Recent statistics suggest that as many as 40% to 50% of marriages in some developed countries end in divorce. The divorce statistics for second and third marriages are even higher (practice evidently does not improve performance), and these sad statistics underline the even more unfortunate truth that many of these divorces were undoubtedly preventable.
While some marriage splits are, of course, the result of adultery, drugs, alcohol, spousal abuse and other problems, the great majority of divorces claim “irreconcilable differences” as the reason for dissolution of the marriage bond. This is where the aspect of preventability enters into the picture. “Irreconcilable differences” is really just an expensive way of saying “incompatibility,” and at the heart of many divorces – and of problem marriages which somehow stay together – it is incompatibility that is so often cited as the underlying problem.
Now in most all cases where incompatibility is cited as an issue, it was not present at the beginning of the relationship (we doubt many couples who always considered themselves incompatible get married) – it is something the marriage partners feel “happened” as time progressed. But the truth is, incompatibility between a man and a woman usually never just “happens” – it is present, under the surface, all the time. It is simply that marriages begin to falter when couples begin to focus on their incompatibility. A century ago, in his bookWhat’s Wrong with the World, G.K. Chesterton put it this way:
“I have known many happy marriages, but never a compatible one. The whole aim of marriage is to fight through and survive the instant when incompatibility becomes unquestionable. For a man and a woman, as such, are incompatible.”
These may be among the wisest words ever written on marriage problems. They are based on the undeniable fact that most marriages occur because “opposites attract.” But when marriage begins we are focusing on the “attract.” As marriages progress, if we are not careful, the focus switches to looking at, and dwelling on, the “opposites.” Our point of view shifts and we begin to see our relationship differently – and as we do, the problems develop.
Simple as it may sound, the quality of every marriage, and every day within every marriage, depends on how we look at our partner. We must remember it is not that beneath the attraction there are differences we must somehow try to suppress, but that the differences between us are so often the root and cause of the attraction itself – and we mean not just the sexual aspect, but the full range of psychological, spiritual and physical attraction.
A happy marriage is, then, always one of managed incompatibility. We can certainly do what we can to make it easier for our mates to deal with our differences where they are problematic (Romans 14:19 – “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.”), but each mate must concentrate on how he or she sees the other – we must continue to look at the attractive things about him or her. There is perhaps no more helpful scripture on this fact than the words of the apostle Paul:
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things” (Philippians 4:8).
We render this wonderful advice useless by consigning it to nice thoughts about pleasant ethereal things. But this approach is a potent marriage problem solver. If we apply these words in the sphere of our relationship with our mate – in constantly looking for, affirming, complimenting the good things we appreciate about each other on every level – the matter of incompatibility usually becomes increasingly a non-issue.
Incompatibility is not the destroyer of marriage; it is the healthy tension that forms the basis of meaningful marriage relationships. The more we begin to see each other in a positive way and keep our focus there, the more we see attraction and the less we see opposites. In fact, we become more and more able to celebrate our incompatibility – and good things happen when we do. In the words of Genesis: “He created them male and female and blessed them….” (Genesis 5:2). We see God blessed the marriage relationships not generically as unisex, unithought, uniform pairs of mankind, but blessed us as male and female – blessed us in our differences.
COMMENT from Philip Shields, host of this website:
I couldn’t agree more. Please allow me to comment. My wife and I couldn’t be two more different people. I married my exact opposite. And so have many of you. This caused for many opportunities of seeing incompatibility, but it took us a long time to realize, as R Herbert explains, that this could be healthy. I also realize there truly are cases where couples are in a dangerous and toxic relationship – and I don’t refer to those – but even then, see what the Spirit can do before bolting from the marriage.
I have the highest respect for R. Herbert and have known him for decades. I believe too many marriages “give up” too soon when they hit the turbulent waters caused by two rivers (lives) coming together. Work through those incompatible turbulent times and smooth waters lie ahead when the 2 rivers value what each brings to the flow.
If my wife and I, married almost 42 years now, left every time we had a huge disagreement (OK – a fight) – of which there have been many – we’d have divorced long ago. But instead, we pray over our marriage, and we realize each brings qualities to the marriage the other does not have. If my wife was exactly like me in all perspectives and thoughts, why would I need her? And if I was exactly like her, why would she need me? It’s when we both grew up enough to VALUE the other’s viewpoint and request it, and when we learned to apologize more quickly and express our undying commitment to the marriage – that we grew in our marriage. I have given my wife cause to leave, but she felt she could trust the Holy Spirit to convict me and change me and that is what she saw happening, so we worked things out. Praise our King and God in heaven. Healthy incompatibility. I like it. It’s all in how you look at what you have in front of you. Thank you, R Herbert, for letting the Spirit of God speak through your pen. It’s worth a second reading, and a third.
R. Herbert (a pen name) served as an ordained minister and church pastor for a number of years. He holds a Ph.D. in ancient Near Eastern and Biblical studies and writes for a number of Christian venues as well as for his websites at LivingWithFaith.org and TacticalChristianity.org.