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Making a Good Marriage

Couple on beach
"We are just friends." You have likely said it - about a guy or girl who was distinct from Friday night "dates"; But maybe we have it all backward.

Almost a year ago I got a call from a former student asking me to meet him and “a friend” for breakfast. A few mornings later we met for bagels and baguettes at a little café on Capitol Hill.

When I saw the two of them walk in, hand-in-hand, I wondered whether something might be up. Their childlike delight in each other soon persuaded me that my intuition was right, and not so long into the conversation they announced, “We’re getting married!” Given that I have lived my life among students, I have heard news like this many times.

I confess: Sometimes it brings immediate gladness, as I know both well enough to know they will be good to and for each other. There are other times when I think, Let me watch and listen for a while; I hope the best for them. And then sometimes my stomach sinks, as it simply seems the wrong decision.

I have loved the young man of this couple for six years, ever since he came to Washington for a semester of study. Quite serious philosophically and politically, he spent his days walking between the think tank office of Judge Robert Bork doing research on the book which became Slouching Toward Gomorrah and his classroom reflection upon contemporary political debates in the light of biblical faith. But his bow-tied thoughtfulness was always in tension with an impishness that made it hard to believe that he took himself too seriously.

A year later he graduated and applied to graduate school to pursue studies in political theory. But before that could happen, history lurched forward, and he found himself the only family member able to attend to his grandmother’s Alzheimer’s disease. With unusual courage and grace, he spent the next four years as her primary caregiver, tending to her as she had tended to him, as a motherless little boy some 20 years earlier. He developed a rare books business alongside his major work of spending his days with his grandmother. And slowly, very slowly, he found his vocational vision changing from the public square to the pulpit and began planning toward a seminary education.

As we talked that morning it became obvious that these two high school friends had grown in love over the past 10 years, moving through different colleges and experiences in the years beyond — the one staying home, very literally; the other living and working overseas — and had found each other through their deepening friendship. Reading good books, taking long walks, playing wonderful music. The ins and outs of life together, allowing them to grow into love with each other. As Dickens’ David Copperfield observed, in reflecting on his own effort to love a young woman, “It is trifles that make the sum of life.” As I listened it became more and more clear that these two wanted each other as husband and wife, and as much as is possible without entering into marriage, had counted the cost.

They asked if I would give the wedding sermon; that in fact was the major reason for their wanting to get together that morning. I reminded them that I was a professor and so did not often serve young friends in that way. They were ready for that answer, it seemed, and after a long, hard — and yet very tender — look into their eyes, I told them that I would be glad to be part of their happy day.

As I now felt more deeply invested in their lives and future than I had imagined I would be when I got up that morning — and since they lived out of state and therefore beyond the possibility of much ongoing face-to-face conversation — I decided to go for it and give them a little sermon on the meaning of marriage, something to muse over in the months to come. I told them that I had observed two qualities that marked marriages that lasted (at least “lasted” in the sense that there was substantial — though never perfect — happiness for both husband and wife). Simply said, marriages that flourish are friendships that are characterized by the daily decision to take delight in and to give grace to one’s spouse. Through glories and shames, through thick and thin, it is those two habits of heart that distinguish good marriages from not-so-good ones.

And as I sent them off into a year of planning toward their marriage, I hugged them, yearning from the deep places that they would learn to do just that.

Some months before the wedding date I began to get emails, setting forth their developing hopes and dreams. I duly noted them, checking my calendar to make sure we were all planning toward the same place and time. And then the days began to tick away much more quickly. The emails increased, too, with a flurry over a change of church only a few weeks before the Big Day. In my heart I began to look to heaven, wanting wisdom to speak a word from God as their community of family and friends gathered together to provide witness to their promises to give faithful love, one to the other. And gather we did in a country church building in Lancaster County in central Pennsylvania.

The loveliness and thoughtfulness woven throughout the service were extraordinary. Though all weddings are unique, showing forth their own distinct visions of “a most beautiful and wonderful day,” I don’t think I have ever seen a ceremony that showed such ordered gracefulness. But though the theological and aesthetic richness of the service deserves its own chronicle, my interest here is elsewhere.

For years now I have been pursuing the question, “How do students learn to connect what they believe about the world, with how they live in the world?” That question can legitimately take the conversation into a thousand different directions, as it is as interested in philosophical debates as it is psychological dynamics, in questions of both calling and career, in academic as well as relational responsibilities. Everything under the sun. From the most public commitments to the most personal concerns is written into the way that we connect what we believe with how we live — a worldview with a way of life.

Here is the issue: The longer I listen to students, the surer I am that it is in their relationships that their deepest beliefs are most clearly seen — especially the relationships between males and females.

Hardly a week goes by that I don’t talk to some 18 year old or 25 year old about “relationships.” This has been true for 20-plus years, so I have had lots of conversations. The stories are always different, but there are inevitably some common themes. Laughter. Longing. Pain. Anguish. Hopes. Dreams. In some combination they are always there, finding one more creative way to be expressed in a relationship between a young man and young woman. And I have listened and listened again.

