Marriages surviving the battering of life
Over the summer I stayed near a small, relatively undeveloped beach. A beautiful and typical bay such that children draw: a headland at each end, a curve of golden sand with a generous creek running into the sea bisecting that arc of sand. As I walked the same length of sand at the same time each day early in the morning, I was stuck by the extraordinary variations in the appearance and form of the beach day by day. The change from day to day almost belied it being the same stretch of sand and water. One day the sea was glassy smooth, punctuated by gentle rolling waves, the sky deep blue and the beach full of playing children and surfers struggling to find a decent wave: the next morning the water was white and boiling, the sand reduced to a steep slope covered with seaweed and drift wood. Most striking was the marked alterations in the shape and character of the shore line in response to the influences of the weather and the tides, which produced a myriad of characteristics in the beach day after day. Yet the constituents of the area were the same: sand, cliffs, water, sky, people, flotsam and jetsam. The beach was always just itself: a beach.
Sometimes praying for people I know as I walked, I reflected on how the changing quality of the beach is like what happens in marriages exposed to the vagaries of life. The impact on a marriage of the joyous news of a wanted baby, the tragedy of a premature death by sickness or accident, or simply the humdrum day to day routine of everyday life; going to work, doing housework, reminding children to clean their teeth for the thousandth time. The marriage is still “the marriage”, but it takes on different characteristics depending on what surrounding influences are enriching it, rebuilding it, battering it or wearing it down, as the relentless sea and weather does to the beach.
How do we encompass and withstand the swirlings of life which surround us and our marriages? In his recent book on marriage (The Meaning of Marriage), Tim Keller discusses the “essence of marriage” as being the “deepest of human covenants”, “a covenant made with and before God [which] strengthens the partners to make a covenant with each other”. He goes on to define a covenant relationship as one which goes beyond a legal or business relationship, so is not simply a legal obligation to the other. Rather a covenant relationship is additionally both personal and intimate – “a covenant relationship is a stunning blend of law and love”. He describes how the binding nature of the covenant, entered into freely and made with and before God at the beginning of the marriage, demonstrates the depth of love and commitment the one has for the other. Furthermore, once the covenant is entered into, a safe space is provided which encourages deeper intimacy as we can risk revealing our most inmost selves in the covenanted space. Moreover, as Keller intimates, real love drives the lover to commit to an instinctive desire for permanence, the type of permanence that despite the buffetings the marriage receives, maintains the essence of the relationship. Keller quotes this declaration from the Song of Solomon as part of the underpinning of the essence of a Christian marriage:
“Place me as a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm, for love is as strong as death, its ardour as unyielding as the grave. It burns like a blazing fire, like a mighty flame.
Many waters cannot quench love: rivers cannot wash it away”. Song of Solomon 8: 6-7.