The 'Work' of Marriage Revisited: A Postscript

The 'Work' of Marriage Revisited: A Postscript

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Two weeks ago, I wrote about Ben Affleck's description of his relationship with his wife, fellow actress Jennifer Garner, as "the best kind of work." (See "Marriage: 'The Best Kind of Work'.") It prompted a spirited discussion regarding whether we should view marriage as "work," and if so, whether that is a good thing or a sign that we've somehow chosen a poor marriage partner. I've been following that thread and reflecting on some of those comments further, so much so that I'd like to (perhaps foolishly!) weigh in again and further clarify what I think the "work" of marriage actually looks like.

One of the comments that got my attention was from Mrs. Ashley (the original flavor), who wrote, "I sometimes feel like all the 'just you wait for the other shoe to drop' folks are out there trying to steal my joy — and I have to remind myself that they're often just applying their own experiences to what I should expect and trying to get me to temper my own expectations accordingly. In short, they have my best interests in mind. But I kind of want to live in the sort of world where the 'work' part of marriage becomes an afterthought. I think in a lot of ways we've bought into some kind of silliness that marriage is terribly, horribly hard. The world is all about the 'ol' ball and chain' and your 'life being over' after you marry. That life-long marriage is some kind of kid-ridden, sexless, isolated horror show — And I think sometimes we let ourselves buy into that line of thought."   

I think some of your thoughts here, Ashley, get at the crux of this discussion, namely your desire that the "'work' part of marriage becomes an afterthought."

I resonate deeply with that desire, and I think it's a good one. Going into my marriage with my wife, Jennifer, I was overjoyed at finding someone with whom I shared so many similarities, someone I was excited to spend my life with. Though many folks have described the first year of marriage as a sometimes jarring transitional season, Jennifer and I sailed through it, growing closer, ministering together and continuing to get to know each other. It was an awesome season. And if you'd have told me during that time that marriage somehow constituted work, I would  have scratched my head and asked, "What on earth are you talking about?" Honestly, I can't imagine having found someone better suited to spend my life with than Jennifer.

So I absolutely get what you're expressing, Ashley.

Now — and this is, I suppose, what some might consider "the other shoe dropping" — Jennifer and I are nearly nine years into our marriage. In that time, we've had three children. My wife has gone from working full time to working part time. Our lives are very, very full — which is an incredible blessing. But sometimes the fullness of work and family can, frog-in-the-blender-style, quietly begin to erode the sense of intimacy and connection that seemed so effortless in those first two years. In other words, what was very much an "afterthought" becomes something that I've got to give some forethought. Deepening intimacy — at least for us — is no longer something that just happens automatically without some intentional effort on our part to cultivate it.  

In the early years of a healthy marriage, there are several factors working massively in your favor. First, hopefully you're thrilled (as my wife and I were) to have found someone to spend your life with. It can seem almost too good to be true. You talk all the time. If you've exercised sexual restraint, those early years of marriage are a time of wondrous, sacred discovery in that area. You're continuing to learn more about the intricacies and quirks and wonders of this person that you've committed yourself to. In short, it's a season in which there are all sorts of factors that are working almost automatically to cement your intimacy, your bond and your commitment to each other. Of course you don't have to work at it, because (in a good relationship) it feels as effortless and natural as breathing, even when you do run into those occasional small conflicts.

I think what can change over time — thus necessitating the "work" that Affleck and others have referred to — is that the factors present in those early years don't necessarily remain effortless afterthoughts as the years and responsibilities mount. We love our three children deeply, but if we're not careful, just tending their needs can easily crowd out our own need to keep intentionally growing the intimacy, the very bond that seemed to come so effortlessly early on. It's not "work" in that it's a "grind." But it is "work" to the extent that we have to prioritize each other, choosing to devote the same kind of love and attention to our relationship as we do our children and our jobs.

My wife and I have been out on dates three times in the last three weeks. Each time we went out, I did the planning, which meant recruiting grandparents and babysitters, going to get pick up a babysitter in one case, and working out the details to make that happen. Is that work? Perhaps. Perhaps not, depending upon how you define that word. But I do know that if I hadn't taken the proactive initiative to plan and make it happen, it would not have happened spontaneously.

All of that to say, perhaps a better phrase than "work" — which smacks of ball-and-chain drudgery — would be "intentional investment." But I've come to believe that even the best marriages need exactly that kind of investment over time if they're to thrive.