In this area of life, like in every other, it is possible to get all A’s and flunk life. I have seen it a thousand times in a thousand ways. A guy can be theologically astute and sociologically sophisticated, and treat the girls of his life horribly. A woman can have an unusual degree of maturity in most every way and make the most awful choices relationally. A thousand times, a thousand ways.

As a young college student a long time ago,within a few months after I first heard the word worldview, I was confronted with one more failed relationship. I had acted selfishly, again. And so rather than a deepening of commitment and communication because a real friendship knows how to address selfishness — repentance and forgiveness — we broke up. What else could we do? After all, we were dating. By God’s grace no one committed suicide — remember Romeo and Juliet — and from all I have seen there were not lifelong traumas on either side, yet I had this yearning for something more distinctively and deeply Christian, some way of having relationships that was more truly shaped by my basic beliefs about life and love. I actually remember looking up to heaven, while driving across the country in a VW Bug to begin my sophomore year of college, and saying to God, “What did You intend? How do You want relationships to be?”

There was no bolt of lightning, no sign in the sky. But, I began to think. I began to think christianly — in the words of Harry Blamires in The Christian Mind — about the meaning of my relationships to girls (I called them “girls” then, though I know that college-age females are usually women now, which is OK with me). And I tried to do so in light of this new-to-me idea of a Christian worldview. It seemed logical, really. The area of my life that I thought the most about, felt the most about, cared the most about, that area should be the one that I first of all submitted to this new way of thinking which was to be conscientiously connected to my commitments and convictions as a Christian. At the heart of that worldview, as I was beginning to understand it, was the all-encompassing vision of the lordship of Christ. There was not a square inch of the whole of reality of which Jesus was not Lord. I believed that and loved believing that.

And it had consequence for everything. Arts, politics, economics, work, school, everything — even my relationships to girls. I stumbled some, especially as a student. (I ended up dropping out of school after my sophomore year and going on a two-year “extra-academic” education, a story I have told more fully in The Fabric of Faithfulness.) But I was committed to trying to be different, to trying for the first time in my young life to enter into friendship with the young women of my life with no other motive than to love them unselfishly. In a word, to be a friend.

That required that I repent of the language that had so skewed my relationships through adolescence, particularly the notion that categorized some girls as “friends” and some as “girlfriends.” They were different kinds of girls; everyone knew that, and never the twain should meet.

Instead, as I tried to think christianly about girls and about friendship, my deepening convictions led me to wonder about the possibility of redeeming friendship, to see what it might be like to believe and behave as if friendship was not second-best, after all. In fact, to act as if it was God’s standard, His expectation, for unmarried men and women whether they were 20 or 60. As I began to question more and more of my cultural assumptions — feeling the tension of living in, but not of the world — I found myself less willing to go along with “the dating game” and all that it implied about exclusivity and intimacy outside of marriage. And for most of five years, I lived like that. Never perfectly, always struggling with and for integrity, yet all along the way learning the virtues of friendship.

What happened between that commitment and the decision five years later to commit myself to one friend, Meg, — now my wife of 22 years — is another story. We never had what would be called a “dating relationship.” In fact, during my dropped-out years, she graduated, and went on to work and graduate school in another part of the country. Our contact with each other was on and off, though we had an enduring respect and affection for each other. Several years later we began a more serious correspondence, which resulted in a visit for a Christmas holiday. For the first time we talked about marriage, and a week later we were engaged. My father wrote me a letter in which he very tenderly said, “I have been praying for years that you would hold out for Meg.” And her mother told her, “Years ago I began praying that you and Steve would find each other.” We felt a wonderful confirmation of our frail effort to be faithful friends from those who knew us, in many ways, better than we knew ourselves.

Years later, after watching many marriages, good and not-so-good, healthy and not-so-healthy, I am surer than ever that it is friendship that marks marriages that keep on keeping on. Marriage turns out to be a long friendship in the end; surprise of surprises, it is not a long date after all.

But that is why it struck me so deeply that morning — eating bagels and baguettes — listening to the young couple talk about their decision to marry. “It became obvious that these two high school friends had grown in love over the past 10 years … and had found each other through their deepening friendship.” There is something about friendship, a redeemed friendship, that makes it possible for those outside of marriage and within marriage to care about the qualities of companionship, camaraderie and collegiality, characteristics that sustain relationships anywhere and everywhere. To put it another way, friendships that are marked by the Gospel of the kingdom, formed out of fidelity to a biblicallyinformed worldview, are ones in which friends care more to serve than to be served. Thinking christianly about relationships begins, and maybe ends, there.

There are many ways into marriage; each story is unique, including ours. But there is only one way into a good marriage, and that is through the vision and virtues of friendship.

Copyright © 1998 Steven Garber. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.

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About the Author

Steven Garber

Steven Garber, Ph.D., is the scholar-in-residence for the Coalition for Christian Colleges and Universities in Washington, D.C. His book, The Fabric of Faithfulness: Weaving Together Belief and Behavior During the University Years, was a 1998 Christianity Today Book Award winner. A native of the great valleys of Colorado and California, Steve lives with his wife and five children in Burke, Va.

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