I have never really accepted the whole notion of marriages failing because of “irreconcilable differences.” It seems to me that the most common reason for divorce in our society deals with something much simpler: selfishness. Whenever you examine the reasons people give for a marriage failing, you can usually trace it to the fact that either the husband or the wife or both, displayed enough selfishness to sacrifice the marriage. It usually manifests itself in some type of disregard for the other person, or in an “I’m right and you’re wrong” type of mentality.

On the other hand, marriages that last for a lifetime have the source of their success in the opposite: love. Now we have to be careful here, because the word love can be used in so many different ways. People say “I love to eat steak,” or “I love to go to Hawaii.”  But the type of love I am referring to in marriage is the highest or greatest form of love – agape. The best definition of love I have ever heard is just two words: “selfless benevolence.” In other words, doing something for someone else without expecting anything in return.

So in marriage, selfishness can lead to trouble, whereas selflessness, when expressed freely between husband and wife, can lead to a life filled with blessings.

That brings us to the second point I would like to make. We hear so much about the importance of communication in marriage. I would agree that being able to express yourself and to articulate your feelings effectively in any relationship is vital. But for us Christians, there is something even more important to the married life. Let me explain. Have you ever noticed the main difference between the Orthodox wedding ceremony and those of other churches?  Most non-Orthodox weddings include the exchanging of vows, which indicates a certain contractual emphasis (i.e., I agree to marry you).

In the Orthodox Sacrament of Marriage however, no vows are exchanged. Rather the emphasis is on the sacred prayers of the Church, which ask God to unite the man and woman as husband and wife. In other words the Orthodox faith places a greater emphasis on the sacramental essence of marriage rather than on the contractual aspect – a spiritual relationship is created between the man and the woman, not only a legal (contractual) one.

This idea has tremendous implications on how we view our own marriage as Orthodox. For us, the bond that ties us together as husband and wife is not a legalistic one, but one that is based on the love that Christ has for us and for the Church. Remember Christ Himself told His disciples, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another, even as I have loved you…” (John 13:34). Jesus gave that commandment not only to His disciples, but to us as well.

When we marry, God’s grace comes upon us and joins us together as husband and wife. From that point on, the bond of love we receive in the Sacrament of Marriage is an extension of the relationship – the love – that Christ has for us – His Church. Our spiritual life is founded upon and nourished with that love, and our marriages should be, too.

The problem is that it’s not always easy to think in these terms when one is in the midst of a heated debate. In all marriages there are times when emotions flare and words are spoken hastily. That is the time when it is important to remind yourself that your marriage is everlasting in God’s eyes, and that perhaps you should think about taking the first step toward a solution to the difficulty. Then you can get on with spending the rest of your life together, sharing precious memories and growing old together.

All these things are possible when we remember to work at keeping love as the focus of our marriage rather than selfish interests. Love in marriage and spiritual growth as a Christian should go hand in hand. That’s why when people are married outside the Church or get divorced outside the Church, they place themselves outside the good canonical standing of the Church and are not allowed to participate in any Sacraments as sponsors or to receive Holy Communion.

Everything we do as Christians should contribute to our personal growth as children of God. When a husband and a wife show true love, true selfless benevolence toward each other, then they grow in the image of God.

“God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God and God in Him.” — 1 John 4:16