Marriage Advice From A Christian Perspective

Expectation vs. Reality: Straight Talk on Marital Redemption with Paul David Tripp

  • Shawn McEvoy Managing Editor
  • Updated Sep 29, 2010
Expectation vs. Reality: Straight Talk on Marital Redemption with Paul David Tripp


Full disclosure… I did not want to conduct this interview. Oh, I was glad to have the opportunity, knew the book dealt with an important topic in a gentle and special way, and was looking forward to meeting Paul Tripp. What I did not want to do was risk exposing the fact that two words from his book's title - "expect" and "realities" were all too close to my heart of late.  Several friends had confided their marital struggles to me, and I myself was starting to feel the strain.

What Tripp does, however, both in person and with his writing style in What Did You Expect? Redeeming the Realities of Marriage (Crossway, 2010), is put you at ease. His voice soothes, his humility engenders decreased tension.  His advice fosters healing. By the time we were finished, I was refreshed by renewed hope. But according to him, it wasn't always this way… Let me start by asking you, Paul, what did you expect?  What personally did you realize was thrown off by the nature of what we do with expectation in marriage

Paul Tripp: I was totally unprepared for marriage.  I did not know that I was unprepared.  I thought that Luella and I were in love enough that our romance would be sturdy enough to sustain the stuff that people face in marriage, and I got to a point where I was a very angry man.  Part of that is because if you don't understand that it is a flawed person married to a flawed person—and so that person is going to fail, they are going to be weak, they are going to have bad days—then I am not shocked by that if I go in with realistic expectations. 

What happens is that I don't personalize things that aren't personal.  Often, that is what happens in marriage.  It becomes very personal.  If Luella has a bad response to me at 7:30 at night, well she did not wake up at 8:00 and say, "At 7:30 tonight, I am going to be mean to Paul and wreck his day."  It is not personal.  So I was building up this backlog, and I think I wanted more control of my world than you can ever have, and God worked out circumstances where that anger became very clear to me.  But part of my reason for wanting to write this book is I just think there are masses of people who just go into marriage with unrealistic expectations.

CW: And that is a great point.  Why is expectation such a common frustration in marriage?  Have we been unrealistic?  Did each spouse oversell themselves going in?  What is going on?

PT: Well I do think that modern American dating is just a step above used car sales.

CW: [Laughs]. How come?

PT: Because when you are dating, the last thing you want is for that person to get to know you, because you are trying to sell yourself to that person.  So a man who does not like to shop will shop, and a woman who does not like to watch sports will watch sports.  Then, six months into marriage, the woman is crying, "This is not the man I married."  Well, this is the man you married.  The man you dated was a fake.  So I think that goes on.

I think there is a second thing.  I don't think we have taken the Bible seriously in understanding what it means when a sinner marries a sinner.  Second Corinthians 5: 15 says that Jesus came so that those who live would no longer live for themselves.  Here is what this means:  The DNA of sin is selfishness.  That means that sin in its fundamental form is antisocial because I care more about me than I do anyone else.  I shrink my world down to my wants, my needs, and my feelings.  That means that I will reduce the people in my life to vehicles or obstacles.  If you help me get what I want, I love you cards and flowers.  If you stand in the way of what I want, I am spontaneously irritated and angry. 

Now, think about it.  Who has that conversation with couples going into marriage?  We talk a little bit about sex, a little bit about finances, a little bit about roles, a little bit about communication, but those aren't the cause of our problems.  Those are the locations of the problems.  The cause is this selfishness. 

Imagine a husband and wife getting married, and they have this thought in their mind, "Because of the DNA of sin inside of me, I am my biggest marriage problem.  It is me.  I don't need to be rescued from you.  I need to be rescued from me."  If both people go into marriage that way, then they have a whole different way of approaching the things that every couple faces. 

I think many people think, "Our romance is deep enough, and it is sturdy enough.  We won't deal with the stuff that other people do."  But they still carry that DNA with them.  It is inescapable.

CW: You used the phrase "the things that every couple faces."  I have some friends going through tough times in marriage, and when they bring it up to their friends in the church, their friends are shocked to hear it; they thought they were the only ones.  Why do we think that not every couple faces what we face?

PT: Well, I think part of that is that the Church of Jesus Christ has not been the honest community that it could be.  If God's grace has covered all of my sin—past, present, and future— why am I afraid of what you think of me?  I shouldn't be.  And so I should be able to say, "Look, I am struggling in my marriage," and not be haunted by how I will be viewed because the person who most knows most about me still loves me and forgives me and wants to give me strength to grow. 

So I just think the Christian community isn't honest.  And so it makes it very hard for couples to say, "We are struggling," because they have misconceptions about everybody else, because we dress ourselves up on Sunday, and we say the platitudinous things.  You can see this in Sunday school.  The person will raise their hand and say, "Maybe this is a dumb question, but …" and fifty people are happy that they asked the question because they had the same question. [Laughs].

CW:  In the book, you go into six commitments of how couples can redeem the realities of marriage.  Why these six commitments?  How did you arrive at them, and how can these commitments get couples to focus?

