I used to think I’d probably marry the first man I loved.
In one of my favorite stories, Anne of Green Gables, the red-headed heroine falls in love with Gilbert, her childhood classmate and enemy-turned-friend.
How romantic it would be, I thought, to marry someone I’d known most of my life. Someone who knew my family, had seen me in my awkward years, and loved me for it. Once I moved away from my small town for college, that expectation quickly faded.
I think we all have romantic scenarios that play through our minds. These scenes may be fueled by cherished stories or movies. They may be based on the examples in our lives, such as parents or grandparents. Or they may be informed by our own ideals for love (e.g. “I would never want to meet my spouse online.”)
Because of these ideals, you may plan on marrying someone taller, shorter, older or younger than yourself. You may have your hopes set on marrying someone without a “past.” You may anticipate that your future spouse will have been raised in a Christian home. Or you may expect he has a good job, or she will be a proficient cook or housekeeper.
Maybe your fairy tale is less about a checklist for your future spouse and more about how your love story will unfold. You may anticipate marrying at a certain age. Perhaps you imagine a “meet cute,” such as getting stuck on an elevator together or sitting next to one another on a plane.From Wikipedia: A meet-cute is a scene in a movie in which a romantic couple meets for the first time in a way that is considered adorable, entertaining or amusing. Maybe you envision a courtship and engagement in which you effortlessly fall more and more in love.
If you have a pile of expectations, it’s possible you feel as though your fairy tale is already in the rearview window. As one woman quipped, “I’ll probably have to wear bedazzled orthopedic shoes at my wedding, because high heels make me limp.”
Clearly, the more expectations you have for your future romance and marriage, the bigger the potential for disappointment. The type of disappointment that made a friend, not yet 30, say: “I know that God can do anything, and I have not given up hope, but it is reasonable to assume at this point that marriage is not going to happen for me.”
What’s a Fairy Tale Anyway?
Even though a fairy tale is defined as “a children’s story about magical and imaginary beings and lands,” it seems Christians have bought into the concept when it comes to romance and marriage. We’ve confused the “fairy tale ending” with what God offers us — the faithful ending. We’ve assumed that because we serve a God who gives us good things (James 1:17), those good things must look a lot like, well, a fairy tale.
The thing is, I believe God has placed a desire for fairy tale romance in our hearts. One only has to take a look at Scripture to see that God is a romantic. The problem comes when we begin defining romance and happy endings by our own standards instead of His. In “Trusting God with Relationships,” I wrote:
We can be easily tricked into believing attraction is eyes meeting across the room in an electric jolt. When, in actuality, romance is more in line with Boaz hearing of Ruth’s outstanding character, noticing her in the field, pouring out special favor on her, protecting her from his men and ultimately becoming her kinsman redeemer. As you can see, the second romantic scenario contains far more substance than the first.
So if the fairy tale shouldn’t be our end goal, what should be?
In Search of the Real Fairy Tale
I’ve always disliked the sentiment of settling or accepting something second best. That’s because I take to heart Jesus’ words, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). That certainly isn’t the description of a subpar life. It also doesn’t promise a fairy tale.
As believers, the fairy tale is not our goal — any more than the American Dream is. Our objective should be to walk with Christ in a way that allows us to be available for everything God has for us, including the individual He may have us marry.
Check out three alternatives to the fairy tale:
The bumpy ride.
During college, Roy says he was in a relationship that was a lot like the fairy tale he’d always imagined. “We were kind of the campus couple,” he says. When that relationship fell apart after three years, Roy deepened his friendship with a classmate named Karen. Roy says that before romantic feelings entered the picture, he felt the Lord telling him, “Karen needs to know that I love her.”
“I did find her attractive,” Roy says. “But there was something deeper.” For the next year, the couple struggled through individual issues as they pursued a relationship and eventually became engaged. But six months before the wedding, Karen called it off. After going on a missions trip, in which she resolved some fears she had about commitment, Karen and Roy decided to try again.
“We started the relationship again, and it was different,” Roy says. “It really came down to unconditional commitment. There was mutual attraction, but we walked into marriage really knowing all of our stuff. We’d seen our ugliest moments.” He says that while his original fairy tale vision had been emotional, he came to realize, “The real fairy tale is sacrificial. Not ‘what’s in it for me?’ but ‘How can I show Christ’s love to this person?'”
