Theologian Stanley Hauerwas wrote:
“We never know whom we marry; we just think we do. Or even if we first marry the right person, just give it awhile and he or she will change. For marriage, being (the enormous thing it is) means we are not the same person after we have entered it. The primary problem is…learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.”
For many of us when we look at that statement we immediately rise up in anger at the audacity of someone to declare that we have all married strangers. Yes, there are parts of the world in which arranged marriages are still the norm, but for most of us we chose our spouse. We dated, we courted, we made the marriage proposal, we accepted, we planned the wedding, we made the vows and we were fully aware of the person we were marrying. Obviously, as we look back we have come to understand that there were some things about our spouse that we did not know exactly, but to insinuate that we married a complete stranger is outrageous. No one would ever do that.
On one level it is true that we do not marry strangers. With the cultural norms of marriage, at least in the United States, individuals get to choose who they marry. However, on another level Hauweras is right. While stranger may be an extreme term to use it is true that even if one is aware of who they are marrying on their wedding day, marriage is such a life changing experience that who we are on our wedding day is not exactly who we are 1 year later, let alone 5 or 10 or 50 years later. Living together, being committed to someone else and honoring them above ourselves changes us. Add to that life experiences like having children, job changes, additional schooling, moves, or just growing up and we must admit that we change, individuals change. They may not be monumental transformations but slowly, over time, individuals change. And it becomes natural to wake up one day look at your spouse and ask, “What happened to the person I married?”
This is when a decision has to be made. Some choose the “easy way out” (although it’s never really easy) and get divorced and start the pattern over again with a new companion. However, if marriage is to be successful both parties must decide to commit to learning to love the stranger. Individuals must commit to loving not only the person they married on their wedding day, but to loving the person their spouse will become as they journey through life together. Just as they did when they were dating, couples must decide to put in the work to get to know each other as they change over time, as they change throughout life. Because marriage is not just about euphoric love but is about a deep and personal spiritual friendship that commits to loving and caring for each other as Christ does the church and helping each other grow into the person God wants them to be.
This is not an easy process. To even admit that your spouse might change, and in turn that you have also changed, is a difficult step. But whether we admit it or not, we change, all people change over time. And so, for those of us who want to be able to celebrate our 50th and 60th wedding anniversaries someday and to be able to say with pride when we are near the end of life that we still deeply love our spouse of so many years we must learn to love not only the person that we marry on our wedding day but who they become as they mature and grow. We must discover that in order for marriage to be successful and satisfying we must be willing to put in the effort to continue to know and love and appreciate our spouse over time as they change causing us to fall back in love with the one we have loved all along.
Understanding that individuals will change over time is not something to be feared, but something to be embraced. Nobody wants to be the same person at 70 that they are at 20. We all hope and expect that we will mature, growing into the person God has called us to be, being transformed into Christ likeness. That maturing process is not always easy, but it is necessary for growth to take place. And in marriage, spouses get a front role seat at watching someone else change, and in turn have the responsibility of helping their spouse navigate those waters effectively. As an individual learns to love another through this transformation he or she learns to love as Christ loves and both individuals in the relationship grow, not just more like Christ, but closer to each other. As couples learn to love the individuals they are becoming they form a deeper and stronger bond and their marriage becomes more meaningful and more satisfying and develops into the blessing from God that marriage was created to be.
For marriage to be successful it is imperative to realize that we all change, that change happens, and it is only natural to go through stages in which spouses feel more distant from each other than they would like. However, instead of running from these times, our vows before God call us to commit to loving the stranger, getting to know the person they have become as they are transformed more into God’s image, and falling back in love with the spouse of our youth, till death do us part.