PT: Let me say a little bit about how the book is structured.  The up-front part of the book provides couples a mirror to look into and see themselves.  It is a diagnostic.  And I am welcoming couples to let down their guard and say, "Yes, this is me.  This is where we are struggling."  Then the second part of the book, The Six Commitments, says okay, what do we do about that?  How do we get ourselves on a different road toward change?  

And the six commitments just flow out of the kinds of things that the Bible says about me, and the kinds of things that the Bible says about God's grace for me.  For example, if it is a flawed person married to a flawed person, then it seems that you have got to have a habit of daily confession and forgiveness.  There is no way that I am not going to sin against you.  There is no way that I am not going to have a bad day, and I am not going to blow it.  So we have to have a culture where you can come to me, and I am not going to activate my inner lawyer and defend myself against you.  I am actually going to be thankful for your help because I know I need it.  I am going to say, "Please forgive me."  You say, "Done."  And we have settled that.  That becomes not a scary thing that we have to build up to, but it becomes just an everyday habit because we know we are broken people.

CW: In the section about how couples need to protect their marriage, you mention that some couples, some long-married couples even, become resigned at some point to letting go.  You mention that some had quit living as one and had begun living "separately together."  That was a phrase that really resonated with me.  What can couples who discover this truth do?  Are they at a point of no return or can they bring it back to where they are living in unity?

PT: I think this: Whenever a God of grace gives me insight, it is grace.  It is not condemnation.   It is grace.  He has given me an opportunity to look inside and look outside and say, "I've got problems, and they need to be fixed."  Jesus did not just die for my past or my future; He died for my here and now.  There is grace for this moment. 

One of the sad things I think that is all over is this state that I call "marital détente."  Couples get tired of screaming and yelling.  They get tired of fighting, but they don't solve their problems.  They begin to live around them.  And so they live in distance and alienation and silence.  It is not a marriage.  It is not a marriage in the real sense of what that means.  It is that separately-together cohabitation.  It is a sort of Cold War.  And you don't have to be there.  There is help.  There isn't a pit deeper than Jesus is deep.  That is just the way it is.

So I would say to couples, "Admit you need help."  If you can't do that together as a couple, reach out for help from somebody.  Is there a mature married couple or your pastor?  Find someone who can begin to walk through this with you, because you are not stuck.

CW: It may be true that we're not stuck, but what is so hard about marriage today?  Was it supposed to be easier than this?  Is it our culture?  You mentioned earlier a selfishness that keeps us from wanting to be intentional with marriage versus having this glorified, unintentional, everything-is-going-to-be-fine kind of marriage.  How did we get here?

PT: Well, I think there are a couple of things you can say about that.  If you look at Genesis 3 after Adam and Eve broke God's rules, it did not take long for them to be out after one another—you know, the blame game.  In the next generation, you have sibling homicide.  So things got bad pretty quickly.

CW: [Laughs]. Good point.

PT: So, there is that stuff in all of us, but I think there is something else happening in Western culture that is important.  It is how we have defined "the good life."  We don't define the good life relationally.  The good life is about career power.  The good life is about a big house, a nice car, and great vacations.  It is about eating in luxurious restaurants.  And so we are in pursuit of all of these idols of the culture that leave you with no time to invest in this principal relationship. 

I talk about having a work ethic in your marriage.  Marriage takes work.  It takes investment.  It takes time.  So you have got a husband working seventy hours a week and a wife working fifty, and they have got children.  They have little time left to do the daily things that are necessary to keep this thing healthy. 

I use the example of a garden.  You don't plant a garden and walk away.  Even if you have done a good job of clearing the land, weeds are going to grow.  You've got to till and water that garden.  In the same way, you cannot walk away from a marriage and involve yourself in all of these cultural dreams and expect to come back in five years and your marriage will be okay.  It won't happen.

CW: So it's clear there is hard work involved. And difficulty, such as when you mentioned situations like how much time each individual is spending at work and having children and other things that make it hard… and I am thinking these are the "realities of marriage" from your book's subtitle.  But you don't use the phrase "working on the realities of marriage;" you use the phrase "redeeming the realities of marriage."  Can you talk a little bit about that word you used, redemption?

PT: Sure, because the hope of this book is not that I am going to give you some insights.  The hope of this book is a Redeemer.  As Christians, we don't believe in a system of redemption, we believe in a Redeemer.  There is, as many people have said, a third person in your marriage.  The one who created marriage cares more about your marriage than you will ever care.  And He does not say, "Clean yourself up."  He meets you at your deepest point of need.

 When I realized that I was a deeply angry man, I had no idea how to fix that.  And I say to people that I prayed my most deeply theological prayer.  I just prayed, "Lord, help me.  Lord, help me.  Lord, help me."  And it was not a zap of lightning, but I was now a man with eyes open, ears open, and a heart open.  And it is amazing all of the resources that God brought my way.  It was like everything I encountered was speaking to that anger.  I felt tremendously helped. 

And I can remember the moment when I saw Luella from behind and realized I could not recall the last time I had experienced that bold, ugly, life-dominating anger.  Now, I am still capable of a minor moment of irritation, but that life-dominating force was gone.  That is the hope of this book, that for every need, there isn't just the wisdom of Scripture, but there is the grace of a Redeemer who sent His Son because He was unwilling for us to be trapped in this mess.

CW: Amen.

Article originally posted September 21, 2010.