All major religions agree on one thing: the ego, the small self that wants everything its own way, is the biggest impediment to spiritual growth. However, marriage provides one of the best vehicles for spiritual growth, because it is all about getting your ego out of the way.
Our culture is very ego-based and individualistic – it is all about me and my fulfilment. But when you are married, you are no longer a single individual, you are part of something bigger than either of your egos, that is, the marriage.
God meant for marriage to be glorious, but often it is a disaster – two egos in a power struggle over who is going to win. The ego wants everything its way, but when you are married you must negotiate everything with your spouse. The ego cannot have total control.
Marriage experts agree there are four stages to marriage: romance, disillusionment, misery, and true, seasoned love. There are nine things that help eliminate the painful parts.
First, wake up to the law of unity and karma. Unity means the two of you are one, and karma means what goes around comes around. Karma is a universal spiritual law found in all the great religions. Jesus said that what you give, you receive. In marriage if the two become one, whatever you do to your spouse you do to yourself. If you sow good or evil, it will come back to you. So be good to your spouse. Paul wrote that “The man who loves his wife loves himself (Ephesians 5:28).
Secondly, marital happiness mainly lies in you, in how you choose to think about your spouse, not in your partner doing what your ego wants. Your ego will always try to make your spouse into its own personal slave. Focus on your partner’s positive not negative points.
A third key is to accept and love your partner as they are, not as your ego wants them to be, and not as a clone of the things on your list of the ideal spouse. This list is an ego-list.
Fourth, realize that love is a decision not a feeling. Feelings come and go and make an unstable base for marriage. Seasoned love is choosing to love your partner when you don’t feel the love. This requires maturity and work, and the ego prefers immaturity and hates work.
Fifth, listening non-defensively is a key to communication and conflict resolution. The ego thrives on not listening, emotional drama, and blaming the other person for the problem.
Commitment is a sixth key. The ego always wants to run away when things get hard, but disillusionment and misery are normal stages couples go through. Commitment is what gets you through misery to seasoned love. Mind you, you have to make a careful discernment here. If there is severe or prolonged verbal, emotional, sexual, or physical abuse or neglect, this is not God’s will. God probably wants you to get out.
Humility is a seventh key. To accept you are not perfect and humbly listen to your spouse’s complaints takes a lot of self-discipline. Humility gets rid of the defensiveness, anger, self-righteousness, mind-games, blaming, judging, self-pity, and victimhood the ego loves.
Prayer is an eighth essential. Marriage can be extremely challenging. It always helps to call upon the wisdom, power, strength, and love of God to handle times of misery.
A ninth and final key is to realize the purpose of marriage is not sexual or financial fulfilment, but rather to grow spiritually together. According to scripture, you are both made in God’s image. So, the closest you get to God in the flesh is your marriage partner. The way you treat your spouse is the way you treat God.
Your marriage can be part of your spiritual practice, that is, an opportunity to grow in unconditional love, humility, acceptance, listening, commitment, gratitude, unity, and prayer.
Marriage may take you through hell, but if you keep getting your ego out of the way you will eventually get through crucifixion to resurrection, to heaven, and to true love.
Bruce Tallman is a spiritual director and religious educator of adults. brucetallman.com