Each week I stand in the grocery checkout lane with little to do but read headlines. My husband is “in charge” at the grocery store. He takes care of everything from writing the list to inspecting sale prices to unloading the cart to paying the cashier. Meanwhile, I’m a cart-pushing lackey who happily wanders the aisles, putting my favorite foods in the cart even if they’re not on the list.
This leisure comes with drawbacks. Without the ability to busy myself by placing canned goods and produce onto the checkout conveyor, I face off with the magazine rack. Cosmopolitan now has modesty covers, so I am no longer subjected to the 101 ways to look sexier without surgery, but the tabloids still grab my attention with their circus of marriages, divorces, and remarriages. I rarely know who these celebrities are, but I wonder at their persistence to burn through attorneys and money in pursuit of a happily married life.
I don’t judge this growing group of ex-spouse collectors. My own marriages number greater than one. But I do feel great sadness about how these headlines undermine the importance of marriage values and how they perpetuate confusion about our expectations for happiness.
More than Tabloid Headlines
For me, the circus of marriage, divorce, and remarriage is real. I made many mistakes that proved fatal for my first marriage. But despite these mistakes, God blessed me with a new marriage covenant that is whole and holy. My forgiveness through Christ on the Cross is real, but God’s intention for marriage is that it remains a once-in-a-lifetime event (Matthew 19:3–9).
Nevertheless, the statistics about remarriage are clear. In 2013, according to the Pew Research Center’s analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data, the number of remarried adults has tripled since 1960.
This increase has been fueled by several demographic trends, beginning with the rise in divorce, which has made more Americans available for remarriage. It has also been fueled by the overall aging of the population, which not only increases the number of widows and widowers available to remarry, but means people quite simply have more years in which to make, dissolve, and remake unions. Combined, these two trends have created a larger pool of people who can potentially remarry.
This reality means that more couples are faced with the challenges of remarriage than at any other time in our history. And the challenges inherent in remarriage are exponentially greater than a first marriage, especially when children are involved.
Remarriage may actually be destined for greater difficulty. Multiple marriage experiences actually diminish proficiency, create emotional confusion, and increase unreasonable expectations. So what can a Christian couple do to ensure their remarriage is counted among the 33–40 percent of successful second marriages?
Experience tells me there is no easy way through remarriage. Faith assures me God has miracles and revelations along way that can prevent any remarriage from making a “Doomed for Divorced” tabloid headline.
As I’ve walked through my second marriage, full of errors, grace, expectations, and hope, here are two important facets of marriage that God has shown me along the way.
Have a Shared Values System
Within a year of my remarriage, my husband, Greg, and I were already separated. I’d put ten years between marriages and thought I had figured out every angle before I walked down the aisle a second time. But here I was—tears and confusion—trying to determine what went wrong as I drove through a rainstorm. I don’t remember articulating a specific question to God, but he answered the question in my heart: if our marriage was in God’s plan, then why were we so miserable?
“Marriage is not about happiness, it’s about holiness.”
Spoken to me through the radio, not by God, but by Gary L. Thomas, author of Sacred Marriage, these simple words were a revelation. Despite my years of marriage experience, I was pursuing happiness as if it had an actual end, like I would achieve happiness one day and be overjoyed I finally found it.
Happiness in marriage (or any other aspect of life) is the most elusive and subjective measure we can use. Pursuit of my own happiness was not God-centered or husband-centered; it was completely self-centered. What made me happy in a marriage as a newlywed would certainly have irritated me beyond reproach as the months and years advanced. In Boundaries in Marriage, Henry Cloud and John Townsend declare happiness as “the worst value ever.”
Cloud and Townsend equate marriage values to the framing of a house. Without defining and articulating the things you value as a couple, you have no structure for a marriage relationship. Values give you and your spouse a “marriage identity.” Through them you can “protect it and cause it to grow in the direction God intends.”
For Greg, honesty was the highest value. For me, compassion and forgiveness was the highest value, especially when I wasn’t being honest.
Cloud and Townsend list six values that give marriage protective boundaries: love of God, love of spouse, honesty, faithfulness, compassion and forgiveness, and holiness.
Greg and I eventually reunited and, with agreement on the values we each held highest, we were able to build a failsafe standard for how we treated each other, and how we expected others to interact with our relationship, including children, our in-laws, and even ex-spouses. We worked together to identify and dispel anything that did not support these values.
Learning that my husband valued honesty above all else communicated volumes about what he desired from me. I would not have intentionally been dishonest with him, but some things would go unsaid or get a little squishy around the edges, such as the shopping bag that got left in the trunk of my car, or the party invitation from his ex-wife that never made it to the family calendar.
Understanding his values, as well as establishing our shared value system, removed stress and uncertainty from our relationship. No matter where we were or what was happening, whether together or apart, we could be assured that the tenants of our relationship were known and respected by each other. Having a shared value system helped us set enduring standards of behavior and communication.
Rearrange Your Expectations
When I asked marriage educator Cindy Wright to identify the leading challenge in remarriage, she said “expectations,” or more specifically, the inability to adjust expectations. Wright believes individuals entering remarriage raise the bar too high. Nearly all couples enter marriage with idealistic expectations, but couples entering a marriage relationship for the second or third time often assign an undue burden to their spouse. This burdens the new spouse with the responsibility of compensating for the failures of the previous marriage. Depending on the gap between first-marriage reality and second-marriage dream, this could be a super-human leap.
The real problem with marriage expectations is what they reveal about our relationship with God. Seeking fulfillment from a husband or wife is not only asking too much, it is asking the impossible. We were created to receive ultimate fulfillment from God, and God alone. When we look to a relationship or a loved one as a substitute for God, we will always be disappointed. No one, no matter how much they love and desire us, can fulfill our longing. Only God can satisfy.
I harbored many unrealistic expectations about marriage. Financial security was a problem in my previous marriage, and it was exacerbated by ten years living as a single parent. I didn’t expect my new husband to provide a mansion in Hollywood, but I did expect him, with my help, to attain a lifestyle greater than the one I had. When he lost his job and announced he was going to follow his dream—a significantly lower-paying dream—my fulfillment factor flopped.
It took years for me to work through the implications of my unrealistic expectations. My husband and I separated a second time, we lost our “dream” house, and God showed me a new definition of financial insecurity. But through it all, God demonstrated his jealous love for me. The Lord would not allow me to place my marital demands or my insecurities above my obedience to him. For God has said, ‘I will never fail you. I will never abandon you.’ So we can say with confidence, ‘The LORD is my helper, so I will have no fear. What can mere people do to me?”
A Constant Journey
Overcoming my lifestyle and income expectations was more difficult for me than working through God’s rearrangement of holiness over happiness. My expectations about financial security were rooted in fear—fear of loss. God alleviated my fear by using my life as a testament to losing nearly everything. After a long, painful journey, God demonstrated that walking with him, in want or wealth, is all that matters.
Greg and I are grateful that the Lord did not provide us a Hollywood happily ever after. We have something stronger: love of God as our highest value. And with God as our biographer, we no longer fear for our future. We are still learning, all the time, how to grow together and make our marriage increasingly more healthy. But God is with us—that’s a pretty good headline for our story, isn’t it?
A marketing professional, wife, and mother of four adult children, Mary’s path is marked with the twists and turns of someone continually seeking (but not always finding) a purposeful calling. With a family history of substance abuse, her winding journey is filled with the discovery, challenges, and mishaps of a family that replaces its legacy with a God-given inheritance. Follow Mary on Twitter at @marysramblings.com.
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