Here’s an interesting question: do our expectations alter reality?
This chapter of Set-Apart Femininity is focused on marriage, and the author expresses dismay at the falling marriage rates and the fact that the divorce rate for Christians is not significantly lower, despite Christianity’s traditional position against divorce.
Her solution is along these lines: as long as you do certain things to form a healthy foundation for a “happily ever after” love story, then you absolutely will have a happily ever after love story and therefore there is no need to prepare for the possibility of anything going wrong in your marriage (because it won’t, unless you expect it to or did something wrong).
She even opens the chapter by basically saying that couples that abstain from premarital sex should not receive training on handling realistic situations in marriage that reflect anything less than a “happily ever after” love story, because that would be an impossible result (unless such training puts the thought in their mind and then leads to marital problems that otherwise certainly would not have occurred).
When Eric and I were first married, I heard a Christian psychologist on the radio say, “Every married couple, at some point in their life together, will wake up one morning, look across the table at their spouse, and wonder whether they married the right person.”
I was horrified at such a thought. God had perfectly scripted my love story with Eric, and I had grown to recognize God as the true author of romance. Why should I expect something that started out so beautiful to end up turning so sour? (p. 176).
Now Eric and I have been married almost 13 years. And I can honestly say that our love story has only grown more beautiful, more romantic, and more fulfilling with every passing year…We have never once looked across the table from each other and wondered whether we married the right person. We have never grown disillusioned with our marriage. And we have never had our hopes dashed to pieces because our expectations were too high.
Are we merely an exception to the rule? Absolutely not. Eric and I believe that victorious, beautiful Christian marriages are in the grasp of everyone who invites Jesus to be the centerpiece of their love story. What this generation of young Christians needs is not lower expectations of marriage, but higher ones (p. 177).
I find this train of thought fascinating because it flies in the face of most conventional wisdom about relationships: that high expectations are the enemy because they lead to disappointment.
But there is a very real sense to which people do live up to their expectations, and expectations can and do affect our reality. The most basic example of this is the placebo effect, a phenomenon of expectations creating reality so profound it must be accounted for in every pharmacological study. When you believe that something you’re taking (or doing) will help you, it does.
Given this truth, I think there is a sense in which believing that your relationship will succeed–and that you’re doing things to help it succeed–will help that happen. Further, it’s quite possible that the belief that your relationship is predestined, or “God-scripted,” (whether or not that’s true) will create not only the sense of a stronger relationship, but could actually create a stronger relationship, in the same way that believing you’re taking a painkiller actually alleviates pain.
We’re all prone to confirmation bias, or the tendency to look for facts that support preconceived ideas. If you’re convinced in your mind that your marriage is good and will succeed, you are likely to look for and notice evidence of that being true. Noticing the good details will further reinforce that belief, creating a cycle.
That being said, I don’t think it’s healthy to rely so heavily on positive thoughts and expectations that you become blindsided by something going wrong; perhaps “expect the best, prepare for the worst” would be a good sort of balance. Rather than expecting to become riddled with doubt about your relationship, expect things to go well. But also ask yourself: if I did ever look across the table and doubt my marriage, what would my response be? Would I talk about it? Leave? Seek a therapist? Write it off as a passing feeling?
I don’t think anyone should expect their marriage to end in crisis. But I think there’s also wisdom in a healthy amount of introspection and considering how you would handle a crisis if it were to come.
To be clear, Ludy isn’t saying that all Christians will have perfect marriages if they expect it. On pages 178-181 she gives the example of how her newlywed days were marked by living in a flea-infested house with raccoons in the chimney. She doesn’t promise all sunshine and roses. However, I do wish she would have taken it a step further and explored the possibility that some of her readers will experience trouble in their marriages. Not circumstantial issues like fleas, but actual issues within the relationship.
Because try as you might to fight it, bad relationships still happen, even among the best of people. When you choose to get married, you’re agreeing to life with another human being who has the free will to make their own decisions. A human beyond your control, who may choose to do something hurtful or even harmful. Even if you have the best of expectations, are being the most loving and selfless of partners, or are putting Christ first in the hopes of a glorious marriage, you can’t guarantee that your spouse will choose to do the same. You can’t guarantee that following certain steps will keep you from pain. That’s the risk you take in love.
Which is one reason I don’t agree with the sentiments expressed here:
Last week I drove by one of the “mega-churches” in our area. A huge banner hung from the side of the building so that all the interstate traffic could see it. It read: Divorce Recovery Seminar This Weekend!
How sad. Instead of showcasing the supernatural victory of Christ, this church was proudly proclaiming, “We have all the same problems as the rest of you, but as least we hold seminars about it! You should come join us!” Christian marriages should be the example to the rest of the world, demonstrating that following God’s way brings abundant life, joy, peace, and supernatural victory (p. 176).
I agree that all marriages should be examples of peace and joy. But sometimes they’re not. Sometimes we marry wrong. Sometimes one spouse’s ideologies change. Sometimes a spouse is dishonest going into the marriage. Some people choose to be violent and unsafe.
Of course it’s not the ideal. But it’s reality. It happens. And it’s really not worth hiding from reality to pretend that we’re more okay than we actually are.
So given that reality that some people and some marriages are not okay, what are we going to do about it? Reach out to those who are hurting and provide ways to help them heal? Or show contempt at those who reach out while pretending to have no issues so more people will be drawn to your religion? (Which honestly is one of the most unloving thoughts I’ve read in a long time.)
Victory is not made more victorious by lack of adversity. Victory happens when love perseveres in the darkness.
Ludy wraps up the chapter with a call to exhibit selflessness within marriage. At my own wedding, which was an Eastern Orthodox ceremony, my husband and I had crowns placed on our head. These crowns represent two things: in the ceremony, the priest prays the couple will be crowned with “glory and honor.” Crowns are a symbol of celebration and victory (think an ancient Olympic decoration). They are also a traditional symbol of martyrdom and death.
There, woven in those crowns, was the dual message of victory and suffering. Glory and humility. Eternity and the inevitable sufferings in this life as we wrestle our issues. Celebration of our union and the acknowledgment that such a union necessitates a certain amount of dying to the self you once were.
Stephen (whose name, incidentally, means “crown”) and I have been married for just over three years. It’s been really good. It hasn’t been perfect. We’ve had some really hard days. Our ideologies and beliefs have been radically challenged. God knows I’ve had moments of doubt. We’ve suffered.
But I think I’m a better person for it.
I’m a better person, being married to Stephen, than I used to be. I’m more understanding and open-minded. I’m more confident and courageous. I’m a much better dancer and can recognize a lot more piano songs.
We’ve had a lot of joy, victory and growth, not just through the wonderful times, but through the hard times also.
I never want to pretend that my life is perfect, because I don’t think that helps anyone. Our love story has had sorrow. But it’s also grown more beautiful, more romantic, and more fulfilling with each passing year.
And in that, I will claim victory.