The Real Challenge to Marriage

Traditional marriage—you know, one man-one woman, life-long lovers and best friends, faithful and true until death do them part—still looks good, in a wistful, nostalgic kind of way, but it’s under threat in America today. The fiftieth wedding anniversary may go the way of the dinosaur, ocean-caught salmon and the SUV. But the greatest challenge to marriage today is neither feminism nor gay rights. It’s us.

Marriage is in trouble. I say this not because for me the glass is always, at best, half full. Hard statistics bear this out. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the average American first marriage lasts just eight years. Close to half of all marriages (fully 48% of them) will end in divorce. That’s about the same rate of success that NHL hockey players have when taking penalty shots.

Now here’s a shocker. The marital success rate for self-professing Christians is not significantly higher or lower than the national average. Despite all our rhetoric about family values and moral virtue, and our focus on the family, we self-professing Christian believers in America are seeing our marriages dissolve at roughly the same rate as do the general populace. This reality was brought to light a few years by the Barna Research Group—the pollsters of choice for the evangelical community. Now the devil is in the details, or the small print. This finding was based on a research tool that identified Christians purely on the basis of self-reportage. They said they were Christians (which is, when you think about it, fairly easy to do). But when a follow-up study compared national divorce rates with the rates of those who actually attended church with some regularity, those in the religious sample came off looking better. The profile is still not great—horrendous, in fact—but relatively speaking, a bit better.

There is a lot of hand-wringing about this pervasive decline in marital stability. And there should be—not least because of the millions of innocent children who have consequently been deprived of adequate emotional security, sustained nurturing and guidance, and a decent standard of living because their parents fought a lot and finally broke up.

So what is the cause of all this?

I know some people who blame feminism. Women are out there now in the workplace, instead of safely at home in the kitchen, and they get hit on and seduced. Or they start earning their own paychecks and realize that they don’t have to put up with hubby’s irritating behaviors, and can manage on their own. Marriages were more stable when women didn’t have so much financial independence. Unfortunately it’s not just the shirtless guy in the den, hollering for another beer, who thinks like this. There are still educated people who actually believe it to be so.

Others blame gays. They view the legalization of gay marriage as a serious threat to the institution of Christian marriage. Such legalization presupposes a civil definition of marriage that is considerably more expansive than the traditional and orthodox Christian understanding of it. There can be no doubt about this. But for the life of me I can’t see how the State’s assessment of homosexual unions should threaten or destabilize in any way the monogamous, heterosexual, and distinctly Christian marriage my wife and I have been blessed with for over thirty years. I also doubt that this controversial legislation, if sustained, will undermine the mutual commitment of any of our married friends to each other. I don’t think we can scapegoat the gay community for threatening the future and stability of heterosexual marriages.

The greatest threat to marriage lies much closer to home. I think of C. S. Lewis’ sober self-assessment: “I am legion.” By uncritically imbibing the same toxic values as other Americans, we Christians are losing our capacity to forge lasting, mutually-empowering and deeply satisfying love relationships.

The problems start when we select a partner using a vacuous check-list of priorities. Use superficial criteria (like “he’s got to be hot” or “I prefer blondes”), and guess what? You get superficial. A promiscuous past adds more problems. Previously-indulgent partners bring to each new marriage attempt the ghosts of trysts remembered, and that is certainly not a helpful beginning. Even more seriously, we (and it started with us Boomers) have an under-developed capacity to nurture and sustain covenant commitments. We may not even know what a covenant is. We instinctively opt for taking rather than giving, and even our giving is largely conditional. In short, we lack the values, character, self-discipline, and in too many cases, even the basic social skills to make any relationship sustainable, much less a marriage, which is perhaps the most satisfying but also the most demanding relationship of all.

We too quickly ingest the latest dirt on celebrity hook-ups—failing to realize that many of these Hollywood types have the morals of alley-cats. We buy the lie that marriage is pre-eminently a sexual performance sport, and the key to success is some combination of provocative dress, wax jobs, stretching exercises and Viagra.

But marriage was designed as a permanent spiritual union of two gracious people, with sex as its sacrament and not its heart. So the greatest threat to it today is neither feminism nor gay rights. It is our own character and values—our own hearts. The way forward is to give first priority to nurturing goodness and faithfulness in our interior lives.

