The Highs and Lows of Marriage

My phone rang recently late at night. It was one of my former students on the other end of the line. “Can we talk for a few minutes?” she asked.

I yawned and said yes, so she began.

“Marriage is nothing like I thought it would be,” she started. She cried as she documented her disappointments with her husband and their relationship. He was not like he was when they were first married. He now left his clothes lying around and was less attentive. And they were rapidly running out of money.

Finally I stopped her long enough to ask, “Just how long have you been married anyway?”

“Two weeks!” she sobbed.

I told her to hang in there because her marriage could get better day by day.

What my young student was experiencing is fairly common to almost all married couples. There are usually some highs and some lows in married life. Almost all of us can recall some difficult moments we have had during our years of marriage. And perhaps we, like my student, think about those times on occasion. But the difficult times do not necessarily indicate that we love each other less. They could just as easily be an indication that we’ve had better times before and since!

It is harmful and dangerous to dwell too much on the lows. The more we worry about what is wrong with our relationship, the lower we seem to sink. And the more we remind ourselves how bad things are or have been, the more likely we are to begin to gauge our whole marriage by the lows—even by the lows of the lows.

One of the interesting dynamics of couples contemplating divorce is that they are usually preoccupied with what is wrong with their marriage. Each person can document the times and places the marriage began to suffer. But they seldom stop to remember and relive together the highs—the good times, the happy moments, the experiences that increased their love for each other.

Relatively few of us can continually maintain a happily-ever-after type of marriage. President Spencer W. Kimball has previously noted:

“Two people coming from different backgrounds soon learn after the ceremony is performed that stark reality must be faced. There is no longer a life of fantasy or of make-believe; we must come out of the clouds and put our feet firmly on the earth. Responsibility must be assumed and new duties must be accepted. Some personal freedoms must be relinquished and many adjustments, unselfish adjustments, must be made.

“One comes to realize very soon after marriage that the spouse has weaknesses not previously revealed or discovered. The virtues that were constantly magnified during courtship now grow relatively smaller, and the weaknesses that seemed so small and insignificant during courtship now grow to sizeable proportions. The hour has come for understanding hearts, for self-appraisal, and for good common sense, reasoning, and planning.” (Marriage and Divorce, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976, pp. 12–13.)

Another religious leader has commented on the fairy tale, happily-ever-after illusion that many seem to have of marriage. On 29 July 1981, nearly one billion people watched on television as Prince Charles and Lady Diana of Great Britain were married. It was, perhaps, as close to a fairy tale wedding as possible. Yet, the official who performed the ceremony, The Most Reverend and Retired Honorable Robert Runcie, Archbishop of Canterbury, stated:

“Here is the stuff of which fairy tales are made; the prince and the princess on their wedding day. But fairy tales usually end at this point with the simple phrase ‘they lived happily ever after.’ This may be because fairy stories regard marriage as an anticlimax after the romance of courtship. This is not the Christian view. Our faith sees the wedding day not as the place of arrival but the place where the adventure really begins.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury also counseled:

“Marriage is first of all a new creation for the partners themselves. As husband and wife live out their vows, loving, cherishing one another, sharing life’s splendours and miseries, achievements and setbacks, they will be transformed in the process.” (Marriage Encounter, February 1982, pp. 24–25.)

Some couples become discouraged in marriage because they believe or have heard that others live their marriages in perfect harmony without the slightest indication of a confrontation or difference in opinion. While some couples may eventually mature to that level, most of us are not that skilled, particularly during the early years of marriage. In sacrament meeting shortly after Susan and I were married, an elderly man stood up and said that he and his wife had lived nearly fifty years of marriage “without an argument or even one cross word.” We were somewhat disillusioned since we had been able to maintain such complete bliss for only about the first two weeks of our marriage. We have found, too, that similar claims have been a source of concern and frustration to other married couples beside ourselves.

I am intrigued with an article dealing with this that appeared in our Church literature more than seventy years ago. In the July 1911 Improvement Era, William George Jordan wrote an article titled “Little Problems of Married Life.” He observed:

“Have you ever heard an old sea-captain boast that in all his experience he had never seen a squally sea, never a dull, heavy, storm-laden sky, never heard the tempest shriek through the rigging, and threaten to tear away the masts? His pride is in his skill, not in his luck. The matrimonial sea never remains absolutely serene and calm, with no ruffling waves for years at a time. The vital point is that the storms have all been weathered in safety and the love and trust, purified by time, remain undaunted.”

William Jordan then made another interesting observation: “In the days of courtship two may feel that they thoroughly understand each other, and that no matter how many marriages may fail their happiness together is absolutely assured. Yet courtship is only the kindergarten class of matrimony. Courtship is the preliminary canter, not the real race. It is the matrimonial shopping; marriage is the acceptance of the unreturnable delivered goods. Courtship is the joyous, sunshine launching of the craft of hope; marriage is the long cruise across uncharted seas. The two now pass under the test of new conditions; they face new problems and enter a life of finer attunement, of constant call on patience, tolerance, forbearance, concession, kindness, sympathy and wise understanding.” (Improvement Era, July 1911, pp. 787–88.)

The fact that there would be disputes and misunderstandings in relationships is acknowledged in the scriptures. The Savior knew there would be personal confrontations in our daily lives, even among his disciples, past and present. In noting this human tendency, he frequently admonished his followers to seek reconciliation and forgive one another. (See Matt. 18:15; Matt. 5:23–26; 3 Ne. 12:24; D&C 64:8–10.) Because of the mortal weakness to both give and receive offenses, such wisdom still is extremely relevant for husbands and wives in contemporary times.

