Why marriage doesn’t work

By Cindy Koch

There are a thousand different answers to this dilemma, most derived from experience. Too many men and women have been in marriage relationships that just didn’t work out happily ever after. Hurt, angry, confused and tired of fighting for an intimate bond that we have been told is good. Trying to find a way through the guilt and messy past of a union that we believe was ordained by God. Our children today even have an aversion to marriage, likely due to growing up watching our own broken hearts heal. What happened to marriage? Why doesn’t it work?

Simple answers fall into the age-old blame game. He was abusive. She was needy. He cared more about his job than his family. She didn’t love him anymore. He did, she did, he said, she said. Every situation has two sides of the story.  Although one person might be better at rallying support, and one may make a better case against the other, focusing faults is the fire that fuels failure.

Because this has never been a new game. Disappointment should not suddenly be a revolutionary deal-breaker. Every husband is a poor sinner. Every wife is a miserable failure. They both have been struggling against their own selfish sinful nature from the moment of their birth. “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” (Psalm 51:5) Even in the Garden of Eden our first parents, Adam and Eve, tried the same unfortunate blaming battle. “(God) said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” Then the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” (Gen 3:11-13) Everyone is guilty, yet no one really wants to admit this, especially in the face of a failing marriage.

Fault most certainly falls on both sides. Why does a marriage fail? Because a sinner cannot take ownership of his/her own sin. A sinner is afraid to take the blame on him/herself. A sinner must admit that he/she alone caused unforgivable hurt and pain. But it would be easy if that were the only problem.

More complicated answers surface when a sinner repents. I’m sorry, she says. I won’t hurt you like this again, he promises. The poor miserable spouse bears a broken and bleeding heart to the other. Then, helplessly waits.

Unequal remorse, incomparable circumstances, the subtle ancient power struggle uses guilt and pain as silent weapons. “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” (Gen 3:16) The war is not over. Repentance is not enough.

Marriage doesn’t work, not because it is a flawed estate. It is not. Marriage doesn’t work, not because the couple is incompatible. Everyone will strive and struggle. Marriage doesn’t work because sin rules our hearts and minds in this fallen world. We are certainly the problem. We are sinners trying to live together as if sin does not tear us apart. Yet, just to recognize it is not enough to fix it.

Rather, marriage in this sinful world only works one way. Forgiveness. Unbound compassion constantly poured on the one to whom you are joined. A pardon, seventy times seven for the dirty look, undone action, forgotten birthday, hurtful word. Uncomfortable submission gifted to the one with whom you are one flesh. His sorry met with your reconciliation. That is how it works.

Yet, a single terrifying piece of making a marriage work is your inability to make your spouse forgive you. You can only offer a broken spirit and contrite heart and wait for his/her answer. You have no control over the quality of your marriage because you must trust another to respond with an absurd answer of undeserved love. So, your only action can be to forgive, even if you are not forgiven. You can only love when you are not loved. You will uphold your marriage by proclaiming the extreme, unmerited mercy of Christ to your spouse, even if it is not echoed back to you. The unfair and unnatural compassion of the Gospel is the way a marriage works.