Personal Discipline – (Healthy Marriage Practices pt. 4)

Jeff and I recently read an excellent marriage book entitled The Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work by John Gottman.  I recommend it highly for those interested in reading further on the topic. I have written before about why I think it is important for couples to read good books about marriage and to increase their relational vocabulary (here). We study all sorts of things that are important to us – instruction manuals, recipes, non-fiction books about various topics, product reviews, text books, etc. Yet sometimes people resist the idea that we might be able to study marriage – they find the idea of analyzing matters of the heart cold, calculating and unromantic. Obviously I disagree with that. While I am an analytic in personality, training and temperament, I find it much easier to passionately enjoy our romance when Jeff and I aren’t arguing. And if studying makes that easier, then, hand me the book…

The marriage practice I want to discuss today is not about study or reading more on the topic, although I think many couples would benefit from this. Instead, I want to acknowledge that most people actually know what makes a marriage work well. Not all, as some people are remarkably un-self-aware, not very emotionally intelligent, carrying tremendous baggage from the past or have only had destructive relational practices modeled for them. For these people, moving towards a healthy marriage is like starting a race several miles behind the start line. Sometimes the distance is too much to overcome. In my experience however, the average person seems to already have a good cognitive overview of healthy marriage practices.

Be committed to the relationship. Love sacrificially. Communicate your needs. Build a life together, not two lives that run parallel. Listen to what the other is saying and respond accordingly. Be kind and thoughtful. Make whatever is important to them important to you. Talk with relationship mentors who can walk you through the intricacies of marital challenges. Learn to talk with each other about important things and do so regularly. Be willing to work through the pain to the joy on the other side. Don’t quit too soon. Laugh often together. Tell her she’s pretty. Show him you respect him. Be friends as well as lovers. Make love often and joyfully. Don’t lie. Be trustworthy. Meet their needs as you want them to meet yours.

If you’ve been married more than two minutes, you already knew much of this. Most people do. What most people lack is the discipline to do the things they know they should do.

When it comes down to the moment of an important conversation and it is your turn to listen or to speak gently, many just can’t seem to control their tongue. They…just…have…to…say…it!!! And hurtful things come spilling out. When it comes time to engage in meaningful conversation and connect emotionally – or at least logistically regarding how your lives intersect, you…just…can’t…turn…off…the…tv! When you could unselfishly meet the other’s need, you say no in your heart and love yourself more than them in that moment. When they want your presence, your body, your heart, you show them that other things are more important to you. Your choices illustrate your priorities. And your marriage or partner is not at the top of whatever list it is you are working from.

In other words, even with the best of intentions, there is no self-discipline, no ability to say no to lesser things now in exchange for greater things later, no willingness to submit personal needs and wants under those of another.

I think one of the greatest things a couple can do for their marriage is to learn personal discipline – in whatever form presents itself. Exercise, diet, scheduling, choices…whatever works in your heart to teach the principle of saying yes to the right things and no to the wrong things. Of being willing to endure a little pain now in exchange for a greater gain later. Learning discipline in the little things makes it easier to do it in the important things.

Marriage is an exercise in discipline. There are just times when you have to do those things that don’t come easily or naturally. But discipline brings joy. Choosing things now that might not be our first choice, because they lead to the things later that are our ultimate choice. A love-filled, comfortable, passionate, kind and joy-producing marriage is built upon the smaller choices we make in the everyday – the choices that require discipline to choose wisely.

Heb. 12:11 No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.

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Willingness To Learn A New Dance – (Healthy Marriage Practices pt.3)

All couples have a dance. A way they relate to each other. And usually, it fits to a season of life. Let me explain. Since certain elements of how Jeff and I relate to each other is a private matter, I will not be writing my personal story here. I will instead compile several stories I know of – and hopefully you will find yourself somewhere in the mix.

The first year or two of marriage, the dance often involves a lot of stepping on toes. “You want to do what for Christmas?” “Where did my favorite shirt go? Did you throw it out?” (Ok, that one IS from personal experience.) “I thought we were going to do ‘this’ with our money, careers, home, free time…and you want to do ‘that’?” It can be a tough thing, learning to live with another person. The logistics of it might be overwhelming at times. The dance may look choppy and uncoordinated. Getting your toe stepped on can hurt. Stepping on the toes of someone you love is also painful. Uncomfortable.Thank goodness for the power of sexual attraction in youth- acting like a magnet, pulling the couple together when they might otherwise turn away from each other.

