How Can We Be Sure?
Examining Our Match
What is a good match? Is it two identical colours? Sameness. Or is it contrasting colours? Difference. "Good match" describes them both. Does this apply to relationships as well as things? I believe it does.
Sameness in relationships brings comfort. It offers couples the kind of contentment swans seem to enjoy, the luxury of gliding across a still pond together. But most people want contentment laced with spontaneous adventure. That is why men and women fascinate one another. The exploration is not just sexual. There are emotional differences which fill relationships between the sexes with intrigue. Men and women are therefore capable of drawing out the highest and best in one another.
Virginia Satir, a family therapist, makes this claim:
I believe that two people are first interested in each other because of their sameness, but they remain interested over the years because of their differences. To put it another way, if humans never find their sameness, they will never meet; if they never meet their differences, they cannot be real or develop a truly human and zestful relationship with one another .... Any two human beings, no matter what their similarities, are going to find differentness. And vive la difference! Think how boring and sterile life would be if we were all the same! It is difference that brings us excitement, interest, and vitality. It also brings a few problems!1
These problems cannot be ignored, as other counsellors are quick to point out. Jack Dominian, for example, repudiates the claim that "opposites attract". He claims that considerable research has failed to substantiate the theory, although he admits that it is an interesting one. He adds an important
warning. If couples do decide to marry on the basis of their differences, they must be aware of the dangers. The chief danger is that the needs of one partner may be matched only by the opposite and complementary needs of the other; the balance created is a delicate one. Any slight change in circumstances could upset the precarious nature of the relationship. A partnership established chiefly on complementarity might not possess enough resources to hold the marriage together.2
Sally and Graham discovered the wisdom of this advice. When they married, Sally was immature, shy, insecure and dependent. She found a father figure in Graham. "I like it when he treats me like a baby." But Graham's love helped her to gain in confidence. Sally's needs changed. Now she needs, not a solid, dependable figure, but a stimulating companion. She has started to strive for a greater degree of autonomy. Graham, however, felt more comfortable with the original "father role." He feels threatened by the liberated wife he watches emerging from the chrysalis of their marriage. A comfortable relationship has become a tempestuous one. The delicate balance has indeed been upset.
Problems like these incline some counselors towards the view that opposites should not attempt to live together. "I listen to the sound of their voice. Voices tell you what people are like. A slow voice reflects a phlegmatic personality. Quick speech characterizes an active person. If their voices are incompatible, I advise them not to marry."
But are these conclusions right? I question them. Certainly too many differences create instability. But some differences are inevitable and we must not run away from them. We must learn to cope with them.
Review your relationship. As you responded to the questions in the previous chapter, were you more conscious of your differences or your similarities?
What attracted you to one another in the first place, sameness or "differentness?" Is there a balance?
How are you compatible?
What is compatibility? Not feelings. As C.S. Lewis warned, "Many unhappy and predictably unhappy marriages, were
When your spiritual, emotional and practical similarities unite you so that you feel at ease with each other, compatibility exists. This harmony, this meeting of whole persons, furnishes the relationship with the necessary resources to use differences to advantage. Then, "otherness" does not spoil a relationship. It enriches it.
Making differences work for a relationship
Differences enhance a relationship when you make them work for you. Take social differences, for example. Robin is a friendly person when you know him, but if you met him at the back of the church, he might seem socially awkward. On the other hand, Mary, his wife, is an outgoing person. She puts people at ease immediately. At first, Robin used to feel threatened by Mary's ability to make firm friends quickly. Did this mean she was "better" with people than he was? Gradually he realized that their gifts were complementary. When they pooled them, their usefulness was more than doubled. He now allows Mary to make the initial contacts. He knows he is not excluded so he also joins in. Together they create a relationship which is far more valuable than either of their separate contributions. This is the exciting thing about complementarity. It completes persons and increases their wholeness.
One way to make differences work for you, then, is to recognize where you complement each other. Take a look at the wholeness this offers to your relationship and to other people. This healthy view of complementarity encourages you to applaud your partner's "otherness." You can glory in it. You might even encourage it.
This encouragement could open new doors for you. If a book, a hobby or a place is of interest to your partner, then there must surely be something of value there which is worthy of exploration. If you take the trouble to find out what this merit is, you extend the limits of your own backyard. This makes life an adventure. At least, that is what we have found. When I fell in love with an aeronautical engineer, now my husband, I raised my head from the history books I had
pored over and became conscious of the greatness of the God of space. David's "otherness," his preoccupation with space technology, opened new vistas for me. It continues to do so. Similarly, my work with deaf children introduced him to the fascination and pain of the world of the disabled. His world was also enlarged.
Blending opposites is a rewarding pastime.
Take a look at your partner's differences. How do you feel about them?
Can you approve them, affirm them and promote them? Or is your reaction purely negative?
