Don’t Quit the Everyday Work of Marriage

Couples Can’t Coast

Here is what I have told couples again and again. It is what I have endeavored to live in my own marriage as well. The reconciliation of a marriage must be a lifestyle, not just the response you have when things go bad. Consider why this must be the case. If you are a sinner married to a sinner—and you are—then it is very dangerous and potentially destructive to allow yourself to coast as a couple. You simply will not live a day together where no act of thoughtlessness, self-interest, anger, arrogance, self-righteousness, bitterness, or disloyalty will rear its ugly head. Often it will be benign and low-level, but it will still be there.

If you are going to have a marriage that lives in unity, understanding, and love, you must have a little-moment approach. All this does is recognize the nature of the life God has designed for us. In his wisdom, God has crafted a life for us that does not careen from huge, consequential moment to huge, consequential moment. In fact, if you examine your life, you will see that you have actually had few of those moments. You can probably name only two or three life-changing situations you have lived through. We are all the same; the character and quality of our life is forged in little moments. Every day we lay little bricks on the foundation of what our life will be. The bricks of words said, the bricks of actions taken, the bricks of little decisions, the bricks of little thoughts, and the bricks of small-moment desires all work together to form the functional edifice that is your marriage. So, you have to view yourself as a marital mason. You are daily on the job adding another layer of bricks that will determine the shape of your marriage for days, weeks, and years to come.

Perhaps this is precisely the problem. It is the problem of perception. We just don’t tend to live life this way. We tend to fall into quasi-thoughtless routines and instinctive ways of doing things that are less self-conscious than they need to be. And we tend to back away from the significance of these little moments because they are little moments. You see, the opposite is true: little moments are significant because they are little moments. These are the moments that make up our lives. These are the moments that set up our future. These are the moments that shape our relationships. We must have a “day-by-day” approach to everything in our lives, and if we do, we will choose our bricks carefully and place them strategically.

It All Takes Time

Things don’t go bad in a marriage in an instant. The character of a marriage is not formed in one grand moment. Things in a marriage go bad progressively. Things become sweet and beautiful progressively. The development and deepening of the love in a marriage happens by things that are done daily; this is also true with the sad deterioration of a marriage. The problem is that we simply don’t pay attention, and because of this we allow ourselves to think, desire, say, and do things that we shouldn’t.

Let me play out this life of little-moment inattention for you. You squeeze and crinkle the toothpaste tube even though you know it bothers your spouse. You complain about the dirty dishes instead of putting them in the dishwasher. You fight for your own way in little things, rather than seeing them as an opportunity to serve. You allow yourself to go to bed irritated after a little disagreement. Day after day you leave for work without a moment of tenderness between you. You fight for your view of beauty rather than making your home a visual expression of the tastes of both of you. You allow yourself to do little rude things you would never have done in courtship. You quit asking for forgiveness in the little moments of wrong. You complain about how the other does little things, when it really doesn’t make any difference. You make little decisions without consultation.

You quit investing in the friendship intimacy of your marriage. You fight for your own way rather than for unity in little moments of disagreement. You complain about the other’s foibles and weaknesses. You fail to seize those openings to encourage. You quit searching for little avenues for expressing love. You begin to keep a record of little wrongs. You allow yourself to be irritated by what you once appreciated. You quit making sure that every day is punctuated with tenderness before sleep takes you away. You quit regularly expressing appreciation and respect. You allow your physical eyes and the eyes of your heart to wander. You swallow little hurts that you would have once discussed. You begin to turn little requests into regular demands. You quit taking care of yourself. You become willing to live with more silence and distance than you would have when you were approaching marriage. You quit working in those little moments to make your marriage better, and you begin to succumb to what is.

Every day we lay little bricks on the foundation of what our life will be.

Why do we quit paying attention? Because it is hard work to care, it is hard work to discipline ourselves to be careful, and it is hard work to always be thinking of the other person. Now, be prepared to have your feelings hurt: you and I tend to want the other to work hard because that will make our lives easier, but we don’t really want to have to sign in for the hard work ourselves. Oh, I’m not done! I think there is an epidemic of marital laziness among us. We want to be able to coast and have things not only stay the same but get better. And I am absolutely persuaded that laziness is rooted in the self-centeredness of sin. We have already examined the antisocial danger of this thing inside us that the Bible calls sin. We have already considered that it turns us in on ourselves, but it does something else. It reduces us to marital passivity. We want the good things to come to us without the hard work of laying the daily bricks that will result in the good things. And we are often more focused on what the other is failing to do and more focused on waiting for him to get his act together than we are on our own commitment to doing whatever is daily necessary to make our marriages what God intended them to be.

You can have a good marriage, but you must understand that a good marriage is not a mysterious gift. No, it is, rather, a set of commitments that forges itself into a moment-by-moment lifestyle.

Reconciliation as a Lifestyle: What Does This Mean?

There is a very interesting passage in 2 Corinthians that provides a model for what this day-by-day lifestyle looks like.

For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (5:14–21 NIV)

This passage is a call to a particular way of thinking about and living in our relationship to God. What it calls us to in our relationship with God is a wonderful model for our relationship with one another in marriage. This is always true. The first great commandment always defines the second great commandment.

Paul understands that we have been reconciled to God by an act of his grace. He knew that there is no way for us to earn God’s love or deserve his favor but, having said that, he was also quick to remind us that reconciliation to God is both an event and a process. Notice the words of verse 20: “We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” Who is the “you” that Paul is addressing? (The “you” is not in the original, although it is surely implied.) The “you” is the Corinthian church. Now, maybe you’re thinking, “Paul, if these people are believers, haven’t they already been reconciled to God?” The answer is yes and no. Yes, they have been reconciled to God in the advent sense of God’s acceptance of them in Christ. But there is another reconciliation that is still going on. To the degree that we continue to live for ourselves (2 Cor. 5:15), to that degree we still need to be reconciled to God. Since, in some way, we live for ourselves every day, we need to be reconciled daily to God in confession and repentance. What a perfect model this is for our marriages!

Yes, you’ve already made that one-time decision to live in love with one another, but you don’t always live as if you have. To the degree that you daily, in some way, continue to live for yourself, to that degree you daily need to be reconciled to God and to one another. You don’t just coast along, hoping somehow, someway to avoid the bad stuff. No, you live with reconciliation intentionality. You live with humble hearts and eyes wide open. You are ready to listen and willing to hear. You examine and consider. You take on habits of reconciliation that become the daily lifestyle of your marriage. And you make those habits a regular part of your daily routine.

Sadly, I think there are few couples who actually live this way. How many couples do you know who say that their relationship is the best it has ever been and that it is getting better all the time? How many couples say that they are now experiencing a deeper level of unity, understanding, and love than they have ever known? How many couples say that their spouse is their deepest, closest, and most precious friend? These things are not like a romantic cloud that you happen to wander into. No, they are the rich, relational blessing of living the way God, who created marriage, intended us to live. They are not relational luxuries for the romantically inclined. No, they are the essentials of a truly healthy and happy marriage, one that not only makes you smile but makes God smile as well.

This article is adapted from What Did You Expect?: Redeeming the Realities of Marriage by Paul David Tripp.

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