Only seven months after my wedding day, my comfortable assumptions about marriage were challenged at the core.
Jim stood 6’4" tall and could throw a baseball 94 miles per hour. Yet, over the course of six years, he’d spent only four tantalizing weeks in the major leagues. The rest of his time was spent bouncing from one minor league team to another. Jim and I leaned against his Camero and talked outside Diablo Stadium in Tempe, Arizona, where Jim had just pitched two innings in a spring training game. It hadn’t gone well. Unless there was a dramatic turn of events, in about two weeks Jim would start his seventh season in the minor leagues.
In the late afternoon desert sun, we discussed his future. "Bonnie thinks I should retire if I don’t make the big club this spring," Jim said. "I simply can’t do that. I can’t give up when I’m this close. I’m no quitter!" Bonnie was Jim’s wife, and at most games the striking blond was seen socializing in the wives’ section.
"I didn’t see Bonnie at the game today," I noted.
"She decided not to come. We had a big fight last night."
A few evenings earlier, my wife, Jo, and I had enjoyed dinner with the couple and learned that they had been high school sweethearts. Bonnie was a cheerleader; Jim was the star three-sport athlete who signed a lucrative contract out of high school. They’d married after his first season and quickly spent his $40,000 signing bonus.
Cautiously, I inquired about the cause of their marital discord. Jim shook his head. "The same things we’ve fought about for a couple of years now. Bonnie wants to settle down. She counted the number of homes we’ve lived in since we married. Between nine minor league towns, spring training, and our off-season home, we’ve moved 21 times. She wants me to get a real job, buy a house and start a family."
Though I’d only been married for a few months, that didn’t sound unreasonable to me. However, I certainly didn’t feel qualified to be a marriage counselor, so I figured the best thing to do was listen.
Jim turned and faced me. He could be an aggressive, intimidating person. That attitude served him well on the pitcher’s mound, but I could imagine this in-your-face approach might not be appreciated by his petite wife. Bonnie had already confided to my wife that she was scared of Jim, afraid that one day he might hurt her in one of his fits of anger.
"Al, I’m thinking of leaving Bonnie."
"I’m not happy." The words hung there. "God wants me to be happy, doesn’t He? Since I’m not happy, then I think I should get a divorce."
"What about her feelings? You can’t just leave her!"
"Why? I suppose you are going to tell me that God doesn’t want me to divorce."
"Well, yes, that’s true. God hates divorce." Since I’d spoken several times to the team in chapel services and Bible studies, Jim was willing to ask me hard questions. But I could tell he didn’t really want to know God’s views on this particular subject.
"What if I made a mistake? We got married just a year out of high school. We were young. We didn’t really know what we were doing. Are you telling me I simply have to gut it out for the rest of my life? God doesn’t want me to be miserable, does He?"
I stammered. "No, He doesn’t. But surely you two can work things out. I know you must love each other."
"Maybe we did at one time. But now, I just don’t have any feelings for Bonnie."
"Feelings come and go. You can get the feelings back!"
Jim shook his head and pulled his car keys from his pocket. "I don’t know. Is it worth fighting for an unhappy marriage?"
For as long as both are happy?
As my friend drove away, I stood in the parking lot and mulled over his words:
"I’m not happy."
"I just don’t have any feelings for Bonnie."
"God doesn’t want me to be miserable, does He?"
"Is it worth fighting for an unhappy marriage?"
Something deeply troubled me. I knew statistically that many marriages failed, but this was my first confrontation with a marriage that was disintegrating before my eyes, and I didn’t know what to say or do. I wasn’t confident that I really understood what the Scriptures taught about this subject; my reactions were more intuitive.
When Jo and I were married on August 6, 1977, it was "for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health, and for as long as we both should live." At least, those were the words we repeated back to the pastor. Unspoken in those vows was the expectation that we would live happily ever after. Isn’t that what every couple thinks? Of course, we soon realized that our marriage, like every marriage, has its rough spots. Every day doesn’t provide a "happily ever after" experience. Still, the dream persists.
I’ve thought a lot about Jim and Bonnie over the years. They didn’t separate that spring, and he played one more season in the minor leagues before being released. They moved back to their hometown on the East Coast, where Jim found work as a car salesman. Jo and I soon lost touch with them. A few years later, I learned through a mutual friend that Jim and Bonnie never had children, and eventually they did divorce. When I heard that news, I felt a wave of sadness. Again, I wondered what, if anything, might have made the difference for them. Must we simply accept the cultural realities that nearly 50 percent of married couples will eventually divorce?
Is Marriage Disposable?
It should come as no surprise that many, in fact, would rather not risk such heartache. Time magazine ran a cover story in August 2000 on the phenomenon of many women choosing not to marry. Why? They have decided that "being on their own was simply better than the alternative — being stuck with a man, and in a marriage, that didn’t feel right." Thus one woman ended a seven-year relationship because "I wasn’t happy. I didn’t think I could make him happy and retain my spirit, what makes me shine." Another woman ended a 10-year relationship with a man she says she loves but "is behind her in personal and professional growth."
Behind such thinking is the view that marriage is disposable, entered into and exited according to an individual’s needs. There is a growing sense among some that marriage is a nice thing to have if it fits your lifestyle. If not, there are alternatives. For example, writer and businessman Philip D. Harvey declared in an editorial for the Washington Post that "a reasonable level of divorce may be a symptom of a healthy and mobile society." Sure, long marriages can be rewarding for some couples. But for most of us, it’s simply not "natural." Doesn’t it make more sense, writes Harvey, to have different mates during various stages of life?
During the course of my career as a writer, editor and publisher, I have known many wonderful teachers on the subject of marriage. They’ve provided the tools we need for effective communication, problem solving and intimacy, plus encouragement to stay the course. Certainly there are more than enough seminars, books, research findings, diagnostic tools, tape series and radio programs addressing the needs of marriage to aid any couple that wants help.
Yet all of that wonderful information won’t keep a couple together if they believe that unhappiness is a good enough reason to separate. We’ve never heard more great tips about how to have better sex, communications, financial planning, anger management or goal-setting. Still marriages continue to fail.
Biblical Instruction for Marriages
In studying the Bible, I was surprised to discover that God didn’t just give us instructions about marriage. He provided something far more significant: He infused marriage with meaning. While Jesus admitted that the law of Moses allowed for divorce in the case of infidelity, He said that from the beginning divorce was never God’s intention. But He didn’t just leave us to flounder, trying to make it work. He provided us with a picture of marriage, one that’s both motivational and instructional. Perhaps it’s not immediately evident to those who give the Bible a cursory reading, but it’s clear as can be for those who are willing to examine the evidence.
Here are just a few examples from the Old Testament prophets:
"For your Maker is your husband” (Isaiah 54:5).
"’They broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,’ declares the Lord” (Jeremiah 31:32).
"When I looked at you and saw that you were old enough for love, I spread the corner of my garment over you [culturally, this was a declaration of intention to marry] and covered your nakedness. I gave you my solemn oath and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Sovereign Lord, and you became mine” (Ezekiel 16:8).
God showed us what marriage looks like because…
God, Himself, got married!
So let’s examine when and how God got married, what His marriage is like, and how His marriage points us in the right direction for our own relationship with our spouse.
Part 1: Happily Ever After?
Part 2: Covenant Marriages
Part 3: Passionate Marrages
Part 4: Fighting Marriages
Part 5: Heroic Marriages
From The Marriage Masterpiece, by Al Janssen, a Focus on the Family book published by Tyndale House Publishers. Copyright © 2001, Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Used by permission.