There is No Fix-All Marriage Manual

manual on marriage

by Dr. Bill Clark 

Recently, I sat with two friends at Starbucks discussing ministry, marriages, marriage dilemmas, the things we tend to say and think about marriage. As we talked I felt the familiar feeling; “Why is this so hard? So confusing?”

The three of us have good marriages but we freely admit how we fail to love well, how we take our wives for granted, how we exhaust them. We still enjoy marriage and care, deeply. But even we find ourselves wondering, “What do I do now?” We all seem to want a guidebook, a manual, something clear and compelling that we can all subscribe to; something that tells us, “What do I do when ____ is happening?”

We all seem to want a guidebook, a manual, something clear and compelling that we can all subscribe to.

One of the men, involved in a marriage ministry, described 3 marriages which ended in divorce, involving partners who were all active in their local church — presumably all “mature” believers. No adultery, no abandonment, no laziness, no obvious sin except blindness, egos, insensitivities and defensiveness.

And the marriages crashed on the rocks of conflict and unresolvable hurt. We commented on how, especially in the church, we put on our game faces and pretend until we just can’t do it anymore and then it all blows up. Years of venom, hurt and accusations come pouring out. One, if not both parties have “given up” before they’ve even sought help or understanding.

The other described a marriage that was essentially a “separated relationship,” meaning little shared vision, intimacy or decision-making. The husband, who may generally avoid conflict, made one more thoughtless and unilateral decision that was quite far-reaching. His decision, “made sense to [him].”

(How many times have we done just that?) The wife reacted, understandably perhaps. But the reasonable reaction quickly became an unreasonable overreaction. And so this decision may end up being the proverbial “last straw” in their marriage. Or they might continue on, but settle on being “lonely together” in their marriage.

What Causes a Drift in Marriage?

How does this happen? How can we be so blind or stupid – making huge decisions without consulting our partner? How can we be so quiet and passive, especially when we know our resentment and bitterness is growing? How can we “honor” our vow by avoiding divorce (at least as long as we can), but ignore the essence of the vows – loving, forgiving, and cherishing the other?

Most of us had no idea on our wedding day how challenging the relationship would be – how could we? We didn’t sign up to have our own selfishness, immaturity and “unfinished business,” exposed so frequently by someone who was crazy about us! But it happens! Add the complexities and stresses that life throws on our path, which we aren’t especially trained to handle, and the situation worsens. And we weren’t given a precise marriage manual once they said we were “husband and wife!”

But, once we give up or give in, in our minds, we’re in serious trouble.

coast-571329_1920We are sailing along and the winds and storms of crisis hit us. It exposes our lack of skill and experience. The rocks and reefs that were hidden suddenly loom and threaten to rip the hull out of the ship. Somehow, unlike what we would do in a real life boating situation, we don’t (usually) signal for help. Why? Pride? Shame? Pressure? Guilt? Something checks our ability to acknowledge that we aren’t handling it well. Instead, like the first man and woman, we turn to hiding and blame. (Sound familiar? This was the same situation that Adam and Eve faced in their first marital dispute that had lasting impact.) We build a case defending ourselves, and a case indicting our partner (or God, or the church, or our fellowship groups, or our parents, or…). Our attitude or sentiment begins to darken.

Of course we want a manual! It would at least comfort us to know that the answers were there. Ironically, there is no guarantee we would consult it or apply it.

Is the Bible a Marriage Manual?

I know, many of you are thinking, “God did give us a marriage manual! It’s the Bible!” And of course I agree, sort of. What I suspect we do sometimes with the Word, however, is lift out as many behavioral recommendations as we can, add them to the few seminal verses and concepts (i.e., love and respect, headship and submission, quietness and gentleness, don’t nag or exasperate) and call that the manual. But it’s not enough. It doesn’t capture any of the nuances of our relationships and histories. We need more; even from God’s Word.

Marriage is in trouble; we know that. In fact, if marital tension and discord were a disease, we’d say we’re in the midst of an epidemic. So much so that many younger individuals are questioning the validity of marriage as an institution.

If marital tension and discord were a disease, we’d say we’re in the midst of an epidemic.

But we’d also say we have more treatments, therapeutic drugs, and antibiotics available than ever before! Good ones. Sermons, Ted talks, podcasts, classes, programs, books, workbooks, intensives, retreats, counselors, and more. There is much help available. And that should lead to a drastic reduction in the disease.

Yet, the opposite is occurring. Clearly, we need more. There are things about marriage that we generally don’t understand or are unwilling to apply. And we are often battling alone. No wonder many ships are sinking.

So what do we do when our marriage (or others around us) face the storm? Should we take a risk to step in and help, or should we simply “mind our own business?”

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