Establishing a Covenant Foundation
Most people know the divorce rate is around 50 percent for all first-time marriages. However, most people don’t know it’s often higher for subsequent ones. This is usually because people in their second and third marriages used divorce as an option in their past, so it’s easy to use again. Gone are the days where divorced people are frowned upon as a social outcast. Now, divorce is everywhere, and most of us have family members or friends who have been divorced, or we have ourselves. Because it’s so common, it often seems like a perfectly reasonable solution to marital problems. Divorce has become normalized. Therefore, it readily comes to our minds as a possible solution when we hit a rough patch in our marriage.
Another factor encouraging divorce is the upgrade culture we live in. We continually are bombarded with advertisements telling us to upgrade to the newest phone, laptop, TV, car, etc. Without realizing it, we often take this upgrade mentality over into our marriage. If we aren’t happy with our spouse, why not upgrade and get a better model? Changing out what we have for something better often seems like the solution, even in marriage.
From these reasons and countless others, divorce has become a central part of our social fabric, whether we like it or not. Obviously, none of us got married hoping to get divorced one day. Why would anyone spend thousands upon thousands of dollars for wedding dresses, rehearsal dinners, and reception halls, only to get divorced? They wouldn’t. Virtually everyone getting married believes it’s the best decision they can make, and they can’t wait to begin their married life together. However, as joy turns to strain, divorce readily becomes an option for many couples.
One thing to consider is all the reasons not to get divorced. First, divorce can emotionally cripple and debilitate children. Their entire world falls apart, and their sense of security is shaken. Children do best with stability and predictability, and divorce turns their world upside down. Children and teens of divorced homes often struggle in their development, because instead of focusing on their own growth, they become preoccupied with their family stress. In addition, divorce models for your children what to do when they go through difficult times in their marriage one day. Second, divorce is extremely expensive, usually costing you half of everything you own. That is substantial! Is getting a divorce worth losing half of everything you have worked so hard for? In addition, you will also need to pay alimony if you have children, which makes things even more expensive. A friend of mine was stressed because of his unhappy marriage, so he pursued a divorce, but now he is stressed from the $5,000 he pays his ex-wife each month for child support. So, his overall stress has stayed the same, but now he is much poorer! Having said all that, there is a time and place for divorce, which I will discuss later. However, many times, couples rush to divorce before really thinking through the consequences and before really trying to salvage their relationship.
All marriages go through seasons
According to Gary Chapman (2012) all marriages go through seasons, just like our weather patterns. Summer is the first season, where things are hot outside and the trees and grass are thriving. Likewise, in relationships, summer is when couples first begin dating and are madly in love. They are extremely attracted to one another, can only see the good in one another, and want to continually spend time together and share every detail of their lives. However, just as summer gives way to fall and the weather gets cooler, relationships tend to cool off after the first eighteen months. This usually is when couples get married and first move in together and they’ve been together long enough for the newness of the relationship to fade.
Usually around this time, conflict starts to enter in, needs stop being met consistently, hidden resentments start to build up, and imperfections in your partner become more visible. If couples aren’t careful during fall and address their slow drift in the wrong direction, they can easily slip right into winter. Just like our weather, winter is cold and frigid. If you step on a fallen branch during winter, it easily breaks, and this is when many couples break. Winter is when the in-love feelings are gone, resentment is entrenched, and needs are not being met. Most couples get divorced in this season if they are unable to resolve their differences. However, for those who dig deeper during this phase and receive needed support, they can make it through and go right into spring. During spring the trees start to bud, the birds start to chirp again, and there’s a new warmth in the air. Likewise, with relationships. This is when couples start falling back in love again, start resolving their resentments, and begin meeting one another’s needs, perhaps better than ever.
The point of these seasons is to recognize that all couples go through them. It’s normal! Therefore, when your marriage cycles through the seasons, you know all couples experience it. Unfortunately, many couples enter marriage with the misconception that their relationship will stay in summer forever. Then, when they hit fall and winter, they make false conclusions, such as “I must have married the wrong person” or “My needs are never going to be met in this marriage” or “I’m never going to be happy in this relationship.” These false conclusions often lead to divorce. In contrast, couples who are cognizant of these seasons can form different conclusions when they slide into fall and winter, such as “We are in winter; all couples go through this,” or “We’re in winter; we need to work harder at our relationship and get some help.” The benefit of recognizing the seasons is you’ll respond better to them when they occur.