If you view your partner's differences as threats, or if you determine to reform him / her, you should examine your relationship with great care. If you cannot accept this "otherness," or if you dislike the differences intensely, you need to assess your partnership with the help of an older person. Where areas of similarity provide a high degree of overlap, there might be sufficient resources between you to transform problems into blessings. But if your differences outnumber your similarities your relationship might, in fact, be a misfit.
Carol and David wondered if they were misfits. Carol's parents said they were. Carol is a warm, outgoing person. David is shy. This reserve camouflages kindness, sensitivity and vulnerability. They trained as students together; that is how they met. Carol achieved a first-class degree, while David failed to complete the course. Now they are both in business where David is heading for promotion. Carol loves fellowship groups, singing and praying aloud. David is quieter. He goes with her to the group but it is not his spiritual wavelength. He prefers solitude. Should they marry?
As David and Carol talked about their background, intellectual and spiritual compatibility and the possibilities of recreational togetherness, the situation seemed to clarify. They knew they were attracted to one another. They perceived many similarities which added strength and stability to these feelings. But they did not ignore the differences. They laughed at some and confronted others. Most of their differences, they feel, are the "otherness" which could lead to wholesome complementarity. They know it will be hard
work, that they cannot change each other. But each is allowing God to change his / her attitudes through prayer. They have decided to marry.
James and Pauline, on the other hand, came to the painful conclusion that they really did not fit. James, an only child, loathed babies. He was an academic and his career was all-important. He "knew" that babies would interrupt his professional chances. When he asked Pauline to marry him, he made it clear that he never wanted children.
But Pauline loved babies. She had decided that she wanted four. She loved James; at least, she was "in love" with him. But she also wanted children. She knew that for her, mother-hood was an essential part of marriage.
Faced with the prospect of a lifelong union, they made their decision and separated. We all saw the pain and felt some of it. Two people rarely part painlessly. But their decision was right. There were huge areas of incompatibility which would have caused continuous chafing. The immediate issue, babies, was the peg on which they hung disparity of values, attitudes and expectations. These would never have been resolved. The conflict would have proved unbearable.
If you do not "fit" you must split. It is the only responsible course of action but it is a painful one. Couples who begin to prepare seriously for marriage and who then decide to go their separate ways because they do not fit, suffer a mini-death. This sense of bereavement is experienced, too, by couples who choose to separate for other reasons. Bereavement means loss. Most of us do not cope easily with the loss of a loved one whether through death or separation. It is for this reason that a certain amount of "grief work" must be done.
"Grief work" is the process of coming to terms with the changes which take place within you when a loved one is removed. Psychiatrists remind us that there are five phases to this procedure. First you have to accept the numbness. Your feelings seem to be frozen and are no longer a part of you. The numbness wears off and you move into the phase of "sighing," when any reminder of your loved one brings a stab of pain. Crying is a third, essential part of grief work. Don't hold back your tears. They are a language which
will express your anguish in a way words cannot. And don't be surprised if you feel angry. The person suffering from loss frequently experiences an angry or depressed stage before he/she moves into the final stage of grief work; the ability to say goodbye to the loved one and to walk away, to re-negotiate life on a new set of terms. Eventually it does become possible to start life afresh without the one you loved, but this process cannot be rushed, so you must be patient with yourself.
And what if you do fit? Biologically, you fit because you are different, "other." Hence, husband and wife become one flesh. Marriage leaves room for certain spiritual, emotional and practical "otherness." But the sexual fit apart, your fit is most comforting when you are similar. Greatest strength comes from sameness. You must decide whether your togetherness will accommodate the exhilarating tension of your differences. Or are the differences already troubling you?
How can you tell?
Discovering whether you fit cannot be done in a hurry. This is one of the reasons why the longevity of the pre-engagement period is important. This is a period of learning and is vital to your relationship. You need plenty of time to learn to understand one another. Understanding is one of the prerequisites of marital love. It comes with hours of patient talking and listening. That is why couples who marry after a brief courtship often have a precarious introduction to marriage. To rush into marriage is so unwise that Jack Dominian maintains that couples should take at least a year to grow together before they marry. Walter Trobisch offered the same advice.4 Of course, we can all point to the exceptions, the people we know who plunged into marriage and appeared to weather the turbulent adjustments well. But the exception is not the rule. Most couples need at least a year in which to begin the essential work of pre-marital adjustment.
This creative effort, without which no marriage succeeds easily, should form a vital part of pre-engagement. It is another reason for delaying marriage until you have "summered and wintered" together, to borrow Trobisch's phrase. This gives ample time to assess your relationship.
Take the problem of similarities and differences, for example. How are you to begin to assess whether your partner's habits irritate you unless you have known him/her for an extended period? How can you evaluate whether your partner's strengths complement your own unless you have begun to combine them at a time when you are not pressurized? In addition, what effect does pressure or stress have on your relationship?
