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My husband and I have been married for more than thirty years and have raised a family. He was a convert and had reactivated to the Church at the time when we met. He pressured me until we were sexually intimate before marriage. We worked through the repentance process with our bishop, were married civilly, and a year later were sealed in the temple. However, at the time, I felt marriage was the right thing to do because I told myself I must love him or I wouldn’t have let that happen. But even now, sometimes I let depression seep in and I feel that I said “yes” to marriage mostly because of the pre-marital sexual intimacy.
He is a good man, but I tend to see serious faults and weaknesses. I think that my behavior has lessened his love for me although he never says that. Part of the ongoing problem is that we only have ever communicated on a surface level. He doesn’t share thoughts or feelings and doesn’t know how to respond when I have let the emotional floodgates open. I know that I do love him in some ways, but never have really been “in love” with him. How can I let go of doubts and truly love him as he is? I have read, pondered, cried, and prayed but still those feelings return at times. Can you give any advice?
What you are experiencing is not only common, but also the primary test of marriage, especially a celestial marriage that is designed to make us more like our Heavenly Parents. Brother Scott Gardner, a professor at BYU-Idaho, recently reminded us that marriage is central to God’s plan to help us inherit everything our heavenly parents have and are. He says:
“My friends, marriage is essential to God’s eternal plan. Before we came to earth, I can imagine us looking at our heavenly parents in awe and longing to have everything they had: a physical body (how amazing was that!); an eternal marriage with love and unity beyond compare. They were glorious to behold! They were exalted! How eager we must have been for the day that we could be married like them. We now have that precious opportunity right here in our mortal life: to learn to be like them. This is what we are shooting for. We are preparing to receive all that our heavenly parents have. This is precisely God’s whole work, His whole joy and passion. Indeed, it is His work and glory to help us to have that kind of marriage.”[i]
I realize you feel like your marriage is nowhere close to celestial expectations, but, like our own individual eternal progress, it’s important to recognize that our marriages deserve the same patience and long-suffering we hope to have for ourselves as we grow and develop Christ-like attributes.
I can see that you’re well acquainted with your husband’s faults and weakness after 30 years of marriage and family life. It’s true that just about everyone who has been married even 30 days begins to confront the honest reality of their partner’s fallenness. I don’t wonder why Lola Walter’s short, but powerful, story in the 1993 Ensign article, “The Grapefruit Syndrome”, is one of the most popular marriage articles ever submitted to the magazine. In it, she shares her ill-advised attempt to strengthen their marriage by pointing out her husband’s faults, one of which was his method for eating a grapefruit. The offense? He peeled it like an orange instead of eating it with a spoon! When he didn’t have any complaints about her, she immediately recognized how selfish and shallow her complaint was and that this wasn’t the sum total of her husband’s character.[ii]
Though a simple example, her conclusion is worth considering. We all marry someone who is going to do things that feel intolerable at times. And, it’s precisely this reality that provides the conditions that propel us toward growth and godhood. Meridian Magazine’s own Wally Goddard put it this way:
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.[iii]
These moments of marital distress can signal a false alarm that tells us to exit the marriage. However, this distress needs to be viewed with a bigger vision of why we’re here on earth and God’s true purpose for marriage.
Now, please keep in mind that I’m not talking about certain behaviors that should never be tolerated, which include abuse, addictions, and affairs. Any trace of these in a marriage requires the injured spouse to enact strict boundaries and call in support to create physical and emotional safety. These types of patterns are not to be endured, but instead, as Elder James E. Faust once described, need to be confronted as “relationship[s] which [are] destructive of a person’s dignity as a human being.”[iv]
The challenge in today’s self-obsessed culture is to sort through the harmful messages that tell us we should not tolerate anything that doesn’t make us happy. It’s a consumer mindset that makes marriage the product that can be returned with a full refund if it doesn’t meet our needs. Dr. Bill Doherty has written extensively on this mindset and I recommend you read his article on consumer marriage versus modern-covenant marriage. He reminds us that a consumer mindset is a “fragile basis for a life-long commitment.” [v] He also acknowledges that people who feel they aren’t getting what they need in marriage are in great pain and need to know that their needs matter. I agree with him that we shouldn’t settle for unhealthy patterns, even if they’re not at the toxic levels that require more drastic action. Doherty emphasizes that our commitment to the marriage is also balanced equally with our individual needs. He says:
“Modern Covenant Marriage requires the habits of the heart and mind to cultivate a lifelong relationship that is loving and fair to both partners, where the well-being of your spouse and your marriage is as important as your own well-being, where the soft reasons for divorce are off the table, and where efforts for continued improvement of the marriage are tempered with acceptance of human limitations.”[vi]
When we don’t give long-term commitment the same emphasis as individual needs and preferences, we are vulnerable to the lie that anything that causes us pain or suffering needs to be discarded. Yes, marriage is painful, even agonizing, at times. We can’t treat the normal growing pains of marriage as something that only happens in bad marriages. We also can’t believe that if we had made the right selection of a marriage partner, we would have been spared from suffering.
Dr. Scott Gardner put it this way:
Satan tries to make us think that hard times in marriage mean something dreadful–that our marriage is fatally flawed or needs to be ended. In reality, hard times in marriage are part of the Lord’s design to help each of us work to change and improve ourselves in ways that will bless us eternally. Marriage is a faith-based work. During hard times, we must have faith, we must work, and we must trust that this is something with which the Lord will help us.[vii]
When we buy into this line of thinking, I believe that our attention is misdirected to the less important choice. Once we’re married, we can’t keep focusing on the choice of who we married. Instead, it’s about the choice of how we’ll respond to this person in front of us. We have lots of choices to make. We need to choose how we’ll view their own fallenness alongside our own fallenness. We can choose to turn toward them or turn away. We can choose to see God as the Grand Architect of marriage as the way to bring us closer to Him. We will wear ourselves out obsessing about the one fateful choice made years ago instead of choices we can do something about today.
