Marriage Predictors pt. 7 – Surviving the “Oh My God, Who Are You And What Did You Do With My Spouse?” Moment

I think there comes a moment in everyone’s marriage – usually early on for those with good communication skills, and later on for those who are better at hiding what is actually going on in their heart (my category, by the way) – where you look at your spouse and wonder, “Oh my God, who are you and what did you do with the person I married?”

I’m not talking about the “you squeeze the toothpaste from the middle” argument, or the classic, “Toilet paper should spin from the top, not the bottom of the roll” disagreement that every newlywed has. I’m talking bigger things today. Like:

When they really lose their temper in front of you for the first time and it makes you afraid. When you realize that thing that didn’t really bother you while you were dating really does bother you now that you live with it, and you awaken to the fact that it isn’t going to change. When you catch them using porn on the internet. When you realize what you thought was a bad habit is actually an addiction. When you get that credit card bill for that thing you can’t afford, didn’t want and now are on the hook for. When something from their past pops up that they didn’t disclose to you before the marriage, or you didn’t fully grasp its ability to affect you, and now it is sitting in your lap. When the emotional baggage from their past won’t be suppressed anymore and you begin to realize just how broken by sin they are, and now they are evolving into someone right before your eyes that you aren’t even sure you recognize. When they make a really stupid or selfish mistake and do something, say something that hurts you so badly, different words enter your vocabulary – like betrayal, abandonment and regret. When you start entertaining those thoughts on “What if…”, when you swore you never would.

(This is a discussion where it is really important to realize that if you are pointing a finger at your spouse, you are also pointing three fingers back at yourself. If you are thinking any of these things, I’m pretty sure your partner is having the similar thoughts about you.)

It is usually at that moment, when the new reality begins to set in, that most people begin thinking “Is this marriage thing really permanent?”

When you marry, in front of God and your family and friends, you make unbreakable vows to each other for this very reason. Because if people could get out of marriage, at some time or another, almost everyone would. Sure, people divorce and move on all the time. But make no mistake, when you break your marriage vows, you also break the people who made them.

The marriage predictor I am talking about today (the character qualities, behavior patterns and practices that bend a relational trajectory towards a loving, stable relationship – or not) is your decision to stand and work and fight for your marriage and not run when this first happens. And I’m pretty sure this moment happens to everyone. Because most of us have bought into the lie that marriage is about making us happy – and when it doesn’t, we begin thinking about how to bail. At some point in the relationship, most likely you will be faced with the temptation to leave – either physically or emotionally. And when you decide to honor your vows, to stay, even when everything in you is screaming, “Get me out of here!”, you set your relationship on a trajectory that leads to a very promising place. 

Learning to do this, early in the marriage, to stay in, all in, both emotionally and physically, is a learned skill. And learning to do it from the get-go…I can’t really think of a stronger predictor of one’s ability to do it later, when the stakes just might get exponentially higher. Committing to the energy it requires to work through those “Oh my God…” moments early on in your marriage teaches you that you can survive them, and that you can work together through whatever will come up later. And just a bit of truth for all the young couples out there…there is always something else that will come up later. And later, it is almost always something much more complicated (which is code for ‘painful’).

So young couples – talk to each other about this. Make it part of your relational vocabulary. And decide together that you both will survive these early challenges and come out on the other side, more invested in and more committed to the success of your marriage than before.

Here is a link to an interview from the world’s oldest living couple, married over 85 years!

(This post isn’t meant as a critique of anyone’s marriage, broken or damaged – it is meant as a springboard for discussion and prayer. I’ve heard from some of my readers that this series has been painful to read. Please know, I totally get how tough marriage is and can be. I am writing from a place of great compassion for you.)

