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Tonight is date night: the night when my wife and I farm our children out to very eager grandparents and treat ourselves to a quiet night of good food and engaging conversation. After over a decade of marriage, it is a ritual that we do not do often enough, but one that provides a respite and space for crucial dialogue related to our relationship.

In reflecting on marriage, this idea hit me: being married to the same person is really tough work! At times, it is more dogfight than dreamscape; more slogging than serenading; more tension than tenderness. And, in a culture where almost 50% of first time marriages end in divorce (and about 75% of second marriages), the statistics bear out the difficulties that come with choosing to live with one person in a committed relationship over the long haul.

And yet, I am (slowly!) coming to believe that the pain and struggle and strife we feel in marriage is exactly what marriage is supposed to produce. The problem, of course, is that we are also enculturated by our entertainment industry to believe in the fairy tale of “love at first sight, happily ever after” romances that blossom seemingly overnight and last until the credits roll. The reality, as any married person knows, is often quite the opposite.

So what do we do with the pain, the struggle, the difficulty of marriage? My response, as I have been fleshing it out, is to embrace it. (Now, please understand, I am not talking about violence or abuse that comes in too many relationships; I am merely talking about the difficulties, tensions, and “typical” fights that spouses have that do not end in those extremes).

I think marriage is a crucible in the deepest sense of the word, for the etymology of the concept of crucible is something that can withstand extremely high pressures and heat in order to melt one thing down to form and create another. In that vein, I see the crucible of marriage as a curing process, as a refining fire that purges the “old” man or woman in order to form a “new” man or woman into something else.

Deep, covenantal relationships (relationships that are committed to doing the hard work “for better or worse, in sickness and in health, till death do us part”) reveal the weaknesses, selfishness, ego, pride, and fears we all carry within us. They lift up the board to reveal the roaches, worms, beetles and slugs that crawl and fester under the pleasant facade we so easily put on in our shallower relationships.

Nothing can stay hidden for long in a covenantal relationship. At some point, the pressure reveals the cracks and the heat begins to purge the dross. I think this is the point at which most folk bail, for none of us really want our weaknesses exposed, our vices known, our temptations found out, our pride tempered; yet, since that is exactly what a crucible does, when the fire gets too hot, many of us jump ship, preferring another shallow relationship to the dirty work of staying in the furnace.

The furnace, however, when embraced in the deep work of agape, is right where marriage does its greatest work. In the crucible of marriage, my ego, my addictions, my low self-esteem, my awkward vulnerabilities, my regrets, my shattered dreams, my ambitions, my very self, gets scalded away so that something new may emerge. My heart of stone may, if I allow the relationship to do its work, become at last a heart of flesh.

This is the work my wife has done for me. Through her constant love and patience and grace she has made, and is making me still, a better man. My demons and desires and dreams find their death in the furnace of our love so that we may become one flesh, bare and unashamed before each other.

So tonight, we will leave the kids for a few hours, enjoy a nicer dinner than we are typically wont to do, and step back again into the refiner’s fire.