You might wonder why I, as a woman who was single longer than I was married, and whose life as a divorcee is now longer than as a wife, might come and talk about what marriage should be. As a failure, perhaps I have no right to counsel those of you who have kept your relationships intact.
Since my own marriage (and even before,) I have watched all of you who are married. I have watched for signs that marriage can be what I think it is. I have found a few people who I believe live what God intended. But I have also found plentiful evidence that being married does not necessarily teach one understanding of marriage.
One could easily say that I never got anything for myself out of my marriage. I remember no time that I felt fulfilled, or that I felt loved from the moment the ink dried on the certificate.
But even then, I only ended the marriage because I was instructed by the Lord to end it. I clung to it and fought against the idea of divorce with all my heart. To me, it wasn’t enough that my husband did not fulfill his obligations to our family or me. It wasn’t enough that I got nothing out of it, that he never loved me or wanted to please me in any way. Disappointed hopes were not a reason to divorce because to me, marriage is not a contract.
I know that Disney has taught us that marriage is about being understood, about love and being drawn together. Unity in marriage is a two-part harmony and smooth dancing. When the dance falls out of step, or a spouse hits a wrong note, you have to correct them, get you both singing the same song again. And if they ever refuse to sing that same song with you, it’s time to end it “for the sake of the children,” or because it’s “just not working out.”
I call baloney. Our children need examples of sacrifice, of doing the hard thing in the short term for greater blessings over time. They need to see their parents putting things like loyalty, honesty, and perseverance above comfort, convenience, or desire. The marriage isn’t independent; if it’s not working out, it’s because it’s not being worked on. When our spouse stops singing the same song, it’s a chance to judge if it’s still the right song to sing. If it is, if the Spirit confirms that it is, keep singing anyways. Don't simply dump someone because they aren't performing up to your expectations.
Marriage is not a contract. It’s a covenant.
I know we teach in Primary that a covenant is like a one-way contract. God sets the rules, and you choose to accept them or not. But that’s not really it. A covenant is an agreement in the temporal sense, but in the divine sense it is much more: a token of trust.
A contract is written: if you do THIS, then I’ll do THAT. You hold up your end of the bargain, and I’ll hold up mine. But a covenant isn’t a bargain. When we are baptized, we are performing a token of an inward change of heart. We have learned to know Christ to the point where we are willing to dedicate ourselves to becoming like Him. The only “promise” we get in return is that God will make available the tools we need in order to accomplish that: the guidance of the Spirit. We don't have the green light to abandon our baptismal covenants just because the Spirit hasn't answered us as soon as we'd like, or isn't giving us the kind of direction we expect.
So it is with marriage. We are not saying “hey, I’ll stay married to you so long as it benefits me.” We are saying, “I trust you as a person. I’ll be with to you no matter what: through rich, poor, sickness, health. Whether you become a lawyer or a stay-at-home mom. Whether you ‘get’ me or not, whether you continue to want children or not, whether you lose your hair or get wrinkly skin.” We aren’t marrying a set of terms; we’re marrying a person in all their change, imperfection, and glory. That is what mortality is.
Now, my married life was five years of feeling like a failure. Consistently, I put my needs aside for his. As I went through counseling, I learned that my needs also needed to be addressed within the marriage. I learned that I needed to set boundaries. Though eventually, setting those boundaries led to the end of my marriage, nothing I say is intended to encourage giving of yourself until there is nothing left. That isn't God's sacrifice. You have to have something in order to sacrifice it. You have to be yourself to give yourself. I'm not saying you shouldn't get anything out of being married, I'm saying that what you get out of it can't be WHY you marry.
A contract is a way to control someone else, to predict the outcome and reduce risk. And if you aspire to become like Heavenly Father, you HAVE to learn that you can’t control people. Not that you don’t have the power to, but that you cannot control someone and love him or her at the same time. It’s impossible. Marriage is a risk. Embrace that.
God has shown us a better way. He showed us that power is submission, that glory is sacrifice: that control cannot be exerted over another being while accessing the powers of heaven. We can take risks with a whole heart because our Savior is there to pick up the pieces, not because we have any control over how those pieces will land. That is what I have chosen to take as my pattern. I’m not always very good at it, but it is my aspiration.
When we approach marriage as a set of negotiations, we have already lost the chance to access God’s power. Of course, we need to set boundaries in order to use our resources wisely. But boundaries are not a negotiation. Marriage is perhaps the best chance we have in this life to learn what it means to be the Savior. Some spouses reject our sacrifice. But God will not. Sometimes we have no choice but to end the contract in order to keep the covenant. God honors that.
I hope, someday, to find a man who sees marriage as just such an opportunity: to become like Christ, to give to a spouse as He gave to the Church, without a contract and without price. But if not, I know that I can never willingly make a choice that falls short of that. Any other kind of marriage is no marriage at all. Any other way of life is not worth living. And in that, I find more happiness than any two people with a successfully negotiated marriage contract.