I’ve learned that you can’t refuse to change and stay happily married. But change is much more easily said than done.
“You’re not coming into the bed like that, are you?”, she asked.
Oh boy. This was the start of our new life together. On our honeymoon no less.
“Um, I was planning on it… how come?”. Have I already blown it? What could possibly be wrong… unless… oh no.
“You’re going to bring all that dirt on to the clean sheets. You should have a shower first”.
Oh, not quite what I may have been worried about. But, I was a bit taken back nonetheless.
I had always had a shower in the morning. Like, always. The vast majority of my life up until this point I was having a shower in the morning completely unchallenged. And now that I had entered into marriage with this woman, all of a sudden my decision to shower in the morning was an issue.
And right there and then, I had my most memorable realisation on the reality of longterm relationships – you can’t refuse to change and stay happily married.
To my wife, making sure that you were clean just before you came to bed so you didn’t bring the grime of the day into the place you slept for 8ish hours was a big deal. But it had never been something I had really cared about, or thought about. It wasn’t a dealbreaker, it wasn’t affecting my life I didn’t think, I’ve never gone around with bad odour or anything like that.
But to our new relationship, this was either going to be a thing we were going to fight and disagree about perhaps constantly, or it was going to be a thing that one of us had to change. It wasn’t a big deal to me, but it was a huge deal to her.
We live in a world that believes that you shouldn’t have to change for love. Especially a marriage. After all, you said you loved me and accepted me and chose me for life. Why should I have to change? Don’t you love me as I am?
This bed example seems a bit humourous, but in truth it’s one of the many things that I couldn’t keep if I was going to be a married man. Or at least a happily married man.
Marriage is a big commitment. A huge one in fact. I’ve always loved the observation from Bishop TD Jakes in Before You Do – “You say ‘I do’ and it is done, and then spend the next 50 years working out what you did”. It’s one thing for us to say we’re committed for life, in sickness and health, to the exclusion of all others – it’s another to live it.
In fact it’s in the day to day of marriage that we learn exactly what two becoming one really means. Of what it means to walk together, to cherish, to build a life together.
And one of the most upsetting, unfair feelings about building a life together is realising that as much as you would like to, that you cannot continue to fully be who you were before. Not if you want to protect and preserve the relationship.
Author Elizabeth Hawes wrote, “After marriage, all things change. And one of them better be you”. She’s definitely not wrong. It wasn’t just my morning shower preference that needed to change to further our relationship – it was everything. There was so much about my bachelor lifestyle that had to go, then from my dating man lifestyle, and finally even from my engaged man lifestyle.
All marriages are the same in that regard. There are so many things that cannot continue. When I was single I was open to the potential of taking things further with a woman if our relationship was strong. I would spend focused time with people with the intention of seeing if there was anything more. I kept my options open somewhat to who I could pursue romantically. Imagine if I still did that now with my wedding ring on.
I can’t spend time with my friends in the same way. I couldn’t keep those black and white pieces of furniture that were old and saggy that I probably would have never upgraded. I couldn’t go into fix it mode every time a problem came up and slap down a solution within 5 seconds without actually listening to the concern. Out with the boys every night, never home, never spending time with my wife or daughter, it wouldn’t be sustainable. I recently wrote about the tragedy of how easy it could be to become an absent father – to simply be a man living without commitments through the reality that I do have them.
There’s a pervasive view today on love and acceptance. That acceptance of who we are has to go hand in hand with approval of everything we do. If you’re married, or been around a marriage, or even had a longterm commitment to a company, a faith, a group, heck even a swimming club or a gym – you know that in order to make this really work, you have to choose “we” over “me”. What we could and can be together is greater than what we could be separate, and in order to fully embrace the person, we have to be willing and ready to live for them.
If we weren’t going to change, we may as well not have gotten together. But we want to be more than roommates, more than friends, more than people who just sit there arguing about everything, more than a couple dominated my negative sentiment or normal marital sadism or frustration that they don’t hear my heart in why I want this from them.
Dr David Schnarch brilliantly pointed out in his book Intimacy and Desire that although couples say they would like to bring their best to each other, they often bring their worst. Many interactions fall into self-driven self interested one sided views and conversations. At the end of the day, many of us would rather live in an unhappy hellhole of a marriage than to change and stay happily married.
There’s been a lot in the media recently about what Jesus did or didn’t say, but one word that has been missed in all the conversations is this – repentance. It’s literally a turning away from your other life and turning towards your new one.
For a relationship to continue, the direction of the two hearts involved must continually be pointed towards each other – in thought, in action, in deed. That even if I make a decision against the relationship, my heart is turned towards you and I will endeavour to do right by you. That I don’t intentionally or unremorsefully do things that I know are wrong by you.
Unrepentance simply means that I refuse to change, or that I disagree with you that I am wrong about this. But you can’t refuse to change and stay happily married. Jesus would go on to say that it’s the hardness of heart that leads to relationship breakdown – repentance is a huge deal for a marriage to stay together.
I love how the Gottman Institute mirrors this language in its proven recommendation to couples, to turn towards each other rather than turning away. Dr John Gottman’s research of couples has him place this as one of the pillars of successful relationships.
And it’s not enough for one person to change. We both need to. All it takes is one unchanging spirit to ruin the relationship and miss the point of the whole thing.
So the obvious question comes – how much should I have to change for my wife? Or my husband?
