Many families struggle with broken relationships and domestic violence. Because of this, some people are tempted to wonder whether marriage is still a worthwhile option. But the important aspects of family life still remain valid after thousands of years and these, if practised, can help our families to flourish, even in the twenty-first century.

The secret of happiness

Love has been characterised as meeting another’s needs before they even realise they have them. It’s like how parents know it’s important to feed their baby before he or she gets too hungry (and grumpy) and to change their nappy before the baby begins to feel uncomfortable.

Aloneness can leave people sad, hurting, struggling and selfish, whereas family life provides opportunities to experience love, communication, understanding and cooperation.

Together, marriage partners can meet each other’s needs for appreciation, comfort, help, protection, encouragement and affection. Every time we do something that helps our partner to feel loved, we strengthen our relationship, and every time we do something selfish, something that hurts, we damage the relationship.

Psychologists are discovering that the secret of happiness is not in having everything we want but in giving others what they need to make them happy. And the best place to experience the joy of generous love is in the family and marriage relationships because there we all know each other so well.

Better together

If one member of the marriage is sick, the other can provide care. If one is feeling tired, the other can share the load. If one is facing a challenge, there are two minds to focus on the problem. When good things happen, it feels even better when there’s someone with whom to share the joy. When tragedy tears our world apart, it’s good to have someone to cry with.

One challenge many families face today is that the parents and their children are increasingly isolated in virtual worlds constructed by technology. People are often motivated by a “What’s-best-for-me-right-now?” approach rather than by a healthy interdependence that asks, “What’s going to be best for my husband or wife and best for the family, now and in the future?”

Glimpses of God

Just before God created Adam’s partner, Eve, He said, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). And with this, God gave humans the brand-new institution of marriage, because He designed us to be better off together. Couples are mostly happier, healthier, wealthier and more resilient to life’s challenges than those who live alone.

However, there’s much more to marriage and family than the benefits they provide. They also give us insight into the character of God. The Bible says, “Let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. . .. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” (1 John 4:7, 12).

Every time we do something loving, however simple, we become expressions of God’s love. Love is not about doing something grand and spectacular for another person. It’s experienced in tiny kindnesses and thoughtful actions scattered throughout the day, such as, “Thanks for my clean shirt!”; “Can I make you a snack?”; “What can I do to help?”; or “I love being your wife (or your husband)!”

God’s ideal for marriage and family is that we create a place together with Him where we can experience and share every aspect of His love. It’s a two-way street—the more we experience the generous, unselfish and forgiving love of another human being, and the more we give that kind of love to our partners and our children, the more we can understand God’s love for us. And the more we truly understand God’s love for us, the easier it is for us to love Him and other people.

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8).

Putting others first, discovering what makes them feel loved and providing for their needs helps us to develop compassion, unselfishness, humility, courage and patience. We mature and grow when we put our love into action.

“Being a parent has taught me so much!” says David. “Getting up in the middle of the night to take care of a fussing baby has turned my priorities upside down. But I want to do whatever it takes to help my little daughter feel loved, safe and happy. I’m no longer the most important person in my world and it has changed my whole perspective on life for the better.”

That’s why Jesus said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40).

Choosing commitment

It isn’t enough to simply love. God introduced marriage because He wanted us to experience the commitment and loyalty that comes with it.

If we’re not committed, we can easily give up on a relationship when the going gets tough. But if we switch partners each time a relationship becomes difficult, we won’t take the opportunity to understand where the other person is coming from, we won’t learn the important skills of sticking with a problem until it’s solved, and we won’t develop maturity and strength. In the end, we’ll just find the same problems emerging with a different person.

There’s a positive side to commitment, especially when we focus on our choice to be committed to another person. Positive commitment says, “I’m here with you for the long haul, whatever happens, for richer or for poorer, in sickness or in health.”

Love says, “I want the best for us and I’m willing to do whatever it takes to keep on building a closer relationship with you. I want to invest my love, time, understanding and effort into making our marriage and family the best it can be.”

Commitment is also about building trust and showing partners that they are the most important person in our lives. It is about being faithful, keeping each other safe and making the needs and wishes of our partner as important as our own.

Sadly, because we live in an imperfect world, however committed we are, life isn’t simple and relationships can break down. Divorce happens. Children are separated from their parents. Lives are devastated. When we find ourselves all alone, God promises to be our Father (Psalm 27:10) and even our Partner (Isaiah 54:5), loving us, comforting us and supporting us.

The “big picture” marriage

There’s one additional reason why God created marriage. In Bible times, when a couple decided to marry, they would first become betrothed or promised to each other. The husband-to-be would pay a bride-price to show his commitment to his future wife. Then he would prepare their home, building it with his own hands in anticipation of the wedding day.

Meanwhile, the bride-to-be would prepare herself for the wedding and the marriage. When the home was ready, the bridegroom would come for his bride and there would be a huge celebration.

Jesus is our Bridegroom. He wants to be with us. He loves us, He has chosen us, He has made a huge sacrifice for us and He’s committed to us. He once said, “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (John 14:1-3).

Like a husband-to-be, Jesus is making a home for us in heaven. When everything is just right, He’ll come and take us there so we can live with Him forever in a world of perfect love. Those who love Him are like His “bride,” longing to be with Him, waiting for Him, faithful and committed to Him.

This is the big picture of God’s plan for us, something so mysterious and wonderful that we can only begin to understand it through our deepest, closest and most loving relationships—which is why our marriages and families are so important to Him.

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Every time a relationship is damaged, every time one is broken, He cries with us in our pain. These damaged human relationships also damage the picture of God’s loving commitment to us. But every time we do something loving, forgive each other or resolve our conflicts respectfully and peacefully, we are part of His loving plan and a flash of heaven sparkles through the universe into our world.

How to grow as a family

  • Create a list together of the different strengths each of you brings to your family. Things to include might be humour, solving conflict, a listening ear, a forgiving spirit or simply the ability to fix a dripping tap.
  • Tell your partner seven things that you really appreciate about them.
  • Reflect on the aspects of God’s love and His character that people might see when they look at your marriage or your family.
  • List 10 things you can do to make your child or partner feel especially loved and then do them as often as you can.
  • Review three specific things that you can do to make your marriage or family better, happier, stronger and more fun.
  • Think of ways to help your partner experience more of God’s love through the way you love them.
  • Talk about how you and your family could combine your skills and talents to help with a caring project, such as making soup to feed the homeless, coaching or tutoring children, or raising money that can benefit people in deprived situations.

Karen Holford is a family therapist with a background in occupational therapy and developmental psychology. A version of this article first appeared on the Signs of the Times Australia/New Zealand website and is republished here with permission.