5 Responses to The Real Challenge to Marriage

  1. Bill Steinwedell November 19, 2008 at 5:50 pm #

    In my own life, my marriage has been transformed, yes by the grace of God, but also by my spiritual dad, who called me on selfish negative thinking, and gently reminded me that when I came to Christ, I did not pick up rights, but rather picked up a bowl and a towel to wash others feet, in service to our Lord and savior. In coming down strongly against negativity, and disciplining my thoughts per Scripture, by praying fervently for my bride, things have changed completely.

    Do l listen to my wife? Do I really hear her heart? Do I quickly snap at her, because she is bringing up a subject I don’t want to deal with? Do I gossip about others’ faults and their problems while not truly dealing with my pride, my blindness to others in need? Am I listening to the Spirit in my heart? Am I grateful and sold out? Is Jesus my first love? Is the passion there as it was at first? What is getting in the way of Christ? Of Loving others? Of humbling myself?

    Our kids watch, and they see. They understand and are not fooled. I am ashamed to say that a couple of my adult children would not think marriage is something to be desired because of the many years of dysfunction (read selfishness and pride) seen in my marriage. I know that there has occurred a change. Things are so much better. God is faithful, everyday can be a new start. But there still is grieving at the thought, and seeing the effects of those dark years (maybe like dark ages?). One can be passionate about good causes, can have right theology, and not love, especially your own house, your kids, wife, and all of this means nothing! Your words, tone all matter! Be kind…

  2. donna lundeberg August 7, 2008 at 10:40 pm #

    I think that divorce would be greatly curtailed if you only had one chance at marriage. I am a Christian and a practicing (trying to live up to the scriptures that I do understand) Christian. Too many people give up on a current marriage to re-involve themselves in a similar set of problems the second and third time.

    The grass is never greener on the other side, so if you only get one chance to be married and then you must be celebrate the rest of your life or work it out
    then it seems many would work at least a little harder to make things work.

  3. Joel Fieri July 25, 2008 at 9:56 pm #

    Traditional marriage—you know, one man-one woman, life-long lovers and best friends, faithful and true until death do them part—still looks good, NOT in a wistful, nostalgic kind of way, but rather in a BIBLICAL way.

    Very little of the opposition to gay marriage is based on the reasoning that it will threaten individual marriages. That is a straw man argument put forth by those advocating gay marriage. Marriage is sanctified by God as one man and one woman, and is the basis for society. If society attempts to re-define marriage away from God’s intention and design, it is not my marriage specifically that is threatened, but the institution itself, and therefore society as a whole.
    If feminism is partly to blame, it’s not from work place affairs. It is because feminism has sold a “Bill of Goods” to women, promising them they could “have it all” – marriage, children, fulfilling career – but instead left them over-committed, unsatisfied and feeling victimized.

    That being said, Glen has hit the nail directly on the head when he identifies the root of the modern marital crises as the “Baby Boomer” generation’s “lack of ability to sustain and nurture covenant commitments”. As a Late-Boomer (1960 -part of the spoiled ‘youngest of the boomers’) who only recently managed to make his first covenant marriage commitment, I can attest that my generation, narcissistic and irresponsible to the core, has contributed more to the weakening of marriage than any other. My worry is that, as I look around at society and the church, I see more and more of the fruits of my generation’s stupidity being passed on. I would include feminism and the Gay-Rights movement in that category.

    To whom much is given, much is required. God has given us much through His creation, marriage (even the Savior Himself). He will rightly judge our stewardship of this blessing.

  4. Dave Harvey July 22, 2008 at 7:01 pm #

    I think another reason for the prevalence of divorce in today’s society is the ease with which it can be accomplished combined with a growing lack of commitment to any real challenge. People today simply do not want to accept the responsibility for their decisions and actions. Sure, I love you and all – but even as I mouth the words “Til death do us part” and put the ring on your finger with one hand, I’m signing the prenuptial agreement with the other.

    Sadly, we have increasingly become a “disposable society” where people are treated like the latest fashion accessory. Doesn’t fit you anymore? Throw it out and try another one. Cramping your lifestyle? Get rid of it and go for something bigger and better. Our children – if they even manage to survive these purges – grow up with their familial foundations shaken or shattered after having witnessed/experienced this treatment. Thus the cycle continues…

    Too often, I fear, marriages – even Christian ones – end because the romantic feelings have waned. With little or no understanding of the deeper commitment expressed in their vows, couples selfishly expect that *their* individual needs and wants be given the highest priority. If that means seeking it with another, then so be it.

