“A happy marriage is the union of two good forgivers.” -Ruth Bell Graham
I have no idea how we got to 20 years of marriage. It seems like yesterday I was knocking on her apartment door asking to borrow water, just to have a reason to see her. I told her on our first date that I was going to marry her and she told me I probably wouldn’t get a second date. (That was the last time I won a dispute.) Through marriage, kids, cancer, jobs & life, we managed to keep it together in spite of overwhelming odds against us.
Here are a few pointers we picked up along the way. This isn’t a list that has been scholarly assembled through research and focus groups. The lessons below are hard earned strategies that we try to work into our every day life. Anyone with less than a year in should print this out and put it on the refrigerator.
- Hug your spouse every day. Physical touch is critical to maintaining intimacy in a relationship. Remember, this is a marathon, not a sprint. The definition of intimacy changes over time. What doesn’t change is the warmth that a hug gives your spouse.
- Tell your spouse you love them every day. Even when you are not near them, and even when they are not being very loveable. Sometimes conflicting schedules keep us apart, but a text message saying you love them and are thinking about them goes a long way in getting through the day.
- Have a regular date night and protect it viciously. Even when you have young children, make it happen. Meet for lunch, get a coffee, even grocery shop together just to get some time in with each other.
- Marry for companionship…Don’t marry for money, don’t marry for looks, don’t even marry for love. It’s a long journey and you want to pick someone you will enjoy the trip with. Looks fade, money goes away, and sometimes even love waxes and wanes; but a good friend will always be there for you.
- Yes, opposites attract, but it is the things we have in common that bind us together. I am spontaneous and very loud, my wife is very deliberate and quiet. We literally could not be more opposite in personality, but we are bound by our commitment to our family and our shared values. If you are not in sync on the big things in life, the little things will eat you alive.
- Make new friends as a married couple and insert space between you and your single friends. Going out for “Boys and girls nights” is like an alcoholic who has stopped drinking, but has one every now and then just to take the edge off. When you go out, you should go out as a couple. And if you go out without your spouse, you need to go out with other married people, not your single friends. Your old drinking buddy from college is going out for a completely different reason than you are. By eliminating opportunities to be distracted from your marriage, you will stay focused on your spouse and not be tempted by someone who seems to give you what might be lacking at the time. This is counter cultural, but is a key to a successful long term marriage. It also requires a little growing up on your part. You don’t have to give up your pals, but you shouldn’t be out prowling with them either.
- Walk away from your need to always have to be right. Even if you get your spouse to give in to your way of thinking, they are really just trying to end the discussion. A “tie” is an acceptable outcome in any situation in your marriage.
- Learn to say I am sorry. And when your spouse says they are sorry, FORGIVE them. Bury the hatchet and walk away. It is not always so easy to forget, but if you forgive and release yourself from carrying that burden, you will be much happier. Bringing up old arguments time and time again erodes the pilings of your marriage and creates resentment.
- Do not speak harsh words to each other or lash out verbally. A bell cannot be unrung and harsh words reside in the spirit of your spouse for eternity. Learning to pause before you say something mean and ask yourself if this is really going to help resolve the issue is an investment in your relationship. It took me some time to learn this, as it is 100% against my nature, but there is no reason to be mean to my wife. It may make you feel better to get it out, but it just transfers the angst. If you find yourself continually saying you are sorry, maybe you need to swim upstream a bit and stop the words before you have to eat them.
- Go to bed at the same time. This seems so trivial and in some ways impossible, but when you wind down the day together it binds you. It is one of the best times to communicate as well.
- Eat dinner together every night if it is even remotely possible. As a family we have eaten dinner at the table together 95% of the time over the last 20 years. This takes intentionality and planning, but will reap dividends for years to come. So much happens around the dinner table, whether it’s just the two of you or an entire family.
