Misunderstanding the true nature and purposes of marriage is the source of much of our marital discord and dissolution. We mentally maintain the faulty notion that if we married the right person, and if we really loved each other, we wouldn’t be having such marital difficulties. This is false. Marriage is divinely designed as a personal crucible – a refiner’s fire – to smooth off our rough edges, and shape us into our divine authentic self. This process prepares us for greater degrees of marital oneness.
Not understanding what will be required of us within marriage often allows us to unwittingly abort the very process that is intended to stretch us and enable us to experience the intimate connection available between husband and wife. The purpose of this article is to awaken our hearts and minds to the responsibilities and requirements within marriage – the agonies and the ecstasies – and to fortify our faith that marital oneness is worth the price.
I recently wondered why marriage is such a passion for me – it’s not like I was a child of divorce, or severely affected by a parental breakup. I soon realized that it was because of the growth and healing I had personally experienced within my own marriage crucible that I became aware of the profound power marriage contained.
Marriage is Central to God’s Plan
Marriage is central to God’s eternal plan for good reason – it is designed as one of the great purifiers of the soul. Marriage holds the potential for life’s greatest bliss, but blissful moments are mixed in with a lot of soul?expanding personal growth. In designing marriage God not only provided for the fulfillment of our deepest longings for intimate connection, but also coupled it with some of our greatest struggles to drive us toward wholeness – toward becoming our authentic self.
Wholeness may be described as a quest for perfection, as we strive to smooth off our rough edges; to overcome our sins and weaknesses; to develop our undeveloped capacities; to become fully alive and fully functioning.
God has provided an opportunity and commandment for personal refinement within the adventure of marriage. He invites husband and wife to leave their mother and father, and cleave unto each other and become one (see Genesis 2:24). It is as if marriage itself is an enrollment in an excavation of the heart, mind and soul with the intent to graduate each of us into something more.
Marriage is our invitation to become whole, while in the process of becoming one with our spouse – emotionally, spiritually and physically. We have the choice to avoid the hard work of stretching and purifying our souls, or we can roll up our sleeves and go to work! To take two different and imperfect creatures from differing backgrounds and expect a “coming together as one” is an adventure indeed.
While there is much we can individually do to develop ourselves emotionally, spiritually, and physically, the committed, vulnerable and intimate relationship of marriage provides opportunities for growth that may not be available any other way.
Marriage As a Surprise “Grab Bag”
Marriage is the ultimate surprise “grab bag” – where you never really know what you’re going to get. Couples may not realize that within marriage they will discover that their spouse has needs of which neither of them were previously aware. Life itself throws a few curve balls to challenge us as well. The ongoing process of learning and growing also introduces new demands on the relationship. One example might be of a spouse developing a debilitating or chronic illness where each must develop new abilities to meet each other’s needs.
Not understanding marriage as a “grab bag” leads some to feel they’ve been cheated. The blinded state of romantic attraction leads us into marriage unaware of what we are getting ourselves into. Many couples complain that what they thought they were getting is not what they ended up with. The fact is that we are all taken aback somewhat by what life and marriage hands us. The intimate intrigue of marriage has intricate and important purposes.
For all couples, once the “anesthesia” and initial thrill of romantic love wears off, we unexpectedly find ourselves with a new and different spouse and relationship. We may even find that we, ourselves, are not who we thought we were. I had no idea that I would experience the devastation of depression, nor did my husband. That was certainly a surprise that we found in our marital grab bag.
We buy our marital grab bag with great hopes and expectations, believing all will be well. If we exercise faith, we can know that all things (even difficult things) will give us experience, and be for our ultimate good (see D&C 122:7). It’s a wise part of the divine design that our grab bag comes with a “no-return policy,” so that we will hang in there through the rough times, in order to come to the light and the bliss. Couples must understand that often the greatest joy and happiness comes from successfully enduring the mountain climbs of life, not by avoiding them.
