Marriage mix-ups

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Untangling the misunderstandings we bring to marriage

By Doug Milem

I married my gorgeous bride at the wise old age of 22 under the impression that I knew exactly what I was getting into. Like many people who vow to love, cherish and honor their partner unconditionally for the rest of their lives, I was head-over-heels in love and thought that was enough to carry us for the next 70 years.

However, the rude awakening that I experienced over the first two years of our marriage forced me to humbly admit that I had no clue what marriage was or what a God-fearing husband looked like. Diving headfirst into the tangled knot we had created that seemed to trap us both in an unhealthy cycle of tension and arguments, I found that we both held misunderstandings about marriage. These misunderstandings led us to hold one another and ourselves to a slew of unfair expectations.

Love is all you need
One of these misunderstandings was that marriage is based solely on love. Sure, love is a critical foundation piece for a marriage. Can you imagine standing in front of all your friends and family, promising to be with your spouse for “better or worse” for the rest of your life without hearts firmly rooted in love? Of course not! However, when two people stand at an altar on their wedding day, do they do more than declare their love?

They declare their commitment. Marriage is a covenant between two people who are laying down their hopes, dreams and desires as they enter into a relationship where the other’s hopes, dreams and desires will also be considered. When two individuals actively lay down their lives for one another, this commitment comes alive. And in a surprising twist, their personal dreams and goals can grow bigger and go further as they are supported by not just one heart, one prayer, one mind or one will—but two.

Alone again
A second misunderstanding was that I would never have to deal with loneliness once I was married. What I discovered, however, was that some of the loneliest moments of my life occurred while I was married. It is a common issue, and there are many reasons for marital loneliness: communication issues, lack of intimacy, situational stressors, lack of trust, etc.

In my experience, loneliness is rarely the result of being alone. Rather, loneliness is the result of an internal struggle. Personally, I expected my bride to be my rock in times of need. Then I saw the enormous amount of pressure I was piling onto her that she was never built to carry.

As I looked into the mirror, I began to wonder what kind of man and husband God had called me to be. If I fulfilled God’s intentions for me, what kind of wife would my bride be free to become? What would it look like if I became an apprentice of Jesus and loved like he loves and served like he serves?

It would look like me opening up instead of shutting down. It would look like me finding joy in life instead of focusing on the negative. It would look like eliminating loneliness by finding my identity as a man and as a husband in Christ and learning to love my wife without condition as she blossomed into a woman who was growing in her love and respect for her groom.

The gift of sex
So what about sex? Sex is a foundational element of a marital relationship; it has a vital purpose. No misunderstandings there, right? In coaching couples through this topic, I have found that there are many views on sex in the context of marriage. However, out of all these views, theories and discussions, there is one constant bottom line: sex cannot and should not be an expectation.

Two things tend to happen when sex becomes an expectation. First, sex becomes a focus and a source of stress. It becomes a task that has to be checked off the list rather than an act that a husband and a wife share.
Secondly, at least one partner will begin to feel pressured to fulfill the other’s expectation. This situation can breed loneliness, feelings of guilt for not “living up to one end of the bargain,” etc. Sex should be a gift that a married couple shares with a joyful spirit, stemming from a desire to intimately connect with their spouse.
I have noticed that couples’ sex lives dramatically increase when each person stops holding their spouse to unfair expectations. Communication increases, trust is gained, intimacy becomes safe and love and respect grows. And as a result, couples become more connected physically and emotionally.

“I thought…”
Has your spouse ever said: “I thought after we got married you would grow up,” or “I thought we would communicate better after we got married”? We don’t change our habits and personality just because we get married.

When I asked my wife to marry me, I asked her—not an idea of who I wanted her to be. When she said yes, she agreed to join an imperfect man on this journey we call life. She did not say yes to the man she hoped I might become.

This isn't to say people shouldn't ever change. But marriage is not the key that will make change happen. Communication and patience rooted in love and respect are the keys to change. Talk calmly and rationally with your partner about what you need from them. Recognize and appreciate their personality. This is the way to honor your spouse as you communicate your needs.

A happy life
I mentioned that in the first years of marriage I had no idea what it meant to serve my wife as a God-fearing husband. For whatever reason, the tongue-in-cheek phrase I heard growing up, “A happy wife makes a happy life,” stuck with me. From day one, I operated under the impression that my primary role as a husband was to make my wife as comfortable and happy as I could.

Problems arose when that pressure of being my wife’s foundational source of happiness exhausted me and left me miserable. I was not created to fulfill her every need—that’s what God is for. Working a job, taking care of the house, going the extra mile to communicate with my wife, being empathetic, going to social events that I’d rather avoid and many other things that were positive on their own were all rooted in the wrong place.

I was not running around in circles for the joy of serving or supporting my wife. I was doing all these things in order to make her happy so that my life would be easier. A selfless act done selfishly is no longer selfless. I had to realize that I cannot control her happiness by doing things with or for her. As important as my wife’s happiness is to me, at the end of the day her happiness is her choice. I soon found that as I focused less on making my wife happy and more on simply serving her, I developed a new joy in life and, in turn, our marriage became happier and healthier.

Love and marriage
People aren’t kidding when they say marriage is hard work. But the rewards are incredible. At 22 years old, I never envisioned the challenges and adversity I would face with my wife. I never imagined the woman she would become—a woman who loves Christ more than she loves me. A woman who knows what it means to respect and believe in her husband against all odds because of her faith in Jesus.

I have taken myself by surprise as I continue to grow as a leader of my family and learn how to love radically with Jesus as my guide. And we did this all together. How rudely awakened I have become by this beautiful living covenant called marriage. “And I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy” (Hosea 2:19).

Doug Milem is a certified life coach and marriage mentor who lives in Phoenix, Ariz., where he is part of Axiom Church, a USMB church plant in Glendale, Ariz. He and his wife, Megan, have been married for five years and are in the process of adopting their first child.

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