The Secret to Marriage

From Phil Huber, at New Wineskins:

I just finished reading Happily Ever After: Six Secrets to a Successful Marriage by Gary Chapman. The book is a fairly typical example of the marriage enrichment genre, one of the best I have read. It is organized around six major areas of focus: solving conflicts, negotiating change, handling money, raising children, sex, and in-laws. Each section is then broken down into seven or eight chapters dealing with one component of that topic. The chapters are short and straightforward. There are nuggets of insight that are worthwhile. Examples abound from Chapman’s vast experience as a marriage counselor, putting flesh on otherwise theoretical abstracts. Each chapter closes with steps to put into practice what has been covered in the chapter. It’s a very good book for what it does.

But this is where my history may cloud my review. I react against the glut of marriage books that focus on techniques. With all the emphasis on techniques, marriage is reduced to a skill set, akin to playing chess. Learn the rules, get some strategy, and you can win. But the hardscrabble of life is more dynamic than a chess game. To make techniques the focal point of the relationship, “the secrets to a successful marriage,” is to cheapen the relationship.

Techniques are tools. Tools can be useful. But having the tools doesn’t hinder these issues from continuing to infiltrate my marriage. Most of these principles were not new to me. Many of them fall under the heading of common sense. When discussing finances, Chapman instructs the reader to live within their means. In handling conflict he focuses on the importance of listening. This is not novel advice. But even familiar, common sense principles still trip me up. Knowing does not always equate to practicing. What saved my marriage and carried us through was not a battery of techniques. If our fundamental need was for techniques, then Scripture would read more like a marriage enrichment book. Instead, it focuses elsewhere.

So maybe there’s just one secret to a successful marriage, though this is no more secret than the six Chapman covers. But indulge me for a moment. Grant me the leeway to unveil it with flourish, as if something new and novel. Gather round as I pull back the curtain on this profound insight. The secret (wink, wink) to a successful marriage is the ardent conviction that marriage is a sacred covenant. It is a holy relationship intended as a model and metaphor of another holy relationship – one even more intimate and hard won. It is a promise before God to be faithful to another. A promise not lightly entered and not lightly broken. As such, it is worth fighting for. This is what held us together. Even when the relationship itself was quite ugly, we fought to restore it. It was a sacred ugliness that we would not give up on until all options had been exhausted. God honored our perseverance. With that bedrock resolve, techniques were useful in fleshing out that commitment, but always secondary.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://trinitariantheodicy.wordpress.com Trin

    I have always been struck with the difficulty of Paul’s call to men that they are to love their wives as Christ loved the church….and to the delight of a woman so deeply loved by her husband.

    Yes, in the trenches it gets tough…but that love, preference, self-denial on the part of *both* seems pretty indestructible.

  • Sherman Nobles

    I suppose I don’t see marriage as a “sacred covenant”; rather, I see it as a covenant. What makes it “sacred” to me is my devotion to God. Thus for me all covenants are “sacred”. In scripture, marriage is used as an analogy to explain the realationship of Christ to the church, but so is shepherding and farming.

    When it comes down to it, if one wants a lasting marriage, be and marry a person of integrity, a person who keeps his/her word, whose yes means yes and no means no, a person who will stand by his/her word to love, honor, and respect.

    In fact, I believe that the traditional concepts of Christian marriages being a “sacrament”, “indissoluable”, and “under ecclesial authority” all hinder marriages instead of helping them. Forthrightly put, they are all illusions. Marriage is not a “sacrament”; it’s a covenant. The marriage of a Hindu and an atheist is as valid as the marriage of two Christians. Marriage is not “indissoluable”; in fact, it’s very breakable. Practically speaking, which does one care for more, a priceless solid gold statue or a priceless fragile China vase? The vase of course because it is “fragile”! And marriage is not under ecclesial authority; rather, it’s a domestic covenant with some (various degrees based on culture and civil law) civil oversight.

    If a person wants a lasting marriage, Be And Marry a person with a character of love, respect, and integrity.

