How to be Married and be in Community
- Emily Maust Wood Crosswalk.com Contributor
- 2014 10 Sep
Most marriages begin in the context of community. We throw a party and invite a hundred of our closest friends and turn them into witnesses to our promise that we are going to put our very best into this brand new marriage. Then we climb into an atrociously decorated car and off we go – into wedded bliss, finally and joyfully alone.
If being alone together solved all our feelings of isolation, then this conversation would end here. If the solution to loneliness is marriage, then we can race to the altar, and possibly dedicate our leftover time for friends, for fun or just for their sake.
When I first was happily married and feeling overwhelmed by the task of staying that way, I claimed that I would make time for my friends once I got my marriage on track. I assumed out of hand that I had no right to make time for other people if I couldn’t carve out enough time in a day for my husband. This is a valid point, but it misses the important truth that spending time with people who aren’t my husband is good for my relationship with my husband. We were made for community – and not just for the special community that is marriage.
Our relationships don’t exist in a vacuum. Maybe it’s possible to make it alone – just the two of you – but the context of a safe community is often what we need to cultivate the deep, gracious love that allows us to risk and grow.
There are – and usually should be – things only shared between the two of you. Occasionally we need to shut the door, decidedly and politely, to the rest of the world and nurture our relationship, ourselves, and our family. Still, marriage isn’t the only relationship that should feel like a refuge when life just is too much to bear. We need each other, in true community – not more busyness or shallow relationships.
The idea that we should “do life” together is trending in today’s coffee shop church culture, but it’s not new. Rereading the synoptic gospels, along with the book of Acts, I'm struck by the sheer amount of time that early Jesus-followers spent together learning, journeying, breaking bread with God-in-flesh, and generally getting into each other's business. These books form no treatise on work-life balance, but I’d like to think that if your full time job was standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Jesus, you’d stand a good chance at learning how to love people.
Where Acts leaves us, the Pauline epistles pick up the thread, fielding questions by the same church figures about how specifically they’re to carry on that vision of community life. Although most churches today don’t copy-and-paste first century church structure onto twenty-first century life, we can still relate to (and even commiserate with) the struggle to translate theology to ordinary life.
Interestingly, Paul often speaks of community life and marital life in the same breath. Today, by contrast, marriage often is addressed in Christian circles primarily as set apart from community – not as an extension of it. Community involvement becomes relegated to the symbolic and moral, as marriage stands tall in society as a picture of Christ and the church, a beautiful thing in a broken world, and the only thing standing between society and one last catastrophic skid into judgment.
This version of marriage directs traffic along correct paths without showing its scars or getting its hands dirty. It also usually hosts nice parties. It’s placed in a position of power and influence and is seen as helpful because it imposes structure on society, not so much because each works in conjunction to improve the other.
I attended a Christian college (a place that one of my professors called “a breeding ground for evangelicals”), so I’m no stranger to the treatment of engagement rings as a status symbols, or of marriage as the unofficial penultimate goal of humankind. Senior year saw lots of women stockpiling bridal magazines, scurrying off to cook dinner with their husbands-to-be, and counting down the days until their happy-ever-after. Much of that was good, but what I wish we’d known (or at least acknowledged more readily), along with the promises that marriage would be special and important, is that marriage has never been a cure-all.
It won’t swoop in and save you, singlehandedly, from your problems. You’ll still need other people to stand with you and promise to catch you. You’ll need a safe place to drive to when you’re freaked out from your first fight, good advice to fight more fairly next time, perspective and shared stories, and hot cocoa and gracious allowances that married life (which is just a lot like life) is hard. You’ll need to hear, “You’re not crazy,” or “Maybe that wasn’t very nice of you,” and sometimes both at once. From time to time you’ll need an outside perspective to detect unhealthy patterns, and, maybe more than anything else, you’ll need the comfort of the words “me too.” We need honesty, hope, and genuine hospitality – the kind that doesn’t apologize for the mess – and we need to learn how to show it, too.
Sometimes I feel frustrated that there’s no manual for this relationship. I’ve hoarded dozens of marriage books – enough to construct a makeshift bomb shelter, in a pinch – but all their contradictions and clinical notes leave me feeling queasy. All the advice in all those books desperately piled on my nightstand can’t drive home a point or urge me to grow quite like a friend who’s vowed to stumble along beside me. And when I see real love in all its inadequacies played out before me, I feel surer that two people can stand a chance than I do after having read a book about the same thing.
Other people can’t learn your lessons for you, but some of them have made your mistakes and found a better way. These people aren’t experts (nor can they replace experts), but, with appropriate respect for your boundaries, they can flesh out good advice in practical ways. One of the best ways to stumble upon a right way or two is to stay plugged into other people’s lives.
These relationships also serve to remind you that you’re not alone in your issues. When it looks like all of your social media contacts are “so blessed!” and “so happy!” and everyone who’s not you is buying roses and dining out and you’re reheating pizza and summoning the willpower not to throw in the towel, other people’s problems sound like urban myth. What we need is not more people to tell us how nice their vacation in Maui was, but more people willing to admit that World War III was about to go down in their living room while they packed for the trip.
Instead of creating unrealistic standards for your relationship and crushing it under pressures it wasn’t designed to withstand, be open. Find a safe place and tentatively share your struggles. When that’s safe, and if your partner feels comfortable, open up a little more. Let people know you – faults included. Focus less on your reputation and more on connecting with a community. That way, you can feel safe knowing that if life ever forces on to the two of you a weight that you can’t bear alone, you’ll have a family at the ready to catch you.
Emily Maust Wood is a freelance editor and fitness coach. She lives with her husband and shelter dog, collects old books and broken things, and worries about where her running shoes come from. Charmed by the idea of restoring an old home, she chronicles the adventure at lacorbeille.wordpress.com.
Publication date: September 10, 2014