And this is probably where our complexities lie. Because if I don’t think this is something I’m happy to change, willing to change, or able to change, then we’re stuck. If I think this is something you should already know about me or should accept, then I’ll probably think you’re the one who is refusing to change. And if you don’t like it, you can leave.
Need I remind you that they usually do. Because two needed to become one inside and out. To be of one mind, one heart, one spirit. To change and stay happily married, rather than to burn in anger and frustration and what I think. That said, with that spirit you’ll go off to the next relationship and experience the same problems all over again.
Maybe a morning or evening shower is a non-issue. Maybe leaving the toilet seat up or down, or the way you have stacked the dishwasher previously, or the way you treat your appearance isn’t too big of a deal to change. But what happens when it’s long entrenched habits, behaviours we develop over time by our continued actions, things we fall into or deliberately keep choosing?
It’s really hard for a husband or wife to compete with the fantasy of pornography. It’s really hard to have a mutually enjoyable sex life if you’re open to involving or inviting others into it or around it. Unfaithfulness is still a profound killer of marriages – one recent study amongst many with similar results revealed 20% of marrieds experience infidelity, 70% of unmarrieds are cheated on, and 85% (wow) of marriages that experience infidelity either immediately or eventually break up.
Unfortunately, even though there are all these factors involved, cheating is an act of the will. And cheating is more than just sex, although sex is usually the final and loudest place where the directions of our hearts is reflected. How about a sexual preference like porn or another relationship that doesn’t involve my spouse that I prefer over them? How about substance abuse that I refuse to get help for? How about mental illness I won’t see anyone about so I use it as an excuse to be cruel or demeaning? How about these past hurts I encountered in previous relationships or growing up that I continually use to justify belittling or undervaluing my partner? Financial abuse? Verbal? Making fun of my husband in public? Refusing to allow my wife to share her heart?
These are so many of the small and huge ways a resistance to change can ruin what could be something really wonderful. I can’t refuse to change and stay happily married – I must be willing to be open instead of with my militant shield up about how much I will not allow.
But then of course we do eventually reach the things that a person absolutely will not change. And a large part of this has to do with each of our worldviews.
The reality of our worldviews is that many are incompatible with each other. If two people have completely opposing views about something they believe to be an absolute truth, then something’s got to give. Even non-religious philisopher Frithjof Schuon criticised relativism in that it “reduces every element of absoluteness to relativity while making a completely illogical exception in favor of this reduction itself”.
We see in the world today very loudly that relativism is not the way people live their lives. Look no further than COVID – one group believes vaccinate vaccinate vaccinate and mandate, another believes vaccinate but no mandate, another believe stuff the lot of yas we don’t need shots (like in Canada). Or political persuasion – one believes the republicans have destroyed the United States, another believes the democrats are still trying to catch up on what Obama did. Or views on sexuality – one group may believe birth gender is important and to be respected and you should fully embrace your masculine or feminine characteristics and every other view is wrong, another believes that gender and sexuality are fluid and telling primary school kids to bind their chest and take puberty blockers will help and no other options will be accepted, another believes why mention anything at all and both groups are super offensive. One believes in Islam, one believes in Judaism, one’s a practising Buddhist whilst also being a non-practised Catholic. One believes in no god or gods, one believes in one god, one believes in many.
These truths or views of truth are incompatible with each other, in that they directly contradict the other. They can’t both or all be true at the same time – something has gotta give. It’s one of the tensions of peace in a world that has so many divergent belief systems. And also one of the great triumphs of our time that we are able to co-exist in such a state where previously civil war and violent revolutions broke out. I think back to the French Revolution whenever I think the arguments of today are bad.
The battle is over whose truth are we going to recognise.
And in our home, we face the same tension. What happens when our truths collide? Either you’re wrong, you’re wrong, and that’s the end. And maybe it is. And in some cases maybe it needs to be. After all, as the prophet Amos wrote, how can two walk hand in hand unless they are in agreement? You can’t refuse to change and stay happily married.
From this perspective, it is a real miracle that any couple stays together. There are so many areas of our lives where we can be so completely different.
But many of our problems are not truly irreconcilable. We just don’t want to be the first one to change. It means admitting defeat, or we were wrong, or I have to have sex more than I want to, or less than I want to, or I need to work on my anger, or I need to consider multiple perspectives or fully research this worldview properly in more detail, or…
…that we love our spouse, and when we said we would give our lives for theirs, we meant it.
We’re only going to find a path to peace within our marriages if we decide to seek the truth together. If we don’t become so rigid on the things that really aren’t that important, and that we negotiate any of our huge differences with grace and love.
Lifelong love is ultimately about surrender. To lay down one’s life for another. We say we would die for our husband or wife, but I wonder if we’re also ready and willing to live for them. To do all we can to improve and bless their lives. To challenge ourselves to move beyond our own selfishness or pre-conceived notions and see where we can make the changes that heal and the changes that matter for our marriages.
If my heart does not prefer or at least defer to my spouse in my decisionmaking, my heart and life are not surrendered to her.
Ruth Graham said that “A happy marriage is the union of two good forgivers”. Ultimately we will let the other person down, and in turn also be let down. We must endeavour to continue to turn towards each other, and perhaps the greatest change we could make is to forgive in the way we have been forgiven ourselves.
What’s the thing they keep asking you for? Are you sure it isn’t in your power to do for them? If you love them with your whole heart and you plan to move forward together, we need to rest less on our pride and rights and more on what would serve the other.
I encourage you my friend – change and stay happily married.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.