Building blocks for a strong partnership
My first marriage took place in the United States. Then, after some years of widowhood, I married a second time in France. My first vows included the promise to have and to hold my husband, to love, honor, and cherish him, and to forsake all others. My second vows highlighted our civil duty to be mutually faithful and supportive, to live together, and to take full responsibility for the health, morality, and financial well-being of each other and of any children that might come from the marriage. The first vows were pretty romantic, and the second, fairly pragmatic; but I learned that both personal commitment and social responsibility are essential building blocks for a strong partnership.
Experience shows that even when entered into with the best of intentions and the most solid and solemn of vows, many marriages still dissolve. The workshop for spiritual growth called marriage, while voluntary, isn’t always easy. Living in such close quarters, one is inevitably exposed to the progress as well as the unlearned lessons of his or her spouse. And as in all workshops, the observer is also being observed. Whether dealing with differing perspectives, family relations, personal habits, or changing attitudes, patience, forgiveness, and unflagging spiritual vision can serve as life rafts, saving a couple from shipwreck on the rocks and reefs of marital difficulties.
In her primary work on Christian Science, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, Mary Baker Eddy devotes an entire chapter to marriage. A marriage is often the single most impactful and enduring relationship in human life. It makes sense that the subject should receive such attention in a book that brings out the key aspects of Christianity in daily living—including moral, physical, spiritual, and relational health. Christ Jesus’ command that we love our neighbor as ourselves, applies directly to our closest earthly neighbor—to the person whose laundry falls in the same basket with ours. Truly loving our neighbors involves the commitment to be a witness to their true selfhood—their spiritual being as the creation of the Spirit who is God.
“Marriage is the legal and moral provision for generation among human kind,” wrote Eddy (Science and Health, p. 56). While many may read the word generation here in the narrow sense of “production of babies,” perhaps a broader definition of the word could include the “production of good.” And isn’t that what can happen to individuals, to families, and to society, when a moral and legal promise is made—and a commitment fulfilled—to be a lifelong witness to another’s spirituality? To make such a promise work and prove to be a lasting blessing, Science and Health points out certain things to consider:
Native spiritual qualities. Of course it’s helpful before marriage to identify the nature of the attraction in the couple. It’s fairly understood that a mere physical pull or financial ease is not necessarily the stuff of which a lasting and happy bond is made. Eddy wrote, “The attraction between native qualities will be perpetual only as it is pure and true, bringing sweet seasons of renewal like the returning spring” (p. 57).
These qualities are spiritual qualities—honesty, solicitude, integrity, goodness, kindness, patience, humility, and so on—which are native to God’s creation made in the likeness of Spirit. Spirit is the true and enduring substance of life; and the good and pure qualities of Spirit developing in human character naturally draw forth fidelity and goodness in those around us. It’s not that some have more of these spiritual qualities than others. Whether latent or expressed, we all have all of them. But marriage includes an enduring commitment to seek out and support the spiritual qualities in a spouse, to highlight them in prayer, and to express them oneself, even when it may be difficult.
Prayer that identifies the mutual spiritual qualities of the couple is helpful before a marriage, but it isn’t too late to start after that commitment. And it should continue ever after. Such prayer can have the effect on a relationship that water has on dry and thirsty soil—revitalization of energy and life, with shoots of new growth appearing.
United spheres. Marriage is a partnership. This, however, doesn’t mean that everyone needs to hold the same opinions, outlook, and personal interests, or share the same duties. To be balanced, a marriage should include respect for the uniqueness and individuality of each partner. God has joined each one of us with our own spiritual mission, and “what therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder” (Matthew 19:6).
Marriage includes an enduring commitment to seek out and support the spiritual qualities in a spouse.
When marriage unites two people in support, respect, and love for each one’s mission, rather than the absorbing of one’s life and interests into another’s, the married are set free to express their wonderful, God-given individuality. Eddy wrote, “Fulfilling the different demands of their united spheres, their sympathies should blend in sweet confidence and cheer, each partner sustaining the other,—thus hallowing the union of interests and affections, in which the heart finds peace and home” (Science and Health, p. 59).
The union of interests and affections may not necessarily mean rooting for the same football team or sharing the same political views. But it’s always health-giving to unite in love, respect, and affection for a spouse’s commitment to higher ideals and joys.
Progressive development. Perhaps motivational speaker Zig Ziglar was right when he said, “Many marriages would be better if the husband and the wife clearly understood that they are on the same side.” Ruth Bell Graham said, “A good marriage is the union of two good forgivers.” I agree with both, in substance. Both parties can contribute toward healing. After all, we are all responsible for our own growth and progress; and I have found that whether I need to forgive myself or my husband, I can always take steps to move forward in my own prayers to heal any rift.
As I see it, forgiveness is directly related to curability. Do we believe that nothing is impossible to God? Do we understand and accept that nothing is incurable? One day, as I was praying about my marriage, I asked myself that very question. Do I truly accept that no habit, no attitude, no behavior, no condition, no disease, no sin, is without an antidote in God’s love? I think the pain of anger, at least for me, often stems from the frustration that I will have to put up with a problem forever. But the Apostle Paul wrote: “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, … . For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:1, 2). And that is the law of God’s love, including the Christly forgiveness that sees neither sin nor sickness as a lost or deadly cause.
Forgiveness is never really between two people anyway. It’s between the forgiver and the Christ. Forgivers are ultimately making a pact with themselves to open their hearts to the healing Christ, to God’s eternal message of divine Love, and to release the hurt, the anger, and the angst over another’s learning and growing curve. This release is empowering. It isn’t dependent on anyone else.
In marriage, we all mess up. It’s a work in progress, not a performance. It helps to know that nothing is irreparable, incurable. The Spirit of life, which we know as God, assures us that everyone will ultimately know and express his or her true spiritual nature. No one will be allowed to miss the boat. Eddy wrote, “Spirit will ultimately claim its own,—all that really is,—and the voices of physical sense will be forever hushed” (Science and Health, p. 64). Nothing is incurable or lost to Spirit. Patience, forgiveness, and the spiritual vision that leads us to the discovery or rediscovery of our native spiritual qualities, can save a relationship from being sunk by a boulder of condemnation or by a hidden reef of disappointment in ourselves or others.
When asked what she thought about marriage, Mary Baker Eddy said that “it is often convenient, sometimes pleasant, and occasionally a love affair. Marriage is susceptible of many definitions. It sometimes presents the most wretched condition of human existence” (Miscellaneous Writings 1883–1896, p. 52). Some may say they have experienced the convenience, the pleasantness, the love affair—and even the wretchedness—all on the same day! This goes to show that no human relationship can be justly described as all-pleasing or all-wretched all the time.
Wishful prayers to find a flawless human soul mate and an agitation-free marriage may lead to disappointment when faced with some of the spiritual growth issues that marriage naturally stimulates in a couple. But to help us establish and maintain a marriage on a healthy and progressive foundation, Eddy takes that earlier statement on marriage further: “To be normal, it must be a union of the affections that tends to lift mortals higher” (Miscellaneous Writings, p. 52). And it is never too late to discover, or rediscover, the spiritual currents and union of affection, which promote healthy progress in a marriage.