James tells us that trials produce perseverance, and perseverance makes us mature, not lacking anything (James 1:2-4). A romance that has a few bumps along the way has the potential to build maturity and even prepare a couple for challenges they may face as a couple.
Joanna says that as a young girl she thought 18 was the perfect age to get married. “I’d had my husband picked out since I was 5,” she says. “Fast forward to when I was 15 … the guy of my dreams (who was five years older) met and married a girl in college. That was the end of that.”
Joanna says she expected to meet “Mr. Right, the Second” in college. “He would be tall, mission-minded and incredibly sensitive to my feelings.” Much later, in her late 20s she dated a man who matched most of her ideals, but she eventually discovered that the relationship was lacking joy and broke it off.
Over 30 and still single, Joanna felt as if she were back at square one. Then she met Steve. “He wasn’t tall. He wasn’t interested in the mission field. And he wasn’t overly sensitive,” she says. “But he loved God, had a close relationship with his parents and was deeply respected by his close friends.”
Joanna saw how Steve poured into the lives of teens from broken families. Although Steve wasn’t the “prince charming” she had pictured, “he loved God, he loved others, he loved kids and he loved me. With those big things in place, I decided I could let go of some of my fairy tale dreams and must-haves.”
And she’s glad she did. Two years into marriage, she says, “He’s loved me so well, every day, and helped me see and believe the value God places on me. I’m thankful that my fairy tale was shattered, since my real-life love story is far better than I could have dreamed up for myself.”
The broken road.
At 29, Miriam moved to Germany to work as a language speech-pathologist at an Army hospital. Shortly after the move, a colleague encouraged her to meet her husband’s boss, a kind man named Steve, who always carried his Bible. The couple met and hit it off right away. Then came the surprise. “At our second meeting, I discovered he was divorced and had a little girl,” Miriam says. “I was kind of in shock. I never thought I would find myself in this situation — going out with a divorced man. I had been taught that divorce was not God’s desire for marriage.”
Already “in like” with Steve, Miriam felt conflicted. She searched the Scriptures, prayed and learned some of the details of Steve’s past, which included an ex-wife who had been unfaithful and refused to reconcile. In addition, neither had been Christians at the time.
The fact that Steve was a young believer was another factor that didn’t meet Miriam’s original expectations. But at the counsel of godly mentors and friends, she decided to continue the relationship. “I had met a wonderful man with baggage and had to give him a chance,” she says. “I felt and saw that he was a man of honor and integrity, and he was growing in his relationship with God. He was not as far along the journey as I was, but I saw amazing potential and commitment.”
Steve also had an excellent reputation with everyone who knew him. “His co-workers all thought he was an amazing Army officer, a hard worker, trustworthy and a person they sought out when they needed help.” Twenty-two years and two children later, Miriam considers herself “very happily married.” Though the couple’s romance didn’t unfold exactly the way Miriam anticipated, she says Steve turned out to be the strong, gentle, godly man she had always hoped for.
A Time for Acceptance
I don’t want to minimize the pain of singles who may be grieving what will never be. Those who desire children but marry past childbearing age. Those who lose parents or grandparents they hoped would be present at their weddings. Those who, like me, end up a decade behind their friends, caring for infants and toddlers while my contemporaries are preparing to parent teenagers. There is a time to mourn the things that will not be.
There is also a time to accept them. Ashleigh says she always imagined she would be the first woman her future husband proposed to. “But I wasn’t,” she says. “I was the third. The third woman Ted bought a ring for. The third one he asked to spend the rest of his life with. The third one to excitedly reply, ‘yes!'”
At first, Ashleigh says she felt cheated. “I wanted it to be an exclusive me-and-him thing,” she says. “It was a disappointment I not only had to come to terms with, but I had to decide to let go of as well.”
Ashleigh, the author of a forthcoming book on marriage called Team Us (Moody, June 2014), says that decision was one of the best she ever made. “I came to realize that each of these heartbreaks helped shape Ted into the man with whom I’d fallen in love,” she says. “He’d come out of these failed attempts resolutely determined not to fail again and more eager than ever to succeed. His failures had fueled in him a greater desire for intentionality and purpose as well as a deeper dependency on God.”
Sometimes the very factors that shatter the fairy tale are the ones that shape the marriage for our good and God’s glory. Choosing to exchange the fairy tale for what God has for us is always more than a fair trade.
Copyright 2014 Suzanne Hadley Gosselin. All rights reserved.