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Ask a Different Question: How (Bad) Good Is Your Marriage?

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How bad is your marriage?

What bothers you at this very moment concerning your spouse? Is your husband stonewalling you? Is your wife complaining far too much? Is the reverse true?

Do you want your husband to be more romantic? Do you wish your wife would desire to be sexually intimate with you more often than she normally does? Is the reverse true?

Are you arguing over your bills? Are you upset with how one of you is parenting? Are you irked at your spouse’s mother?

Honestly, how bad is your marriage?

For many, the above situations and others are causing them to conclude that their marriage is unhappy, failing, even irredeemable. Their marriage feels so bad that they are divorcing.

But is it bad or just not as good as one had hoped?

That is an important distinction. Too many couples lose perspective. Because marriage life has been less than hoped, an erroneous conclusion is drawn that things are “bad.” But such a conclusion should never be drawn lightly, for the prophet Isaiah said, “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil” (Isaiah 5:20).

My intention here is not to guilt-trip you but to remind you that losing perspective is too easy.

The question you should be asking is not, “How bad is your marriage?” The question should be, “How good is your marriage?”

We might even ask, “How good is your marriage compared to those who really have it bad?” Yes, comparisons can be inappropriate. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 10:12, “We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves.”

However, if we look at others’ lives and experiences to gain wisdom and perspective, that is most appropriate (1 Corinthians 10:6-12). There is a time to conclude, “Wow, I don’t have it nearly as difficult as so and so. I need to quit my complaining.” In that sense we are comparing to gain perspective. If we have lost perspective, sometimes stepping back and observing what others are suffering reminds us that we are not suffering; at least in comparison. That sage advice still applies: "You have no reason to complain."

On a simple level, one learns in late adolescence—or should—that exploding in anger over a torn jacket can be extremely immature when learning that an older schoolmate was just torn up by shrapnel on the battlefield. We feel ashamed at our loss of perspective—and should—when comparing our plight to the trauma of others.

As for marriage, compared to what others have experienced, does our Lord look at us and grieve over our lack of contentment and gratitude?

Again, comparisons are important. Not for the purpose of boasting or condescension but so that we may deepen in our restfulness and thankfulness to God. This is true for most of us. Truth is, things could be far worse. Truth is, things are far better than the plights we complain about. Truth is, we want marriage to be energizing moment by moment, but because it is not, we wrongly conclude things are bad.

Let me tell you what is “bad.”

Recently, I read the story of a man named John Cooper. His wife, Marjorie, contracted polio in 1945. The disease left her paralyzed from the neck down. At age twenty-six, she had to begin living with an iron lung—a bulky cylindrical tank that enabled her to live—and remained in this for the rest of her life, which ended up being another forty years. She would become the world’s longest-surviving iron-lung patient. But Marjorie never complained!

Nor did John Cooper, who cared for his wife for forty years.

Neither saw this as "bad."

Their firstborn son, Dale, who would later become the chaplain at Calvin College, was four when polio hit his mother, and his brother was only two months old. Dale said, "Neither she nor my dad ever called attention to it or bemoaned their plight. I can't recall once, not a single time, that she ever complained. Quite the contrary, she was upbeat, joyous, thoroughly life-affirming, and possessed by a sparkling humor" (Holland Sentinel, October 31, 2002). Dale continued. "Smilingly, she called it her 'green Cadillac. True, except in this sense—Cadillacs are a luxury. For her the lung was not a luxury. On it she depended for her every breath." But, she did all the things a mom does. "She composed shopping lists in her head, had an uncanny sense of where we might have left our shoes and ball gloves, encouraged us in our school work and disciplined us without ever lifting a finger. In so many ways she was a normal mom. So normal, in fact, that for years I really didn't fully comprehend that she was sick.”

May I ask you again, compared to Marjorie’s circumstances, “How bad is your marriage?”

John Cooper, who died in 2001, wanted to be a farmer but had to give that up to care for Marjorie. During the first four years of her disease, he stayed with her full-time at the hospital. Dale said, "Dad kept on keeping his vows. He held her almost totally in his care, bathing her, brushing her teeth, combing her hair. He was the hands by which she did things. He turned pages in a book or magazine. He fed her, he switched on the TV, he wrote the Christmas and birthday cards, he did their shopping, he cleaned their house."

Years ago John Cooper was interviewed by a television newscaster from Chicago who said, “You're worth doing a story on, for I can't imagine anyone sticking with his wife when she had so little left to offer." About this, John’s son Dale said, "Then my diminutive and slightly ill-at-ease dad, never one to stand and preach a sermon, declared the gospel in an eloquence that I shall never possess. He said, 'I love my wife. I'm a Christian, and we try to keep our promises.'"

Dale remembers that when his mom died on August 29, 1985, his dad tried to ease her distress in breathing, but nothing helped. "Mom took her last shallow breath and then died. I shut the lung off—the first time in 40 years. For a brief few moments, the room was deathly quiet. Then my Dad punctuated the silence. With eloquent simplicity he spoke words I shall never forget: 'Margie was a wonderful wife.'"

"My Dad was an ordinary little fellow," recalls Dale. "But in my book he was a giant of a man. He left a lasting impact on me and I want to honor his memory. . . . My Dad's life was a sheer gift of God to me. I'm so proud to bear my father's name."

Let me ask you again: How bad is your marriage?

Let’s revisit the above-mentioned complaints that many couples have. Is your husband stonewalling you? Is your wife complaining far too much? Do you want your husband to be more romantic? Do you wish your wife would desire to be sexually intimate with you more often than she normally does? Are you arguing over your bills? Are you upset with how one of you is parenting? Are you irked at your spouse’s mother?

There are indeed some valid concerns here that you probably need to work through with your spouse. However, with John and Marjorie’s story in mind, is “How bad is your marriage?” really the question you want to bemoan about? Perhaps I should slightly reword the question: How good is your marriage?

This blog post is not to guilt trip you, it is to free you to enjoy the fact that things may not be as bad as you think. Would you not agree, some of us are walking out on our spouses for pretty shallow “reasons”? If honest with ourselves, most of us have it pretty good; we just don’t have all that we want.

The next time somebody asks, “How is your marriage?” may I suggest answering more positively? “Well, not bad, not bad at all. Oh, there are disappointments that hurt and anger us. But I have so much for which to be thankful.”

Because the truth is, you do. Always.

Emerson Eggerichs, Ph.D.
Author, Speaker, Pastor

Questions to Consider

  1. Why is it that so many married couples, who were at one time so happy and in love, far too quickly “conclude that their marriage is unhappy, failing, even irredeemable,” and begin to contemplate divorce? How does one’s perspective toward troubles contribute to how “good” or “bad” they feel their marriage is?
  2. If you were asked, “How good is your marriage?” how would you answer? If you were asked, “How bad is your marriage?” how would you answer? How did the simple change in words lead you to answer differently? Why is that?
  3. Explain the differences between “disappointments” in marriage and real, strife-causing problems. In your opinion, are more divorces today a result of disappointments or problems?
  4. When was a time when God led you to compare your so-called marital problems with other, more detrimental problems and you gained a new perspective on just how really “bad” your problems were? How did this new perspective help you trek through your problems more positively?