I’ll start off by asking a question. When someone talks about marriage, what is the first thing they say? Or if you’re married, what’s the first thought that comes to my mind about marriage? If the answer is “marriage is hard,” there’s probably an issue. That same applies to many other aspects of life, “work is work”, “parenting is hard”, “it’s a place to live”. So is marriage hard? Yes. In the same way that building a house is hard. It takes work. It takes effort. It takes planning. But it’s rewarding and totally worth all the work put in (or at least it should be).
So why do people seem to say marriage is so hard? Well, I’ll start by calling out the two groups of people that, in my experience, say this the most: newlyweds who got married within a year of meeting or older couples that have been married for a while. Now, I won’t say these are the only people that say this, but again, these are the people I hear it from most.
I’ll start with the first group because I think that’s easier to talk about. There has historically been a belief among Christians that marriage is the goal of growing up. And if you’ve made it to 30 (or even 25) without being married then there’s something wrong with you. This leads to many young people seeking out a spouse more fervently than someone seeking out a bathroom after eating a Taco Bell chalupa. Most of us have heard the stereotypes, and if you’ve gone to a private college you’ve probably heard the phrase “ring by spring”.
However, marriage is not the goal for our lives. It could be a great part of your life, or not. But just like any major decision, it shouldn’t be rushed. Lots of studies have been done to figure out how to reduce marital dissatisfaction and divorce rates. Obviously, there’s a range of what works for different people, and there will always be exceptions. But as I like to tell people, never assume you’re the exception. Studies that look at the age of marriage tend to find that getting married between the ages of 28-32 have the lowest rates of divorce (Wolfinger, 2015). Some studies suggest 25 as the youngest (or even best) age to get married and 32 as the oldest. But in general, studies find that being somewhat matured, having life a little figured out, and just generally being in a more stable stage of life increases the success of a marriage.
How long you date can also affect the success of your marriage. A study from 2001 by Huston et al. found that couples that dated for 25 months before marriage had the most successful marriages. Again, there’s no one size fits all for dating, but studies and experts will consistently say that dating less than a year before engagement will cause harm to a marriage. Many experts recommend one to two years of dating before engagement. And even a bit longer isn’t necessarily harmful, depending on the couple. Unfortunately, among many young people in conservative circles, getting married after dating for less than a year isn’t uncommon. I’ve even attended churches that encourage it. The shorter you’re dating, the less likely you are to have sex before marriage, right? What a terrible way to look at preparing for the rest of your life. Marriage should be a seriously considered decision. Please, don’t take less time to prepare for marriage than you would to save up for and shop for a home.
But what about the older generations? Why do they say marriage is so hard? If they’ve been married this long it must be because they’re doing something right? Well, maybe. Or maybe the stigma of divorce is too great to overcome. Maybe, as humans do, they’ve become accustomed to operating in a state of general dissatisfaction. So the question we should ask is what are the long term habits that keep a marriage successful. First and foremost, as Christians, we need to keep our faith and relationship with God at the center of our marriage. Studies show that regular church attenders are up to 50% less likely to divorce, and that’s great, but that could potentially be more a result of a good marriage versus church attendance causing a good marriage. Here’s where it gets crazy though. Less than 1% of married couples who pray together daily get divorced (Ellison, 2010). And how many couples, even among your christian friends, pray together daily? That takes dedication. But prayer works!
Beyond that, much like things related to faith, over time it’s easy to give up on the habits that make for a successful marriage. Maybe you don’t kiss your spouse every time you greet them. Over time maybe you don’t even say hi when you walk in the door. Date nights start out at once a week, then once a month, then it just doesn’t happen. You stop trying to flirt with your spouse, romance your spouse, put in effort. And the less work you put into the basics of marriage, the harder it becomes to overcome the big stuff. You have a hard day at work. You come home and tell your partner. They don’t really listen, they don’t do anything, they move on with their day. How do you think you’re going to feel about your partner? Your spouse tells you that they feel like they’re doing all the household chores and are just tired. But you just make excuses about how busy and tired you are. How do you think that makes your spouse feel?
Over the course of time the basics of marriage don’t change. You still need to communicate. You still need to love and serve your partner. You still need to sacrifice for their benefit. Yes, life can make that tough at times. You may not have money for an actual date night. You may have opposing work schedules. You may just be tired and stressed. It’s easy to make excuses not to love your spouse. But have you tried making excuses to love your spouse? And the funny thing is, the more work you put in, the more you will enjoy your marriage, if that love is reciprocated, of course.
My advice to newlyweds, or long married couples, is largely the same. Wake up every morning and choose to love your spouse. You can’t control what they do, you can only control what you do. And even if they have a hard time loving you well, you loving them well will help give them a space to do that. God has given us infinite mercy. We fail and fail again, and yet He still pursues us. Our marriages are supposed to be a reflection of that. But with divorce rates typically around 50% in the US, and still pretty high even in churches, we need to rethink how we approach dating, courtship, engagement, and marriage.
P.S. I want to add a caveat to all of this. In no way am I encouraging putting up with abuse, infidelity, or other major issues. You can forgive and still protect yourself. If you believe your spouse can change and so you choose to stay with them and work it out, make sure you do that with the proper support. If your spouse continues to show no signs of effort or improvement and you choose to leave them, make sure you do that with the proper support. And as always, do seek out counseling. Whether marriage is good or bad, counseling is a great resource. Just like you go to the dentist every 6 months to check your teeth, consider going to a counselor with your spouse every month or so to check on your marriage.
Christian Sex Talk (@christians3xtalk) is run by a married couple that wants to open up the conversation around sex as Christians, asking any and all questions but always coming back to the Bible.