Some couples may become discouraged at times and want to terminate the relationship. Although there may be instances where divorce is the only answer, there also exists the danger of uprooting something with potential good—just to get rid of something else that temporarily appears to be bad.

Susan and I learned this not long ago when we planted grass in our backyard. As it started to grow, so did the crabgrass. So many neighbors and friends told us about the crabgrass in our new lawn that we soon began to believe the crabgrass would prevail. And for a while it did. The neighborhood consensus was that the lawn could not survive. Anyone could see that, just by looking at it! The crabgrass was so tall that the little blades of new lawn were barely visible.

One neighbor told us to simply start over. He showed us how to spray the yard with a chemical that would kill everything. Another neighbor offered us his tiller. We were discouraged, to say the least. It had taken us several months to get even this far with our new lawn. We’d had to dig up rocks, bring in topsoil, level, fertilize, and prepare the area for the lawn seed.

While we were trying to make a decision, I stopped by a greenhouse one day with a few blades of the crabgrass. I described our plight to an elderly man who looked like he knew something about plants and grass. “That’s not crabgrass; it’s orchard grass,” he said. “Just give your lawn a little more water, fertilizer, and time. As the new lawn grows, it will soon crowd out the orchard grass.” We followed his advice and now have a backyard of beautiful, thriving lawn.

Marriage also has its discouraging moments once in a while—a little unwanted crabgrass. And sometimes we may just want to give up the good in order to get rid of the bad. But the advice from the man at the nursery still seems pertinent. Give it a little more attention, make a little more effort, and the good experiences can eventually crowd out the bad ones. Focus your effort and attention on the lawn rather than on the crabgrass.

The importance of efforts and attitude, of believing and hoping, of bearing and enduring in marriage (see 1 Cor. 13:7, and Moro. 7:45) is emphasized in the poem “Listen World”:

You can’t leave love to luck.
Love first came with leaping ecstacy.
But when this passes … as it always may …
Love, too, will go unless you make it stay.
For there come times when hearts
Are deaf and dumb, when nothing wakens,
Nothing yearns or burns. … These times must come;
They are not accident, nor do they prove
Your choice of love was wrong.
They come with every lover,
Every loving bond-mother or father,
Sister, brother, mate. Always, at times,
Love seems as cold as hate …
Cut off forever, by malignant fate.
But it’s not so. Such chilling of the heart’s
As much a part of life as thirst or hunger. …
It’s the natural ebb of our affection’s flow.
Such times must come for all who love,
And when they come you must know why,
And how to meet them or your love will die.
You can’t leave love to luck,
You must at times build love.
Though lacking all delight,
As blind men weave a pattern in the night,
Counting each gentle gesture,
Spacing word and smile, groping through darkness
Of both heart and head, as blind men fumble
With their unseen thread.
Until at last from out of the dull
Gray warp and woof of service, unto God and men,
There’s the shine of that sweet wonder
Which you had thought had passed …
And, once again, you feel God’s beautiful design.

(Author unknown, quoted in Louis H. Evans, Your Marriage, Duel or Duet? Westward, New Jersey: F. H. Revell Co., 1962, p. 72.)

During the times of the lows, couples should try to build love, as mentioned in the poem. One way to give the highs more attention, more focus, is to talk about them and relive them together. “What have been the highlights of our marriage thus far?” “What were the contributing circumstances?” “Could we create these or similar experiences again?” (See the exercise “Remembering the Highs” at the end of this article.)

Instead of measuring our marriage by the low of the lows, let’s judge it by the high of the highs. And the good news is that the highs are in our control. We can plan for and create good times together. Then we will have something to cushion the lows with when they occur unbidden. And by so doing, we increase our capacity to survive in marriage. Since we have had good times together in the past—and every married couple has—we likely have the same capacity to experience them again if we both choose to do so. And maybe we’ll discover that things really aren’t so bad after all.

As we experience the lows and strive for the highs in marriage, let’s consider this counsel and promise from the Lord:

“Search diligently, pray always, and be believing, and all things shall work together for your good, if ye walk uprightly and remember the covenant wherewith ye have covenanted one with another.” (D&C 90:24.)

Remembering the Highs

It is important to focus on the “highs” instead of the “lows” in marriage. This exercise will help you recall some of the pleasant times and positive experiences you’ve had together. Complete the following statements individually in writing, and then share your written and verbal responses with each other. You may wish to divide this exercise into two or three sessions.

1. The first time I saw you was …

2. I wanted to be with you because …

3. I was impressed with you because …

4. I decided I wanted to marry you because …

5. During our engagement, the most difficult situations we overcame were …

6. The most pleasant memories of our wedding day are …

7. The most difficult experiences we have encountered and survived thus far in our marriage are …

8. At the birth of our first child I felt …

9. Highlights of our marriage thus far have been …

10. Other pleasant memories I have of you and our marriage are …

11. Things I like best about you are …

12. Three things about our marriage right now that are good are …

13. Three things about our marriage right now that are great are …

[illustration] Illustrated by Warren Archer III

Brent A. Barlow, associate professor of family sciences at BYU and father of six children, is the Gospel Doctrine teacher in his Orem, Utah, ward.