10 Marriage Reality Checks (from 10 Years of Marriage)


by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free
We got married before Pinterest. That's why there are no mason jars or paper cranes. 

We got married before Pinterest. That's why there are no mason jars or paper cranes. 

This week Dan and I celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary! 

Of the many good things in my life, I must say my happy marriage is probably the best. But like every couple, we've had to learn as we go. So here are a 10 myths and 10 reality checks we've encountered along the way: 

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 Myth #1: The best way to prepare for marriage, and to thrive in it, is to learn the differences between men and women so you will know what men/women want. 

Reality Check: The best way to prepare for marriage, and to thrive in it, is to learn about your partner so you know what your partner wants. 

You don’t marry a gender; you marry a person. And yet the majority of Christian marriage books dole out advice based on gender stereotypes: “men need adventure,” “women need security,” “men like quiet time,” “women process verbally,” “men crave respect and control,” “women crave love and emotional intimacy,” “men are like microwaves,” “women are like ovens.”  But even before we got married, Dan and I realized that just as often as we fit these generalities, we don’t.  Dan knows I’d prefer tickets to a football game over a nice piece of jewelry and that too much security and not enough adventure leaves me feeling bored. I know that Dan is better at nurturing friendships than I am and thrives creatively when he has the chance to collaborate with other people.

So for all of this talk of men being “wired” one way and women being “wired” another, we have found, as Micah Murray puts it, that “wires are for robots.” We are human beings, and we relate to one another better when we stop expecting the other person to behave in a prescribed, programmed way but instead talk openly with one another about our actual desires, preferences, hopes, and expectations.  

This is why I would sooner recommend The 5 Love Languages to prospective couples than one of the myriad of Christian books that attempt to prepare people for marriage by basing advice on gender stereotypes.  Or better yet, compare your results from the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the Taylor-Johnson Temperament Analysis, or the Enneagram.  Or best of all, simply pay attention to one another to observe what makes the other person laugh, rest, rejuvenate, connect, grow, and thrive and try to communicate with one another about what makes each of you laugh, rest, rejuvenate, connect, grow and thrive. You don’t marry a gender; you marry a person. And you get to spend the rest of your marriage figuring out what makes your partner tick.

 

Myth#2: Never go to bed angry. 

Reality Check: 3 a.m. is not the best time to sort out your feelings. 

I suspect this oft-repeated piece of advice is meant to encourage couples not to repress or hang on to their anger, but to sort out their differences in a timely manner before the years of inattention turn them into deeper wounds than they need to be…in which case I totally agree.  

But, in my experience, sometimes the best way to keep communication healthy and open is to go to bed angry and then talk about it the next morning when you’ve had enough sleep to know that leaving the milk out in the car probably wasn’t a veiled act of aggression meant to symbolize every problem in the relationship, but rather just the sort of mistake anyone would make while distracted by a fascinating story on NPR. 

Sometimes lack of sleep is actually the cause of friction, so taking that out of the equation and waiting to talk when everyone’s a bit more rested might actually be a better strategy for nipping the conflict in the bud.  

 

Myth #3: If you wait until marriage to have sex, your first time will be FLAWLESS and AWESOME and there will be FIREWORKS and ANGELS SINGING OVER YOUR FAITHFULNESS! 

Reality Check: The bad news is this is total bull; the good new is it gets much, much better. 

 

dan-and-rachel-2.jpg

Myth #4: Women must learn to be indirect about their opinions and desires so as not to upset a man’s sense of “leadership” in the home. 

Reality Check: It is healthier to communicate honestly and openly with one another to avoid manipulation and repression. 

I can’t tell you how many wedding showers I’ve attended in which women joke with the bride about how to get her way by making her husband think something was his idea when it was really hers. Ironically, I hear this most often from folks who promote hierarchal gender roles in the home. Since women are seen as their husband’s subordinates, they have to think of creative ways to share their ideas and desires rather than just stating them directly, for fear of taking too much initiative in the relationship. 

