Could Your Family Of Origin Ruin Your Marriage?

Getting Ready For Marriage Series #3

Imagine with me, for just a moment, your perfect wedding day.  From the moment you wake up, everything is going exactly as you had hoped.

Celebrities everywhere are seething with jealousy as your guests shut down Instagram with one perfect photo after another.

Finally, it’s time for you and your (almost) spouse to exchange vows.  You get misty-eyed as the pastor says, ‘Repeat after me…’

I, John, take you Elizabeth…

your parents and your extended family…

to be my lawfully wedded wife…

As you start to mindlessly repeat the pastor’s words, something doesn’t sound quite right… After exchanging an awkward glance at the pastor and Elizabeth, you notice that she’s not alone.

There, just behind her, are her parents, brother, sister and other relatives.  As you look more carefully, you see that each one has a heavy suitcase with large lettering.

Her father’s says ‘kind but aloof’.  Mom’s reads ‘sweet but controlling’.  Seized with fear, you frantically try to make out what the other suitcases say without looking too obvious.

After all, 200 pairs of eyes are locked in on you.

One by one, the family hands their baggage over to Elizabeth, who receives them with a bizarre mixture of eagerness and regret.

With a look of fear and hope, she tries to hide the uglier suitcases under her dress.  All of a sudden, she turns back to you, awaiting your response.

As you try to remember what you’re supposed to say, you wake up in a cold sweat, thankful it was all a dream.

Or was it?

Who Do You Think You’re Marrying?

In their book Great Expectations: An Interactive Guide To Your First Year Of Marriage, Toben and Joanne Heim write, ‘Let’s face it; you marry more than just your spouse. In a sense, you marry your spouse’s family too.’

Over the years, in our premarital counseling with couples, we have found this to be true.

Many hopeful couples are like ‘John’ above.  They’re surprised to learn that their family of origin has shaped them in quiet, profound ways that will powerfully impact their marriage.

Other couples look more like ‘Elizabeth’.  They seem to recognize that they’ve inherited a lot of (mixed) baggage from their families.  While they’re still excited to get married, they worry that the negatives will bubble to the surface at some point and cripple their marriage.

Of course, many couples contain both a John and Elizabeth.  What about you and your future spouse?

And, how should you think about the role your family of origin may play long after you say, ‘I do’?

Your Family Of Origin & Your Marriage: Biblical Insights

So which is it?

Can we easily overcome what we’ve inherited from our families growing up, and go on to have a great marriage that proves them all wrong?

Or, are we bound to eventually succumb to the damaging patterns we picked up from our families?

When we look at the ways families influence their children and future generations in Scripture, here are some quick observations.

Sometimes children follow directly in their family’s footsteps.  The Books of 1-2 Kings provide many examples of this.  For example, after Israel was divided into two kingdoms, the northern kingdom never had another good king.  Every son followed the bad example of his father.

Other Scriptures, thankfully, paint a more positive picture.  Timothy, for example, had a ‘sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in [his] grandmother Lois and [his] mother Eunice’ (2 Timothy 1:5).  Timothy’s strong faith appears to be – at least in part – a result of the investment these godly women made in him.

Sometimes children walk away entirely from their family upbringing.  Returning to the Books of 1-2 Kings, sometimes kings with great fathers turned out to be lousy rulers. This happened when Ahaz took over for his father, Jotham (2 Kings 16-17).  Other times, the reverse happened, as when good King Asa followed on the heels of his evil father, Abijam (1 Kings 15).

I know a million caveats are in order, but these passages show that, spiritually-speaking, our relationship to our lineage isn’t always entirely linear.  There’s a real tension here, and it’s not always easy to sort out.

So let’s look a few more verses, see if we can make some headway, then end with a quick thought or two for your future marriage.  

Your Family Of Origin & Your Marriage: Biblical Insights, Part 2

Exodus 20:5-6 says,

I the Lᴏʀᴅ your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me.

Verses like these seem to say that the sin of parents can somehow (we’re not given details) become the sins of their children, too.

But then other verses, like Ezekiel 18:20, seem to contradict this.

The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son.

So again, which is it?

If your parents struggled with anger, are you destined to import that into your own marriage?  Or, can you pretty much leave it behind you?

While it appears – from the bible and our own experience – that the families we come from can predispose us to certain patterns of sin, God’s grace runs far, far deeper.

John Piper mentions that the bible makes this abundantly clear.  For example,

  • Leviticus 26:40-42: ‘If they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers . . . if then their uncircumcised heart is humbled and they make amends for their iniquity, then I will remember my covenant with Jacob.’
  • Acts 10:43: ‘To him [Jesus] all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’

In other words, as Piper puts it, ‘Nobody is trapped in his father’s sins — or even in his own sins.’  Is that great news or what?  

Three Takeaways For Your Future (Or Current) Marriage

As you think about your family of origin and its possible implications for your marriage, here are three observations.

  1. The key themes and patterns of your home growing up may well be the default in your own marriage.  What are three positive, and three negative, patterns from your childhood?
  2. God’s amazing grace means our marriages can be free from poor patterns we’ve inherited from others.  And, even our own!  Ask God to free you from repeating the negative patterns you identified in #1.  And, your own sin.  (See 1 John 1:9.)
  3. Because we’re broken in a broken, distracting world, we can’t assume that we’ll just keep doing whatever was good from our upbringing.  Grace is still required.  Ask God to help you see the good you’ve inherited, and pray for power to keep living it out.  

Regardless of your story, your marriage can be the beautiful picture of God’s relationship to us, his church, that he intended all along.

