Perhaps you’ve read books, been to seminars, listened to sermons or podcasts expounding on the benefits of marriage goals. Maybe you’ve even been inspired to set your own marriage goals. What even is a marriage goal? To just “not get divorced”?
I’m not here to say marriage goals aren’t worth it, because working together toward growth can be great. That said, I do want to tell you my story, and let’s just say I’ve learned a thing or two about unhealthy marriage goals.
I had marriage goals… for my husband
When Jim and I were first married, I was sure that my fun-loving, handsome, gregarious husband was a real catch, the man of my dreams!
I wasn’t sure he was as serious as I wanted him to be about some of the specific values I held. Goals are what motivate us to move forward, right? So I journaled specific marriage goals I had for us as a couple. Oops.
Deep down I had to admit that he didn’t measure up to my performance standards. Instead of a list of best hopes, I confess my marriage goals were rooted in my anxiety. What if he doesn’t do this or that? If this bad habit is already starting now, what will it look like years from now if he doesn’t change?
Jim didn’t take to my anxiety-based marriage goals so well. The questions I asked, or little suggestions I made, landed on him as a lack of acceptance and respect for him as he was. He was rightfully hurt and angry that I had an agenda for his growth.
Grace wrecked my marriage goals
A few months later, we attended a seminar, not about marriage, but about grace. That seminar wrecked my marriage goals. We learned how God’s grace transforms the subtle performance standards that Christians unknowingly attach to themselves and each other.
As Christians we want to please God. This often leads to trying to somehow “get the Christian life right.” That creates pressure to look shiny—both spiritually and relationally.
Jim and I realized we were both living under that common lie, “What matters is how things look.” And we each felt our new marriage could look a little “shinier”, if the other side performed their half of the equation better. I wanted the perfect spiritual leader; he wanted the perfect, sweet, affectionate wife.
We realized that our attempts at shininess were actually in sinful opposition to the gospel. Jesus vehemently busted the Pharisees on outward-focused behaviors. Instead, Jesus offers healing grace for our insecure, performance-focused hearts.
Jim and I had created legalistic, unspoken rules around outward-facing behaviors (and, if we’re being honest, our own selfish expectations). Gradually, a better hope of “drawing near to God” and being justified by faith began to replace our selfish expectations of each other.
We became passionate about walking in God’s grace for ourselves and each other. It helped us look more authentically at the sin in our own lives. This introspection allowed us to bring our sin to each other and to the Lord without shame, as we kept our eyes on God’s wonderful forgiveness and grace.
Now neither of us had to try to look shiny. “What matters is how things look” was replaced by “What matters is what’s real, and what’s real is the reality of God’s grace for us.”
I wasn’t the wife of his dreams
Some time later during a rough, stressful time in our marriage, Jim came to me excitedly – “Honey, I’ve been thinking and praying and I think I figured it out. You’re not the wife of my dreams, you’re the wife of my reality!”
Wow. How do you take that statement?
I wasn’t sure if I should be insulted that I wasn’t the wife of his dreams or relieved by the lack of the expectation attached to his fantasy wife. I decided (by faith) to be relieved.
Jim’s insight about embracing the “spouse of our reality” took our understanding of the grace of God to a deeper level. Throughout our marriage, he has made an effort to encourage and humor me with my (sometimes annoying) over-attention to detail. I have learned increasingly to appreciate his intensity and passion for ideas (which I had previously labelled as impulsive and opinionated).
“Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others.” Colossians 3:13 NLT
Set healthy marriage goals… for yourself
I don’t think Jim and I are alone in our struggle. People enter marriage wanting to have a loving relationship and with high hopes for an idealized life. This can easily spiral into a mutual contest of, “Here’s how you don’t measure up. Here’s how I want you to change.”
That selfishness we all drag around in the flesh still keeps us trying to “fix” our spouse and ignore our own junk. But the Bible commands us to pay attention to our own flaws instead.
“How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye?” Luke 6:42a
A simple activity to focus on how you can improve your marriage
Sometimes you need something practical and concrete. Your goal is to shift from trying to fix all the flaws in your spouse to embracing who they are and letting God work on you. Try this:
- Find a block of time where you can be alone and reflect.
- Fold a piece of paper in half.
- On the left side of the page, list all the things your spouse* does that frustrate you. This will probably be easy.
- Then on the right side, list all the ways you respond.
- Pray about your column only, because that’s what you can control, and it’s all you are responsible for. Let the Holy Spirit guide you so you can respond better to the conflict and frustrations in your marriage. Make those changes your new marriage goals!
(Want to see what this looks like in real life? Read this touching story about how this simple activity saved a marriage!)
*Note: This same activity can help if you are in conflict in any relationship such as parent, child, in-law, friend, etc.
The fruit of grace in our marriage
Ironically, as Jim and I continue to learn to walk out our grace-filled commitment to embrace the spouse of our reality, our marriage grows ever richer, deeper, and closer to what we had both initially hoped for. With the power of God’s grace a Christian marriage can begin to function in the joy, freedom, and potential that God intends!
By letting go of our idealistic fantasies, and learning to accept the spouse of our reality, we can find our way to the spouse of our dreams! The funny thing is, you might have to let go of a few nice sounding marriage goals first, like I did. That is, the ones based in your anxiety, not your own desire to grow.
To hear Jim and Lynne talk candidly about their marriage and steps they took to grow more connected, listen to the podcast they did with Ellie Collins of Hope Reclaimed Ministries, called, “Thinking About How to Fix Your Marriage? Try This.“
Want to learn more about loving the child of your reality? Check out How to Parent the Imperfect Child You Have.
Adapted from How to Grow a Connected Family, by Jim and Lynne Jackson
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