“It’s the expectations that can kill your marriage.”
Many things in culture, both in and out of Christendom, lead us to throwing the brutally impossible weight of making us happy and fulfilled on another mortal person who was never meant to bear that burden. It takes a lot, lot, lot, lot, lot, of time and grace and hard work to undo those premises in our brain when it comes to relationships and to learn to find our worth and fulfillment in the right places.
The dopamine dissipates, and real life happens, and you have to start pulling from something deeper than emotion to navigate life and steward the relationship you have with another human who God loves just as much as He loves you.
Yes, expectations can kill a marriage.
But if the expectation that kills it is one of mutual respect, dignity, and equality — an understanding that a relationship is made of two equal people who both deserve the opportunity to grow and express themselves — then maybe *that* relationship does need to die.
With two willing people, grace may resurrect a new relationship with those same souls and bodies, who commit to compassionate mutuality and agree to the hard work of learning to love each other as ends and not means.
I do believe this is ideal. Because divorce is hell to go through. Because a story of mutual redemption and hope is preferable to the alternatives for many reasons.
Because underneath all of the issues, there is usually still love there.
But if one or both people are not willing to turn inward and seek health, then we need to have real resources and processes for the vulnerable individuals.
We need to be clear and vocal about what Christian love is and what it is not, because many people coming from broken relationships genuinely don’t know.
My brother Daniel was in a play in middle school that showed a representation of Heaven versus Hell. The premise was the same — both realms were depicted by a group of people standing around a giant bowl of food, with spoons that were longer than their arms.
In Hell, everyone was trying to feed themselves, but the spoon simply wouldn’t reach their mouth. So they were starving and frustrated.
In Heaven, they all criss-crossed their arms, and fed one another. So all were filled.
I’ve been trying to figure out if there is such a thing as compassionate complementarianism or if there’s any substance to the idea of “equal in worth but different in roles.” It took America six decades to come to the conclusion that separate is inherently unequal, and that’s where I find myself, too. But I do believe there are good, compassionate men who hold to the complementarianism they were taught and the thing about their marriages is that they still operate from mutuality.
In mutuality, decisions are made together for the well-being of the whole family. Individual giftings and strengths are honored. Individual hearts’ desires are listened to. No one gets an automatic trump card over another, because if we are giving designations of leadership, then the greatest leader is to be the greatest servant.
How modern ideas of headship have gotten so far from the undressed Messiah washing feet is baffling and disheartening.
What I currently see from complementarianism playing out in real time is:
- Husbands given the impossible burden of always making their wife happy and/or being responsible for their faith;
- Wives tasked with declaring their husband their leader and yet somehow also responsible for their success by being a “helpmeet” — a contradiction of servant leadership, and a terrible exegesis of Genesis;
- A close-fisted legalism to the institution of marriage that serves as a breeding ground for physical, emotional, financial, and sexual abuse;
- The perpetuation of narratives of how “hard” marriage is without the balance of how it can also be a source of comfort, stability, empowerment, and maybe even — fun?
None of these are sustainable if we embrace the equality of men and women,
if we understand the context and historicity of Genesis and Ephesians and I Peter,
and if we listen to science about emotional well-being and relationship health.
The burden of modern headship hurts men in many ways, too. So much research has been done about how emotion- and intimacy-stifled we’ve made men to be, and the really regrettable effects it’s having all around.
These forced roles are atrophying our humanity and slowing killing our motivations to actually love each other, under the weight of obligation.
What if, instead, we viewed marriage as a partnership of two equal people with their own thoughts, feelings, experiences, and needs? What if we spent time talking about how to make space for one another to be honest and authentic, how to honor each other’s needs, and how to go to God together for help when the way forward isn’t clear?
I’ve written and spoken a lot lately about how life-changing the concept of boundaries has been for me (see the book).
God designed us to be responsible for ourselves and to each other.
Complementarianism, in contrast, demands that two fallible humans be responsible for each other in really backwards ways.
It’s not working.
And where it’s “working,” it is likely harming.
I can’t recommend counseling as individuals or as couples enough if you’re struggling. Having been through my experience, I would qualify: a counselor who believes men and women are equal and who would be sensitive to a diversity of beliefs, but the main thing is that you [or you both] feel valued and heard there.
In this time of reckoning, I do hope people can dismantle the unfair expectations they’ve been handed and allow God to cleanse and heal their relationships. I hope people can exercise patience and make space for one another as they wrestle with shifting worldviews and all of the laboring, humility, grief, and renewal that comes with that. It is a gift to be able to go through that with a partner instead of alone.
It is a gift to share meals and daily responsibilities with someone.
It is a gift to have someone who will listen to you when you’re hurting.
It is a gift to have someone who is fully invested in your well-being, even if they can’t fix your problems for you.
It is a gift to have someone who believes in you.
If you have that, you have a gift.
If you get to be that for someone else, you have a gift.
Yes, expectations of grandeur and fulfillment can kill a marriage.
But expectations of equality, dignity, and mutual respect can actually save it.
Let’s start teaching our young people how to accept, own, and process their own needs and emotions, how to communicate effectively, how to listen actively, and how to operate from respect and compassion.
Let’s also be a voice for the vulnerable — which means having open spaces and real resources for men and women who are brave enough to step up and say “This isn’t right, and I’m not okay.”
The current system is stacked against them, so they will need extra help and affirmation.
Space at the table, not isolation. Belief, not doubt. Empathy, not shame. The more heard we feel, the more our defenses can come down and grace can work its magic.
And grace tends to be contagious.
Research about Egalitarian Marriage: http://www.godswordtowomen.org/Preato3.htm
Dismantling the Toxic Ideas about Marriage: http://www.alifeoverseas.com/the-purpose-of-marriage-is-not-to-make-you-holy/