It seems only fair to start a reflection on marriage with my own marriage. Starting here is just as important to me as the content of what I share. When it comes to all matters of faith and life, I believe we need to start with ourselves. Otherwise we subject others to judgment, scrutiny, or standards that we may safely avoid in our own lives. I fear we easily justify our own behavior while disparaging similar behavior by others.
So here’s my story about marriage. My husband John and I will be celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary in a few days. We have been together 30 years. These numbers astound me, as when we began our journey together I couldn’t imagine 25 years. When we were young and in love, it was impossible to imagine the deeper dimensions love could have, and definitely impossible to imagine how a couple in a nursing home could possibly need a “do not disturb” sign.If the Biblical image of marriage is that we become “one flesh” I can see the truth of this after all this time as I look back. We continue to be very different people with distinct vocations and identities, that sometimes clash, but we do experience life as “one unit” in many ways. There is an almost unconscious familiarity with each other’s thought patterns, habits, bodies, tastes, that my spouse can almost feel like a part of myself. The “we-ness” becomes as second nature as the “I-ness” of things. I love this about marriage. But I also know it comes with a caution –make sure the “we” is an equal measure of you and I –not just “I” writ large. Someone recently pointed out to me how John and I seem to operate almost seamlessly as a unit, especially as we deal with children, household chores, day to day life. I guess I hadn’t really appreciated how wonderful this is. How much implicit trust there is as we move through the days, how much steadfast reliance we demonstrate with each other, how much we rely on each other’s small sacrifices to make our own lives better. How much our children see us as a “them” –not just individuals to relate to separately.
I’m pausing in this moment realizing that I am more able now to be grateful for this long and steady relationship than I have been at some points along the trajectory. At any given moment there might be a surge of anger, a disappointment in not being heard, a feeling of being taken for granted. But when those moments (maybe even seasons) are blended in with the long, slow, pulse of a relationship that has constituted more than half my life, I am able to see that marriage is indeed a gift of God for the “well-being of the entire human family (W-4.9001).” It really is in the context of this life-entwining relationship that we can experience the “full expression of love” between a man and a woman (as the Book of Common Worship beautifully puts it). In some ways it is only time and the wear and tear of life that gives partners the opportunities to experience this full expression of love.In our love of labels for each other and ourselves, we may miss how our own and others’ lives defy the very labels we seem to love. I am basically very prudish and conservative when it comes to sexuality and marriage in my own life, while serving a congregation known for its “liberal” bent. I married fairly young, have remained faithful throughout the 25 years and my husband is the only person with whom I have had sex. I admit that we did have sex before we were married, but it was after a year together and a strong sense that our commitment was a lifelong one. Even the most conservative among us these days has toned down the rhetoric against “fornicators destined for hell” but, though I know I am a sinner, I honestly don’t think my relationship is what Paul or other New Testament writers had in mind when they used the term.
To my knowledge I have only done one wedding for a couple that had not had intercourse before the ceremony. Even for that couple, it was clear to me that only one of them was a virgin. While I wish people in our culture would slow things down and actually date before hopping into bed with each other, my biggest concern is not when people begin having sex relative to the state or church sanction of their relationship, but what their sexual relationship means in the larger context of a loving partnership. Though I bristle at how sexualized our culture is, I am glad we seem to have set aside the focus on (especially female) virginity. It is possible, I understand, to have “hymen repair” surgery in some places in the world who seem to have held onto, or even revived this obsession with female purity.Thankfully marriage has changed for the better since the days of the ancient Israelites and the first century in the Roman Empire.