Marriage Lessons From Groundhog Day

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. –Philippians 2:3-4

Too often, I approach my marriage relationship as an opportunity to advance my own interests. Why is it that in marriage, more than any other relationship, people somehow feel like it’s ok to leverage the strength of their personality against the other to get what they want? None of our other relationships work that way! If we operated that way in friendships, we wouldn’t have any – at least not healthy ones.

All relationships should provide a win-win for the parties involved, especially among followers of Christ. Most of us have had the experience of meeting someone at work or church who is friendly, encouraging, and helpful—who just seems to have it all together—and we are drawn to them. But as the friendship develops, we eventually end up at a social gathering or small group where we observe the same person exhibiting an entirely different persona toward their spouse—and not in a good way!

So, what is it about the marriage relationship that causes us to treat it differently (and in many respects with less care) than our friendships and acquaintances? I think the answer lies in taking for granted the permanence of marriage, and here is why: friendships require us to be proactive and to care for the relationship consistently or it will just fade away. Even in our acquaintances, we understand that we have to regularly make a good impression and treat people well in order to gain acceptance in social settings. But when we entered into marriage, we made vows before God, family, and friends to love our spouse “until death do us part.” We obviously don’t do this in friendships or with acquaintances and it is relying on this permanence that these vows provide that constantly causes us to change the way we function in our marriages.

I think we can easily fall into the trap of believing that because our marriage relationship is “secured” by the vows (not to mention the comingling of assets), we can give it less attention and care than we give our other relationships because it’s not going anywhere. In other words, I can get away with not following Philippians 2:3-4 for a while with no real concern about losing my marriage relationship. And while most of us never have that thought consciously, our actions betray what our subconscious is thinking.

When was the last time you were surly, sarcastic, condescending, or just downright mean to one of your friends or church acquaintances? You’ll probably have a lot tougher time remembering that instance than the last five times you displayed one or more of those traits with your spouse? What, then, would your marriage look like if you had to win your spouse’s heart again every day? It may sound exhausting, but think how this would change the quality of your relationship.

The idea reminds me of a great movie from the early 90s called Groundhog Day. Bill Murray played an arrogant, condescending celebrity weatherman named Phil Connors who made a great impression in front of the camera, but off the set, he was terrible person. In the course of the movie, Phil gets stuck in a cycle of reliving the same day (Groundhog Day) over and over again hundreds of times.

At some point in the progression of the story he grows tired of himself and his old ways and decides to try something new. He makes it his mission to pursue the affections of Rita, a coworker whom he had always treated poorly in his “old” life. Initially, he makes daily mistakes that ruin the relationship before noon. But each day he relives, he makes important selfless changes until he finally achieves that one “perfect” day and Rita falls in love with him.

The striking thing about Phil’s journey was not that he ultimately succeeded in achieving his goal, but that in the course of focusing every day on what Rita wanted and liked and needed, he became a different person. In order to win Rita’s love in one day, Phil became a full-time student of her. He learned every back story of her life that he could get his hands on, every preference she had, and paid attention to every verbal and non-verbal signal she sent. And having won her love, he was content to live that day over and over again for eternity. Phil’s triumph broke the time warp he was living in and returned him to his normal life, but he was forever changed as a person.

Marriage has the same potential to change us profoundly when we engage in it the way Phil did in Groundhog Day. And, although it made for an entertaining movie, this way of relating wasn’t actually created by Hollywood, but rather it was modeled and commanded by Jesus Christ.

Matthew 16:24-25 says, “Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.’” Ephesians 5:25 gives a similar command with, “Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her.” Jesus wants us to be conformed to His image as we follow Him, and He gave us marriage as a training ground for that transformation.

Being made in God’s image means being relational in the way He is relational. You see, the Trinity of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit has been living in perfect relationship for all eternity. The permanence of that relationship makes our marriages look like a flash in the pan. And the Father, Son and Holy Spirit always delight in each other, honor each other, and simultaneously submit to and glorify each other.

We will never do it as well, but we are still called to become ever more like the Trinity in how we relate to one another. In fact, I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that kind of relating is essentially what we were made for. In the Hollywood version of relationship, Phil was radical in his pursuit of Rita. But on an infitinitely more significant scale, God has been radical in His pursuit of us. So, in response and gratitude, let’s renew our commitment to be radical in our pursuit of our spouse every day and then watch how God uses this to continue to conform us to His image.