I've been reading "Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage," by Elizabeth Gilbert. She's the author of "Eat, Pray, Love." During the final third of "EPL," Gilbert meets the man she marries at the end of "Committed." As someone who has been married before, Gilbert is getting remarried due to necessity and circumstances rather than an enthusiastic desire to embrace the institution. In this book, the author struggles to make sense of marriage from various perspectives, and to figure out what makes marriages work or not work.
In one section about infatuation, she talks about how, oftentimes, people form particularly passionate attachments during times of transition or change. Examples include after a loved one has passed away, after one's own illness, or while traveling. She also noted that the transition to living away from parents for the first time in a college setting is atime when this is likely to happen. Apparently, impulsive romantic decisions and infatuations are more likely to develop during such exciting but vulnerable windows of opportunity. This made me think about the two years or so I spent at a conservative Christian university. One of the things I immediately noticed was how quickly young couples got engaged and married there. A standing joke on campus was "ring by spring or your money back."
Even back then, before I did more extensive training in couples work and counseling and way before reading "Committed," I had a lot of concerns about this common pattern. It seemed to be brought on by a combination of very restrictive limits on touching and a strong belief that God had brought them together because they were made for each other. I felt that the God factor and the sex factor might have been off balance and that this unbalance was influencing them more than they realized. I wondered how these couples would ultimately do as far as the long-term happiness and health of their marriages.
One of my friends at this college was engaged after only a few months of dating and got married the following summer. It is my understanding that their marriage did not work out. That did not come as a surprise to me, given things I observed about their interactions. They didn't take time to really get to know each other. Recently, in my counseling office, I have listened to several more variations on this theme. Different details but the punch lines are mostly the same. Sad stories about young couples who did not do well even though they shared strong religious convictions. . I'm not just talking church here. I'm talking about people who are deeply spiritual and committed to faith traditions as a couple and individually. I'm talking about people who took vows, not just to each other, but to God, and meant them.
Making promises to God in a formal ceremony with witnesses and rings should make them more binding and even more serious. I believe these couples are sincere about the spiritual covenant, the promises, and the wish to be together as husband and wife until death parts them. They enter marriage with the best of intentions. Belief in God, however deep and sincere, is just not enough to keep couples together. Neither is marriage in and of itself. I believe in marriage as the proper setting for life-long commitment and raising children. I believe marriage is a covenant before God and others. I believe in it as a legal institution, as well as a social one and an emotional one, where two people agree to spend their lives balancing the "me" and the "we," where they promise to be together until death as each other's friends and companions and lovers. All of those things are Biblical and good. I just don't think its enough.
With the couples I knew in college (and I suspect this is true of many others who get together young and spiritual), they were euphoric about how God was working in their lives and this new wonderful person he'd given them to share His work with. Many of them were also making the stressful but exciting transition to college and being away from home for the first time. As Gilbert points out, research suggests this also made them more vulnerable. They were naive, didn't have their identities firmly established (much less their careers or finances), and were just so idealistic. To me, that combination of newness, infatuation, and spiritual fervor involves WAY too much emotionality. Far too often, people get hung up on such feelings and what they must mean about the relationship. Its dangerous to make permanent decisions under those conditions but people do it all the time. Those feelings won't continue at that level for more than a couple years.
Don't get me wrong. I believe a couple should share spiritual beliefs and values. When people of differing faiths, or where one person has a faith tradition and the other doesn't, ask me how concerned they should be about this, I say this difference is very important. I let them know they'll always be using different spiritual vocabularies and frames of reference and that deciding how to raise any children they have will make those differences even more of an issue. I point out that family members and friends may think their relationship is wrong due to strong beliefs about how spouses should be of the same faith and concerns about how being with someone who is of a different belief system may impact the spiritual well being of their loved one. Many religions warn against this practice. I believe a common faith is extremely important. Still, I don't think a shared commitment to God is enough, in and of itself. Other factors need to be considered when deciding on something as serious as marriage.
Another concerning thing about these couples is that they were flying on the high brought about by the chemical changes in the brain related to early stage love aka infatuation. Most of these couples were only in their late teens and didn't have much dating experience. For that reason, I don't have a problem with setting some reasonable limits on physical intimacy. At a Christian university, such limits are to be expected. If a person's beliefs are that lust and too much physical involvement are wrong, they are going to struggle with guilt and suffer spiritually, and that sort of internal battle can cause a lot of difficulty for the person and the relationship. If they are very attracted to each other, so much of their relationship still becomes about sex and whether any behaviors they engage in are "wrong" or "sinful." I think this lead more than a few of these couples to want to hurry and get married.
I think couples who get too involved physically early in their relationship often don't grow as much in other areas and are less able to objectively evaluate their strengths and weaknesses as a couple. Having said that, romantic chemistry is important and feeling comfortable being affectionate is vital. I think it is important to make sure feelings about someone you're thinking about marrying and possibly creating children with are more than just brother/sister or friendship feelings. This is why I use the word "reasonable." . Couples who are barely able to touch each other are going to have a tough time assessing that factor. This is another concern I have about getting together in such a restrictive environment.
I believe the marital couple is a team and that they have to consciously support and give primary loyalty to each other as the most important relationship a person can have on earth. To me, marriage is about a deeper love that is based on trust, companionship, and loyalty, and that is about two people being equals and being united in their purposes. A couple with that kind of foundation can stay solid if they put certain behaviors and ways of connecting into practice. For that reason, I believe that a crucial trait to look for in a spouse is solid character and the ability to stand by their word and their promises. Either before or after marriage, I believe both people have to be willing to work problems out. Obviously, the need for this is greater after marriage, but being willing to try even before that says a lot to me about how someone is going to be once they make a marital commitment.
Willingness to be smart about relationships is what ultimately makes the most difference, in my opinion. Its about the willingness to do what's necessary to get through difficult patches, whether that's lots of talking, praying together, getting help from a counselor or pastor, or just riding it out knowing that change always happens. Christian couples have to work at their marriages just as any other couple does. Being compatible in essential areas like spirituality is crucial, but no two people are ever going to be so compatible that there aren't issues. The day to day of life is not always romantic or easy and conflict is inevitable. There are times when someone might not feel very interested in their spouse or enthused about their marriage. Such feelings are common. What's important is not letting our emotions make our decisions.
I worry that the "God brought us together" belief brings about a false sense of security that things will "just work out." This belief can be very dangerous. Relationship success is about what we do, being proactive rather than reactive, behaving according to what we know we value in the long term. Christians believe that God created marriage and wants couples to find fulfillment and joy in this relationship. They also believe He offers guidance to those who seek it through the Holy Spirit, other Christian couples, the Bible, and other resources. God wants to help and bless those who desire a marriage that honors Him, but He won't do the work for us.