Marriage is not about making each other happy

author of Avoiding the Greener Grass Syndrome
Extramarital affairs are not the social taboo they once were and might be more prevalent now than ever thanks to the anonymity of the Internet and ease of connection via smartphones. Living in a culture that pushes the belief that “life is short and you deserve to be happy” doesn’t help. All of these provide fertile ground for the temptation to cheat to grow, and Christians are not exempt from these influences.

After straying to the other side of this marital fence and returning to find forgiveness and restoration, Nancy Anderson brings personal experience and an authority about predicting and preventing an extramarital affair in her book Avoiding the Greener Grass Syndrome: How to Grow Affair-Proof Hedges Around Your Marriage  (Kregel Publications). “Many marriage books that are based upon theories, statistics, and clinical studies of infidelity,” she explains. “Avoiding the Greener Grass Syndrome is a book about real life in the real world. I’m an expert on infidelity because I lived it and survived. Thirty-eight years after my affair and reconciliation, Ron and I continue taking what we learned and helping couples prevent, predict, and pardon infidelity.”

Q: When many people get married, they believe their husband or wife’s job is to make them happy. Why is it dangerous to believe this lie?

No one can meet all the needs of another person. If we look only to our mate to fulfill us, we’ll always be disappointed. Ron and I both had unrealistic expectations of what marriage should look like, and we were both waiting to be served by the other. However, it should be the opposite.

A healthy marriage is created when each person is willing to serve the other. Happiness and contentment come from knowing you are doing all you can to “water” your marriage. Trading partners is not a good solution to a troubled marriage because divorce rates go up with each subsequent marriage.

Q: Speaking of lies about happiness, the world discourages working through hard times by saying, “Life is short, and you deserve to be happy.” What does the Bible say about deserving happiness?

The truth is, marriage is both difficult and effortless, magnificent and excruciating, blissful and tedious. Sometimes it’s all those things within the same day—even within the same hour.

I know how hard it is to stay in a less-than-perfect marriage while TV talk shows and well-meaning friends are preaching “you deserve to be happy.” I looked for that verse in the Bible. Trust me—it’s not there. What the Bible does teach about happiness is that it has little to do with our external circumstances (married or single, rich or poor, healthy or ill) and more to do with our choice to be content. Philippians 4:12–13 tells us, “12I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of contentment in every situation, whether it be a full stomach or hunger, plenty or want; 13 for I can do everything God asks me to with the help of Christ who gives me the strength and power” (TLB).

Q: You confess that you complained and criticized your way through your first year of marriage. If you could go back in time, how would you have approached your new role as a wife differently?

On one hand, I wish that were possible, as it would have saved a lot of pain and heartache, but on the other hand, the lessons I learned in that dark valley shaped the rest of my life for the better. In a way, I am getting a do-over when I help another couple avert a disaster in their marriage. By helping them avoid the snare that caught me, I am using what was evil for good purposes.

My role as a wife now is 180 degrees from what it was in 1978. My approach to Ron now is that we are on the same team, working toward the same goals. When we differ on which path to take, I don’t see it as him against me. I also have learned to value our differences instead of resenting them, even though I still don’t understand why he is relentlessly cheerful and chatty before I’ve had my morning coffee.

Q: The man with whom you had an affair was a co-worker of yours. How can we safeguard our relationships when it is inevitable we will encounter members of the opposite sex in the workplace and the course of daily activities?

I recently read about the guidelines Vice President Pence implements in his relationships with coworkers and other women who are not his wife. He is very careful to avoid any appearance of and opportunity for inappropriate behavior, and I agree with his high standards!

If you’re in doubt as to what conduct is inappropriate, ask yourself, Would I do this in front of my spouse? If you’re still not sure, ask yourself, Would I do it in front of the Lord? (You are, you know.) Here is a simple rule to keep you on the straight and narrow: If you’d have to hide it or lie about it, don’t do it!

In the workplace, make sure your emails and other correspondences are not suggestive, inappropriate, or flirtatious. Talk about your spouse positively, making it clear that you’re married and intend to stay that way. Be careful not to have any lingering eye contact or make comments that are suggestive. The book has suggestions for safeguards for business travel, relationships with neighbors, babysitters, and even co-laborers at church.

Q: Once a couple decides to commit to repairing their marriage, what is the first step toward reconciliation?

After we made the decision to reconcile and reform our marriage, we immediately sought advice from many different sources. We went to a Christian marriage counselor who helped us learn to communicate more effectively. We also read several books about “starting over” and attended marriage retreats and workshops. One of the most important things we did was join a wonderful church and faithfully attend worship services and adult Sunday school classes. We received solid biblical teaching from a godly pastor and acted on his instruction.

The new chapter, titled “Affair Repair,” offers seven steps to recovery. The first step is reveal, which means coming clean and admitting the betrayal. Without that first step, the others are not effective.

Q: How long did it take for your marriage to heal after you and Ron decided to remain committed to each other?

The transformation was a slow process. We’d developed many destructive habits, and some of them took years to die. My feelings were still connected to Jake, but I decided to stay with Ron and hoped and prayed that my affection for Ron would come back with time. I worked hard to regain his trust, and we both made a big effort to be polite and kind to each other, hoping to rebuild a friendship before a romance. I would estimate that it took two years before we felt whole again.

Q: You write about Ron forgiving you but also about how you struggled with the sorrow of regret. Why do you think he was able to trust you more than you could trust yourself at that time?

Ron is an amazing man, and one of his best qualities is his optimism. He saw my sincere apology and changed behavior as indicators that our marriage could be healed. He heard me break it off with Jake and quit my job, so he was confident I’d really changed. I knew, however, I still struggled with trusting myself and was distraught I had fallen so far. My healing took longer than his, perhaps because I had prided myself on being the stronger Christian and knowing I’d also betrayed the Lord broke my heart.

Q: What words of encouragement would you offer to someone in a struggling marriage who thinks divorce is the only option following an affair?

Adultery can be grounds for a divorce, especially if there is repeated infidelity and no willingness to change. However, we encourage couples to try all other options first, with divorce as the last resort. We know that God can heal any marriage if both partners are willing to figure out what went wrong and make positive changes in attitude and behavior.