What season do you feel your marriage is in right now and why? (Don’t be alarmed if you think you’re in one season and your spouse thinks you’re in a different one. That’s normal, and the whole point of this book is to begin discussing topics you usually don’t.)
Your marriage is alive
The next concept to consider is that your marriage is alive. I’m a gardener, and I love getting my hands in the dirt. I read a book many years ago, before we bought our first home, on edible landscaping, and I developed a vision of being able to walk through my yard and have a meal by popping some berries here and some vegetables there. I haven’t come close to accomplishing that vision yet, but each house we’ve moved into, I’ve gone crazy planting as many things as I could. We’ve lived in our current house since 2008, and I’ve planted close to twenty-five fruit bushes and trees so far. With all that experience planting, I’ve learned over and over how much living organisms take intentional effort to thrive. They need a certain amount of light, a certain amount of water, and a certain type of soil. If the conditions aren’t right, they wilt and die. Marriage is the exact same way: it needs a certain amount of light, a certain amount of water, and a certain type of soil to thrive. If we are intentional, we can nurture it to health; however, if we neglect it, it will wilt and die.
I work with couples in my practice who had thriving marriages for decades; then something happened, and they took their focus off their relationship, and it wilted and started to die. If I put a plant under my desk where it couldn’t get water and light, it wouldn’t last long before it suffered, and that’s exactly what most of us do to our marriage. We neglect it, and then we’re surprised when it wilts and dies. Most of us gave our relationship all of our attention in the beginning, when we were falling in love, but after marriage our attention often turns outward to careers, finances, kids, etc., and our marriage suffers as a result. So, what would your marriage look like if it were a plant? Would it be beautiful, green, and thriving, or would it be wilted, brown, and dying?
If you think of your relationship as a living organism, what sun, water, and fertilizer does it need to get healthier?
Contract vs. covenant marriages
There are two approaches to marriage, the contract and the covenant. The contract is most relationships today and is entirely based on feelings. It says I’m committed to you as long as my needs are met, I’m in love, and I’m happy. However, the moment you stop meeting my needs, I’m not in love with you anymore, or I’m not happy, divorce becomes a viable option. You know this is most marriages in our culture today because those are the reasons you hear for divorce. There’s nothing wrong with feeling deeply satisfied in marriage. In fact, that’s the ultimate goal of marriage this book will help you achieve. However, when our commitment is 100 percent contingent on our feelings, our marital union becomes fragile because feelings ebb and flow.
In contrast, the covenant marriage is based on principle and says I’m committed to you despite having seasons of winter when my needs aren’t met, I’m not in love, and I’m not happy. Covenant couples sign up for the long haul, through sickness and health, for richer or for poorer. It’s a covenant you’re making with your partner lifelong. The only exceptions in a covenant marriage where divorce is permissible are the three A’s: adultery, abuse, and abandonment. Also, if a top need of yours is continually expressed, and your partner refuses to work on it or improve, this would qualify as neglect, which falls under the abuse umbrella. In these situations, marriage counseling is recommended to explore and resolve the impasse. Perhaps your partner has unhealed trauma blocking them from meeting your needs. Perhaps you’re doing things that are making it difficult for them to meet your needs. If they are still resistant and dismissive of your needs after three to six months of marriage counseling, then a separation is recommended. A separation sends the message I still love you, and I want our marriage to work; however, ignoring and dismissing my needs is unacceptable.
Deciding how you’re going to approach marriage is critical, because it will greatly impact how you approach problems. If you’re in a contract marriage and go through a winter season, one foot will already be out the door considering divorce. However, if you’re in a covenant marriage and go through winter and the three A’s aren’t occurring, then you know divorce isn’t an option. The only option is to dig deeper and try harder. I’ve gone through this in my marriage several times. We’ve been through seasons of winter where I wasn’t happy and everything in me wanted a divorce. However, because the three A’s weren’t occurring, I knew divorce wasn’t an option, so I had to dig deeper and try harder to make it to spring, and eventually we did. If I would have approached my marriage as a contract, I’d be divorced right now.