If you found this post helpful, you may be interested in the other posts in this Getting Ready For Marriage Series:

Marry Someone Who Will Call You Out In Love

‘Hey, I meant to tell you something.’

It was just a kind, casual comment. But years of experience had taught me that my wife had something important to say. Something I probably didn’t want to hear.

Without warning, I felt like I had two people inside of me.  The first was a ninja, ready to dodge any incoming criticism. (And maybe launch a counter-attack).  The second knew she loves me and had learned her criticism always makes me better.

I didn’t know who was going to win.

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1 Incredibly Hard Thing Husbands Must Do For Their Wives

Anyone who’s ever been in a romantic relationship knows how awesome, complicated, and just plain hard it can be. What if someone you trusted could make it simpler and easier for you?

I’m a guy. I like to keep things simple and straightforward. So I’m thankful for Ephesians 5:21-33, the Apostle Paul’s cheat sheet for marriage. There, he tells us guys the one thing we absolutely must do to have a successful marriage. If we do this, the other things tend to take care of themselves.

But even if you’re not married or in a relationship, you can do this in your other relationships as the best way to prepare.

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9 Topics You Absolutely Need To Cover In Your Premarital Counseling

So, you’d like to get married.  You’ve heard that premarital counseling is a good idea. (Good call.)

But not all premarital counseling is created equally.  How do you make sure you cover the things that matter most?

happy young couple in field of yellow flowers

Photo by Micah Camara

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7 Signs Your Relationship Isn’t Marriage Material

Getting Ready For Marriage Series #2

As he described the pain and frustration in his marriage, it tore me apart.  Although his wife identified with Christ, her lack of spiritual interest had only grown worse over the years, leaving him lonely and unfulfilled.  At this point, all he could do is pray.

In my first post in this series, I wrote about whether Christians should date people outside of the faith.  That certainly happens, but most Christians find themselves in a much murkier situation: wondering whether the Christian they’re dating (or thinking about dating) is really marriage material.

As this short story from my friend shows, getting this decision right is absolutely critical.

So let’s take a look at 7 warning signs that your relationship may not be marriage material.

This post is the second in my monthly Ready For Marriage Series, designed to help you cover essential premarital topics so that you can a great marriage that honors God and brings life to others. You can sign up here to make sure you receive future posts.
deep water sign photo

Photo by ell brown

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Six Ways To Pursue Spiritual Intimacy In Marriage (Guest Post at Desiring God)

If you find it difficult to consistently connect spiritually with your spouse, you’re completely normal.

But there’s hope in Christ for marriages like yours.  And mine.

couple holding hands photo

Just a quick heads-up that I’ve written a guest post over at Desiring God about this: Six Ways To Pursue Spiritual Intimacy In Marriage.

I hope that it helps you pursue greater spiritual intimacy with your husband or wife.  (Or any couple on the road to marriage, really.)

Re-Thinking Spiritual Intimacy In Marriage (Part 2)

Spending time with God, together with our spouse, is one of the hardest things most Christian couples face.  Whether it’s full schedules, interruptions from kids, fear of being vulnerable or spiritual warfare, pursuing God together is very hard in most marriages, including mine.

husband wife smiling and hugging photo

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Re-Thinking Spiritual Intimacy In Our Marriages (Part 1)

As we laid in bed together, lights out, it had become later than I realized.  Even though we were both exhausted from a long day, I wanted to lead us in finishing the day with prayer.

But every time I wanted to say something, something held me back.  Frustrated with myself, we eventually just drifted off to sleep.  When I woke up the next morning, I felt a little smaller than the night before.

If you’re married, or in a serious relationship, I bet you understand.  You want to be spiritually intimate, but it’s hard.  Really hard.

Some of you may not experience much struggle here.  You have no problem praying or reading the bible with your spouse.  And yet, you may still not feel entirely connected, either.

What’s going on?

Some things – like sin in its various forms – are obvious, but I suspect it’s partly in the way we’ve defined ‘spiritual intimacy’, too.  When we think about it more deeply, we get a bigger picture that I think will both encourage and challenge you.

close-up of husband & wife hold hands (black & white photo)

Photo credit: mescon via / CC BY

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Four Big Lessons For Your Thirties

30 was so strange for me. I really had to come to terms with the fact that I’m now a walking, talking adult.

— CS Lewis

If CS Lewis said it, it must be true, right?  Thirty – and the decade that follows – is a wonderful, ‘strange’ decade where we come of age.  Some time ago, I did a post on 7 lessons for our twenties, and here this occasional series continues with some lessons for our thirties.

30 Años eljoja via Compfight

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Should You Date Someone Outside The Faith?

Getting Ready For Marriage Series #1

‘Well, I’m in a relationship now.’

After over 15 years in ministry to college and (now) graduate students, my wife and I often hear this when we ask how they’re doing.  Our first response is to rejoice, remembering how thrilled we were on our first date.  Very few things in life are more exciting than a relationship that’s heading toward marriage!

At the same time, relationships are anything but easy, so we need to learn from those who have gone before us.  While my wife and I don’t have anything like a perfect marriage, we’ve had a little experience (since 1998) now.  Many older couples have poured into us.  And – somehow – a number of couples have told us our marriage and counsel about relationships has benefited them.  So, as promised, this is the first post in a new, monthly series about important topics to cover as you think about saying ‘I do’.

(To make sure you don’t miss a post, you can sign up right here.)

Before we dive into those key areas, though, we need to pause and ask a more foundational question:

Is this relationship one that you should even be in?

My stepdaughter's socks are channeling Flickr's logo colors Lee Bennett via Compfight

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