Some who have not yet entered the adventure of marriage stand at the sidelines longing to trade in their current pain of loneliness for the joys that marriage affords. They are temporarily blinded to the inherent pain and the costs connected to marital bliss. Others stand outside the fire with fear and trepidation at the thought of all that marriage entails, not understanding that the treasure is worth the trials. Nothing can compare to the peace, joy and ecstasy available in marriage, but neither will anything exact such a price.
Others have entered the adventure of marriage, but they are unaware of how to move from the initial high of romantic love, through the fire of conflict into the awakening – transforming their relationship into real love and intimate oneness. Many of these good souls choose to exit the drama not knowing that it can lead them to the very thing they seek. Others hold on, but check out emotionally, going through the motions of marriage just enough to get by.
My hope is that all who read this article will be ardently aware of the blessed adventure of marriage, and feel inspired to engage themselves fully, so that they may find the exultant ecstasy that God has prepared for them within the intimate adventure of marriage.
Required Responsibilities within Marriage
With such an emphasis on simply “getting married” we sometimes forget to continue to provide guidance for couples, in order that they are able to create their dream of “happily ever after.” The following are some of the responsibilities that couples must accept in order to create the fulfilling intimate relationship that is possible in marriage:
- To become self-aware through intimate attention and introspection.
- To enroll oneself in serious and significant self-development and personal growth.
- To develop unconditional love and acceptance for self and spouse.
- To heal and become whole, in order to become ONE.
- To identify and be willing to stretch to meet another’s needs.
- To remain receptive to ongoing opportunities for greater growth and development.
1 – To become self-aware
Self-awareness is underdeveloped in many of us. We spend years and years studying for success in a particular profession, yet very little time studying ourselves for success in an intimate relationship.
We enter marriage nearly blind to the liabilities and even the assets we bring to the relationship. While we may be ignorant of the potential problems that await, we are also ignorant of the potential solutions already within us.
Self-discovery Journal. Self-discovery is the process of uncovering who we really are – the good and the bad. We need to consciously and confidently know our strengths, as well as our weaknesses. We must regularly dedicate some of our time and effort to taking inventory of our inner selves. A “Self-discovery Journal” is one effective way to be more attentive to our thoughts, feelings and behaviors on a daily basis.
Journal therapy is the method of reflecting on our thoughts or feelings, and then putting them into words on paper. This helps us identify, articulate and process our inner lives. In many ways our participation in the Gospel of Jesus Christ is really about the inner self – how we are developing our spirit self.
Asking Questions. Asking introspective questions can also open our minds to the answers and insights that lie within – “Why do I do that?” “What is this about?” “Where is this coming from?” “How do I really want to be?” Developing an inquisitive mind about yourself opens the door to daily revelations of information that are essential to knowing yourself, and knowing how to unite intimately with another human being. We have the help of our spirit self, as well as the Spirit of God, to guide us in our introspection. Committing this thought processing to paper provides additional growth beyond solely “thinking” about it.
Becoming self-aware can be a difficult process. We may not want to know some things about ourselves. We each have hidden beliefs and characteristics that we don’t necessarily like. We’d rather just avoid thinking about them, and hope they might just go away! In my own quest to understand who I am, I have uncovered many things that have been disconcerting, yet pivotal to my greater understanding and ultimate growth.
One example is that somewhere I had developed an unhealthy emphasis on my “doings” over my “being.” What I thought was such a strength was also a weakness. I learned that I had somehow picked up the idea that I had to be “productive” or “accomplish” something to be of worth – that my “being” alone was not enough. Elder Dallin H. Oaks addressed this issue of how we worry so much about our “doings” that we neglect to focus on what we are becoming (see “The Challenge to Become,” Ensign, Nov. 2000, 32). This issue has affected my life and relationships in many ways. But being aware of this insight has now allowed me to make changes in myself that have resulted in growth and great blessings.
2 – To engage in significant self-development
It’s been said that marriages don’t break up because of what couples do to each other. They break up because of what each must become in order to stay in them (see Ban Breathnach, Something More, 117). Change can be difficult. We often want to change the world (and other people), but we don’t want to change ourselves. We think it’s the other person that needs to change, especially if they have some obvious or identifiable flaw, or if we can get someone to validate our opinion about our spouse. But the reality is that every challenge couples face in their marriage, provides equal opportunity for each to purify and perfect their own souls, if they will focus on themselves.
