Marriage gets a bad rap. If half the sailboats in an ISAF World Cup event put to sea with an untrained crew and no head sail or rudder, and they failed to cross the finish line, would sailing be responsible for the failure? Of course not. This is precisely what is happening with marriage. Let’s use the “Marriage is a Vessel” metaphor.
I’m seeing more and more married folks in counseling. The uptick in work is no problem, but it does highlight what the real problems are. The marriage “vessels” are ridiculously unprepared for
the voyage of marriage. American society has devalued marriage to such an extent that the seas these vessels travel are stormy as never before. If you planned on navigating the roughest voyage, say, the Horn of Africa, would you jump in an empty rowboat with one oar and just take off? Such is our uniquely American concept of preparing for marriage.
Let’s contrast USA 2015 with the concept of marriage at the time of Christ. The biblical principles of marriage are built off of the first marriage, Adam and Eve. Listen to the celebration Adam has as God gives him his wife:
Genesis 2:23-25 (ESV)
23 Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.”
24 Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.
25 And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.
By the time married people get to a counseling room, neither husband nor wife feels very much like one flesh. They can already see the vessel of their marriage drifting off-course and heading toward the cliff. I’m glad they are doing something about their problems. But, I really wish I was seeing even more couples in pre-marital counseling. Before they put their vessel to sea, an objective third party specializing in their journey could check out the vessel before the journey began. Wouldn’t it be great to realize you need a rudder to steer the boat before dry land drops below the horizon?
I hear plenty of couples tell me that today there’s just too much competing for their attention. They get distracted by “smart” phones, social media, pornography, friends, etc. They seem to know where the distractions are coming from, but they don’t know how to defeat the command the distractions have on their attentions. Before something or someone can steal your affections, it must first steal your attentions. Let’s go back to our sailboats.
When the vessel is out to sea and you discover you’re ill-equipped to finish the journey, the best chance for surviving is putting two heads together, thinking, working together, and putting away their differences. When married couples get to counseling, they’re usually not communicating together, sorting out the best ideas together, working together to get the vessel back on course, and they are exacerbating their differences. With this level of discord, many people choose to just throw up their hands and let their vessel crash into the nearest reef. When people reach this point in their journey, the last ditch effort is the counseling room.
The consequences of abandoning the journey are monumental. Life doesn’t get a “do-over”. A second marriage, finishing life in solitude, or some other outcome is not a do-over. It’s what happened after the shipwreck. There are valid reasons to abandon or annul a marriage, but these lean toward self-preservation, not selfishness. My wife has a great saying about the 2 intolerable things a spouse can do – “beatin’ and cheatin”. Everything else can be worked out and the marriage has a solid chance of being saved.
Physical assault is intolerable. It is rare that when someone crosses this line that they can salvage a marriage. It can happen under very strict circumstances and depending on the severity of the assault. Infidelity is intolerable. It shreds the contract of marriage.
Many don’t realize that infidelity does not have to be sexual intercourse for infidelity to occur. Cheating often starts small, and can be arrested before a marriage is destroyed. A flirting text, a hidden email account and the like are all going down the road of infidelity. Note, I am speaking from a counseling standpoint and not a legal one, as I am not a lawyer. From a counseling point of view, the quicker this behavior stops the more likely the marriage can be saved.
We really need to look at the mother of all sin, which is pride. If one’s pride selfishly elevates their desires over the good of “one flesh”, they have begun down the road of infidelity. Covetousness is rarely talked about in 2015, but it is a serious sin born of selfish pride. Let’s look at the gravity of covetousness in relation to the last five of the Ten Commandments:
Exodus 20:13-17 (NLT)
13 “You must not murder.
14 “You must not commit adultery.
15 “You must not steal.
16 “You must not testify falsely against your neighbor.
17 “You must not covet your neighbor’s house. You must not covet your neighbor’s wife, male or female servant, ox or donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor.”
Even entertaining thoughts of violating the Ten Commandments violates them. One recovery program has an informal saying; “You thunk it before you done it.” In terms of our marriage vessel, your mind was already out of the boat and you were getting ready to get your body out of the boat, too. This circles back around to the most fertile ground for marriage-busting sin to grow out of – Infidelity of the mind. Jesus was loud and clear on infidelity:
Matthew 5:27-29 (NLT)
“You have heard the commandment that says, ‘You must not commit adultery.’ But I say, anyone who even looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. So if your eye—even your good eye—causes you to lust, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.
Pre-marital counselees leave my counseling room knowing what infidelity is, so they can quickly prioritize getting their imperfect selves quickly back on track. I let married counselees with a leaky boat know, very quickly, what infidelity is so they can immediately correct it. Why is this so important to do, so early? If the boat is already leaking, we need to quit poking holes in it.
Sexual infidelity is any sexual thought directed outside the marriage. Pornography is, very graphically, sex outside of marriage, and watching it is just as sinful as physically participating in it. Porn can very quickly become addictive, and for that I recommend 12-step recovery as soon as it is discovered. Other sexual infidelity happens in the mind, fantasizing about encounters with those around either partner, usually from work or social affiliations, and yes, certainly from church. Infidelity has shut down many a church.
Social media has become particularly pernicious. One or the other partner re-connects with an old flame, or finds a new flame through Facebook or Twitter. Soon connection turns to flirtation, turns into a phone call, turns into a meeting, turns into a broken marriage. Many married couples I know have their social media profiles reflect both partners names to avoid this very possibility. Social media and texting run through smart phones, as does internet porn and flirting texts. I recommend joint cellphone accounts and shared passwords so covetous intentions have no soil to grow in.
Infidelity can also happen in marital resources, and it has nothing to do with sex, but still plenty to do with pride and covetousness. Financial infidelity deprives the marriage of the joint stewardship of family resources. Infidelities occur, not only in failure to disclose large purchases, but also in small, routine selfish purchases. To avoid financial infidelity, I recommend complete honesty on all income and expenditures, joint everything accounts, shared passwords, and routine, honest dialogue. Couples really need to have budget meetings.
Getting back to our sailboats, when a couple realizes they aren’t equipped for something on their journey, they need to get help and the sooner the better. When they find a small leak, get help patching it before it threatens the vessel. There is no shame in getting help and plenty of shame in being too prideful to get or allow help. If both parties want marriage to succeed, it can and it will.
Succeeding in marriage is the plan God has for every couple. He loves you, and he sanctified your union. Proactively being together in thought, intent and physical presence leads to teamwork focused on the voyage, and not a broken ship. God is all-loving, and if you put Him in the center of your marriage, love will be in the center of your marriage.
I share with most all counselees the “Handful of Priorities” method of organizing life, and that includes the two who are one flesh in marriage. Look at the fingers on one hand, and you can see the order of priority you need for a healthy life and a healthy marriage: God, family, work, church then self.
Next put that hand in your spouse’s hand, and pray together. If you pray for the seaworthiness of your marital vessel, even if you left shore without what you needed, He will provide it. You can pray the rudder back in with your priorities. You can pray for that main sail back to help tack against the rudder and keep your path going forward even in shifting winds. And he will give your repaired vessel fair winds and favoring sees if you let Him lead the journey. I’ll close with one of my favorite quotes about sin, from Martin Luther:
“You can’t keep the birds from flying over your head, but you can prevent them from building a nest in your hair.”
… Martin Luther