- Accept that there is a natural order in life and embrace your role as well as your spouses. Successful marriages and families embrace this and build on their complementary strengths and talents. Speaking specifically to the men- you need to be a leader of, a provider for, and a protector to your family. This might be countercultural, but our culture is not set up to honor and protect a long term relationship, so in a sense, long term marriages are countercultural by nature.
- Don’t look for your spouses faults; seek out their positives. It is easy to find fault and weakness in another person, but by finding their positive traits it not only builds them up, but endears them to you more.
- Spend time with your spouse/family. It is important to have hobbies, but are they draining resources away from your family? Are you using them as an excuse to hide from your life? I have seen marriages fall apart due to fishing, golfing, etc, keeping the husband away and draining thousands of dollars from their bank account. It’s important to have a little “me” time, but remember that you joined a team when you got married.
- Don’t talk down to your spouse in public. As a personal policy, I don’t talk down to my spouse ever, but especially would never do it in public if the situation presented itself. We have been out with couples where they just pick at each other and degrade each other, sometimes passive-aggressively, and it makes everyone uncomfortable and gets people to talking.
- Keep your private business private. I can’t tell you how many people I have seen melt down and air their dirty laundry on Facebook or at a party. What seems like a good idea in the heat of the moment will cause pain for years to come. If you are struggling with a problem, seek a trusted friend and get their advice, but telling everyone you know the gory details of your relationship is simply destructive.
- Your kids are temporary residents in your home. They will be around for 20 years or so; you will be together for the rest of your life. Make sure they do not come between you. Don’t call each other mommy & daddy privately. Find moments to be intimate, even if it is just a squish up against the refrigerator. Kids, especially young ones, have a way of pitting parents against each other, of wearing them out, and of becoming more important than the two of you. If your marriage is failing, how can you be good parents? Keep the marriage and parenting aspects of your lives separate and work on them both continuously.
- You need to be aligned on your parenting strategy because your kids will exploit any gaps in between you. This doesn’t mean you can’t play good cop/bad cop, but you need to agree on the big issues and provide a united front.
- Find a mentor. One of the best things that ever happened to us was a friendship with a married couple that was a little farther down the road than we were. They were 10 years older, with three sons (we have 3 sons as well) and really helped us learn: 1) that we aren’t alone in this journey, and 2) everything we are going through has been suffered by those that came before us. When we found out one of our kids was smoking pot, it was them who talked us off the ledge. They had a son that had been through the same thing and even he helped us to weather out the storm. We were headed in a completely different direction before we talked with them and are thankful for the course correction.
- J-BAR-H Rule of Life #7 is “All disappointment is rooted in poorly set expectations.” This simply states that you are pretty much the reason for your own grief most of the time. You are not going to change your spouse and if you married them hoping they would grow into this person you had pictured in your head, you are going to be sadly disappointed. Don’t set your spouse up to let you down. If your spouse is a bad gift buyer and every year you get your feelings hurt because they didn’t put enough thought into it or it wasn’t what you wanted, TELL THEM what you want. I had a friend tell me that she shouldn’t HAVE to tell her husband what she likes because after 10 years he should just know. Obviously she is setting herself up for grief year after year. My wife finally started telling me exactly what she wanted and where to get it and even has sent me Groupons in the past to make sure she gets what she wants. She is happy & I am happy.
BONUS LESSON: The secret to staying together is to stay together. Marriage is hard, and takes work. These days it’s easy to leave, and there is no stigma attached. If one of the possible outcomes to every situation is that you just leave, then your behavior will be different than if it is not an option. If you have no chance of leaving at the end of an argument, you are less likely to go “scorched earth” or nuclear and more likely to work things out knowing that you are going to have to see this person in the morning. It truly is the secret to long term relationships.
I don’t know if any of this is helpful, and it certainly is a pitifuly incomplete list. But at the end of the day a successful marriage takes intentionality. You have to intentionally CHOOSE to do things a certain way, even if it isn’t the easiest way. Marriage isn’t easy, but it is worth it.