  • Bo

    Amen.
    ‘sacred’ and ‘ugly’ describes both my experience in the church as well as my experience in marriage. good post.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    Well, [deep breath DRT], there are times in marriage where agape is all there is. Mine had an accident where the impairment led to feeling that I am the evil incarnate. Friends said to divorce, but would you divorce someone with some other kind of illness? If your spouse is no longer (mentally) the one you married, do you agape? I have. It is more than a little difficult to stay with a sick spouse that hates you….

    Marriage is a life of forgiveness.

  • mick

    Indeed. It is the sacred covenant where we each are learning to grow in the qualities of love mentioned in 1 Cor 13 as well as the “one another passages”. The place we are learning in humility to serve and be served.

    It is the most intimate relationship where we are each uniquely learning what it means to “deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me”.

  • Susan N.

    DRT (#4), without knowing (or needing to know) the intimate details of your story, I “hear” your heart in this comment. A heart that is sad (repentant) for past “sins”, and a heart that is willing to sacrifice “self” by honoring the covenant / commitment of your marriage…for better, or for worse. I have a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for those qualities.

    In almost all of my most significant relationships (family, spouse, children, “soul-deep” friendships), there has come a time when to live up to the calling to be merciful, I have had to sacrifice my own “happiness” and even an acceptance that my love won’t or can’t be returned or reciprocated “equally”.

    There is a loneliness in that, at times, but in retrospect, those times when I have been able to stand on that higher ground were the times when I feel that Christ was most reflected in my “witness.”

    DRT, if you’re anything like me, when you feel convicted with a sense of deep loyalty, you will be tenacious and a bit ‘scrappy’ in fighting to hold on to the ones you love.

    On the other hand, where church loyalty is concerned, because I am a little too tenacious, I have had a hard time accepting when a thing needs to be over and move on, be free, etc.

    The Jesus/Church paradigm is kind of weird to me, as applied to marriage. As my teenage daughter commented, “Jesus is perfect. The church is not. So what does that say? The husband is perfect, and loves perfectly, while the wife is an imperfect mess?” I know it’s all very high level symbolic, the Jesus/Church model of marriage. But in practical terms, it’s just weird (and a little unhealthy) to me!

    Anyway, I was just touched by the honesty and vulnerability in your post, DRT. Thanks for sharing this.

    ~Peace~

  • Peter

    Huber is right on in trying to get past techniques to the root of a successful marriage.

    The problem with his “secret”, though, is that that the claim is too narrowly expressed in Christian terms. How does he explain successful marriages among non-Christians, who reject the idea of “sacred covenant” or the idea that the model for marriage is Christ and the Church?

    Sherman in #2 is closer to the truth; people in successful marriages put the good of the relationship ahead of themselves. This is not a specifically Christian insight. There is plenty of Christian language to support this idea (and Huber uses it to good effect) but it is simply implausible to imply – as I think Huber does – that only Christians have access to “the secret” of a successful marriage.

    In short, Huber does what many Christians do (even thoughtful ones): he is universalizing his (local, Christian) understanding of a facet of broader human experience. It’s a good understanding; it gets at something really important. But its incomplete to overlook other understandings of that important thing.

  • Robert

    My wife’s Muslim, and they see marriage as a contract, not a covenant. I think the important thing is a determination to make it work, however we express that.

  • Gary Lyn

    “If a person wants a lasting marriage, Be And Marry a person with a character of love, respect, and integrity”

    I can appreciate this statement as an attempt to move beyond the focus on techniques, but as someone who sits with couples in a counseling setting, it will be difficult to play a role in the couple’s healing if this is all I have to offer them. In fact, many of the techniques can be practical expressions of being a person with a character of love, respect, and integrity. My experience is that most counselor don’t offer techniques for their own sake. They are grounded in a picture of personhood and relationship, and in work I make that picture and that context very clear.

  • Adam

    I see marriage as a model and metaphor for how humans are to live together as a community. Sex is the dirty trick that God uses to draw normally selfish people into relationship. Marriage is the means of maintaining that relationship.

    The idea that marriage is only for the married and God is a terrible lie that divides the church into separate groups (called families). A married couple should be an example of how humans are to interact with each other always, not in isolated circumstances.

