The chemistry of marriage

by Barnabas Piper
Posted on Friday, November 23, 2012, at 9:57 am

Marriage is an institution under assault, a relational commitment on the decline in our society. Statistics bear this out, but it’s just as easy to see with the naked eye. Young people just don’t want to marry, to commit. And people who are married find it easier and easier to end it. The reasons for this are myriad, but one heard repeatedly refers to something called “chemistry.” I couldn’t ask her to marry me because we lacked “chemistry.” We broke it off because the “chemistry” just wasn’t there. Whatever this “chemistry” is sure seems like something worth exploring. 

I am no chemist, but I do remember a few things from my high school chemistry class. I remember pouring chemicals from one beaker to another and mixing ingredients in various dishes at various temperatures seeking a particular outcome. I remember adjusting variables—ingredients, temperature, quantities—as we sought the result the teacher wanted. Sometimes the results came easily and other times we did and re-did experiments seeking the desired outcome. It could be infuriating, especially the realization that all that work barely scratched surface of chemistry as a whole.

Chemistry has enormous breadth. It is a huge area of scientific study. Within the borders of chemistry there are numerous methods, millions of variables, and countless outcomes, many of which have yet to even be discovered. It is a discipline of hard work, persistence, curiosity, diligence, systematic study, recording results, experimentation, and pursuit of good answers. So, if this is chemistry, what does it mean that marriage doesn’t work because “chemistry” is missing?

In my own marriage there are times when the “experiment” isn’t working. Whatever the variables and ingredients, the results are not what we desire. Does that mean the “chemistry” is missing? Do I get to bail because of a bad outcome (even if I am one of the faulty ingredients)? No, it means that I must keep being a student of chemistry—keep exploring, adding, subtracting, heating, cooling, and studying until the proper marital outcome occurs.

Of course, this differs a bit for people yet to be married. There isn’t the same vested commitment to a spouse, the same determined need for a singular outcome. But neither can some nebulous relational bliss called “chemistry” be a criterion for whether or not marry someone. Much of the same work of study and persistence must be undertaken. You need to discover whether marriage is in the range of outcomes in this particular experiment, and that is no passive discovery but one of rigorous and thorough discipline.

So next time you hear someone blame a broken relationship on bad “chemistry” consider asking them whether it was their doing of the chemistry that was bad. Did they adjust all the variables and try everything necessary to make the experiment work? If not, it wasn’t the chemistry that was broken or missing, it was the chemist.

Barnabas Piper

Barnabas works for Lifeway Christian Resources and is the author of The Pastor’s Kid: Finding Your Own Faith and Identity and Help My Unbelief: Why Doubt Is Not the Enemy of Faith. He and his wife live in the Nashville area with their two daughters. Follow Barnabas on Twitter @BarnabasPiper.

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