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  • Well, now I've officially made it as a commentor ;D

    I think this is great and really does speak to that concern. I think you're right -- and that kids deffinitely change the dymnamic. My Dad always said that before kids, my mom's world revolved around him, and post-kids it revolved around us. I see how that change could cause stress and require more "work" -- but I agree with you, prioritizing and viewing your marriage as something precious to be invested in is really important :) I guess I just wish that the "work" was more often characterized as a wise and smart investment and less like "you have no idea how hard married life is" :P Thanks for clarifying Matt!

  • I think this is spot on. I've found the same thing in my marriage. My husband and I have been married almost 3 years and at first it was all new discovery and excitement. We were learning new things about each other and growing closer without having to try. It just happened naturally because we were now living together, starting a new life together, and everything was new. But now with a toddler and another baby on the way, things get in the way of the "together time" we had so much of at first. And we don't have as many new things to discover now that we know each other so well...or so it seems at times. It would be easy to settle into a holding pattern - to just stay as we are. We're close, we're a good team, we're in love. Why not just leave things exactly as they are?

    But the problem with a holding pattern is that it doesn't include growth. And when you put things on autopilot in a relationship, you will eventually drift apart. Nobody ever drifted together. Drifting - not being intentional - will eventually pull people apart. It takes an intentional commitment to finding time to spend together, purposely seeking to learn more about each other, meking a point to listen and to grow closer in order to keep things moving forward instead of stagnating. You are either growing closer or growing farther apart. There is no standing still. You have to plan that you are going to spend time together once the kids are in bed. You have to plan a family trip or a date night. You have to make an effort to ask each other things you think you probably already know about what they want and how they think things are going rather than assuming and thus never having that important conversation.

    So, is it work? Yes, in a way. But it's good work. It's not hard as long as you start it off right from the beginning. Just like it's so much easier to keep your house clean if you clean regularly rather than waiting a while only to find that it's such a mess you don't even want to think about it - so it is with marriage. If you purposely keep close, spend time together, talk regularly, etc from the beginning then it's much easier to continue on the road of growth and closeness. But if you neglect to be intentional and you allow yourselves to drift apart a little, it requires more effort to get back to where you should be. I suspect that many of those who stress that marriage is work have learned the hard way that not being intentional leads to drifting apart and that greater work is needed to come back together. Better to put in a little effort now to assure that you continue to remain close than to think you can drift along forever with no consequences. That is, I suspect, the message that many try to get across. But that doesn't mean that marriage is all work and no fun. In fact, the work part of it, when you're doing it right, doesn't seem like work.

  • I would agree with that.  Children certainly change the dynamics and particularly each time we have had a baby, it is a challenge to spend quality time together, especially in the early months.  Add to that I do some work from home, which meant prior to children that I was finished by the time my husband came home, and now I spend a good amount of time working after the kids go to bed (although I don't work full-time, thankfully).   But as I said in the previous thread, I haven't considered our marriage work because we really desire to be together.  It's not a "I have to go spend time with him" but a "I get to, I want to spend time with him."  

  • It's too bad that "work" has come to have a negative connotation. Work is not inherently a bad thing, even in the Garden before the Fall God gave Adam and Eve work to do. So I don't agree that saying "marriage requires work" is the same as saying "marriage is difficult and boring and terrible."

    Maybe another way to phrase it is that marriage requires both people to be intentional. It's work in the sense that you need to be actively doing things to draw closer to God and each other. As another comment said, people who are drifting only drift apart, not together. I've been married nearly 8 years and we have two young kids and we've learned how important it is to be intentional about serving each other, making time for intimacy/romance/communication, and not letting life just overwhelm us. Going on autopilot doesn't lead to good results in any area of life, and marriage is no different in that respect.

  • My parents were married for just shy of thirty years, and the marriage ended only with the death of my mother.

    Their attitude was that "We will claim to have a 'good' marriage when one of us is standing beside a grave.... until then we are still working on it".

    In essence, what they were saying was that they had seen far too many "good" marriages fall apart. Therefore - without being insecure about their marriage or treating it as drudgery - they were determined that they would never become complacent... Never treat their marriage as something that they could take for granted.

    That complacency , I think, is what many people fear when they see a young couple who claim to find that marriage is easy. It's not about waiting for the other shoe to drop... but about being wise enough to realise that things can change. How does she react if he loses his job and they are in tight financial circumstances? How does he react when his wife is suffering from Post Natal Depression?