And there is another reason for a leisurely courtship. It provides the space you need to adjust to the problems of conflict. Intimacy creates conflict. How do you cope with conflict and quarrels? Do you blame one another or placate each other? Do quarrels lead to frequent storms and the painful upheaval of separation? Or can you face conflict realistically? If you both forgive and seek to understand the other's point of view, you are well on the way to adjusting to marital conflict. Your relationship is strong. But if you are unable to face conflict you should not consider an early marriage. This is courting disaster.
Doubts are another indication that you should pause. The hope that "it will be different after we are married" is untrustworthy. It may be different. It will probably be worse. It will be worse because, if his eating habits annoy you now, they will be magnified when you have to live with them. And worse, they may be replicated in your children. They will be worse because, if you dislike the way she dresses now, she will seem positively slovenly in her curlers. Doubts must be confronted. Until they become relative certainties you should not marry. You do not "fit."
And if you fail to create a fit you owe it to yourselves to flash the amber light. Parents and friends may ask embarrassing questions. They may well be disappointed. But their disappointment is less important than your security. A little care now could save you the heart-break of a broken marriage. I am not saying you can be absolutely certain that you will be compatible for the rest of your lives. Walking by faith includes not knowing. I am saying beware of embarking on marriage in the light of glaring discrepancies and huge doubts.
We consider the question of doubt again in the last chapter.
In deciding whether you create a "perfect match," three more things remain to be said. First, there is no such thing as a "perfect match." Personalities never fit perfectly. Couples in books "live happily ever after." Couples in real life make good marriages only through hard work.
Second, your motivation to work at this relationship will be reduced unless you have erased unrealistic fantasies from your imagination. This applies to both men and women. It was a blockage for Val.
She used to dream of the handsome curate (clergyman) she would marry one day. He would be her spiritual leader and she would help him in his work. They would serve God side by side. Then Val fell in love with Paul. But Paul was not a curate, and he was not particularly handsome. What is more, this civil servant had been a Christian only a few months when they met. But they were in love and they got married. Val still secretly 'blames' Paul for not being the strong Christian of her dreams. Her fantasies prevent Paul from becoming the husband God meant him to be. Until she lets go of the fantasy, she traps Paul in an unrealistic mould. She stifles his growth.
Men, I find, also conceal a mental short list. Peter's list described the glamorous, sylph-like figure of the girl he would marry. When he married Sue, he kept the secret list. Unfortunately, the list did not tally with Sue's measurements. At times he uses his fantasy to taunt his wife, inflicting deep hurt.
Do you have a short-list? Does it contain the 'essential characteristics' of your future partner? Burn it. Erase the memory. This is an act of the will which requires candor and prayer. It frees you to offer unconditional love to your partner, thus setting him / her free to be the person God made him / her to be.
Third, this freedom to love rarely matures before the twenties. Plenty of statistics support this claim. Research shows that 40 percent of teenage marriages end in divorce.
The reason for this is not difficult to understand. Two students meeting in their first term at college might appear to make a perfect match. But a university career is a period of
re-evaluation, of assessment and maturation. Tastes change, values change and views change. It follows that the eighteen-year-old 'fit' will also change. It may become a misfit. This is not because young people are fickle. Rather, it is because young adulthood involves rapid growth. You may choose to ignore the high incidence of marital collapse among the under-twenties. But is it wise to do so? Jack Dominian concludes that marriage for the under-twenties is "a high risk proposition. Every piece of research has shown that youthful marriages are extremely vulnerable."5
Of course, this is hard for the young person who longs for marriage. It is especially difficult for Christians who struggle to live without sexual gratification in a climate where most of their friends indulge freely in sexual experimentation. The temptation to throw caution to the wind, to marry the first person who comes along, will always be present. But any divorced person will tell you that marrying the wrong person is much more painful than remaining single. Some people dread that the world will end before they have found the right partner. They need to ask for a special touch from God to cope with the frustrations of singleness, to wait until a suitable partner comes across their path.
When you assess your match, you should be free from pressure from parents or from your partner. If your partner does urge you to marry sooner than you feel ready, it is worth asking whether it is you he / she loves, or simply himself / herself. Growing into the realization that you really do "fit" is fun. There is a sense of luxury about leisurely love. As a young friend of mine wrote: "I remember those summer evenings when we sat in the car watching the sun set over Viewpoint Hill. It was there that we talked. We started at the beginning and just went on until there was no more to tell. Then we knew that we were ready for marriage. We already "belonged." And where that belonging was incomplete, we both knew that we wanted to work to make the other happy. And so we made our decision to marry."
Chapter 5 || Table of Contents
1. Virginia Satir, Peoplemaking, Science and Behavior Books, 1972, pp. 138f.
2. See Jack Dominian, Marital Pathology, DLT/BMA, 1979, p.16.
3. C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves, Fontana, 1963, p.100.
4. Walter Trobisch, I Married You, InterVarsity Press, 1972.
5. Dominian, Marital Pathology, p.16.