While we spend much of our time wishing our spouse would change, we would be much more effective if we would focus on changing ourselves. President Gordon B. Hinckley has promised that we can “live together in the God-given pattern of marriage in accomplishing that of which we are capable if we will exercise discipline of self and refrain from trying to discipline our companion” (Hinckley, Ensign, Nov. 2004, 82).
Personal growth is not optional within marriage. Know that when you marry, it is not an optional activity to invest yourself in an intensive self-directed personal development “course.” Just plan on it. It will be less of a shock to you when you are confronted with the requirement to change. Marriage demands soul-stretching self-development in ways that are not always easy or convenient. Healthy and happy marriages are most likely to be experienced by those willing to step outside their comfort zones and even expand them!
Marriage is therapy. Marriage is designed as intimate therapy for our heart and soul. We are naturally attracted to someone who will push our buttons. Their personal needs and inner-self issues will be well suited to help us see our weaknesses, and invite us toward wholeness – toward developing into our divine authentic self. Dr. Harville Hendrix taught, “Marriage itself is in essence therapy, and your partner’s needs chart your path to psychological and spiritual wholeness” (Hendrix, Keeping the Love You Find, 247).
Within the crucible of marriage I have been faced with many opportunities for personal growth. One such opportunity presented itself as I became aware of my relative resistance to touch and affection. It’s often true that marriage attracts opposites, or at least those with complementary characteristics. My husband was comfortable with and welcomed touch and affection; whereas I felt I could go without. This “positive” but opposing characteristic in my husband provided a mirror, showing me how I could be, and inviting me to change.
Over time I have changed. Knowing personal growth is a requirement in creating a satisfying relationship, I have learned to enjoy touch and affection, even though it was a stretch for me. Where I once could not fall asleep if my husband was touching me in any way, I now cannot sleep if he is not!
If you are a non-toucher, just plan on needing to become more of a toucher. If you are non-expressive emotionally, just plan on needing to become more emotionally expressive. If you think you just aren’t a sexual person, just plan on needing to develop your sexuality. Having a preliminary understanding of the intricacies and inevitable adjustments needed in marriage can help you change in ways that will keep your relationship alive and growing.
Sometimes we are tempted to say of our weaknesses, “That’s just the way I am,” in hopes that our spouse will just forget about it or deal with it. In marriage there is no such luxury of ignoring our imperfections for long. President George Q. Cannon taught that we have a duty to overcome our weaknesses by seeking those characteristics that will counteract our “natural” tendencies. He said:
If any of us are imperfect, it is our duty to pray for the gift that will make us perfect. Have I imperfections? I am full of them. What is my duty? To pray to God to give me the gifts that will correct these imperfections. If I am an angry man, it is my duty to pray for charity, which suffereth long and is kind. Am I an envious man? It is my duty to seek for charity, which envieth not. So it is with all the gifts of the Gospel.
They are intended for this purpose. No man ought to say, Oh, I cannot help this; it is my nature.’ He is not justified in it, for the reason that God has promised to give strength to correct these things, and to give gifts that will eradicate them (Doctrine and Covenants and Church History Teacher’s Manual, 84-85; see also Millennial Star, 23 Apr. 1894, 260).
God has promised to show us our weaknesses, in order to humble us and exhibit His power of grace to make our weaknesses into strengths (see Ether 12:27). Consider the possibility that your spouse is God’s way of helping you to see your imperfections through the “marital mirror” that both husbands and wives hold up before each other, allowing each to see things they might otherwise ignore. In some ways getting married is like hiring a full-time witness of your follies and weaknesses, with an ever-present invitation to overcome them.
Get educated and get help. One of the saddest things I see is couples who do not realize how much personal growth is needed in marriage, and who wait too long to get help after they’ve exhausted their own know-how. We all do the best we can and the best we know how, but we can do better if we know better.