    Some years back I was attending a men’s Bible study with the pastor of our church. As I recall, we were discussing the subject of marriage, and I – being single at the time – was simply listening and jotting some notes. Then I heard a fellow describe his wife in very unflattering terms and ask “When is it ok for me to divorce her?” “After all,” he went on, “I’m entitled to my happiness, too – right?” Before the pastor could reply, I answered that since Christ himself uses marriage as an analogy to describe his relationship with the church, then I guess that he would be justified in leaving his wife at about the same time as Christ gets frustrated with us and dumps us. But as long as Christ honors his commitment to us, we should honor our commitment to our spouse.

    As I’ve matured – and marriage/fatherhood will mature you like nothing else – I’ve had to live up to those words. And I’ve realized that marriage isn’t about my own happiness. In fact, it has very little to do with it at all. My job (as a husband) is to model Christ to my wife – and sacrifice, commitment and unconditional love are all implicit in that role.

    I love (no pun intended) what C.S. Lewis has to say on the subject:
    “Knowledge can last, principles can last, habits can last; but feelings come and go…But, of course, ceasing to be ‘in love’ need not mean ceasing to love. Love in this second sense – love as distinct from ‘being in love’ – is not merely a feeling. It is a deep unity, maintained by the will and deliberately strengthened by habit; reinforced by (in Christian marriages) the grace which both partners ask, and receive, from God…’Being in love’ first moved them to promise fidelity: this quieter love enables them to keep the promise. It is on this love that the engine of marriage is run: being in love was the explosion that started it.”

  5. Wendy Patrick Mazzarella July 20, 2008 at 4:46 am #

    This is a much needed reminder and sobering wake up call regarding our beloved institution of marriage: what it is versus what it should be. I am deeply saddened to hear the divorce rate is as high as 48%, (incidentally, I am also saddened that this is the success rate of NHL hockey players taking penalty shots considering the amount of money I spent growing up going to watch the Kings and the Mighty Ducks!) It is hugely significant that this is the reported divorce rate for Christians and non-Christians alike; I frequently hear this statistic boasted in secular circles to prove that Christianity “isn’t really a better choice after all.” It’s too bad that we don’t hear more of the “self-reporting” nature of the statistics you point out. That is important. We might even speculate further – are even those who actually attend church with some regularity, truly practicing Christians? I have many friends who explain that they take their children to church, or accompany Christian spouses or friends, but admit that they are not themselves believers. Some of these people are admitted atheists but will self-report as “Christians” for the sake of their friends and families.

    Regarding the purported causes of the divorce statistics, I agree that we can’t blame the usual suspects. Clearly, it is ridiculous to argue that unorthodox marriages are breaking up traditional marriages. And regarding the women in the workforce argument, if women are inclined toward adultery, one might argue that it is perhaps less likely they would risk the ramifications of a workplace scandal than it is that they would find a less public outlet for their unfaithful tendencies, with probably more time on their hands at home. (Is this what “Desperate Housewives” is about or is it just a provocative title? I haven’t seen the show.) And as for the shirtless men in the den watching football and hollering for beer, (these men were probably not navy blue-suited IBM executives when their wives married them), regardless of a man’s situation, no husband should ever have to spend one minute worrying about their wives’ faithfulness when they walk out the door to go to work and vice versa. So why are we as a society in this position?

    I think you hit it right on Glen with the glamorization of the institution of marriage as a “union of convenience” by Hollywood and the news media. Only in the limelight do celebrities have three ex-spouses by the time they turn thirty! Sadly, the rest of society doesn’t see divorce as the sobering event as it is; we have become immune to its negative and often disastrous consequences on the parties themselves, their children, and our community.

    Marriage is a covenant, not a contract! As such, it should be approached with great thoughtfulness and consideration (i.e., dating for much longer than six months!), and respected and nurtured as the blessed union under God that it represents. Only the biblical model of marriage can survive; perhaps statisticians can find a way to measure how many people who enter into marriage with the proper mindset end up enjoying the fruits of the permanent institution that God intended it to be.