If you read almost any Christian marriage resource, you’ll hear something along the lines of marriage being about sanctification. Its purpose: to reveal just how selfish and awful we are, and to make us more loving, patient, and kind. That’s what makes marriage hard, you know: we’re such awful, selfish people, but that’s what happens when two sinners marry. That’s marriage.
Anybody who’s been in a relationship with anybody, married or not, will certainly agree that they do see ugly, selfish sides to both themselves and their loved ones. Marriage is hard.
But I think there’s a crucial difference between saying that “you will be sanctified through marriage” vs. “marriage is for sanctification,” or “marriage is hard” vs. “marriage is supposed to be hard.” When we say that marriage is for sanctification or that marriage is supposed to be hard, we run the risk of normalizing dysfunction or even abuse.
If you’ve internalized complementarian teaching, there’s a good chance you struggle with setting appropriate boundaries, understanding the difference between a responsibility to your husband and a responsibility for your husband, believing deep in your soul that you matter, and expecting to be treated with love, decency, and respect. And frankly, I think trying to figure out an egalitarian marriage with a post-complementarian mindset is brutal. You swing back and forth between pulling yourself up to your full height and demanding equal treatment, and crumpling into guilt and acquiescence.
This creates a cycle of dysfunction that keeps you down: the more you feel disrespected and unheard, the more harshly you demand and expect; the more harshly you demand and expect, the more you feel guilty and acquiesce. The more you acquiesce, the more you put up with dysfunction. The more you put up with dysfunction, the more you feel disrespected and unheard, and so on.
Things cycle through the brink of disaster to happy making up to tolerableness, resulting in a marriage that’s never bad enough to be worth ending, but is it worth much else?
For many women, this is all they know. This is what they witnessed growing up. This is the treatment they experienced as children. This is what they encountered in dating relationships. This is what they think marriage is. And when Christians say that marriage is supposed to be hard, that marriage is supposed to manifest your rotten core, they normalize this dysfunctional cycle, this feeling that marriage is such a pointless struggle, this burden of feeling unloved, unnoticed, and frustrated most of the time. Instead of teaching that hard times are an inevitable part of marriage, the “marriage is for sanctification” line makes hard times — and indeed self-loathing and despair — the default.
If you’re not suffering, do you even have a real marriage?
“Marriage is for sanctification” makes finding a truly respectful, mature, loving spouse a daydream. A mostly happy, satisfying marriage? That’s a girlish fantasy. True love is hard work and sacrifice. And it is, at times, but it’s purposeful and productive work, not spinning your wheels in a dysfunctional cycle.
“Marriage is for sanctification” presumes that the normal capabilities of adult men and women are dysfunctional and sinful, that the sanctification process men and women experienced before marriage isn’t terribly effective to making a mostly happy marriage possible.
“Marriage is for sanctification” makes signs of dysfunction and abuse signs that you’re doing it right, that God is working on you, that you’re truly loving each other, so hang in there.
Some Christian teachers explicitly tell women to stay with abusive partners and dysfunctional marriages for sanctification purposes (theirs or their husbands’). This occurs again and again even in complementarian rhetoric that decries the abusive use of husbands’ authority. But even more egalitarian marriage teaching, or complementarian couples who function with mutual submission, use this line. It’s especially confusing when couples who do have happy marriages say things like “marriage is hard” and “marriage is for sanctification” — without clarifying that marriage is not meant to be a daily struggle.
Marriage is supposed to be a supportive relationship. Marriage is supposed to be a solace, not a struggle. Marriage originated pre-Fall, before the need for sanctification and sacrifice. Marriage is supposed to be for you and for your spouse. If marriage feels like a burden, a drain, or a frustration, if marriage is the biggest trial in your life, if “love your enemy” is your mantra to get you through your daily marriage interactions, this is not how it’s supposed to be. This is dysfunction, not sanctification. This is not a sign of normalcy. If you’re not married yet, these should be blaring red flags. They may be depressingly common struggles, but they don’t comprise a normal stage that all healthy relationships go through.
Marriage is not for sanctification.
We are not rotten, awful people who need our sin thrown in our faces until we get it right. We are people with inherent dignity and value who require a secure attachment to people who love us for who we are, even though we’re not perfect.
Actually, I take it back: if we define sanctification as becoming our best selves, marriage is for sanctification — but that sanctification ought to come through being unconditionally loved, respected, supported, and gently corrected — not torn down, run over, or wrung out.
I don’t want to take away hope from those currently within dysfunctional marriages. Nor do I deny the redemptive ways couples view their hard times. It’s not possible to be in any relationship without experiencing some sort of disappointment, hurt, and conflict, and it’s important for our marriages that we come to situate those moments within a story of mutual and personal growth.
But there’s a big difference between saying that God can redeem a dysfunctional marriage and implying that a dysfunctional marriage will redeem you. I don’t believe that Christian teachers are making this distinction clear or that it’s coming across clearly to those whose definition of “normal” is dysfunction and disrespect.
A disrespectful, inattentive, immature, selfish, angry, or emotionally unintelligent spouse is not going to change you into a better person. It’s going to derail and exhaust you from personal sanctification, sucking you into that dysfunctional cycle of rage and guilty acquiescence. But a marriage to a respectful, attentive, mature, selfless, self-controlled, and emotionally intelligent spouse? That’s the kind of marriage that sanctifies you.