If couples would go into marriage knowing they are going to need some extensive marriage education, as well as the personal guidance available through professional counseling, then maybe couples wouldn’t see counseling in such a stigmatized way, nor would they wait so long to engage some professional assistance.
What a waste when a couple finally realizes they need counseling, but one or both of them have hardened their hearts, and checked out of the marriage to the extent that it is difficult, if not impossible, to save the marriage and avert the inevitable heartbreak for all involved.
Marriage education classes, courses, conferences, books and seminars are a few ways to learn the intricacies of marriage, and develop the relationship skills necessary to create a happy and healthy marriage. One mother wisely told her children to never pass up an opportunity to attend any class or course on marriage. How wonderful it would be if we all felt that same way about obtaining marriage education.
Professional counseling could certainly be considered marriage education, but provides the more specific help that is often needed. I would suggest that nearly every marriage can benefit from counseling, when sought with the help of the Lord. Statistics show that relatively few couples seek the assistance of counseling, even though it has the potential to save marriages and prevent heartbreak. (For more information on “Seeking Professional Help” see Appendix II in the book And They Were Not Ashamed.)
Don’t wait until your marriage is on the brink of dissolution before you begin the humbling journey of self-reflection and development, or before seeking marital assistance through counseling. Don’t wait to be compelled to be humble!
3 – To develop unconditional love and acceptance for self and spouse.
God has commanded us to love our neighbors (our spouse) as ourselves (see Matthew 22:39). To love oneself requires that we know who we really are, and accept who we are – our strengths and weaknesses. With the self-awareness suggested above we can come to know and accept who we are, which helps us become whole within ourselves. It is then that we are in a position to become “one” with another person – our spouse.
Loving and accepting ourselves unconditionally is an important first step in being able to love our spouse. It is difficult to love and accept another if we don’t love and accept our self first. Our capacity to love is related to our personal well-being – our mental, emotional, and spiritual reserves or the “wholeness” of our heart. We can increase our ability and capacity to love by increasing love and acceptance for ourselves. If we do not develop sufficient love for ourselves, our life becomes focused more on getting love than on giving love.
Accepting ourselves has a marvelous side effect – it frees us to change. William James wisely stated, “When I accept myself as I am, I change. When I accept others as they are, they change” (Beam, Becoming One, 97). Acceptance is the key to unlock divine potential within ourselves, and our spouse. It frees us from limiting personal prisons we have created to protect ourselves. Accepting our spouse frees them from the limiting ways in which we see them, removing their defensiveness, which can open the door for them to willingly change. The best way to get someone to change is to let go of trying to change them, and just love them instead.
Accepting our spouse unconditionally may be one of the greatest lessons our spouse can help us learn. None of us are perfect, but we each have God-given goodness if we will look for it. Having the ability to love and accept another without conditions is to develop the kind of love God has for each of us.
Focusing our attention on another’s strengths and goodness helps us to let go of trying to “fix” them, and allows them to learn and grow in their own time and space. This state of unconditional love and acceptance creates the ideal conditions for one’s maximum potential growth and development. If there is built-up resentment or bitterness over past errors, seek God’s grace to soften your heart. A softened heart allows us to grant the gift of forgiveness, in order to make way for unconditional love and acceptance.
Whether it is when a spouse is unwilling to overcome an addiction, or when a spouse has fears and inhibitions of which they are not yet ready to let go, all couples will be required to learn to love and accept their spouse unconditionally. Count on it! Stretching to meet this need to love and accept others unconditionally will pay huge dividends throughout your life.
4 – To become whole, in order to become one.
God our Father and Jesus Christ have asked us to become one, husband and wife, even as they are one (see John 17:22). God has also said, “Be one; and if ye are not one ye are not mine” (D&C 38:27). The self-awareness, self-development and self-acceptance that have been suggested above are for the purpose of restoring our individual wholeness, of overcoming our imperfections, and of gaining in areas that we are lacking, so that we may become one with our spouse and with God.