Seth Adam Smith wrote a viral blog post about his realization 18 months into marriage that his marriage wasn’t about him. He remembered this advice his father gave him before marriage:
[He said], marriage isn’t for you. You don’t marry to make yourself happy, you marry to make someone else happy. More than that, your marriage isn’t for yourself, you’re marrying for a family. Not just for the in-laws and all of that nonsense, but for your future children. Who do you want to help you raise them? Who do you want to influence them? Marriage isn’t for you. It’s not about you. Marriage is about the person you married.”[viii]
If you want to see how unpopular this counsel is, just do a quick Google search for this blog post and you’ll see pages of criticism stating that marriage should only be about our own happiness. We know that God had a different purpose in mind when he designed marriage. President Gordon B. Hinckley explained:
“I am satisfied that happiness in marriage is not so much a matter of romance as it is an anxious concern for the comfort and well-being of one’s companion.”[ix]
This only works when both people have the anxious concern for one another’s comfort, so make sure you are doing your part and asking him to do his part. It won’t lead to marital happiness if one person is organizing around the other’s comfort while ignoring his or her own needs and desires. You have serious concerns about both of your contributions to the marital struggles, so this is a great opportunity to commit to each other that you’ll make the other’s comfort your priority.
Alain de Botton wrote in the New York Times that we shouldn’t abandon our imperfect partners, but instead abandon “the founding Romantic idea upon which the Western understanding of marriage has been based the last 250 years: that a perfect being exists who can meet all our needs and satisfy our every yearning.”[x] He continues:
“We need to swap the Romantic view for a tragic (and at points comedic) awareness that every human will frustrate, anger, annoy, madden and disappoint us — and we will (without any malice) do the same to them. There can be no end to our sense of emptiness and incompleteness. But none of this is unusual or grounds for divorce. Choosing whom to commit ourselves to is merely a case of identifying which particular variety of suffering we would most like to sacrifice ourselves for.
This philosophy of pessimism offers a solution to a lot of distress and agitation around marriage. It might sound odd, but pessimism relieves the excessive imaginative pressure that our romantic culture places upon marriage. The failure of one particular partner to save us from our grief and melancholy is not an argument against that person and no sign that a union deserves to fail or be upgraded.
The person who is best suited to us is not the person who shares our every taste (he or she doesn’t exist), but the person who can negotiate differences in taste intelligently — the person who is good at disagreement. Rather than some notional idea of perfect complementarity, it is the capacity to tolerate differences with generosity that is the true marker of the ‘not overly wrong’ person. Compatibility is an achievement of love; it must not be its precondition.”[xi]
So, what’s the solution? As you can see, I’ve spent much of this response helping to reframe the problem. The kind of marriage problem you’re asking about requires repentance.[xii] And, as the Bible Dictionary defines it, repentance is simply “a change of mind, a fresh view about God, about oneself, and about the world.”[xiii] The change of mind happens as you see yourself, as King Benjamin put it, a beggar who depends on the same grace and mercy that is so difficult to give to our imperfect partners. He invites us to “impart of your substance to the poor, every man according to that which he hath, such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and administering to their relief, both spiritually and temporally, according to their wants.”[xiv] We often think of his counsel as it relates to strangers who ask us to help them get relief. However, these verses are an invitation for us to see our spouses and ourselves as beggars who all need relief.
Please don’t buy into the belief that marriage is an institution that prevents us from growing, but instead, as the divinely designed environment where we have ongoing experiences for growth. A pair of BYU family scholars reviewed years of marriage and divorce research and found that most marriages can be saved and that it’s worth it to keep working.[xv] The consequences of divorce last for generations and if both partners are willing to work on rebuilding the marriage, it not only can be saved, but actually thrive.
This doesn’t mean that you just put your head down and plow forward in duty and obedience. It means that you use the commitment to marriage as the reason to use your voice and ask for what you need. Speak up clearly and often. Let your husband know you want more connection and more affection in your marriage. Tell him that the patterns of interacting aren’t working to create a close marriage. The marriage is what keeps us together so we can do the ongoing work of refining and growing. Without it, we would eject out at the first sign of struggle, heading down a different road for something less difficult.
I’ll end with Dr. Bill Doherty’s encouraging words for anyone who has sought help for problems in their long-term marriage. While he’s speaking to therapists, it’s just as applicable to substitute “therapist” for yourself or anyone else who is trying to help you in your marriage. He says:
“I think of long-term marriage like I think about living in Minnesota. You move into marriage in the springtime of hope, but eventually arrive at the Minnesota winter with its cold and darkness. Many of us are tempted to give up and move south at this point. We go to a therapist for help. Some therapists don’t know how to help us cope with winter, and we get frostbite in their care. Other therapists tell us that we are being personally victimized by winter, that we deserve better, that winter will never end, and that if we are true to ourselves we will leave our marriage and head south. The problem of course is that our next marriage will enter its own winter at some point. Do we just keep moving on, or do we make our stand now–with this person, in this season? That’s the moral, existential question. A good therapist, a brave therapist, will help us to cling together as a couple, warming each other against the cold of winter, and to seek out whatever sunlight is still available while we wrestle with our pain and disillusionment. A good therapist, a brave therapist will be the last one in the room to give up on our marriage, not the first one, knowing that the next springtime in Minnesota is all the more glorious for the winter that we endured together.”[xvi]
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at ge***@lo************.com
About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.geoffsteurer.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.
[xiv] Mosiah 4:26