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By David P. Gushee


When Marriage Brings Suffering

The meaning of marital covenants in bleak seasons.

One is the loneliest number that you'll ever do
Two can be as bad as one, it's the loneliest number since the number one.
     —Three Dog Night

Marriage was designed by God in creation to meet certain fundamental needs of the human being. When those needs are richly met, we flourish. Covenant is the structural principle of marriage, holding weak and fickle human beings to the promises they have made. When the marriage covenant is sturdy, it provides a stable and enduring context for the pursuit of the creational blessings of companionship, sex, and family partnership. Strong skill and virtue development in meeting creation-related needs and fidelity to covenant promises can lead to genuinely joyful marital partnerships. Such relationships reach near the pinnacle of what God created humans to be.

But as we all know, the story does not always go this way. In fact, it seems that it does not often go this way. Marriage becomes not a context of joy but of misery. A husband or wife wakes up each morning with heaviness of heart, saddened by the perception that the marriage is not working, perhaps even terrified by the oppression they experience. They are suffering. In some marriages, suffering is a daily and enduring reality. In almost all marriages, there are episodes or seasons of suffering.

Nobody tells the engaged or newly married couple to expect that marriage will bring suffering. Instead, what I call the "Love Incorporated" marriage technique books usually offer 1001 ways to achieve marital bliss. This leaves couples poorly prepared for the suffering that will almost inevitably come. And so, when suffering hits, the couple is bewildered. If the suffering lasts for very long or feels very intense, they may be tempted to abandon the marriage to relieve their pain. But abandoning a marriage brings its own form of suffering, and creates new suffering. Yet is such abandonment in every case wrong?

Experiences in ministry and personal life persuade me that ...

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