Knowing that the ultimate ideal we are working toward is our personal wholeness and marital oneness can help us see that our difficult efforts are worth it, and help spur us on amidst the soul-rending process.
5 – To identify and be willing to stretch to meet your spouse’s needs.
Marriage is about meeting each other’s needs. We marry in hopes that our spouse will make everything all right – that we will finally be happy. But we tend to focus more on their meeting, or not meeting, our needs than on how well we are meeting their needs. Many couples are not even fully aware of what their personal needs are and what their spouse’s needs are.
Thus the necessity of self-awareness and spouse-awareness!
Knowing that couples need to consciously identify and share their specific needs with each other (either verbally or preferably written) can help couples prevent much pain and avoid missing out on many precious feelings of love. I remember the story of a couple whose 30-year marriage was on the verge of divorce when they finally went to see a marriage counselor. After some discussion the husband discovered for the first time what made his wife feel loved. He was heartsick at the realization of what he could have been doing all along that could have prevented so much of their heartache. In anguish he exclaimed, “Why?! Why didn’t somebody tell me about this sooner.”
Couples need to identify their specific, individualized needs for love, and share that vital information with each other. It can be as simple as both of you making a list of statements that complete the phrase, “I feel loved/cherished when you…” Sharing this information is as if giving each other the very key to your heart. These critical insights allow husbands and wives to be more effective at loving each other meaningfully.
Meeting each other’s needs for love can be challenging. Apparently God knew that what our spouse most needs from us might also be that which is most difficult for us to give. This may be part of the divine design for personal refinement available within marriage, as we stretch to meet our spouse’s needs. Every time we stretch ourselves to love another, we receive personal healing of our own hearts that moves us toward our own wholeness. Each gift of love we give, especially those that are hard for us, comes back to us greatly multiplied.
I knew that one of the things my husband most needed from me was for me to be happy.
As I struggled with depression, being truly happy was the thing I was least capable of giving him. The incredible mountain climb I needed to make to overcome depression was ultimately one of the greatest opportunities for my healing and wholeness brought about within the crucible of marriage. It wasn’t just new skills that were needed for me to be happy, but a thorough excavation of my heart and soul. Had I avoided the invitation to engage in some serious personal growth that overcoming depression required it’s highly likely that another marriage and family would have been destroyed.
There are many other examples of the challenges associated with giving the kind of love our spouse most need from us in order for him or her to feel genuinely loved. One wife feels loved when her husband buys her things, but that husband has the hardest time spending money … coming from a frugal family. In another marriage, the husband feels loved when he hears words of praise, appreciation and encouragement, but his wife’s natural inclination is to criticize and look for faults. It is terribly difficult for her to love her husband in the way he most needs her to. What of the many men whose primary feelings of love come from expressions of sexual love, whose wives have a disdain for sex? Obviously significant self-awareness and development will be needed in order to meet each other’s needs for love.
President Hinckley taught, “If every husband and every wife would constantly do whatever might be possible to ensure the comfort and happiness of his or her companion, there would be very little, if any, divorce” (Hinckley, Ensign, Nov. 2004, 82) and I would add – very much of personal healing and valuable growth.
6 – To remain receptive to ongoing opportunities for greater growth and development.
The sixth marital responsibility I will mention is the need for each of us to remain receptive to the ongoing opportunities that will be presented for our continuing growth and development. In simpler terms we must maintain a soft heart. The state of our heart is of utmost importance not only in our relationships, but also to the Lord. The Lord asks us to offer him a “broken heart and a contrite spirit” (3 Nephi 9:20). Maybe our heartaches help us give this gift of a softened heart, as our heart is broken and refined within the inherent challenges of marriage.