For many couples, they learn how to dance. How to interact and move with each other in a comfortable way. He does this, she does that. Together, they figure out where everything goes and how to feel the rhythm. It may even get rather fun.

Then something changes.

A new job, a new baby, a move. What worked previously doesn’t work anymore. A new dance has to be learned. Who takes care of cooking, cleaning, doing the bills, the yard work now that schedules have changed? When will the couple focus on each other and not on the world, in order to nurture their relationship – especially now that time and energy are tighter than they were a few years ago? They learn a new dance, a more complicated one with more parts and more gravity-defying moves. There might be a few injuries along the way.

And then, life changes again. The couple experiences loss. Grief. One struggles with something significant. The other has to carry more than their share of the load for a while. How to handle pain? Anger. Disappointment. How a couple moves through these dark times…the dance becomes slow, painfully private. Those on the outside may have to look away for fear of seeing something so personal, so intimate…

On and on it goes. Marriages move through seasons. Some easier and more joyful than others. But this is life. And couples who want their marriage to continue to go on to the next place, to deeper levels of loving the other, to more one-ness must learn to navigate and negotiate through whatever life throws at them. They must learn to dance together – whatever the rhythm.

Some couples only learn one dance. Their marriage looks like the very awkward middle school slow dance where the guy doesn’t know where to put his hands and the girl is worried about what her friends are thinking and both just move in a box, not really enjoying the experience.

And then some couples learn to waltz. To foxtrot. To ball room dance. Sometimes it looks like a big band swing or sock hop. Some couples can hip hop. (Um, for the record, that would not be Jeff and I.) Over time, he learns to lead well. She learns to lean into him, to trust him. At different times they support the other.

And they move across the floor. Beautifully. Not flawlessly. Finding the beat takes time. But they move together.

 

What’s this? Alanis Morissette singing a happy song? Yes she is. And watching this couple move through a few styles, I thought it gave a good visual of how couples dance. Which one is Jeff and I? Right at the end, he dips her and she laughs. That is sort of me.

Letting Them Change – (Healthy Marriage Practices – pt. 2)

We were babies when we got married. We've changed so much. And that is a very, very good thing.

We were babies when we got married. Here we are on our honeymoon in the Utah desert. We’ve changed so much. And that is a very, very good thing.

I was talking with a friend who has been married much longer than I. As our conversation turned to serious things, I decided to take a chance and voice a realization that had been burning a hole in my heart for a while. It was something that I needed an older, godly woman’s perspective on and that honestly, came from a place of fear inside of me. I am pretty sure I whispered it as I said it.

“I’m not who Jeff thought he was marrying.”

I was 16 years into my marriage at the time I said this – and 16 years is a long time. People don’t stay the same over a decade and a half of living, losing and doing the stuff of life. Here is what makes it so terrifying…if you walk with someone well, if you walk with God well, you can’t stay hidden. Who you really are on the inside eventually comes out. The experiences that have made you who you are. The things you didn’t even know were there. The things you hoped would never come up or that you thought you could handle privately. I was in the middle of a season like this and I knew I wasn’t going to be the same at the end of it.

Fortunately this friend said something wise and comforting to my statement, “I’m not who Jeff thought he was marrying. She said, “Who is?”

The fact is, who we are at 20-something, is not who we will end up as. Sometimes, especially when Christ is in the mix, we have the potential to end up better. More compassionate, more loving, more kind, gentle, sacrificial, more of a joy to be around. And sometimes, over the years, people go dark. Bitterness. Resentment. Guilt. Regret over lost opportunities, mistakes, choices. Grief from losses. Suffering that warps the heart and personality.

I knew I was in the process of a season of great spiritual transformation, with Jesus doing some deep heart work in my life.  Not becoming a different person – just more of the  same person, with more of Jesus thrown in. Every Christ-follower should do this periodically, having seasons where His work in our lives is particularly acute. The problem for me at that time was that I was changing rapidly and in ways I couldn’t have predicted or controlled. There was a lot of repentance going on. A lot of redefining who I was at the core of my being. It was unnerving and a bit scary.

And I was worried Jeff wouldn’t like who I was becoming. Because I was finding I wasn’t nearly the same person he thought he was marrying. Fortunately, while Jeff’s exact words are private between us, he commented that he could very much see the redeeming work of Christ in me – and he liked that very, very much.

