of what made us fall for our spouse in the first place, because he doesn’t “measure up” anymore to the image we hold in our minds. The tragedy is that we lose precious years of our marriage simply because we are too busy wishing for what may never be to appreciate what we already have. So, while it’s all very praiseworthy to strive to be the best wife or husband that we can be, learning to practise contentment in our marriage is of immense benefit for the here and now of our marriages. In the marriage relationship too “godliness actually is a means of great gain when accompanied by contentment.” (1st Timothy 6:6). Contentment should be one of the hallmarks of the Christian and it sets us apart from a world full of complainers.
Acceptance within marriage has another benefit too. It takes the focus off ourselves and our happiness and frees us to focus on the road ahead. While a happy marriage is our number one goal, we tend to be self-focused and self-centred. When we learn to give thanks daily for what we have and receive it as a blessing from God’s hand, despite the flaws in our relationship, it frees us to become more and more the couple He would have us be and allows us to be available for Him to use in other people’s lives instead of being so wrapped up in ourselves. This is one of the many reasons children are such a great blessing to a marriage. Sometimes when we emphasise having good boundaries in relationships, we talk more of the detrimental effect children can have on our marriage relationship because of a lack of “alone” time with our spouses and we communicate the idea that our marriages will be on the edge of disaster if we don’t get away from our children for regular dates but the truth is that children can be an immensely healthy addition to the marriage relationship. The great thing about having kids is that it teaches us to take the focus off ourselves long enough to realise that the whole world doesn’t spin around our marital bliss and that marital bliss isn’t even God’s ideal for us. God’s goal in marriage is not primarily our enjoyment, but our growth and sanctification and ultimately His glory, though in His grace He has included enjoyment in there too. But not one of these things can happen while we remain stuck on our idea of what marriage should be. So though it may feel like a disaster, it is the healthiest thing in the world for our marriage, when our preconceived ideas of marriage begin to crumble as we adjust to the reality of married life between two sinful human beings. Acceptance is key as we learn to adjust our expectations of our husband or wife to the mundane reality of a less than perfect partner, who may at times be insensitive, impolite, selfish, and slow to catch on, who can’t read our minds, and doesn’t always prefer our comfort to his own, isn’t always attuned to our moods and desires and sometimes takes more than he gives or disturbs us when we want to be left in peace , in other words, to this human being who is separate from us but close enough to provide a constant source of irritation as well as on-going companionship. For marriage to be happy, we must learn to take the evil with the good and we must learn to enjoy the other person with ALL that he or she is. “Therefore, accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us to the glory of God.” Romans 15:7.When we learn to practice that kind of marital contentment, we might see the world beginning to sit up and take notice.
I don’t want to downplay the seriousness of some marital problems. I am not addressing those issues here. I am speaking to the ones who, like me, need to learn to practise acceptance more, a little more thankfulness, a little more of the love which covers a multitude of sins and who need to learn to let go of some of their striving and simply trust God with the more flawed aspects of their marriages. Not all of us have horrendously dysfunctional marriages but none of us have perfect marriages and all of us need to learn to live with that fact.
At the end of the day our marriages become places which glorify God and refresh others as well as ourselves when we remain committed to God’s goals within them, when we learn to walk in the kind of committed love and acceptance, which He displays towards us, full of grace and truth, mercy and good works. These are good goals in marriage but we can leave the details of how that will be worked out in each particular marriage up to our heavenly Father. Above all our marriages become places which display the grace of God, as we learn to accept one another as we have been accepted, fully and unconditionally and with a forever commitment to our good.
“So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful.” Colossians 3:12-15.