Here’s a sequence that has fed this falseness: The Second World War loosened marital ties as men went off to fight war’s battles, and wives faced life alone. Then at the end of 1953 came Hugh Hefner with his Playboy Magazine, widely promoting hedonism in general and sexual license in particular. In 1969 the Woodstock Festival in New York drew more than half a million participants for days of loud, countercultural music and unhampered open sex.
Then in the 1970s came a surge of the common practice of couples living together unmarried — openly bucking society’s norms with some measure of success. The most recent flourish has been the drive to redefine marriage to include unions of same-sex partners.
But timeless institutions are not so easily reconstituted. Marriage in the hearts and minds of many is still held as the union of one man and one woman for life. That reality is worth celebrating, and February 7 – 14 is National Marriage Week, ending conveniently on St. Valentine’s Day. In fact, the week is being recognized in several countries of the world, hinting at the universality of traditional marriage as an institution.
As a celebrant of 66 years of marriage, I think of it as a two-layered cake. There’s the covenant layer in which a man and woman make public vows to each other, binding themselves together legally, morally and societally. The state registers the union.
There are still many couples who meet at an altar to make this solid commitment, then to go forth, living out their vows in faithfulness to one another, despite all of life’s wear and tear on marital unions. Yet sometimes a couple’s intentions are tested at the outset.
Years ago, Kathleen and I were hosted by a young American couple during a work trip to Paraguay. Over breakfast on their patio I asked how long they had been married. The wife smiled gently and as the smile broadened she said, “We say seven years but it is really 13 years. She explained, “It took us six years to figure out what marriage was all about.” By tenacious search they had found the secret rather than giving up on what had been at the outset a conflicted relationship.
I envision the second level of marriage as the relational level on which newlyweds add to their covenant before God and man the skills that make for enriching companionship. These skills come more naturally to some newlyweds than others but they can be cultivated with great benefit.
This nurturing includes how two partners talk to one another with courtesy and respect in the day-to-day flow of life, how readily they correct themselves when they unintentionally offend, how they weather the storms that descend on them from outside the union, and especially how often they find things to laugh about together. The health of the sexual bond is in a measure dependent on the quality of these day-to-day social experiences.
I was once the speaker at a couples’ weekend sponsored by a Baptist local church. A young couple, about 26 years of age, was there. They had married young and had four little children back home. They appeared pleased with one another. After one session the husband followed me to the retreat center’s gate to talk.
He explained that their marriage had nearly failed in its earliest years. In an effort to save the union they had decided to review their beginnings as a couple, seeking to recover what attractions had drawn them together at first. In their search they dug up rich but nearly forgotten memories. Their immaturity and the busyness and stresses of life had caused their memories to dim. With the fruit of their review they reaffirmed the first layer of wedding vows and renewed the trust that had worn thin.
Resources galore are available to aid couples seeking help, but one resource too easily overlooked is prayer. There is a strong measure of truth in the oft-repeated slogan: The couple that prays together stays together. If God is the creator of marriage, should not his counsel be sought daily as a primary resource?
Couples who don’t feel they can pray together need to hear Irma’s testimony (not her real name). During a sharing time at another retreat Irma said: “My husband and I are very strong-willed people. Sometimes we get locked up. We can’t make one another understand. But if we kneel to pray, good things happen. I tell the Lord what I think is causing our deadlock and my husband hears what I’m saying to God. Then he tells God what is bothering him about my responses and I can hear. It often clears the air.”
National Marriage week would be a good time for many couples across the continent to renew their marriages. A pretty red Valentine’s card may be a good start. But how about some quiet conversations after the kids are in bed when each asks the other, “Is there anything you would like to say to me?” Or how about a walk in the park during which you call up for review the memories of the earliest days of courtship or marriage?
Make National Marriage Week a time for renewing the bonding love that God showed to mankind in creating marriage (Genesis 1:26,27; 2) and the binding love he offers to give now to those who will receive it.