A friend asked me a challenging question: “Many people have feelings of ‘entitlement’ to blessings from God as a result of faithfulness. I understand this feeling. For many years I believed that the harder I tried to be obedient to the commandments and to serve God and His children, the more protection I (and those I love) would have from suffering. After all, if we keep the covenants, we are told that we will prosper in the land. This is not the case for everyone. Each of my children has faced significant challenges, some the result of difficult marriages.”
Some of us are surprised to discover that even though we are faithful Saints, we may face significant disappointments in our marriages.
One husband wonders why the woman who was so affectionate when they dated is so unaffectionate now that they are married. One wife is frustrated that her husband seems lazy—he does not help her around the house. A husband struggles with the way his wife constantly criticizes him. A wife feels lonely when her husband no longer listens to her.
Planted deep in our souls is a dream of relationships as they should be. We know that the right way to be together is with kindness, consideration, affection. We expect there to be occasional showers but we do not expect hurricanes or droughts in our covenant relationships. We entered in good faith and expected God to bless us.
There is lots of evidence that the expectation is unreasonable.
I appreciate the story about Spencer W. Kimball. He and his wife had different ideas about how to spend a vacation; he wanted to travel and she wanted to improve their home. They could not come to agreement. So he traveled alone and she worked on the house.
The prophet Joseph Smith was a great man who dedicated his life to doing the will of the Lord yet his marriage was not easy. Heck! His life wasn’t easy!
Yet, on some level, many of us tend to believe that if we are good Saints, we should be spared most of those painful challenges. And that shows that we don’t understand God’s Plan.
When we are young, we expect a simple relationship between goodness and blessings. We do what’s right and God blesses us. This is the milk of the gospel. As we mature, we are ready for meat; God invites us to a more advanced relationship with Him. He invites us to “receive all things with thankfulness.” All things. As we are more mature, we recognize afflictions as heaven-crafted blessings.
It is true that those who keep the commandments prosper in the land. But advanced spiritual prospering follows different laws. God gave us the opportunity to come to a fallen world where there are thorns, thistles, briars, and noxious weeds along our path. Our experience here will include challenges and trials. And, as intended, those challenges and trials will stretch us, causing us to grow, to lean on Him, and to develop faith and charity. We learn to recognize His hand in all things—even those that strike us as inconvenient. Prospering does not mean that everything will go well but that God will preside over our growth.
Therefore, he giveth this promise unto you, with an immutable covenant that they shall be fulfilled; and all things wherewith you have been afflicted shall work together for your good, and to my name’s glory, saith the Lord. (D&C 98:3)
There is a certain compliment God is paying us when He trusts us with tribulation. “You are on the path of godliness. A lot will be expected of you.”
So how do we deal with pain and disappointment when we experience them in the sacred relationship of marriage?
- There are some extreme situations such as abuse that may necessitate a spouse leaving a marriage. However, in most cases marital covenants can and should be honored in spite of times of emotional pain and disappointment. If the spouses remain committed to work through the rough patches, marriages can flourish once again. How do you decide whether a relationship can be saved? Read: Should I Keep Working On My Marriage? by two good LDS scholars.
- Remember the sacred. During times of discouragement, we tend to “rewrite” the history of our marriage emphasizing our dissatisfactions. Part of honoring our marital covenant is choosing to remember and focus upon our sacred experiences granted to that marriage—the times we felt love and appreciation for our partner and the times we felt God endorsing and blessing our relationship. We should not allow the storm clouds to block any memory of sunshine. Holding onto those sacred memories of the past will allow us to hold onto hope for the future.
- Call on God for mercy. Believe that even during times when your marriage seems beyond repair, He has the capability and the will to heal your family if you will have the faith to turn to Him. Ask Him for peace, grace, forgiveness. Then humble yourself and give Him the chance and the time to work within you. . “Look unto me in every thought; doubt not, fear not” (D&C 6:36).
- Instead of trying to change your spouse, make the choice to change your own heart. Choose to be a messenger of love, kindness, and patience. Pray for your spouse. Look for and celebrate the good in your spouse. Alis, a wife who experienced marital struggles, explained: “It is important to realize that love isn’t a feeling as much as it is a choice. I started doing small things like randomly texting him I loved him during the day, putting love notes in his lunch, telling him how much I appreciated him and all the reasons I loved him and respected him. This didn’t change him; it changed me. Doing all those things wasn’t really for him; they were for me. As time went on, I started to feel that spark again.”
- Rather than evaluating the dividends you are getting out of your marriage, ask yourself what more you might do to enrich your marriage. And then trust that God honors those who honor their covenants. Make a commitment to “cheerfully do all things that lie in our power; and then may we stand still, with the utmost assurance, to see the salvation of God, and for his arm to be revealed” (D&C 123:17).
God did not design marriage to perfectly fulfill all of our self-centered desires. He had loftier and more demanding purposes in mind. Marriage is ordained of God as a training ground for developing Christ-like character. While marriage offers us deep love and an eternal bond with our spouse, that same relationship is likely to challenge us to develop greater compassion, forgiveness, sacrifice, and charity through the struggles we experience. As we honor our marital covenant—even, or especially, during times when our marriage doesn’t match our dreams—we become the people and partners God invites us to be.
Which of these principles is God inviting you to apply in your marriage?
Thanks to Barbara Keil for excellent input in refining this article.
Read Carlfred Broderick’s wonderfully insightful talk, Uses of Adversity
For a spiritual perspective on marriage, read my book, Drawing Heaven into Your Marriage.
For ideas on loving actions for strengthening marriages, read Susan Page’s Why Talking is Not Enough.