Divine Designs of Marriage
by Laura M. Brotherson, CFLE
Meridian Magazine

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.

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.

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.

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. 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.

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.

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 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 — 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.

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).

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 flaw. But the reality is that every challenge couples face in their marriage, provides equal opportunity for each to purify and perfect their own souls. 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.

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 developing into our divine authentic self.

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. 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. 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.

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.

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 (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. 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.

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.

Unconditional Love and Acceptance

To love oneself requires that we know who we really are, and accept who we are — which helps us become whole within ourselves. Then that we are in a position to become “one” with another person — 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. 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).

It frees us from the 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 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. Having the ability to love and accept another without conditions is to develop the kind of love God has for each of us.

If there is built-up resentment or bitterness over past errors, seek God’s grace to soften your heart 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.

Identify, Stretch to Meet, Your Spouse’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.

Couples need to identify their specific, individualized needs for love, and share that vital information with each other.

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. 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 it’s highly likely that another marriage and family would have been destroyed.

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 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?

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.

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.

(edited by David Van Alstyne)

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