    The six chapters that Chapman talks about (solving conflicts, negotiating change, handling money, raising children, sex, and in-laws) are necessary topics in the broader community. Why do we only focus on the married people with these topics?

  • http://annsphillips.wordpress.com Ann Phillips

    For some time in my marriage, I was caught up in the idea that if he really loved me he would…, you know the ending varies with the people and expectations involved. Then somehow God got through to me. Jesus loved me first and He is my first love. There are things He can do for me that my husband cannot, like healing many of those painful memories that cause us to misinterpret each other’s intentions. I learned to look to Jesus again for those things my husband was either unwilling or unable to offer. And our relationship somehow became fun again.

    Then I looked at some marriage books. Their solution to problems like mine was, you have to tell your spouse when they aren’t loving you enough to meet your needs. I looked in vain for what I had learned. If the Christian books only offer tips and techniques that can only help temporarily, what makes them Christian?

  • http://Twocoppercoins.blogspot.com Jake Ulasich

    While I appreciate the intent and even the spirit behind a lot of these marriage book, I find more research oriented perspectives more helpful. A lot of these books seem to be based mainly on personal experience with counseling. A therapist will take everything they’ve gleaned from counseling hundreds of couples and connect the dots. That can contain a lot of gems of wisdom, but might not have the necessary strictures to pinpoint the most important principles.

    One book that I’ve found that focuses more on research is “the Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.” This book makes the case that the most important factor for working relationships is friendship, and then encourages couples to work on that friendship in certain ways. It is not a complete or definitive work, but it goes farther than others into real study.

    I like the idea of simple dedication and viewing the marriage as a holy sacrament, but without the mutual regard and admiration involved in a close friendship, that will only be enough to keep an unhealthy, destructive relationship going indefinitely. Perseverance must have an end in mind. If a couple wants to work on their relationship, they’re going to have to increase that mutual regard and learn not only to endure each other self-sacrificially, but to really like each other.

  • http://www.godhungry.org Jim Martin

    This is a good post. I think Huber makes a really good point. This is why I typically recommend Gary Thomas’ Sacred Marriage to newlywed’s. Thomas emphasizes marriage as a covenant in which we allow God to shape us into a holy people (as husband and wife).

  • MatthewS

    Good points but it reminds me a little of those who would abolish Mother’s Day because we should respect mom every day of the year, not just one day. We absolutely *should* honor mom every day of the year, and we should not let ourselves off the hook because we were especially nice on the designated day last year in May. However, things being what they are, we can sure use a reminder.

    Techniques are powerless to bring deep heart change and thus they fall short. The heart issue is the most important issue (which touches on grace, and truth in love, and the commitment level of one’s heart). But all of us witnessed imperfect marriages in our families of origin, all of us forget to do the things we know, and all of us find that our instincts sometimes lead us astray – “common sense” in the heat of the moment is sometimes hard to come by. All the techniques in the world will not make up for a lack of commitment for sure but I think it’s unfortunate if technique is effectively poo-pooed as second-rate. I’m guessing most of us could stand to sharpen our technique even as we hone our reverence for the sacred covenant.

    Another example might the posters in the gym of the right way to stretch or how to correctly use the equipment. Most people benefit from regular reminders and good habits.

  • Sherman Nobles

    Gary @9, you noted that,

    My statement, “If a person wants a lasting marriage, Be And Marry a person with a character of love, respect, and integrity”, was not meant to dismiss practicle expressions of love and respect. It was meant to highlight the need for being loving, respectful, and a person of integrity.

    Helping people to see the need to and to actually change unloving and disrespectful attitudes and behaviors is a key element in helping people make a go of their marriage. I meant to convey that we need to “de-spiritualize” marriage and focus more on the practical side of marriage. Trying to get people to think of marriage as a “sacred” covenant, or a “sacrament”, “indissoluable”, or “under ecclesial authority” is little, if any help. We need to be more practical. Marriage is meant to fulfill some basic human needs, primarily the need for companionship, sexual intimacy, and procreation. Many marriages fail because they forget to meet these basic needs for eachother, especially the need for companionship.

    I appreciate very much material that is practically oriented.


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