But let me tell you, Dan would much rather I take the initiative and communicate to him directly about my thoughts, ideas, and opinions because 1) he’s from Jersey and that’s how people from Jersey talk to each other, 2) it’s way more efficient, saving time and emotional energy, and 3) I’ve got some damn good ideas and Dan’s not threatened by that. Dan and I are a team and we function so much better when we make decisions together, without a pecking order and without subtle, manipulative games.  

 

Myth #5: All you need are shared values and shared faith to get along. 

Reality Check: This may be true…but I’m pretty convinced that a shared sense of humor is just as important. 

 

Halloween 2009: Truck Driver & Road Kill 

Halloween 2009: Truck Driver & Road Kill 

Myth #6: Women need men to be their spiritual leaders.

Reality Check:  You’re going to need one another on the journey of faith. 

The teaching that men are to be the “spiritual leaders” of their homes is found nowhere in Scripture, and yet I—along with far too many young evangelical women—spent hours upon hours fretting over this in college, worrying I’d never find a guy who was more knowledgeable about the Bible than I, who was always more emotionally connected to God than I,  who was better at leading in the church than I, and who consistently exhibited more faithfulness and wisdom than I. (In fact, under this paradigm, I came to see many of my gifts as liabilities, impediments to settling down with a good “spiritual leader”!) 

Well guess what. I never found such a person. I never found a spiritual “leader.” Instead, I found a spiritual companion to travel with me on the journey of faith, for better or worse, in good times and bad, in times of spiritual wealth and in times of spiritual poverty.  Dan isn’t expected to always be the strong one while I am always the weak one. Instead, we cheer each other on, help each other up, and challenge each other to do better. Sometimes we walk side by side, moving along at a quick pace. Sometimes we help each other over boulders and fallen trees. Sometimes I’m leading the way; sometimes Dan is. Sometimes I carry him and sometimes he carries me. The journey of faith is far too treacherous and exciting and beautiful to spend it looking at the back of another person’s head. Jesus leads us down the path, and we tackle it together, one step at a time. 

The Bible never teaches that one partner must be more spiritually mature than the other. But it does teach that “two are better than one, because they have a good return on their labor: if either of them falls down, one can help the other up.” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10). When Dan doesn’t feel pressure to always be the leader, he can relax and lean on me when he needs to. And when I don’t feel the pressure to always be the follower, I can relax and be myself and let my gifts flourish. We’re in this together, side by side. 

(I'm being told some people think Ephesians 5 teaches that men are to be spiritual leaders. I deal with that a bit here.

 

 We celebrated our 10th a little early with a summer trip to Glacier National Park, Yellowstone National Park, and the Grand Tetons. 

 We celebrated our 10th a little early with a summer trip to Glacier National Park, Yellowstone National Park, and the Grand Tetons. 

Myth #7: “We don’t need a marriage counselor/financial planner/psychological evaluation/sex therapist/ recovery group/doctor, we have a pastor!” 

Reality Check: You may very well need a marriage counselor/financial planner/psychological evaluation/sex therapist/recovery group/doctor. 

Unfortunately, too many churches these days think of their pastors as either gurus or czars, and some even discourage church members from seeking guidance or help for their marriages outside the church. This is profoundly unhealthy, as many pastors are not qualified to be financial planners or to diagnose mental illness or to counsel couples through their conflicts in an unbiased and educated way. Furthermore, such models place far too much pressure on pastors and create unrealistic expectations around them. If you are part of a church that discourages outside counseling, get out; it’s not healthy. A good pastor will be eager and able to recommend you to an expert when he or she senses an issue may be out of his/her depth. 

 

Myth #8: One spouse is called to make the money and the other spouse is called to make dinner. One spouse is called to make the decisions and the other spouse is called to make the home. 

Reality Check: You are called to make a life together. 

I can see where sticking to agreed-upon roles can be helpful in some cases, but I think it’s unwise to base these roles on gender or ideology (as opposed to practicality), and I think it’s destructive to impose them legalistically, without regard to changing life circumstances.  One of the first lessons you learn in a marriage is that you can plan and dream all you want, but you have to live in reality. So if your notion of “roles” can’t survive a layoff or a pregnancy or an illness or one partner’s success or another partner’s disappointment, you’re asking for trouble.  

