I recently returned home from a visit to India, where I enjoyed the colors, tastes, sights, and sounds of a culture vastly different from my own North American culture. While there, our hosts informed us that, due to astrological forecasting, we should expect the cities and villages to be packed with people celebrating weddings. And indeed, they were! Each evening, public venues, parks, and every other imaginable meeting space was colored with an array of bright and colorful lights. The sound of music and dancing could be heard from one venue to the next. Wedding processionals made their way through the already-congested city streets, presenting the bride and groom to the world.
I asked my host about Indian wedding customs, and one difference stood out in sharp contrast. “Most weddings here are arranged marriages,” my host explained. I had heard that before, but had never really thought through the implications. Questions came to mind as I considered what it must be like to stand at the altar and be married to a person chosen for you. “What if there was no 'chemistry'? What if you decided six months into the marriage that you weren’t compatible with each other?”
As I reflected more on this, I realized that my reaction was based on some of my own cultural assumptions about marriage. In Western culture, it is widely assumed that marriage is built on feelings, like compatibility, friendship, or “chemistry.” Without these in place, we conclude that a happy marriage will be difficult or even impossible. Couples in India bring different assumptions to the table. Rather than assuming feelings or chemistry as necessary ingredients for a healthy marriage, I imagine that couples learn from an early age that values like compromise, adaptability, and commitment are of utmost importance to make the marriage work. Couples must not expect to “fall in love” before, but rather after. They must commit to the action of loving each other in order to develop a relationship of trust and vulnerability.
Of course, both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses. Both can be used in redemptive ways, and both can be twisted by sin.
But what does this all have to do with your marriage? Well, every one of us is formed by a unique “culture” that shapes our assumptions going into marriage. Even if we marry a person from a broadly similar background, we are still shaped by a “micro-culture” that forms our assumptions about marriage, about parenting, about how life is done. Think for example about how your exposure to media (or lack thereof) creates a vision for the purpose behind marriage. Drawing from fairy tales and romantic comedies, for example, can lead one to believe that marriage is meant to be your “happily ever after.”
Consider your religious upbringing--overly rigid, and legalistic homes can leave you with an adverse reaction to any form of religious involvement in your life. A home where Mom was domineering and Dad was passive (or vice versa) will form in you a sense of parenting and spousal roles. The list goes on—economic background, social standing, peers and coworkers, racial and ethnic heritage—all these and more contribute to “micro-culture” assumptions about what normal should look like. We bring our sense of the normal into our marriage, but it may be very different from another's "normal."
Most of the time, we don’t even realize that we are operating out of these assumptions. They are like eyeglasses—we are so used to seeing through them that we forget they are there. But left unexamined, they can become a source of friction in marriage.
Consider again some of the examples of how your own “micro-culture” have shaped you, but now, ask yourself what assumptions that your spouse carries into your marriage. You may just assume there is “the right way of doing things,” but your spouse may well have a different approach, and that might be most apparent in points of repeated conflict. Who’s right? Maybe both of you, and maybe neither of you. These “hotspots” in your marriage where you and your spouse retread the same ground over and over again may indicate places where you are both bringing different assumptions about what normal is supposed to be. So when you are at an impasse, ask each other a few questions:
Remember, you likely won’t even recognize that you have a set of assumptions because they are so ingrained into our minds. But consider—what seems so basic to you about the values you bring to bear on a given situation? What are you expecting about the roles you and your spouse should be playing? What has your upbringing taught you about the problem at hand?
The assumptions we have acquired over the years aren’t neutral; they shape the way we live in the present, both positively and negatively. We tend to demand our expectations of normal should be everyone's default position. Are you assuming that your approach is the only way to handle a problem? Ask yourself how your learned assumptions are helping you respond positively, and in what ways they might be promoting negative patterns.
Once we identify the assumptions we carry into the present, we can determine which expectations are worth keeping and which need to change in order to match a biblical pattern for marriage. Do you need a different method of handling conflict, or a new solution to a parenting dilemma? How might you learn from your spouse’s approach?
For Christians, we have the precious assurance that change and growth is possible for us! Paul tells us in Romans 12:1 that we are to be “transformed by the renewing of our minds.” In other words, God calls us (and promises us) to change our minds so that we increasingly pattern our thinking after God’s own mind. God is changing our assumptions to match his! Moreover, God promises that this difficult work of change is not up to us. Rather, it is a working of God’s Spirit within us. Seek the power and presence of God’s Spirit to transform you!
I was surprised about what I learned from my Indian host, so I asked, “Was your marriage arranged, too?” He was quick to reply. “Oh yes, arranged at first—but now, a love marriage.” God worked through a unique set of cultural values and assumptions to build a marriage that reflects God’s love for his church. God assures us that he can do the same for us!
Dr. Robert Ritzema
Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra
Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra