Are We Caring for Our Marriage or Just Craving the Benefits?

by | Sep 23, 2020 | Marriage | 29 comments

Marriage as a Tree: We're called to care for marriage, not just benefit from it

Entitlement can kill a marriage.

We’ve been looking at libido differences in the month of September, and if I had to sum up what I’m trying to say, it would just be: “Be a decent person and care for your spouse.” I encouraged low libido spouses to think about their spouse and prioritize making love more. I encouraged higher drive spouses who were getting healthy sex to be content. I encouraged higher drive husbands and wives who weren’t getting enough sex to examine themselves and see if they may have contributed to the problem.

In short, I’m just asking all of us to look first at what we can do to strengthen the marriage, and be kind to one another.

But it’s gotten a little heated in the comments this month, because libido differences often trigger deep pain in many people, and I get that.

In the middle of all of that, Sarah O, one of my wonderful commenters (and I do appreciate all of you who comment regularly; I think of you like friends and check in to see what you’re all going to say next!), sent me an email with some thoughts she’d been having, inspired by our discussion.

I loved it, and asked to share it with you. So here is Sarah O!

Marriage was not our idea. We didn’t invent it. Marriage was created by God as a blessing and a gift.

Our individual marriages are the same–they’re meant to be blessings and gifts.

So imagine that on your wedding day, Jesus gives you a small tree.

Marriage as a Tree you care for

It is living, breathing, and there is no other like it in the whole world. It was created specifically for YOU, you and no other. If you care for it well, it will produce fruit to sustain and shelter you.

Take note, however: it is not yours to keep. At the appointed time, you will return it to Him.

Jesus tells you that the tree is very delicate and will require both of you to care for it.

Not to worry, He Himself will provide everything you need, but you have to do your part.

Food for the Tree

In order to grow, thrive, and produce fruit, the tree needs: time, patience, love, kindness, humility, service, good cheer, acceptance, courage, justice, faithfulness, commitment, truth, and consistent care (1 Corinthians 13). Jesus provides these things to the workers. The workers feed the tree.

If the tree is well-cared for by both parties, then it will product fruit to nourish and sustain the couple.

Fruit from the Tree

Words of affirmation, physical touch including sex, quality time, acts of service, gifts, comfort, protection, and an improved, more Christ-like character. The fruit does not feed the tree, the fruit feeds the worker.

As the workers, our focus should be on the health of the tree and making sure we bring everything God has given us into its service. Too often, we are focusing only on our desire for the fruit.

Eventually, we become so zealous about the fruit that we become picky and entitled.

We cease to give thanks at harvesttime – unless we got enough of our own favorite fruit, we don’t care about the nourishment we DID receive. We develop quotas around each specific fruit and spend so much time in the storehouse looking at our supplies that we become distracted. After all, there are TWO workers. Shouldn’t the spouse be tending the tree?

And so when the fruit becomes scarce or less varied, we are much quicker to search and point out all the ways our spouse failed to care for the tree than to recognize and take ownership of how we became distracted.

We started loving the fruit instead of the tree. We start treating our spouse as a hired hand instead of a partner. And then the tree withers and even dies.

But imagine, for a moment, the vision of a tree well-tended. A tree with dedicated workers who do not allow themselves to becomes distracted. Workers who consistently give thanks for whatever fruit they receive, and then go back to tending the tree. With each season, they learn better how to care for the tree. They learn small techniques that product different, sweeter, fuller fruit. They learn each worker’s strengths and weaknesses, and develop a fuller partnership. They reap blessing upon blessing.

  • When one worker trods to the tree, weary but determined, and finds their spouse has seen their hardship and tended the tree for them.
  • When fierce storms strike or the hot sun beats down, the couple takes shelter in the safety of the tree’s shade and strong branches
  • The couple harvests fruit for each other, having come to know the tastes and appetites of their partner
  • Their children play without a care in the tree, knowing it is strong and secure. They use this beautiful tree as a benchmark in their own lives and relationships
  • The couple rests in peace and fullness under their beautiful tree
  • Other workers with other trees learn from watching a thriving partnership. Their trees improve from this couple’s example.
  • When one spouse is called home before the other, the tree is full of enough fruit to sustain the remaining worker for the rest of their days

Thank you, Sarah! We’re supposed to build a marriage, and yet many of us are wanting the benefits without the work.

I wish we could all get back to caring for the tree.

Caring for Marriage Tree

Now one thing that’s so important in Sarah’s story is that Jesus gave the tree to BOTH of us to tend.

One person cannot do all the tending, no matter how much they work. It won’t produce a healthy tree.