Based on this, I think a practice of married couples that builds a healthy marriage is allowing the other person the freedom and space to grow and change. To encourage it. To not insist that they stay the same.

And this is harder than it seems.

We get stuck in ruts, in relational patterns that get very comfortable over time. Generally, we don’t like change. In fact, I think most couples don’t ever really change how they relate to each other unless there is a powerful motivator to do so. Pain is about the only motivator I can think of that is strong enough. And when people are in pain, they are often not very nice.

But… what if couples put into their relational rhythms a time and season for conversations that made it ok to change. “I don’t like how we are relating on this particular topic. It seems unhealthy. Could we re-negotiate how we do this?” It could be about money, in-laws, sex, free time activities… anything really. Our behavioral patterns play in our lives like annoying background music in a department store. We rarely notice it until we think, “Something here isn’t right …and this is so uncomfortable, I should leave right now.” It is one thing to walk out of a store. It is another to leave (emotionally, as well as physically) your marriage.

Or, “Babe, I am willing to listen and not respond, to really hear you out…is there an area of my character that you think I should concentrate on during this next season of life? Is there something I am doing that I should stop, something I am not doing that I should start?” And as an aside, smart married people always begin with asking how they can change and love better, volunteering to go first and learn to be a better spouse, rather than “suggesting” to their spouse how they think the other should change.

Creating the safe places for these types of conversations every few months or yearly, inviting and allowing your spouse to become all they were made to be, even when it changes the nature of your relationship, can be a powerful practice that leads your marriage to a new and more mature level.

Are Weddings Really Happy Events? (Healthy Marriage Practices pt. 1)

Last year I wrote a series on Marriage Predictors – those character qualities, behavior patterns and practices of newer couples that tell us all on the outside where the relationship is heading. It was one of the most read series I’ve ever written. So I wanted to spend some time this winter and revisit the topic for a bit. This winter, I want to write about Healthy Marriage Practices – those character qualities, behavior patterns and practices that build healthy marriages – those things that couples, and not just young ones, with a chance to go the distance do.

For the record, I do not claim to be a marriage expert – just an experienced married person with 17 years behind her. (Yes, you folks who are 25 plus years in can chuckle at me now…)

I am totally admitting to all the dents and dings (and sometimes full-blown crashes) that come from an honest and realistic experience with marriage. Doing it well is not easy. And anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something. Of course marriage holds tremendous potential – for joy, intimacy and the most fulfilling human love available to us here on earth. And because it involves letting a fellow sinner in so close to that most sensitive and vulnerable of places – our heart – it holds the potential for betrayal, disappointment and a soul-killing ache so deep it is capable of functionally killing a person – even though they may still be walking around for years afterwards.

In fact, as I’ve gone to a few weddings in the last couple of years, I’m wondering…knowing the work that is ahead of the young couple…knowing how much potential pain lies in the future of two people willing to walk the long path of sacrificially loving the other for a lifetime… knowing something of what it means to say, “for better or for worse…”,  I’ve wondered if weddings should be such recklessly happy events. Shouldn’t we older folks be a bit more concerned? Maybe we should sit down with young couples repeatedly beforehand and make sure they understand (as much as a love-struck and relationally inexperienced young 20-something is capable of understanding) that a really great and healthy marriage doesn’t just happen. It is something two people cultivate. It is something they choose to invest in. It is something that requires a relational and character-based skill set, not just a lot of emotion, candles and lingerie and vague optimistic hopes that things will just work out for them somehow.

For the record, lest you think I am a crusty curmudgeon of epic proportions, of course I think weddings and marriages are reasons for celebration. I love almost everything about them. The ecstasy of two people deeply in love and the exuberance of youth thinking, “We can do this!”. The way a groom looks so lovingly at his beautiful bride and the way a bride literally glows in his presence. I weep at pretty much every wedding I go to. Especially when the bride starts walking down the aisle and I flash back to the joy and emotion of my own wedding day. It is indeed cause for some of the greatest celebrations we as humans should share.

Yet…

Over the years I have walked alongside and in the vicinity of a lot of young and some not-so-young couples as they’ve tried to go the distance together. Some have done well. Some, not so much. And if you know me, you know I ask a lot of questions when given the opportunity to learn something. What follows in the next few posts are partly observations made from the outside. But really, they are things Jeff and I have learned for ourselves as we’ve struggled from the inside, trying to love one another well – and not just maintain, but grow our marriage.