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Marriage Predictors pt. 6 – Common Vocabulary

When Jeff and I we were engaged we read a book together called His Needs Her Needs – How to Build An Affair Proof Marriage by W. Harley. It is a good marriage book, one that we have recommended and given to many others through the years. In it, the author describes a concept called a love bank. We each have one and our significant other is either putting in deposits or making withdrawals all the time by either meeting or ignoring each other’s most basic relational needs. The challenge of course, is that men and women have different needs we expect and want our spouse to meet. For example, a woman’s greatest need is for affection. A man’s greatest need is for…how shall we say, a very specific kind of affection. And over the years, if you or your spouse make more withdrawals than deposits, the both of you can become vulnerable to looking for someone else to meet your needs.

My purpose today is not to write a book review and I am not saying you should rush out and read this particular one. It only covers a specific perspective on what is an incredibly complex and multi-layered thing. It may speak to you at this point in your relationship or it may not. But

Here is Dr. Oehring, my East German dentist. She let me take this photo right before she started drilling. Can I just say that this is one of those moments you want to make sure you've been clearly understood!

the experience of reading a book together did something very powerful for Jeff and I that has strongly benefitted our marriage over the years – and this is what I want to write about here. Early on, it gave us a common vocabulary with which to talk about and begin building our marriage.

Let me illustrate how important vocabulary can be. While living in Germany I developed a cavity that needed immediate attention, which meant a trip to my East German dentist. (The story is one of my favorites from my time overseas) The problem for me was that they don’t cover dental vocabulary in most language courses. So rather quickly, I had to learn how to say things like, “drill, cavity, root canal, ‘it hurts here’ and ‘Novocaine, please'”. Trust me, not having the right vocabulary at the dentist can be a very, very painful experience. Not having the right relational vocabulary for your marriage can be too. 

One thing couples must do in order to not just survive but thrive in their marriage is to be able to talk. To be able to talk about and correctly name their problems. To be able to talk about their problems in such a way that both are able to find solutions. To be able to find solutions to their problems so that both come away from the conflict feeling more invested in and not wounded by their relationship. To be able to talk with one another about truly deep, important and potentially very intimate things and know the other person has heard and understood exactly what they said and meant.

Because marriage inevitably brings relational conflict. Sooner or later, people who live together are going to have to solve problems together. And the ability of a couple to safely and articulately work through whatever their issues are is a powerful predictor of marriage success. This means couples have got to learn to talk to each other. And it can be so much harder than you would think. Ask any couple married more than a few years and I’m sure they will confirm this.

One of the things I’ve seen over the years is how woefully ill-equipped many of us are with a good, mature-relationship vocabulary. Couples that can’t state clearly what they want and need from the other are heading for trouble sooner or later.

After 17 years of being together, Jeff and I are still figuring this out. In fact, we have a whole new set of things to talk about in this season of marriage that we didn’t early on, thus constantly stretching our relational vocabulary and communication skills. Improving a relationship is a never-ending process for those who want to do it well. But we do know what phrases and words ring in each other’s hearts, that communicate something clearly. We’ve got a common vocabulary. A common set of relational concepts. And we are able to recognize when we’ve been heard. Our ability to do this started with us reading a book together and talking about it.

So a recommendation to couples today would be to read good, well-written relationship books together. Ask your successfully married friends for recommendations. Don’t just read the latest book, but read a few that have passed the test of time. And use those books to introduce new ideas into your conversations; to increase relational and emotional vocabulary so that you have more things to talk about and more ways to do it.

Marriage book recommendations are now being accepted in the comments section!

Marriage Predictors pt. 5 – Touch

“I don’t know what your marriage normally looks like and I don’t claim to know what it should look like, but I think maybe y’all need to have more sex.”

(Quotes like this might explain why my experiences as a counselor/mentor have been so, um , quotable…)

I don’t know where stuff like this comes from,  but as soon as I said it to my younger, “not-married-as-long” friend, I recognized it as true. Something was lacking in how they related to each other. Physically. And if I could see it from the outside, I was sure they were feeling it on the inside. (For the record, she agreed with my assessment.)

