Friday, January 27, 2012

Thoughts on Marriage, Part 2

It occurs to me, at this point, to mention that I'm no expert on marriage. In truth, my husband and I have only been together for for 8.5 years, and for 3.5 of them we have been married. I'm not writing these blog posts because I think I know everything about relationships. But I have known a lot of people and seen a lot of different relationships, some good, some bad, and some in between. And I recognize that having a good relationship is not about following a set of rules. It's about cultivating a set of qualities that makes you the kind of person who is a good partner. David Vanderveen (a Christian who has been married 18+ years) wrote,
"A person simply has to be aware of what empowers, enhances and enables their spouse to be come the best person they were designed to be and help them pursue that together."
I completely agree. In order to develop that awareness and to truly push our spouse to be the best person s/he can be, we ourselves need to be pushed and helped. A good relationship has qualities that allow both partners to pursue holiness together.

In this post, we will continue a discussion of what makes for a good relationship. Last week, we reflected on some of the attributes that make a marriage strong and healthy, including intimacy, mutuality, exclusivity, commitment, and loyalty. It's fairly obvious why these qualities promote a healthy marriage. This week, we will continue reflecting on Brother Anthony's attributes of a good marriage:


These attributes require us to use our imaginations, because they don't immediately come to mind when thinking about what makes a good relationship. But when these attributes are present in any relationship, not just a romantic one, the relationship takes on a completely different- and godly - dimension. Although Anthony was referring to God's love when he mentioned these qualities, his point was that truly good relationships mirror God's love. So how can human relationships embody the qualities of justice, courage, and creativity? It's easy to tell when an individual is just, creative, and courageous, but what does that look like in a relationship?

At first, I thought that courage was going to be the hardest one to describe, but it turned out to be the easiest. I've observed courageous relationships on Facebook as I watch my friends move thousands of miles away so their spouse can attend seminary or another academic program. You can see a courageous marriage when you meet someone who sticks by a cancer survivor or a spouse with a chronic or terminal illness. Courageous partners face a miscarriage or the death of a grown child together. They persevere through discrimination and economic hardship. When one partner takes a stand for what is right, the other supports him/her. All of these challenges force us to face ourselves and our circumstances. That can be scary, especially facing those parts of ourselves we don't like. But this is one of the ways marriage makes us better people: when we own up to who we really are, we can start to become who we want to be, and who God wants us to be.

Justice functions in very much the same way. When we talk things over with our partner, s/he helps us reflect on the day's events. If we aren't sure how to respond to a situation or which decision to make, our spouse can help us decide what is the right thing to do. Or if our response to a situation was a bad one, marriage is a graceful space in which we can own up to our mistakes and think about how to rectify them. In a good relationship, we learn to treat others more justly- those outside our homes, and those within. It can be harder to admit that we can improve the way we treat those closest to us, and this is a blind spot because we are so familiar with them. But by improving the way we treat our spouse and others in our household, again, we become more Christlike. This comes back to equality in marriage. Paul described this ideal in Gal. 3:28: "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." Differences should not become divisions, and differences don't dictate our roles in life. In a truly just marriage, both responsibility and authority are shared. Any good relationship- marriage or otherwise- is a laboratory in which we learn to be more just and fair-minded people. We thus become more just in our relations with our spouse and with everyone in our world.

Much like justice, creativity functions in our relationships to help us find alternatives to old habits that may be hurting us and to help us deal with difficult circumstances in which we unexpectedly find ourselves. When someone doesn't get a promotion, scholarship, or something else we mentally planned on, we have to recalculate. We need to make a different plan. It can be hard to do that, especially after having been rejected in some way. A good partner helps us to cope with that loss (yes, even losing a vision of the future is a loss), and to find a new way to move forward. Even in ordinary circumstances, if our spouse has a bad habit, we can help him/her find another, more healthy way of being, thinking, or doing. Perhaps I cannot break my bad mental habit alone, and he can't handle all the cooking alone, but when we work together we can both eat healthier and change stubborn mental patterns. Creativity in my relationship also helps me spiritually. I have a tendency to react immediately when I get angry. My spouse knows a few things about Zen Buddhism, so he suggests ways for me to calm down before I do or say something. Mindfulness is good for the soul, and I don't practice it nearly enough; he sometimes needs to be reminded to pray and meditate on the Scriptures. Being together reminds us to engage in spiritual practices we tend to neglect. We even show creativity in the mundane things, like getting a new pet, taking up a new hobby, teaching each other something new, or deciding to have children. As God is creative, constantly making new things and finding "workarounds" to all our mistakes, so the best human relationships help us to work around the obstacles in our lives and keep doing new things.

Cultivating the attributes of justice, courage, and creativity thus help us accomplish the end goal of marriage, which is becoming our best selves- the people God made us to be- and helping our partners to do the same. That includes striving for both spiritual growth and personal growth. Sanctification, that is, the process of becoming holy, involves both inward maturity and outward compassionate deeds. Good relationships help us to do both, and push us toward them, if necessary. Any relationship that does not embody the attributes we've discussed in these weeks is holding us back from our pursuit of holiness. Whether your relationship is with a spouse, a serious girl/boyfriend, or even a fraternity, cultivating any of these traits in your relationship is one way you can participate in becoming the person God wants you to be.

How have you experienced creativity in your relationship? Have you ever thought about justice and courage as part of a healthy relationship before?

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