For Worse or Better
Moving Beyond Broken Dreams in Marriage
Do you ever feel like your marriage was an accident? Do you ever wonder, “Did I make a mistake?” Maybe your new life together started strong, with hopes that beamed like the sun on the horizon of your life. But now your dreams have lost altitude; a few have even crashed to earth. Marriage, quite honestly, is not what you expected.
John and Teresa get it. It’s been three years since they said, “I do.” But when asked how often they make time for each other now, they confess, “We don’t!” The difference between their pre-wedding hopes and their post-wedding reality is hard to reconcile. Marriage has become the place where their dreams went to die. I thought it would be different by now, they each think.
What do you do when marriage begins to feel accidental — like an error that slipped past God’s all-seeing gaze? How can a couple be content and confident when marriage turns out to be so much less than they desired?
To desire good things from marriage is not wrong, of course. It’s a sign of health to want to flourish with your mate. At issue is how we relate to God and respond to our spouse when our hopes for marriage don’t materialize — when we don’t get what we want when we want it.
“Marriage often turns on how we deal with delayed or denied dreams.”
When our dreams are delayed, we can fear that we will never get what we most desire — a great sex life, a quiver of healthy kids, a shared vision for life and work, a spouse that affirms us instead of nagging us (or maybe a spouse that will actually give us a few minutes alone). We also can fear being stuck forever with the opposite of what we most desire; in some form of reverse-providence, our dreams expire while our greatest fears spring to life.
When Kenesha dreamed about marriage, abundance was always in the picture. She never imagined herself living month to month or clipping coupons to score deals at the grocery store. “It isn’t just hard — it’s humiliating,” she tells her husband. Money is now a source of constant conflict between them. Last night, Kenesha caught herself thinking, “I love my husband, but I certainly don’t like marriage. Was this a mistake?”
When dreams go unfulfilled, the danger is that our desires become demands before God. If this happens, we find ourselves blindly striving for what we feel life lacks. When desires become demands, discontent devours our confidence in God’s sweet sovereignty. God’s goodness shrinks. And marriage feels like an unhappy accident.
Imagine reading the following passage for the first time:
Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:11–13)
Believe it or not, the apostle Paul penned those words when he was in prison. Paul was chained and jailed, yet he was quick to say, “I’m not in need.” How?
Paul learned to adapt his desires to his circumstances. Whether he was abounding or brought low, facing plenty or hunger, in abundance or need, he could be content. He did not question — due to his unexpected losses — whether his life’s path was a colossal error. For Paul, flourishing and happiness did not rest in a satisfied dream.
How does that work? I’m tempted to think that’s just a Paul thing. “Sure, if I got to log an afternoon in the third heaven, I’d be content too!” But it wasn’t like that. Paul’s contentment was not a unique grace or a spiritual gift unavailable to other Christians. It was learned: “I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger . . .”
What does that mean for your marriage? Think of contentment as a heart that trusts God and confidently adjusts to unsatisfied desires. It’s okay to have dreams for your marriage, your family size, your standard of living, your stress levels, your sex life. But marriage often turns on how we deal with delayed or denied dreams. The more contentment expands within the soul, the less our unrequited dreams suppress our confidence in God’s sovereignty. We trust God’s goodness is intentional, not accidental. We adapt our desires to the unfolding of God’s will. We respond to our spouses in ways that say, “Yes, this is hard and unexpected. But God is faithful, and, by the way, I love you!”
Richard Selzer was a surgeon who observed a married couple in the throes of one such defining moment:
I stand by the bed where a young woman lies, her face postoperative, her mouth twisted in palsy, clownish. A tiny twig of the facial nerve, the one to the muscles of her mouth, has been severed. She will be thus from now on. . . . To remove the tumor in her cheek, I had to cut the little nerve.
Her young husband is in the room. He stands on the opposite side of the bed and together they seem to dwell in the evening lamplight, isolated from me, private. Who are they, I ask myself, he and this wry mouth I have made, who gaze at and touch each other so generously, greedily? The young woman speaks.
“Will my mouth always be like this?” she asks.
“Yes,” I say, “it will. It is because the nerve was cut.”
She nods, and is silent. But the young man smiles.
“I like it,” he says, “It is kind of cute.”
All at once I know who he is. I understand and I lower my gaze. One is not bold in an encounter with a god. Unmindful, he bends to kiss her crooked mouth, and I am so close I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate to hers, to show her that their kiss still works. (Mortal Lessons, 45–46)
When we learn the secret of contentment, we are no longer distracted by unhealthy demands or the temptation of seeing our marriage as accidental. Whether “facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need,” the kiss still works.
Someone may ask, “So, is self-sacrifice the best you have to offer us — some version of marital asceticism? Are you saying I should suppress my dreams as a way of feeling better about my mistake?”
Not exactly. Instead, I want you to see just how tightly you’ve intertwined your definition of a successful marriage with having your dreams come true. And I don’t want you to miss the fact that God often does his best work in those moments when our expectations go unfulfilled.
Tito dreamed of having a family that would testify to his wisdom as a husband and father. But his teenagers had other ideas. Their reckless behavior, and the endless conversations with his wife about how that behavior should be managed, brought enormous stress and conflict into their home. This wasn’t the life Tito wanted. But this was the trial he needed — one that was lovingly directed by God’s unseen hand. The trial helped Tito discover his selfishness, and, more importantly, the situation transformed him, revealing his daily need to depend upon Jesus instead of himself (2 Corinthians 1:9).
“When dreams go unfulfilled, the danger is that our desires will become demands before God.”
This fallen world peddles the notion that our desires exist for immediate satisfaction. When we buy that lie, we confuse the present age with the one to come. In this life, God is not in the business of fulfilling every dream. His goals are far bigger, reaching through your soul and into eternity. The truth is that when our dreams for marriage are frustrated, it’s intentional. God is preparing us for another wedding, the one where the Bridegroom returns to reclaim his precious church (Revelation 19:6–9). And in the wisdom of God’s inscrutable will, this means that sometimes our dreams will dissolve before our eyes.
Sometimes, corrupted cravings in our hearts — discontentment, in particular — die only by being impaled upon an unsatisfied dream. Some growth toward God can spring only from a denied desire.
In his book The Art of Divine Contentment, Thomas Watson drops a signature sentence: “If we have not what we desire, we have more than we deserve.”
At the core of all discontent lies a bold comparison between what we have and what we think we deserve. The “accident” mindset pulses indignance: “I didn’t sign on for this kind of suffering. I’m better than all of this. I’m not getting what I deserve!” To that word, the gospel speaks agreement: “You’re absolutely right. And for that, you can thank God!”
There’s no need to compare our lot against what we hoped for and then silently charge God for the shortages. Contentment is found in making a different comparison — comparing what we have to what our sins deserved. We were spiritually wretched, lost, and broken — meriting only death and judgment (Ephesians 2:1–3). But God, who is rich in mercy, made us objects of his inexplicable love. Jesus Christ died the death we deserved. He offers us life by grace, and he gives us reason to hope (Ephesians 2:4–9).
Husband or wife, if you woke up today with unrealized dreams, you’re in good company. But whatever your estate — humbled or exalted, in plenty or hunger, in comfort or pain — God knows what he’s doing. In Christ, your life and marriage are not accidents. At this very moment, you are being formed for life with Jesus in the land where desires are satisfied and dreams come true.