Marriage: Commitment or Trauma Bond?
At times, I hear phrases about how “marriages don’t last like they used to.” That’s true. Instead of focusing on length, however, we should focus on the quality of life for both parties. Some of the longest marriages I know are questionable at best or, at the very least, devoid of playfulness and visible affection. Why is it somehow “trusting God” to stay in a toxic marriage but somehow “not trusting God” to give that marriage up to God and take your children out of a toxic or abusive relationship?
Matthew 18 teaches if a fellow believer is in sin, and you’ve confronted him on it, and there’s been no change, then you bring him before one or two others (see therapy, counseling, or mentor meeting). You bring it before the Church if there’s still no change.
If the sin continues, you are commanded to separate from him or her until they return to you repentant. Repentant means transformed. Not just apologetic with promises. It is interesting how churches rarely apply this entire passage to marriages.
Here are a few examples of my personal experience:
1. Four years ago, the kids and I drove to Virginia Beach for my cousin’s wedding. Cecily was a nursing baby, and Alice a busy 2-year-old, so I checked in advance with the church venue and found out that they were broadcasting the wedding into the nursery. Perfect. I stayed with the girls while the boys sat with my parents in the sanctuary. Also in the nursery, that day was an older couple watching two of their granddaughters. The wife was gentle and kind and immediately started a conversation with me. The husband, however, was a bit gruff. He didn’t seem to want to be there. He was dismissive to his busy little granddaughters and used a harsh tone at one point to his sweet wife regarding their very normal toddler behavior. Her eyes were sad. She switched topics immediately.
At the end of the ceremony, another older couple came into the nursery to chat with them. The grumpy husband immediately shifted his demeanors and became personable—uttering something about his prayer that this couple would “stand the test of time” and “How’s God working in [name of another ministry]?” His wife offered meekly, “I’m sure they will,” regarding my cousin’s marriage. He and the other husband laughed and adjusted their sport coats while their wives seemed to take immediate solace in the happy fellowship.
At the reception, I noticed the wife alone in her care and supervision of the granddaughters. He was utterly absorbed in his plate of food, stereotypical man-to-man salutations, and punch refills. He didn’t offer to refill anyone’s punch cup.
2. A couple close to me, in their seventies now, seems very happy. They’re probably so in a routine that they are. The wife, though, quips about their early marriage. Her husband is a pastor. He made it very clear early in their marriage that when he came home at lunch, he expected lunch promptly at noon with dessert. And no sandwiches. Supper was 5:30, and he wanted his decaf coffee ready after supper when he retired to the living room to read. He did not change diapers. He certainly did not do dishes or fold laundry. He never knew what anyone was receiving for Christmas, but he would be irritated at the Christmas spending.
His wife laughs it off and talks about how hard it was to abide by those things during the baby days or how it was difficult to make appointments that didn’t run “over time.” I asked her once, “But what about when you were sick!” regarding her care of the home. (Who cared for her?) More laughter. That didn’t matter. He was the breadwinner and God’s vessel, and it was her job to serve him sacrificially so he could remain focused on his ministry. From what I gather, this schedule has remained their entire marriage into their current retirement. No one would ever see that 50+ year marriage as toxic. What an example of faithfulness…(To what? A covenant? An unrealistic burden placed upon the wife? Dedication to having his needs alone met?)
3. I’ve known another older couple for years: a harsh, verbally abusive man and an unfaithful wife. He pushed away his children in their youth with his rigorous expectations and temper. He and one child are now estranged. His wife, probably due to the home environment, had multiple affairs with coworkers over the years. She eventually confessed to her husband. At this point, marriage was security—routine. They couldn’t afford their lifestyles apart. They may as well stay together. Her: weakened, emotionally neglected, and riddled with shame. Him: betrayed, angry, and identified by strong political stances. He goes to work, religiously follows a particular football team and fishes. She works, runs the household, and attends to her grown children’s family and several ministries in their local church. She does not have a hobby.
The years have not softened their relationship at all. There’s no affection or feeling of romance when you’re with them, but they write “I love you” on every birthday card. They are happy with the stability the other provides them. Wouldn’t most people hear about their 40 or 50 years together and praise them: “What a testimony!” “Beautiful to see this committment!”?
In long marriages, is it commitment, or is it a trauma bond? In at least two of those couples, the wife has been trampled upon for years as an indentured servant. She doesn’t even realize her value outside of being a housewife. Her husband has never done anything *wrong enough* to warrant leaving, for sure. Maybe she wishes there had been more affection or sex focused on her pleasure. Perhaps she wishes he would let her retire to the living room while he cleans the kitchen. Her needs are not necessary, though. In the last, both spouses are in the wrong, and both, because of “vows,” have decided that misery is comfort. It’s familiar. It’s safe. By gum, at least they’re still married. The bare minimum is so unusual that we think it’s a gift to us.
“Commitment” according to many = convenience and societal/religious expectation Marriage should still have a spark and bring joy. Both partners should feel equally respected and loved—not used. So many husbands in older generations wanted a wife, but they didn’t want to be a husband. Husbands carry the load at home. They provide in a way that creates stability. If kids are involved, they shoulder the parenting heavily when they are home—not as disciplinarians, but as humble guides that their kids can emulate. They actively adore their wives every day, even when they’re tired.
Before you label me a man-hater, let me say that I have MANY married friends who emulate this kind of healthy marriage. Unfortunately, most of them are in my generation and under. But they exist! Wives and husbands with a fiery passion for each other still and a commitment to sharing the workload of the home equally. Gentle, fun fathers whose kids adore them. Moms who aren’t burnt out by Wednesday weekly because they have a partner who supports them and understands that both parties deserve breaks. Wives who don’t exhibit sad eyes.
In my personal experience, there has been so much pressure put on the woman to forgive and instead try to increase meeting his needs and be a more submissive, forgiving (forgetful) gentle spirit to stop the infidelity, rage outbursts, lying, and abuse rather than making the man accountable for his self-control and harms to the family. The accountability is heavily placed on the woman and what she needs to change to “control” the man’s behaviors and keep the family together at all costs instead of holding the man accountable for his sin patterns and advising the woman to seek safety for herself and her kids. We are becoming a more aware society, and I have high hopes for the church to come alongside the understanding and growth.
Marriages often don’t last because we’ve finally educated women that a man’s work is not to go to his job, come home, slump in his easy chair, and then use her as his personal masturbation toy nightly. We understand that a saved marriage should not be the cost of a woman’s mental health. Sacrifice should not be unevenly distributed to the wife. We are holding men accountable. (And yes. I know of some terrible wives, too. Wives who betrayed their men or were generally contentious. Those husbands deserve better, too.)
Excellent, strong men exist and make for very happy wives and kids. Unfortunately, they are still few and far between, but I’m delighted to say that I see the tides turning. A toast to the healthy ones. Marriages *do* last like they used to, and I hope that the ones that do are examples for the next generation of how to work hard in a relationship and sacrifice for one another equally. The “old guard” likes to complain about young people not wanting marriage. If marriage looks like a broken, voiceless wife and an arrogant, spiteful husband, no one wants that.