  • Great clarification! Thanks, Adam

  • Peter said: " It's not about waiting for the other shoe to drop... but about being wise enough to realise that things can change. How does she react if he loses his job and they are in tight financial circumstances? How does he react when his wife is suffering from Post Natal Depression?"

    Here we go again. This is the type of "wisdom" I don't particularly care for. I think because it smacks of borrowing tomorrow's trouble and hoarding it for today. Is it possible that one or both of us might lose our job? Is it possible that he could deploy? Is it possible that one of us could fall tragically ill? Yes. Yes it is.

    That's why you take _vows_.

    But the daily living of your marriage shouldn't be about those "what ifs." It should be about what the two of you are dealing with RIGHT now. What you're doing to help and care for each other in this moment, and in the next, and in the next. Because if your focus is on that, then those big things will just be bigger opportunities to care for each other in more challenging moments.

    How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

    I submit that you stay married one moment at a time. Conciously making the decisions, in that moment, even the tough ones, that honor your spouse and God.

  • Ashley...

    Are you not conscious of the irony inherent in accusing others of "borrowing trouble" while taking a combative attitude and assuming the worst of them.

    The point is NOT that we should live in fear, but that we should live with our eyes open to reality. If things are good, then by all means enjoy them, but if we assume that hard times won't affect us, then we may find ourselves unprepared for them. Those vows you mention, "for richer, for poorer, for better, for worse,  in sickness  and in health" aren't borrowing trouble, just reflecting reality and recognising that marriage requires more than happy feelings to keep it together.

    "Man is born to trouble, as sparks fly upward".

  • Peter, come on now, you've posted on the blog long enough to know that it's not personal. If you weren't wrong, I wouldn't argue with you. ;D

    Here's my point: If you've already made the vows, why do you need to live in the "what ifs"?

    What if, in the making of the vows, you've already accepted the possibility that the worst could happen? What's more, what if, if you knew those things were too much for you _you didn't make any vows at all_.

    I think that's the part that's missing. :P

    The Teachings are out there like people just took their vows for granted and didn't mean them. But if you really said "In sickness and in health" and "for richer or for poorer" and "forsaking all others" then all the things you mentioned are merely a subset of the three. Now, if you DIDN'T mean your vows, you have ANOTHER problem entirely.

    But saying that you need to live life bracing yourself for every horrible possibility is no way to live. Especially no way to live in freedom -- and flies in direct conflict of the way we are supposed to life the Christ-follower life. There is a difference between being "realistic" and "pessimistic" and the profoundly negative attitude towards marriage among young men (even in the church) is evidence of pessimism -- not realism.

    Instead of teaching that a good marriage is, for all intents and purposes, a situation where the potential GOOD far outweighs the potential for BAD -- we instead teach folks that the Bad is all there is, split up, maybe by haphazard bouts of good -- but even those are probably over once you have kids. You have to be prepared for the Bad because when the Bad comes and you're not prepared, you end up in divorce court.

    But I don't even think THAT is always true. I've watched couples weather terrible storms and stay married and I've seen people divorce over First World Problems. At the end of the day, it all comes down to did you really mean your vows when you said them AND do you try to care for and nuture your marriage (That intentional investment that Matt is talking about) . It's less about whether or not you're "ready" to deal with a catastrophic event -- because no one is ever "ready" for those things.

  • Ashley...

    You know better than that. Like the grasshopper arguing with the ant,,, you aren't right, you just don't like what I'm saying.

    Scripture is replete with admonitions to act wisely, including making allowance for what may happen. Nowhere does it pretend that human relationships - or Christianity itself - is a bed of roses. To the contrary, Christ and the Apostles repeatedly warned that life would include suffering. It's not smart to ignore them.

    There is also a strong condemnation of making vows lightly. If we do not at least contemplate what "worse" might mean before we promise "for better or for worse"  then we do not know what we are promising, even in principle.

    Like I said, we are not to live in fear.... but we are to be aware of what might happen.

    (1) So when we do encounter hardship, we do not imagine that something is wrong  or abnormal.

    (2) So we can keep our eyes open and our "walls guarded", so that we are not caught by siurprise, but can take appropriate counter-measures

    I mentioned post-natal depression for a reason. One of my friends had his life and marriage placed under enormous stress when his wife suffered an undiagnosed case. He reacted as a good husband should, but it was only after the diagnosis was made that they were able to take appropriate action. Had they known what to expect, they might have taken action earlier and saved much hurt.

  • Oof. Peter, we're in violent agreement again. Did you even read what I wrote about vows?

    If you can't keep them, don't make them.

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