The dreams and realities of marriage

28.05.2004 | Andrew Cameron and Tracy Gordon | Briefing 011  



Things become better when you expect the best instead of the worst.

—Norman Vincent Peale

Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.

—Alexander Pope

These two quotations appear at the start of a recent study of 82 newly married couples, who were interviewed over a four year period following their wedding. The study, which appeared in the May issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, has received some attention in the popular press.

The study found that couples might have good or poor relationships skills, and high or low expectations of marriage:

(What about a fourth category, those with high skills but low expectations? As far as we can tell, the study didn't really address them, but seems to suggest that such couples experience low satisfaction.)

So, who was right? Peale or Pope? Researchers McNulty and Karney conclude:

Consistent with Peale's view, spouses who have the skills to attain positive outcomes benefit from positive expectations. Consistent with Pope's view, spouses who lack the skills to cultivate positive experiences may benefit from more moderate expectations.

In another study into couples at the other end of marital life, Dr Robin Gutteridge, senior lecturer in health psychology at the University of Central England in Birmingham, conducted detailed interviews with 12 couples who had been together for an average of 44 years. She found that it is vital for couples to identify the small things that make a difference to their partner—and to do this early in the relationship. Perhaps identifying and doing such things are the kinds of ‘relationship skills’ that marriages need to prosper:

If a husband brings his wife flowers—perhaps because that is what his father did for his mother—but that is not something she values, then they ‘miss’ each other. A cup of tea in bed or taking the children out on Saturday afternoons might mean more to her. The act can be practical, material or emotional, but it is something that each partner recognises as something done by one for the other.

In the early ‘testing’ phase of the marriage, couples have to be honest enough to say what would mean most to them, and to do this gently and not in an attacking way. These small exchanges of affection give people confidence that they matter and that they are going to be treated kindly. Being kind to each other is very important. [Gutteridge; cited by Lantin.]

The degree to which these findings echo some of the Biblical authors, is intriguing. People do have high hopes for marriage, just as Adam cried in exultation of his new wife, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh!” According to Bible scholar Walter Bruggeman, Adam's exclamation is a kind of Hebrew code: here, at last, is someone who will be with him in his weakness (‘flesh’), and with him when he is strong and successful (‘bone’)—or as we say, ‘in sickness and in health’. “A relationship is affirmed which is unaffected by changing circumstances. It is a formula of constancy, or abiding loyalty” (Bruggeman, p. 535). This is earthly marriage at its best; and at its best, marriage helps us to catch a glimpse of heaven, and is a sign of what awaits us there [cf. Eph. 5: 22-33, esp. v32; and Rev. 19:7 & 21:2].

But for too many people marriage is exactly the opposite, when it breeds miscommunication, resentment, monotony, boredom and hopelessness. And also in this respect, the Bible expects that marriage will have a dark side. The once-exultant Adam blames his wife for his own sin [Gen. 3:12]; the four-generation saga of Gen. 12-50 is riddled with marital deception, intrigue, sexual impropriety, jealousy and greed; Job is pictured as having to endure an unsympathetic wife [Job 2:9-10]; and the pain of a bad marriage is clear to the Proverbist [11:22? 12:4b; 19:13b; 21:9,19; 25:24; 27:15-16; & 30:23a!]—to name but a few OT examples of marriage's dark side. The NT seems to recognise and assume the breakdown of marriage, when husbands are exhorted to love their wives, and wives to submit to their husbands [Eph 5:22,25; Col. 3:18-19]. The asymmetry of the call upon men and women, so disturbing in a post-feminist world, simply matches the contours of failure that the OT expects to see in marriage: that women will ‘desire’ to control and manipulate men, but men will reply simply by subjugating women by force [cf. Gen. 3:16b; ‘desire’ is the same word as sin's ‘desire’ for Cain, in Gen. 4:7]. The call to love is an obvious antidote for the male propensity to hit and act harshly. The call to submit, which includes a sense of ‘co-operation’, is an obvious antidote for the female propensity to connive and control.

In short then, and roughly to summarise the overall message of the Bible, God has ‘big dreams’ for marriage; yet married couples pursue the dream ‘in the wilderness’, as a pair of sinners picking their way through a broken world. The joyful hope of the gospel is that the dream can begin to be realised again, as both men and women experience God's own love and forgiveness, then giving that to and receiving it from the other. In the language of the Bible, the ongoing negotiations of marriage are simply habits of repentance and forgiveness, spiced with an appreciation and insight into the unique idiosyncrasies of the other (‘kindness’). Rather than being a system of mutual gain, where each waits for their own need to be met, marriage becomes a system of mutual love, where each gives themselves for the good of the other, irrespective of the ‘performance’ of the other.

Sadly though, and although the study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology offered a quite nuanced view of marriage, media reaction missed these nuances and pounced on a common line: that people should simply lower their expectations of marriage. On this interpretation of the study, to ‘aim too high’ causes us to miss out on what we want, and lowered expectations will avoid decline and divorce, and even keep the ‘newlywed glow’.

This reductive view of the study reflects a modern view of marriage that we all share. It has been elegantly summarised by Wendell Berry:

Marriage, in what is evidently its most popular version, is now on the one hand an intimate ‘relationship’ involving (ideally) two successful careerists in the same bed, and on the other hand a sort of private political system in which rights and interests must be asserted and defended. Marriage, in other words, has now taken the form of divorce: a prolonged and impassioned negotiation as to how things shall be divided. During their understandably temporary association, the ‘married’ couple will typically consume a large quantity of merchandise and a large portion of each other.

On the view that Berry describes, where marriage is simply a system where two individuals can gain more together than separately, then it seems obvious that we get some of what we want when we do not seek for all of what we want. But this reasoning is a sad capitulation to marriage ‘in the wilderness’. God ‘dreams’ of more for our marriages, starting with deep repentance toward each other and deep forgiveness of each other, and moving forward into mutual giving, kindness, and love.

It is easy for Christians to forget the considerable relationships skills that we often learn, just from our weekly exposure to the practices of God's people. These practices, outlined in the Bible, are often lived out in wonderfully imaginative ways within our church communities. Many people simply don't understand, for example, that a ‘disillusionment’ phase is quite normal in the early years of a marriage, but Christians are often taught to expect this. Or, Christians might think that the practice of repentance and forgiveness is obvious, forgetting that the discovery of this practice would be a revolution for some beleaguered couples.

The followers of Jesus know marriage practices that can be held out to a despairing world. Our churches can teach these practices and our couples can live them. Such lives and teachings will always be a surprise, for they will show how to live the dream while having utterly realistic expectations.


Are we expecting too much from marriage? Daily Telegraph (UK) May 18th 2004; online at

Barbara Lantin, ‘Rules for a happy marriage,’ Daily Telegraph (UK) May 10th 2004; online at;sessionid=C13EMFI2RDUVTQFIQMFSM5OAVCBQ0JVC?xml=/health/2004/05/10/hmarr10.xml.

Dennis Thompson, “Realistic Expectations Pivotal to Marital Bliss,” HealthDayNews May 17th 2004; online at

Walter Brueggemann, “Of the Same Flesh and Bone (Gen. 2:23a),” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 32, no. 4 (October 1970), 532-42.

Wendell Berry, What are People For? London: Routledge, 1990, p.180.

James K. McNulty and Benjamin R. Karney, “Positive Expectations in the Early Years of Marriage: Should Couples Expect the Best or Brace for the Worst?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2004, Vol. 86, No. 5, 729-743


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