The Ties That Bind
By Audrey Stallsmith
Many 19th century marriages were arranged ones. That fact, which came up in a book I was reading recently, startled me. Although I knew most Biblical marriages were brokered in advance by the families involved, I hadn’t realized how long the custom had persisted. That gives a whole new meaning to the idea of loving your spouse!
These days we assume most people will love their mates--at least for a while--since they wouldn’t have married them if they didn’t. In earlier centuries, however, they may not have met that spouse more than once or twice before the wedding. And some women had little choice in the matter.
As late as the Victorian era, there were few jobs available to females except the one sometimes dubbed the “oldest profession.” Therefore, marriage often was the only option that would keep those women fed and clothed and off the streets.
I’m guessing that parents who really loved their daughters would have done their best to find them good mates in any era. In a time when the average life expectancy was 40-something, however, those parents might not have been around by the time their daughters reached marriageable age. In that case, other relatives left with the financial responsibility of supporting those women may have wanted to see them wed as soon as possible.
Even parents themselves sometimes seem to have made horrendously bad choices due to financial considerations. Revealingly enough, the book which detailed these problems was about Victorian murderesses. In one situation in France, a young woman was married off to her own great-uncle. We might almost forgive her for murder under those circumstances!
Although more civilized cultures condemned the idea of an African chief who took all the young women in a village for himself, the situation wasn’t all that different in those supposedly civilized cultures. In Europe, of course, wealthy men had to limit themselves to one wife at a time, though they often had mistresses as well. But, since women frequently died in childbirth, a man might go through several spouses before his own demise. Such widowers often were considered the best catches since they generally had more money than younger men did.
Women weren’t the only ones whose marriages could be dictated by finances. The son of a family which had fallen on hard times often was constrained to marry a woman who could bring money of her own into the merger. Such a son, after all, may have had a mother and unmarried sisters to support, so he had to take into account much more than his own preferences.
Most of us are happy to read novels about such time periods while thanking goodness that we didn’t live in them. Unfortunately, these days, the marriage-minded seem to have switched to the opposite extreme and take into account only their feelings.
That love frequently blinds them to faults which will be hard to live with on a full-time basis. For example, someone who exaggerates accomplishments may well lie about other things as well. A person occasionally cruel before marriage will be much worse after. And the sort who preferred to play the field when single is likely to continue to do so.
Therefore, anyone who wants to wed should take into consideration more than love and sexual sparks. Both my sisters currently are having problems in their marriages and one of them jokingly commented that perhaps I was the smart one, since I had remained single. I don’t see it that way, since I believe God prefers us to take chances on love rather than protecting ourselves by not doing so.
But what if the chance you took didn’t turn out well and your marriage now is disintegrating? First, it’s important for us to realize that we can’t change other people. That was the message I took from the recent War Room movie and from my sisters’ experiences. Our inability to change people actually is a good thing, since we would try to alter them in ways that would make them more acceptable to us, turning ourselves into dictators.
We can pray for them, though—as the wife does for her straying husband in War Room--and trust God to do the right kind of renovations in them. But we must keep in mind that He only will change people who really want to change. Therefore, a happy outcome isn’t guaranteed. Free will is what makes people who they are, but it also allows them to reject God and us if they like.
For that reason, as the movie also illustrates, it is foolish for us to base our peace and happiness on what our loved ones do or are unwilling to do. We need a deeper foundation that will support us even if those other people disappoint us or abandon us, that foundation being God.
We can rest assured that, as long as we want God with us, He will be there. “For God has said, ‘I will never, never fail your nor forsake you.’” (Hebrews 13:5b TLB) Granted, we may feel forsaken at times, but that only is our perception of reality and isn’t the reality itself. As was mentioned before, God doesn’t force His way in where he isn’t wanted. But He has promised that He won’t abandon those who depend on Him, and God doesn’t lie.
Once you have put all of your trust in God rather than in another person, you won’t feel so panicky when that person lets you down. You actually can love him or her more, because your love will be less selfish, less about how a betrayal will affect you and more about how it will affect him or her morally.
I don’t believe you should stay with a spouse who abuses you, either physically or verbally, since your staying would seem to condone the abuse. Scripture also clearly states that you aren’t required to remain with a spouse who is unfaithful, since that person has violated your marriage contract (Matthew 5:32).
However, the Bible doesn’t say anywhere that you are free to abandon your marriage just because you don’t love the other person anymore. Love, after all, is a matter of choice. So the fact that Christians these days seem to divorce as much as everybody else proves that some haven’t been consulting God’s will on the matter.
The fact that there weren’t more murders way back when probably proves that most couples in arranged marriages adjusted. That occurred in a gritty homesteading movie called Heartland, where a housekeeper who didn’t much like her employer agreed to marry him in what clearly was a move meant to provide security for herself and her young daughter from a previous marriage. “I just can’t talk to that man,” she says at one point to another woman.
I remain in awe of people like them who had to learn to love each other from scratch, so to speak. If they were devout, as the pair in the movie seemed to be, they wouldn’t have had much choice in the matter. The Bible clearly orders that wives love their husbands and that husbands return the favor (Ephesians 5:25-33).
After losing a baby together and coming to the brink of financial disaster, they eventually did learn to talk to each other, and to develop a sense of humor about each others’ faults. The somewhat plaintive version of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” which frequently played in the background may have been meant to illustrate how they did that. Such couples probably could teach modern ones a thing or two about how much of love resides in the will rather than the emotions.