Three words that can unravel a marriage

And three to replace them with

The Church of England doesn’t currently permit weddings for same-sex couples, yet the culture has moved decisively away from seeing marriage as exclusively between a woman and a man. I now offer same-sex couples my standard two marriage preparation sessions. Interestingly, I’ve found that these conversations aren’t much different from the ones I was already having with wedding couples.

That’s partly because a good deal of marriage preparation is particular to the individual couple: the sibling that died, the parent who refuses to believe anyone is good enough for their child, the past relationship that casts a long shadow. I once asked a prospective spouse, “Given that you’ve experienced the worst a marriage can be, may I inquire how you’ve found the confidence now to be entering it a second time?” I didn’t get an answer—the three of us sat in silence for a whole minute.

But it’s largely for the opposite reason: most of the issues a couple faces are quite generic. A lot of my colleagues see their role as simply facilitating the couple’s conversation. But so many people have told me how grateful they are for what their pastor said in marriage preparation that I’m convinced there’s still a place for counsel as well as counseling. I’m not one for mottos like “Never go to bed angry,” but I do think there are three simple words a couple may continue to ponder year after year. Each requires the unlearning of another word.

The first word to unlearn is if. It’s a word that pervades human arrangements. If you keep your side of the bargain, I’ll keep mine. If you weren’t so annoying, exasperating, and infuriating, I’d be kind, gentle, and understanding. On the wedding day the two people being married dispense with the word if—and replace it with the word always. Their love is no longer conditional; it’s permanent. It’s true that divorce is sometimes unavoidable, even necessary. But this conversation is about aspiration, not desperation. If is the language of contract; always is the language of covenant. If is provisional; always is unconditional.

The second word to unlearn is for. For is the curse of a marriage. Do you know how many hours I’ve spent making a nice dinner for you? Have you any idea what it costs me to work so hard for you to have a comfortable future? For names the accumulation of unspoken resentment, until like a bursting dam it floods a relationship. For is based on guesswork, assumed benevolence, a private sense of unrecognized moral superiority. The wedding day is the day quietly to put that word away and replace it with the word with. For is about entitlement; with is about sharing. With requires constant relating, regular recalibrating, honest rebalancing. The point is never to do it well, or quickly, or efficiently—but to do it together. It’s not a performance to make the world applaud; it’s a mystery to enter together more deeply.

The third word to unlearn is ask. All the asking has been done already. Did you love someone before me? Did you ever do something you’re still ashamed of? Is there anything you haven’t told me? Asking is good, but the questioner sets the agenda. The wedding day is the time to cease asking and begin something deeper: wondering. To share your memories of the past is an act of trust and tenderness. To share your wonderings about the future is intimacy of an even higher order. I wonder what you’re looking forward to. I wonder what you’re afraid of. I wonder who you most want to talk to. I wonder what you most need from me. A wondering doesn’t set an agenda, it sets a stage. It says, dream with me, ponder with me, explore with me, discover with me. When you ask, you almost always have an idea of the right or desired answer. When you wonder, you’re opening your heart to something neither of you yet knows.

Three little words. Always takes away the fear of the future. With means you’ll never be alone. Wonder means the future is an adventure.

Inside many pastors there’s a voice saying, I’m only a pastor. What do I know? I’m not a psychologist or therapist. And if they knew the truth about me they’d think I was a hypocrite. So along with being a bewildering experience for the couple, marriage preparation can be an ordeal for the pastor.

Which is why I focus on three little words that everyone can relate to and aspire to. Crucially, even if the couple learns nothing about marriage, they may still discover something about discipleship—because one of the most important things about marriage is that it’s training for being with God. The pastor who offers marriage preparation that makes little or no reference to God, on the other hand, ends up being neither a therapist nor a pastor.

The vital thing about these three little words is that they describe three ways we relate to God: with confidence that God is never going away, with joy in the world together, and with awe at God’s glory. Marriage is a way to practice the always, the with, and the wonder of being together, that we may better be able to comprehend the always, the with, and the wonder of being with God. These three little words sum up marriage, and they sum up our approach to God: always with wonder.

Samuel Wells

Samuel Wells is the vicar of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London and author of Humbler Faith, Bigger God.

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