It’s like what one commenter said last week:

it has taken me 25 years to get to the point where I am saying no more, I cannot do this anymore. It has taken a toll on my mental and physical health to continue to service my husband in spite of eight of the factors you listed above. I have woken up to the reality that he has been sexually, emotionally, and spiritually abusive throughout these years and I let him because I thought I had to to be a godly wife. …

 It was one of your posts two or three years ago that began to open my eyes to reality. You quoted Gary Thomas, I think, when he said something to the effect of God loves people more than institutions. If the cost of saving a marriage is destroying a woman, the cost is too high. I read that when I was at my lowest, darkest place due to demands he was making that were degrading and immoral. I thought I HAD to make things work, that I could not deprive my husband…..he often used that scripture to coerce me. Y’all have helped me to seek hard after God and untangle the web of twisted scriptures used to torment me. I’m in counseling now. I have learned so much. It has been hard work to heal from decades of abuse. I couldn’t even call it that until a few months ago. I have a long way to go still.

Hopefully Healing

Commenting on 10 Questions to Ask if Your Wife Doesn't Want Sex

So you cannot fix a marriage on your own or get a marriage healthy on your own.

We’re not asking you to do that.

But what all of us can do is stop focusing on what we’re supposed to get out of marriage and start focusing on caring for that marriage. Like commenter Doug said last week, sometimes you have to be the one to make the first move, even if your spouse has also hurt you. But someone has to go first.

So go first. Care for the tree. Don’t look for the fruit.

If your spouse never reciprocates, it’s not up to you to keep the tree healthy, because you were never meant to do that on your own.

But we are called to do what we can do. And when we do that–just think of how beautiful that tree can be!

What do you think? Do we become too preoccupied with “fruit”? Let’s talk in the comments!

Written by

Sheila Wray Gregoire


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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. Jane Eyre

    Throwing this out there: when you talk about the benefits of a full-grown tree (fruit, shelter, a play area for the kids), I wonder if it’s easier to understand those benefits if your own parents had a healthy and fruitful marriage.
    It’s difficult, but possible, to sacrifice in the present for benefits in the future. It’s nearly impossible to sacrifice in the present for some amorphous benefits in the future which probably don’t really exist anyway.

    • Sarah O

      Hi Jane. I think that’s a good and important question. In short, I do think it helps tremendously if your parents had a really healthy relationship. Lots of research bears that out. However I don’t think it’s an insurmountable obstacle if you didn’t.
      Maybe you had grandparents, or aunts/uncles, siblings, or close friends who had a really healthy marriage.
      If you have never seen a healthy marriage, perhaps you have seen a different type of relationship that showed intimacy and care (Corrie Ten Boum and her sister come to mind). The basic principles would still apply.
      And even if you have never seen a healthy relationship in real life, I believe people are equipped with Gods image and His creativity. There was a great line in “Saving Mr. Banks”…After describing a very dysfunctional relationship with his father, Walt Disney says, “We restore order with imagination.”
      If your heart had no idea what a safe, loving relationship would look and feel like, it wouldn’t know to complain that it doesn’t have one. It may be more difficult without examples, but you can give credence to your own intuition.
      I realize this is a simplistic take but that’s the best I can answer via comment.

      • Wifey

        Both of my parents came from broken homes. They had no idea what a godly marriage looked like. In my family tree you have to go back multiple generations to find a healthy, godly marriage before my parents. They had nothing going for them, but they were committed to learning and growing and remaking our family tree. Have they done that perfectly? Of course not! But never once did I doubt that my parents loved God and loved each other and loved me. By God’s Grace, our family is changing, all because of my parents perseverance and reliance on God, in spite of a lack of examples. I have been so blessed by their choices.

      • Jane Eyre

        Sarah, my parents have four divorces among them (they married each other, divorced; remarried other people, both those marriage failed; one remarried again and it failed).
        I am aware of what good interpersonal relationships are; several of my friendships date to the late ’80s and mid ’90s, and I have maintained friendships from college, grad school, and my post-school life. Both sets of grandparents were married until death did them part.
        Your comment is obviously very optimistic and well intentioned; however, it is just wrong. Consider that a perky pep talk is sometimes not just inadequate but actually counterproductive. You aren’t just underestimating the problems; you’re basically saying they don’t exist.

        • Sarah O

          Hi Jane. Forgive my execution. I am not sure of the right way to encourage without minimizing.
          I am familiar with all kinds of interpersonal trauma and that damage is very real. It does bleed into other relationships.
          However I would stop short of saying that it’s hopeless or impossible to build quality, healthy relationships if your parents didn’t provide an example for you.