How might we maintain the state of a softened heart? Some suggestions are:
- To be grateful in all things, acknowledging God’s hand;
- To repent daily of our weaknesses;
- To be humble and teachable, always ready to learn;
- To forgive others and let go of offenses, turning our heartaches over to the Lord;
- To have faith and believe in the positive in all things;
- To nourish our hearts and minds with the Word of God;
- To pray; and
- To submit to the Will of God, trusting Him, and aligning our lives with Him.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful for all couples to be fully aware of the demands and delights of marriage, and for them to willingly agree to commit to the required responsibilities? The expectations in marriage would no longer be such a surprise, and the transition from romantic love to real love would flow much more smoothly.
I’ve always thought it might be helpful for couples to offer their hearts in marriage by agreeing to some kind of mutual “Marital Informed Consent” pledge. This would indicate their educated understanding of the intricacies of marriage and the efforts that will be required of them. Below is a sample of what couples might want to personally consider, accept, and pledge their souls to regarding the adventure we call marriage:
- I pledge to come to know myself and develop greater self-awareness by identifying my strengths and weaknesses. I pledge to focus my attention and efforts on overcoming my weaknesses and building upon my strengths. I commit myself to spend regular amounts of time and effort to search my soul and connect with God to teach me what I need to know about myself. I willingly and humbly receive this learning.
- I pledge to invest myself in an ongoing, internal self-development process where I put in the necessary effort to overcome my weaknesses, which will allow me to become more whole, as an individual, and to become more one with my spouse and God.
- I pledge to learn to love and accept myself without conditions, and to do the same for my spouse. I understand that unconditional love is the best environment in which I and my spouse can learn, grow and change.
- I pledge to focus on my own weaknesses and my own contributions to our marital challenges rather than on my spouse’s faults. As a creator of my life with God-given agency, I pledge to take full responsibility for my actions in any given situation.
- I understand that marriage is about meeting each other’s needs, even those needs that are difficult for me, or that require significant stretching on my part. I pledge to change myself in whatever ways are needed to be able to love my spouse and meet his/her needs in the way they need me to. I understand that by so doing I heal my own inadequacies and become more whole.
- I understand that I have naturally attracted someone whose needs are well suited to require the inevitable growth I need to become whole. This understanding will help me to see our marital challenges as opportunities for growth rather than as proof that I’ve married the wrong person.
- I pledge to remain attentive to the state of my heart and engage in those things that will help me maintain a softened heart, so that I will be able to continue to learn and grow throughout my life.
- I understand that should I decide to end this marriage relationship that the demanding personal growth necessary in marriage will still be required in any future relationships.
“Happily ever after” in marriage is possible. It is within reach for all couples, but husbands and wives must understand and be willing to do what it takes to create “happily ever after”! With a marital road map to identify the required mountain climbs, as well as some of the bumps and curves in the road, couples can be better prepared and better equipped for the refiner’s fire we call marriage. It is through the refiner’s fire that the yearning for wholeness and intimate connection is ultimately fulfilled; for marriage truly holds within its embrace the highest bliss, the sweetest connectedness, the warmest touch, and the greatest peace that life and eternity has to offer.
(For more information, see Chapter 13 “Marital Stewardship – Covenants, Commitment and Challenges” in the book And They Were Not Ashamed – Strengthening Marriage through Sexual Fulfillment.)
Ban Breathnach, Sarah. Something More: Excavating Your Authentic Self. New York: Warner Books, 1999.
Beam, Joe. Becoming One: Emotionally, Spiritually, Sexually. West Monroe: Howard Publishing, 1999.
Doctrine and Covenants and Church History: Gospel Doctrine Teacher’s Manual. Salt Lake City, 1999.
Hendrix, Harville. Keeping the Love You Find: A Personal Guide. New York: Pocket Books, 1992.
Hinckley, Gordon B. “The Women in Our Lives,” Ensign, Nov. 2004.
Oaks, Dallin H. “The Challenge to Become,” Ensign, Nov. 2000.
Laura M. Brotherson, CFLE, is a marriage and family life educator certified by the National Council on Family Relations, and is the author of a groundbreaking book on physical intimacy and marital oneness entitled, And They Were Not Ashamed – Strengthening Marriage through Sexual Fulfillment. For more information visit www.StrengtheningMarriage.com. Laura welcomes your comments at [email protected]