by Laura M. Brotherson, CFLE
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 gradually elevates us into higher levels of oneness with our spouse.
Not understanding what this kind of marriage requires of us makes it easier for us to abort the very process that is intended to stretch us.
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's as if marriage itself is voluntary enrollment in an excavation of the heart, mind, and soul with the intent to graduate each of us into something more. That puts us in tune with the highest aspirations in life.
We can choose to avoid the hard work of stretching and purifying our souls, or we can roll up our sleeves and go to work. The taking of two different and imperfect creatures from differing backgrounds and expecting them to "come 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 is the ultimate surprise "grab bag" - you never really know what you're going to get. Couples are usually surprised to find that their marriage exposes different needs that neither of them had ever felt before they were married. On top of that, life itself can throw curve balls which might shake their foundation. And as if that's not enough, even the desirable processes of learning and growing through life bring gradual changes that present new demands on the relationship. Sometimes, great personal sacrifice and Christlike service are called upon.
Not understanding marriage as a "grab bag" leads some to feel they've been cheated. The somewhat blinding state of romantic attraction leads us into marriage with no way of really knowing what lies ahead. 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 hand us, but the intriguing intimacy of marriage serves very important purposes.
For all couples, once the "anesthesia" and initial thrill of romantic love wear 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. For example, 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 own marital grab bag.
Some who have not yet entered the adventure of marriage stand at the sidelines longing to trade their current pain of loneliness for the joys that marriage affords. But they are not seeing the pain inherently connected with marital bliss. Others stand on the outside with fear and trepidation at the thought of all that marriage entails, not understanding that the treasure is indeed worth the trials. In reality, 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, not knowing how to move from the initial high of romantic love, through the inevitable fire of conflict into the awakening of real, durable love and intimate oneness. Many of these good souls choose to exit the drama, ironically not knowing that it can lead them to the very thing they seek. Others hold on, but they check out emotionally, only going through the motions of marriage just enough to get by.
It's been said that marriages don't break up because of what couples do to each other. But sadly, sometimes one spouse does intolerable things to the other. When divorce is too easy a solution, though, the real reason is avoidance of what one, or each, needs to become, in other words the personal growth that is necessary to keep the marriage alive.
We often want to change other people, but we don't want to change ourselves. Especially if the other person has some obvious flaw. But the reality is that every challenge in marriage gives equal opportunity for the couple to purify and perfect their own souls. While we spend much of our time wishing our spouse would change, we would do much better if we focused on changing ourselves.
Marriage demands that we stretch our souls in ways that are rarely easy or convenient. Healthy and happy marriages are most likely for those who are willing to step outside their comfort zones and even expand them!
By design, marriage is intimate therapy for our heart and soul. Within the crucible of marriage, I have been faced with many opportunities for personal growth.
One such opportunity arose when I became aware of my mild 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, or cannot be emotionally expressive, or have little interest in sex, or if you habitually eat too much or have started a pattern of compulsive shopping, these things, and an endless list of other personal characteristics, may not be moral weaknesses, but in the context of marriage they could become major problems.
Any time we want our spouse to change, we need to look at our own weaknesses first. That may seem to make no sense, but if we can become more Christlike, we may be surprised to find how powerful a tool his pure love can be. That's where the heavy lifting usually begins in a marriage where God seeks to stretch, purify and ultimately perfect us.
If we sufficiently humble ourselves before him, he will not only help us to focus on what we need to fix in ouselves, but he can turn those weaknesses into actual strengths. (see Ether 12:27).
Just consider the possibility that your spouse is God's way of helping you to see your own imperfections through the "marital mirror" that husbands and wives naturally hold up to 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 loss and a waste it is when a couple finally realizes they need counseling, but one or both of them have hardened their hearts, and checked out of the marriage.
Our capacity to love is related to our personal well-being, meaning our mental, emotional, and spiritual reserves, or the "wholeness" of our heart. If we do not develop sufficient love for ourselves, we become focused more on getting love than on giving love. But to love ourselves, we have to know who we really are, and accept who we are - which helps us become whole within ourselves. Then we are in a position to become "one" with another person - our spouse.
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).
This frees us from the personal prisons we have created to protect ourselves. When, in complete honesty, we accept our spouses as they are, they will know it, and that frees them from the limiting ways in which we saw them. It removes their defensiveness, and that can open the door for them to change. Thus, the best way to get someone to change is to quit trying to change them, and just love them instead.
Accepting our spouse unconditionally may be one of the greatest lessons they can help us learn. Having the ability to love and accept another person without conditions is to develop the kind of love God has for each of us.
No matter the level of resentment or bitterness we've allowed to fester over the past, the Savior's grace can very truly soften our hearts to make room for feelings of unconditional love and acceptance.
Whether it is when a spouse is enslaved to an addiction, or when a spouse has fears and inhibitions they are not ready to let go of, all couples will be required, some more easily than others, to learn to love and accept their spouse unconditionally. Count on it! But this soul-stretching toward unconditional love and acceptance of others will pay eternal dividends, because it will make us more like Christ.
We marry in hopes that our spouse will make everything right - that we will finally be happy. But we tend to focus more on how well they are 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.
Remarkably often, it seems that what our spouse most urgently needs from us is the very thing that is most difficult for us to give. This might be no accident, but part of the divine design for personal refinement available within our specific marriage, as we stretch to meet our spouse's needs.
Every time we stretch ourselves to love someone else, we receive personal healing in 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 able to give him. I not only needed new skills to make myself happy, but a thorough excavation of my heart and soul. If I had avoided the divine invitation to engage in some serious personal growth, it's all but certain that another marriage and family would have been destroyed.
One wife feels loved when her husband buys her things, but coming from a frugal family, that husband has the hardest time spending money. 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 softened 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 him this gift of a softened heart, as our heart is broken and refined within the naturally inherent challenges of marriage.
It is through this refiner's fire that our yearnings for wholeness and intimate connection are ultimately fulfilled. Marriage truly holds within its embrace the highest bliss, the sweetest connectedness, the warmest touch, and the greatest peace that life and eternity have to offer.
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