  2. Andrea

    I love the metaphor of the tree, for the whole family. I’ve thought about it often when reading your posts on child-rearing because Alison Gopnik, one of today’s pre-eminent child psychologists, wrote a book on parenting called “The Gardener and the Carpenter.” The idea is to parent like a gardener — who nurtures her plants to grow — and not like a carpenter, who has a finished product in mind and chips and cuts away until it gets there. The same could be said of spouses.

    • AspenP

      “Not like a carpenter.” Love your point! That was so helpful (and healing!) for me to hear. Critique & criticism cuts away all intimacy and trust.
      Thanks for your comment.

    • Sarah O

      Love that!
      I haven’t read that but the carpenter is a really useful metaphor for some of my pitfalls. Thanks!

  3. Chris

    “Poems are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree” Joyce Kilmer. (One of the WW1 poets).
    I think that using a tree is s good metaphor with a couple of caveats. First one usually decides what kind of tree to plant based on the fruit. Second when trees stop producing fruit, they become firewood. (Or beautiful furniture). But either way, “by the fruit you shall know the tree”.

    • Sarah O

      Hi Chris – yeah there are certainly some places where this analogy doesn’t work well. But for the examples you gave, I would say:
      – Jesus gives us the tree. We do request it, but ultimately we aren’t in control. My mom says “With marriage, you will have hardship. There will be something.” So far she seems to be right. Sickness, injury, financial troubles, worldwide plague, and even selfish vices. If we go to Jesus, ask for a tree, get the tree, and then tell Him “well if I’d known it was THAT kind of tree I never would have asked for it!”…I think we’re in danger of demonstrating the very entitlement Sheila has been trying to address.
      But that brings me to your next example, about a tree that has stopped bearing fruit. This exact situation is the parable in Luke 13: 6-9. I thinking marriages have a fruitless season at least once. And it’s super painful. The parable doesn’t tell us whether the fig tree recovered or not. It shows us two things: we are supposed to show some determination to fight for the tree, but at some point (and that point is different for everyone), we may have to face that the tree is barren and/or dead.
      Ultimately it’s between us and God whether we gave the tree everything we had.

  4. Phil

    The word work jumped out at me today. It is what it takes to make fruit. I was talking with a friend recently about work. Work in general as well as the hard work I/we put into work on myself and various other aspects of my life…marriage, family, etc. Then we started talking about jobs and how from the fall we were punished to do work. But what my friend said was great. God is a loving God. If you look at work and what it is, IT IS WHAT WE NEED. We need to wake up in the morning and have purpose. We need to wake up in The morning and have a drive. We need to do our work to please him. We benefit from the work. Apply this to marriage and its the same deal. God created marriage and while it may not be for everyone, many if us need marriage. That is Gods gift to us. Therefore we must work at our marriages for not only ourselves but for our God. I have been mia from the comments however I have been diligently reading. I am coming off a huge spiritual battle and personal struggle that has been like the plague for me since late last year. One of my mantras was why should I do all this work if I am going to get crap results? Because thats what seemed like was happening. All I can say is this. – marriage or what ever you are up against keep fighting. It was a hard battle and I did not come along easily. Man is my fruit like a big ole watermelon right now. Praying for you all and your marriages. Thanks Sarah – totally respect you – good writing!

    • Jane Eyre

      The problem with “work” after the Fall is the sheer volume of work that needed to be done. Before the Industrial Revolution, work was almost non-stop (hence the need for a day of rest), and the goal was to avoid starvation or death by exposure to the elements.
      I like work, but that’s because I’m a 21st century person with an office job at a company that values its employees as people. Sure, some chores I loathe and sort of just never do them (vacuuming – if it weren’t for my husband, the dust bunnies would be dust whales), but there is something enjoyable about doing a good job at work and keeping the home in semi-functional order.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      So glad to see you back, Phil! I was getting worried about you. (Shall try to remember next time I wonder about someone and worry about someone to actually PRAY for that person. I’m so bad at that. Sorry).
      I think you’re right–the work is actually a gift. I used to write about this a lot in terms of parenting. If you look at teens from 150 years ago, they didn’t have the same issues that teens today have (although, granted, that’s very hard to measure). But I think a lot of it was because teens were USEFUL. They had purpose. Parents needed them to run businesses/farms, etc. Today, most of teens’ lives are about either studying or leisure and entertainment. Because of that, they don’t necessarily feel very capable or productive. Being productive is a gift. One of the blessings in the Old Testament was to be able to eat the fruit of your labour. The god of our age isn’t money, like it was in the 1980s. It’s leisure. It’s like we’re allergic to work. And I wonder if that’s why we have so much malaise as a society? I’m not saying we should be workaholics; but being productive, making a difference, volunteering, just DOING SOMETHING is so important.

