One of the least productive, and indeed most destructive mental exercises in marriage is to spend any time asking ourselves a spiritually dangerous question: “Did I marry the right person?”
This question saps energy from something that can be done — focusing on taking a less than ideal situation to a better place — at the cost of solving a “problem” that can’t be solved: rewriting history.
Once we have exchanged our vows, little is gained and much harm can be done by asking this question. A far better alternative to questioning one’s choice is to learn how to live with one’s choice.
A character in Anne Tyler’s novel A Patchwork Planet comes to realize this too late. The book’s 30-year-old narrator had gone through a divorce and now works at an occupation that has him relating almost exclusively with elderly people. As he observes their long-standing marriages, he comes to a profound understanding:
“I was beginning to suspect that it made no difference whether they’d married the right person. Finally, you’re just with who you’re with. You’ve signed on with her, put in half a century with her, grown to know her as well as you know yourself or even better, and she’s become the right person. Or the only person, might be more to the point. I wish someone had told me that earlier. I’d have hung on then; I swear I would. I never would have driven Natalie to leave me.”
People dwelling on rewriting history usually do so selectively, ignoring even obvious benefits that have arisen from their first choice and naturally assume that virtually any other choice would have been easier or better. I’ve talked to too many people in second marriages to believe that this is always true. Second, it ignores a rather huge issue: if you had married someone else, your children wouldn’t exist. I’d put up with a lot of disappointments in marriage if that was the price I had to pay for my kids to be alive.
Instead of wishing you could do something that can’t be done — rewriting history — why not put all that energy and focus into trying to make tomorrow’s history a little better? That’s achievable, at least.
The root of this question, “Did I marry the right person?” usually flows from an examination of “compatibility,” which, though it can definitely make life more pleasant, can also be over-rated. Our kids sometimes laugh at how incompatible Lisa and I seem. I doubt either of us would be the “perfect” person for each other if we were matched by a computer. But it’s a relationship that we cherish and thank God for every day. Rather than spending time wondering if we married the right person, we can take all that energy and work on creating a beautiful story of how two imperfect and at times somewhat incompatible people made their marriage into something wonderful — creating kids, finding purpose, worshipping God, and being loyal to each other to the very end.
Besides, learning to cherish a woman who is amazingly like me sounds almost narcissistic and shallow, maybe even creepy. Learning to love a woman who is so unlike me in so many ways has made me a better man, a better Christian, and given me a much more varied life. If you think life would be better and the world would be richer if only everyone was more like you, to be honest, I feel a little sorry for you.
In regards to the struggles of “incompatibility,” look at it this way: what’s more inspiring — the story of a man who climbed a mountain without breaking a sweat, never encountering bad weather, never slipping backwards, never fearing for his life — or a climber who battled the elements to reach the top? Isn’t there a certain nobility in struggle?
There’s a very popular British novelist who, believe it or not, has never received a single rejection letter from a publisher. Not one. Her first book submission got accepted, the book sold well, and she’s had a long and successful career. Well, good for her. But it’s hard for me to relate when I went through an eight-year journey of over 120 straight rejections before I got a magazine article — just a single magazine article — published. Yet today, there are over a million books out there worldwide with my name on the cover. And that story has inspired a lot of would-be writers whenever I’ve shared it.
In the same way, there may well be some marriages that, from the outside, appear to be unusually easy — the couple made a wise choice, are compatible in all areas, and have never struggled significantly. Likewise, good for them. Do their lives inspire others, or just make others envious? Isn’t there room in the world for all kinds of marital stories? Some Christians have been through a metaphorical hell on their way to salvation, while others seem to have grown up following Jesus. The church needs to hear from both.
Half the victory in marriage, then, is just keeping our particular marital story alive, refusing to quit, believing that if we keep hanging in there, we’re giving God more time and more opportunities to work his grace into our lives — and we’re contributing another unique marital story that God can use to inspire others. Some couples grow together easily, some seem to struggle all the way, but everyone has a lesson to teach and people to inspire.
I love how author Jerry Jenkins encourages us to revel in our own marital story:
“Tell your [marital] story. Tell it to your kids, your friends, your brothers and sisters, but especially to each other. The more your story is implanted in your brain, the more it serves as a hedge against the myriad forces that seek to destroy your marriage. Make your story so familiar that it becomes part of the fabric of your being. It should become a legend that is shared through the generations as you grow a family tree that defies all odds and boasts marriage after marriage of stability, strength, and longevity.”
Don’t abort your history with the spouse whom God now calls you to love. Don’t short-circuit growth today and happiness tomorrow by trying to recreate a yesterday that can never be rewritten. Look at your marriage now like a novel where the hero and heroine get into a seemingly intractable mess — but then thrills every one of us by how they emerge victorious, triumphant, and faithful together to the very end.
The same God who resurrected Jesus can resurrect difficult marriages. Resurrection is dependent on a prior death. Simply wishing you could rewrite difficulty out of your past could inadvertently cause you to short-circuit a glorious finish.