The point is to make a life together, based on your unique circumstances and gifts, not to force yourselves into prescribed roles regardless of how they fit. Dan and I tried the gender-based roles thing at first, and while some of those roles stuck, others didn’t. These days, we don’t assign the task of breadwinning to one partner and the task of homemaking to the other; we work as a team, shifting responsibilities and tasks to accomplish a common shared goal: to be self-employed while making enough money to the pay for internet. (Okay, so we've got other goals too, but that’s the main one right now!)  

Our life isn’t divided into two spheres. Our goals, joys, disappointments, successes, failings, financial earnings, investments, ideas, dreams, and plans are shared. Always. 

(Note: I do think that when roles are more fluid, there may be more occasions for conflict as it’s not always clear who is responsible for what in the home. This has been the source of some disagreement within the Evans household, and I suspect many others. A big turning point in my own attitude and posture in this regard happened when I heard a report…on NPR, of course!...about a study that revealed that in a workplace setting, when two people have been assigned a task, both consistently report believing they did more work than the other person to accomplish it. The conclusion from the study was that even when responsibilities are evenly shared, we humans have a habit of believing we have done more and our partners have done less. So when I find myself resenting Dan for presumably not doing as much as I’m doing, I remind myself of all the things he HAS been doing—like keeping track of our crazy TAXES for example!—while I wasn’t paying attention. It’s a little thing, but it’s really helped.)

Myth #9: If you go into marriage assuming divorce isn’t an option, then it will never happen. 

Reality Check: Divorce happens and you don’t avoid it by pretending it doesn’t. 

This is something that Dan really impressed upon me as we began our marriage. Having come from a (wonderful & loving) home where his parents got divorced, Dan knows from experience that simply being “against” divorce doesn’t prevent it from happening. So from the beginning, Dan has been a big advocate for not taking our marriage for granted, but rather working on it every day. 

(This is not to say that all marriage fail because of lack of hard work. They fail for a myriad of reasons and I’m not interested in judging or condemning anyone who has experienced that painful process.) 

 

Myth #10: A Christian home should be centered around a certain household model. 

Reality Check: A Christian home should be centered around the person of Jesus Christ. 

Growing up in the church, I always heard that a Christian home would only flourish if there was a clear patriarchal pecking order in which the husband leads the wife and the wife submits to her husband. This was supposedly based on the teachings of Scripture, and yet I saw plenty of marriages based on that model fall apart! 

Obviously, I’m a big advocate for mutual submission in marriage, as that is what I believe those biblical passages ultimately teach and this is what works best in our marriage, but more important than adopting a single household model—either patriarchal or egalitarian—is adopting the posture of Jesus Christ, who emptied himself of power and took the role of servant.  If I’m honest, I’ve seen this sort of humility and service reflected in egalitarian marriages, and I’ve seen this sort of humility and service reflected in more complementarian/patriarchal marriages. So I don’t think it’s as much about finding the perfect model in terms of a structure as it is about finding the perfect model in terms of the person of Jesus.  If I’ve learned anything in the past 10 years of marriage it’s that you can’t go wrong imitating Jesus’ humility, forgiveness, patience, compassion, and love. 

 

Myth #10.5: You should follow all of my marriage advice to the letter because I’ve totally got this marriage thing figured out. 

Reality Check: I don’t. Take all of this with a grain of salt and sense of humor, keeping in mind that I wrote most of it this afternoon while still wearing my pajamas. 

I like that in this picture you can see that older couple down by the lake enjoying each other. I hope we are as happy in 40 years! 

I like that in this picture you can see that older couple down by the lake enjoying each other. I hope we are as happy in 40 years! 

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So, what are some marriage myths and reality checks you’ve learned long the way? 

I’d love to hear from singles too about more general relationship myths and reality checks. 

 

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