      • Lindsey

        Rite of Passage Parenting is a great book that delves even deeper into that very idea. Best parenting book I’ve ever read.

      • Chris

        Oh Sheila, it’s bad. You can’t believe the young men I meet/employ who don’t know how to work. Not know how to do a given job, i can train them for that. But HOW to work. Its bad. Really bad. When I was their age my coworkers and i would talk about girls, sports, and hunting. They don’t talk about any of these things now. Its just video games and stuff like anime. I am worried for our future.

        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          It definitely has changed. And I hear what you’re saying–you’d talk about “hobbies” and relationships and the future (girls tend to lead to the future), whereas today the focus is escapism.
          That’s why it’s so difficult for girls who want to get married today.
          And it is no better in the church (in fact, in some ways it’s worse). I’ve always said that our goal should be to raise kids who WANT to leave home at 18. Not because they want to get away from you, but because they’re excited about being responsible and growing up.

    • Sarah O

      Thank you Phil! Sorry to hear you’ve been in a fight, but glad to see you back. Hope that means you’re winning 😉

  5. AJ

    In reality instead a single tree producing multiple different fruits, it’s more like an orchard with many different trees each producing only a single type of fruit. Because of our selfish sinful nature, each the workers only trnds to want to care for the particular tree(s) for which they like to eat the fruit from. Each worker must realize in order to sustain the ENTIRE orchard and the workers ALL the trees must be cared for. At some seasons some of the tree(s) my require more care than at other times. In order to be sustained, one or both of the workers may require more of a particular kind of fruit from a particular tree than the other worker. However, BOTH workers must work together to care for the entire orchard. Not caring for a particular tree by one of the workers because the worker does not like the fruit from the tree is not an option.

    • Lindsey

      Kinda sounds like the Garden of Eden. Tend and keep.

    • Sarah O

      Great expansion of the analogy AJ. I definitely see that dynamic.
      I think the key there is to focus back on the fact that we have to give the tree or the orchard back to Jesus. And then probably answer some very simple, very awkward questions.
      “What happened?”
      “I gave you a bunch of food for this tree, what did you do with it?”
      “Did you at least eat the fruit that was here?”
      I know none of us can be perfect, and there is nothing any one of us can do to guarantee our marriages, but I hope that I’ll be proud of my contribution.
      Full disclosure, my husband literally had to point out several ways that I have been inconsiderate in the past couple weeks LAST NIGHT. So I’m back out here with a spade today myself. 😉

  6. Doug Hoyle

    One word:

    • Sarah O

      Thank you Doug. That means a lot.

  7. Doug Hoyle

    Another thought comes to mind. A lot was said about doing those things that nourish the tree, and tend to it so that it matures and grown, and it truly is a beautiful picture.
    It is true that not doing those things, we don’t encourage the tree, and that is sad enough by itself, but we shouldn’t forget that we can actually poison or injure the tree by other behaviors. The tree can recover from those insults, and actually thrive, but it takes so much more work than it would have otherwise, and while still beautiful, it can’t be what it might have been otherwise. It will always be different.

    • Sarah O

      Oh absolutely, great point. There is definitely a difference between entitled neglect and willful sabotage, either by harming the tree or harming the other worker. You should write a follow up about repairing the tree!

  8. Sarah O

    Thank you for sharing, Sheila. I’m really intrigued by all the commenters using their own applications and analogies. 🙂
    I can get really bogged down in the day to day and sometimes lose sight of the big picture. It was a helpful visual for me.
    Thank you for writing a series to challenge us. I’m sure you’ve had to endure quite a lot of feedback, but it is really necessary to be held accountable.

  9. Lila

    My first marriage was abusive due to him being a sexual narcissist. I was constantly being used and taken from. He felt entitled to me as I was just a female to give him whatever he wanted.
    In my second marriage – I picked a man with decency and sees me as an equal. There much more to him as he is an amazing man.
    We have an amazing marriage. We live to make the other happy. To see a smile on each other’s face, to support and give advice (when asked for). He does wonderful things for me daily. I asked him today what I could do to make his day better and he responded with Just be here when I get home. I do things for him not only to make life easier for him but because I am happy to.
    Communicating effectively does wonders for us to grow together. We have been together for 2.5 years and have never had any sort of disagreement or fight. We communicate and look at each other’s intention in what is said. We do not play head games or pick fights to make the other respond in a certain way.
    We do not have drama, we spend 24/7 together and very happy to be around each other constantly.
    If you work at having healthy boundaries, allow the other person to be their own person, work together and have a partnership where you view the other as equals its amazing how lovely life can be. Feed the tree.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Amen! Oh, Lila, I’m so glad you got that second chance. That’s just so lovely.


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