A Letter to My Sister: Marriage is Not About Your Happiness

By Scott Hughes

Couple with counselor

Copyright: wavebreakmediamicro / 123RF Stock Photo

Continuing our blog series on the seasons of adulthood, we note that marriage is something most adults will either aspire to be in or be out of. Not all adults will be married (Paul even advised against it!); and while marriage is happening later for millennials, it is still a large part of adulthood. To that end, I am sharing a letter I wrote to my sister following her recent wedding, which I had the privilege to perform.

Dear Jennifer,

Congratulations again on your marriage to Cody. I’m very excited for what awaits you. As we talked about during our brief premarital counseling session, I am still of the belief that “love” is what happens at least two years after marriage (thus not what precedes it). Since we had only a brief time to talk together for premarital counseling and though I know you are continuing to do marital counseling with our uncle (glad you’re sticking with it!), I felt like I still had some advice I needed to pass on. I admit, though, I’m not sure if I’m passing this advice along as a pastor or as an older brother. Most likely, it is both.

Most of what I’d like to offer is a reflection that comes from being a part of your wedding and many others. One of the aspects of weddings today that mystifies me is how brief the wedding ceremony is in contrast with how much time, logistics, energy, and expense are given to everything surrounding it: the dress, the rehearsal, the reception, the photographer, the food, and on and on the list goes.

Although the wedding liturgy is concise, it packs a strong punch in what it declares about marriage. I must confess (hopefully without sounding too judgmental) that much of what I hear people say at weddings I find unhelpful and even nauseating: “Y’all are the perfect match”; “I’m so glad you’ve found your soul mate”; “I know y’all are going to be so happy.” Such superficial advice and well wishes make me wonder if those offering them either know nothing about marriage or have nothing better to offer or just completely disconnect their words from their lived realities of marriage.

The facts are straightforward. Marriage is tough. (We are so fortunate not to be the children of divorced parents.) There is a reason why the divorce rate is what it is. Many marriages limp along with one or both spouses unfulfilled. And I guess at the crux of my frustration is the American myth about marriage: the goal of marriage is to be happy. Perhaps this is why the line, “You complete me,” from the movie Jerry Maguire has gotten such traction in our culture.

I promise I’m not trying be a downer. Time magazine just did an article about how married folks are healthier than unmarried folks. There are benefits to marriage. I just want you to be realistic about your expectations from marriage and from Cody. It would be very unfair to Cody to place all your hopes, dreams, and happiness in him. For Christians, marriage isn’t about happiness. It is ultimately directed toward a higher end: holiness.

I will admit though, the word “happy” does show up in the marriage ceremony. If you recall, the “Declaration of Intention” begins this way, “I charge you both, as you stand in the presence of God, to remember that love and loyalty alone will avail as the foundation of a happy home.” We already talked about love and how God has displayed what love should look like within a marriage, so I won’t repeat that here. But as you can see, happiness, in the marriage ceremony, is about an environment created by commitment toward each other in fulfilling the vows you’ve made. Happiness is a byproduct of commitment, not the goal. As the Declaration goes on to state, if you keep the marriage vows faithfully, “your life will be full of joy, and the home you are establishing will abide in peace.” Marriage isn’t about YOUR happiness! Or Cody’s either. Rather, marriage is about something even higher and greater. It’s about the environment you are creating together - joy and peace. That will take time, commitment, and sacrifice.

So my last bit of advice (for now): Find friends who bring you happiness. Find hobbies individually and together. Find and commit to a church community that will nurture you both and will be a place you can serve. Be willing to challenge each other. Finally, hurry up and have kids. My kids want more cousins!

Much love and respect,