A major advantage of the covenant approach is that it breeds security. If you know your partner is in it for the long haul, you’ll feel more secure in the relationship. Increased security leads to greater emotional safety and vulnerability, which leads to greater sexual intimacy. In contrast, if your partner frequently throws out divorce as a threat, that will create insecurity in the relationship, which will lead to less emotional and sexual intimacy.
What impact would it make if you approached your marriage as a covenant rather than a contract?
How could you move in that direction?
Marriage is the ultimate refining tool
Nobody likes to suffer and experience strife. However, challenges are inevitable in marriage because it involves two imperfect people living together day in and day out. Therefore, sparks are going to fly. When they fly, it’s critical to consider how you may be getting refined through the challenges. Just as jewelers heat up gold so the imperfections can rise to the surface to be removed, the same is true in marriage. When things heat up in marriage, our shortcomings are often highlighted so we can work on them to get better. This perspective provides purpose in the pain. For example, perhaps the current friction in your relationship is revealing how you tend to be self-absorbed, defensive, too independent, critical, contemptuous, etc. Therefore, one of the best questions to ask yourself the next time you’re upset with your spouse is “What does it say about me that I’m upset with them about that?”
Marriage is one of the most powerful refinement tools to make us better versions of ourselves, if we allow it. We can fight against our spouse’s constructive feedback and resist it, or we can see their criticism as an opportunity to become a better person and partner. This is another benefit to the long-term covenant approach to marriage: we can be refined. In contrast, if we jump from relationship to relationship, we bring all our baggage with us and never change. One area my marriage has refined me in is learning to become more considerate. Many years ago, when we only had two boys who were ages three and one, my wife and I decided it was time to plan our first family vacation. So, I decided to spearhead the idea by taking charge. First, I went online to look for cabins in the mountains. Before long, I got impatient with all the details of the results, so I booked the first one that looked good, without researching it thoroughly for reviews, amenities, etc. Next, I went to a bike store to purchase a bike rack so my wife and I could take our new bikes with us on the trip. At the store, I found the bike rack section and briefly browsed the various models. I found the cheapest one, and without asking for any recommendations from the employees, I purchased it and headed home.
Once home, I started getting the bikes ready for the trip as my wife packed the car. I hate reading directions, so I threw out the bike rack manual and proceeded to put it on the back of the car to the best of my ability, which isn’t saying very much. Next, we piled into the car and proceeded to drive toward Glenwood Springs, Colorado along I-70, cruising at around eighty miles an hour. Every twenty to thirty minutes, I looked back to make sure both bikes were okay, and so far, so good. We finally reached our exit after about three hours of driving, and we exited to the right and stopped at a light. While stopped, I decided to glance back at the bikes one more time, and when I did, there was only one bike instead of two! I quickly hopped out of the car and ran to the back to double check, and sure enough we were missing my wife’s bike. I couldn’t believe it. I dropped off my wife and kids at the cabin and drove back thirty miles, thinking I would find my wife’s bike, but I never did. Understandably, she was very disappointed to lose her new bike, all because I hadn’t taken the time to get a quality bike rack and taken the time to properly install it.
Then, as we slept that night in the cabin, starting around 9:00 p.m., bright lights started shining through our windows. I went out to see what it was and realized our cabin was right next to a truck stop. Therefore, all night we had large trucks pulling in and shining their lights into our cabin, making sleep nearly impossible. If I would have been more thorough in my research and read the reviews of the cabin, I would have known this.
The last disaster of the trip, which wasn’t my fault, was with my oldest son, Forrest. There was a little creek running down the middle of our camping area with six cabins on each side. Little did we know, Forrest had been playing with the rocks on the side of the creek and dislodged so many of them that the water overflowed the banks and flooded all the cabins. We reported it to the office, and they quickly brought a crew to come re-dig the borders of the creek to stop the flooding. Phew, what a first vacation! It certainly taught me lessons on the importance of becoming more considerate in my decision-making and how it impacts my family.
What are the top ways your marital challenges are making you into a better person?
What parts of the chapter were most helpful for you and why?
Chapman, Gary (2012). The Four Seasons of Marriage. Tyndale House Publishers.