Last week the world learned the sad news that Bill and Melinda Gates were divorcing after 27 years of marriage. They announced on Twitter, “After a great deal of thought and a lot of work on our relationship, we have made the decision to end our marriage.” A couple with a net worth well over a $100 billion, clearly we see that money did not buy them a lasting marital happiness.
This news was accompanied with a statistic that is becoming more noted by the world. So called “Gray Divorce,” defined to be divorces between couples over 50 years of age, is on the rise. Though the overall divorce rate has actually declined over the last two decades, among those in the population over 50 years old the rate has doubled. Why this phenomenon?
Sociologists list reasons for Gray Divorce. Spouses in this age range each tend to have more individual financial security, making spousal dependency less a reality (certainly Melinda Gates, who is a billionaire in her own right before divorce, will not have to worry about her living situation). This prosperity makes the option of divorce easier in some ways. Empty nesters no longer need to stay together for their children’s sake, and often cite that as a reason for divorce during this season of life. The fact that divorce is no longer considered taboo also factors in. By this time in life, many married couples were previously married. With each subsequent marriage less likely to succeed, this also contributes to the rate.
Yet many people state that what is at the heart of this tragic statistic is simply dissatisfaction in their marriage and a desire to go their own way. For men, that often means turning to a new relationship. For women, it can translate into a new career or interest.
As one wed even longer than the Gates, by God’s grace enjoying a marriage of 35 years to my best friend, and finding myself far more in love with Miriam than when we first began, I thought I would offer a thought or two on this subject. I do not write to gloat. The Gates’ situation and this trend truly sadden me. Yet here are five truth-based exhortations for those approaching their gray years – or who are in them – they should practice with respect to marriage to keep it vibrant and fruitful. (I am offering these from the perspective of the husband, so female readers should keep that in mind.)
Be thankful for the gift. From the very first marriage, when the Lord brought Eve to Adam, we see that a spouse is a gift of one person to another. As males and females are created in the image of God, that means marriage itself is the ultimate wedding gift! What’s a toaster in comparison?
One of my daily expressions of thanksgiving is for Miriam as my wife. How undeserving I am of her. Yet how as we express thanksgiving to God and one another our joy in marriage remains. And when a feeling of dissatisfaction arises, a special pause to thank God again for her causes any irritation to melt away before the greatness of the gift I have received.
Cultivate the vine. The running metaphor of the wife as a vine is a prominent one in Scripture. The psalmist says of the godly man that “your wife shall be like a fruitful vine within your house” (Ps. 128:3). The groom in the Song of Solomon expands this imagery as he describes his bride as “a garden locked” who offers her fragrance and fruits to him (Song of Sol. 4:12-15).
If anyone has flowers or garden, one thing you know is that these plants must be cultivated to prosper. They need attention, watering, weeding, pruning, etc. No wonder those in their older years who turn to self-pursuits find the love for and of their spouse waning instead of waxing. Finding new ways as you grow older together to encourage the growth, interest, and development of your spouse is vital to an increasingly healthy marriage. Selfishness in marriage is just like forgetting to water a houseplant.
Guard the garden. Continuing with the above metaphor, the garden of marriage must be guarded. God instructed Adam upon placing him and Eve in the garden to “cultivate it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). That latter command means to protect it. Of course, Adam failed in this regard as he watched on as Satan slithered into the garden, tempted his wife, and then he along with her sinned.
When the author of Hebrews says that “the marriage bed is to be undefiled” (Heb. 13:4), he means a marriage is to be protected from adulterous corruptions of any form. A man and woman in marriage are to be united in body and soul to one another, giving no marital intimacy in thought, word, or deed to anyone else. Incredulously, Bill and Melinda Gates had written in their pre-nuptial agreement that he could spend one weekend a year away with his ex-girlfriend, which they often did in a cozy cottage in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. How ludicrous! Mr. Gates’ lack of self-control apparently led to even grosser acts of unfaithfulness, such as visits to Jeffrey Epstein’s home. Let this attempt of contractual adultery serve as a vivid warning of what any unchecked lust looks like in the eyes of God and the devastating consequences it can have.
Communicate, communicate, communicate. Whether it is the preparation before a wedding or offering counseling to troubled spouses in the midst of marriage, I make communication the focus. Following Biblical principles of communication is such a key in a healthy marriage. For yelling, rudeness, the silent treatment, interrupting, not listening carefully, cell phone distraction, not giving full attention, holding grudges, not giving time…the list is long in the ways we can fail to communicate according to God’s Word.
One of the simplest practices I know, witnessed in the marriages of a number of our friends who have experienced not only longevity but joy in their marriage, is taking the time to walk together. Getting away from everything and everyone else to walk side-by-side is not only healthy for our bodies, but good for our souls. We begin to communicate about the matters of heart and life as we walk. Matter of fact, I am trying mightily to finish this article now so I can go on a walk with Miriam! But I have one more thing to say.
Live out the picture. Not only does the Bible use the metaphors that I have given to picture marriage, but the Bible teaches that marriage itself is a metaphor. From the first pages of the Bible to its end, marriage is used to illustrate the relationship between Christ and the church.
If there is one ultimate truth a marriage should picture to the world, it is the fact that Christ loves the church and gave himself for her (Eph. 5:25-27). If a man is not living in self-sacrificial love for his wife and family, he is ruining the ultimate painting that marriage is to be. If a woman is not living in submissive love to her husband, she is spoiling the portrait her marriage is. This picture is to grow and brighten with age.
Unlike this famous couple we have considered, the outer grayness of marriage participants is not to dull the picture. Rather, their maturing age should sharpen the image. Lifelong love is to show that it can conquer fading bodies, major disappointments, and difficult trials. For the marriage of a couple who are closer to the sunset than the dawn of their relationship should increasingly point people heavenward, to the eternal marriage we are to enjoy. For as others look upon such a marriage, they should see their need of the Christ who, miraculously through his Spirit, has made two sinners increasingly one in him.