The point I was trying to make with my young friend is that the sexual/physical component of her marriage is much more important than she thought it was. It isn’t just a fringe benefit, but an intricate component of how two married people relate to each other. And if this area is suffering, it is pretty much a given that the rest of the marriage is suffering too. And that means the husband and wife are suffering as well.

I’ve often said to the young married wives in my relational circles,  “Sex should be what happens when our bodies get to do what our hearts already have.”  So the bedroom is more than just the playroom. What is going on there can provide a glimpse of what is happening, or will happen, in the rest of the relationship. Where the heart goes, the body follows.

While, the sexual relationship between husband and wife is a most private one and not open for all to see,  how a couple interact physically in public is. And here lies my point. How a couple touches in public, how they look at each other, how they relate to each other in front of others – this can be a predictor.

A young single friend of mine once went to meet a married couple who were friends of his for an evening out. He met them at the end of their dance lesson where they were learning a new step together. His response to watching how they touched each other, how they interacted physically?

“Ah. They make me want to be married.”

How a married couple ‘dances’ in public tells a lot about the quality of their marriage in private. Body language can be an incredibly powerful predictor. Does a couple look at each other with love and affection in their eyes? Is respect evident in how they touch? Do their hands just fit in such a way that their being together and being in each other’s space, feels and looks like the most natural place for them to be? Does a couple’s public interaction with each other stir in others a desire for that type of marriage? Does it point to how God might want to tenderly and affectionately relate to us?

I’ve also learned through the years that how a married couple ‘dances’ in public also teaches single people much about whether they want to be married one day themselves. I meet many young college students and they say something like this, “If what I’ve seen of marriage is what it is, then I don’t want any part of it.” I find it incredibly sad that we have messed up one of God’s most treasured gifts to us so badly, a whole generation is rejecting it.

And sometimes I’ve found that when I intentionally touch Jeff gently, in a way that tells him how I love him, trust him, want to be with and near him, my heart follows. 

So my suggestion today is for couples to give some thought on what their public body language between each other reflects about the quality of their relationship in private. What does it say to your spouse about your feelings towards them? What is it growing in your heart towards them? Greater intimacy or greater distance? What words come to mind when others see you together and how you touch each other? Would you make them want to have the type of relationship you have?

Marriage Predictors pt. 4 – Tour de Marriage

I’ve got this young friend who has not only done ministry with us over the years, but she’s one of those people who comes over and …it’s like time hasn’t passed. She is easily one of the smartest people I’ve met  (working on her doctorate in anthropology) and one of the most missional

Oddly enough, this is a photo of my friend at a "Don't Want To Be" Party - where people came dressed as something they didn't want to be. Obviously, at the time, she didn't want to be married. Funny how God works, isn't it?

(living in an urban neighborhood of Atlanta so she can be a part of incarnating Christ there). She hasn’t lived a charmed life by any stretch of the imagination, yet she loves Jesus. And now she’s getting married to a very fortunate young man. He’s cute too.

They came over recently and introduced us to a concept they created called the Tour de Marriage. Like the Tour de France is a bicycle race around France, in the months preceding their marriage, they are ‘taking a tour’ of all the good marriages in their circle of friends. It is a time to ask questions, to be asked questions, to gain wisdom and input from those who have gone before them.

What a great idea!!! I told them I was totally stealing it (although very much giving credit where it is due) because it was one of the best marriage ideas I’ve heard in a long time. Young people seeking wisdom from older people. Older people offering wisdom to younger people. Experienced married people mentoring engaged and newlywed people. Imagine! The concept is so good in fact, you’d think it was God’s…oh wait… it is. (2 Tim. 2:2, Tit. 2:3-7, 2 Tim. 3:10-11)

The fact is, there is nothing new under the sun. Marriage is as old as people are. And the experiences of those who have done it well are available for those intentional enough to seek it out and brave enough to ask.

I’m sure a very positive predictor of marriage – those character qualities, behavior patterns and practices that lead to healthy, loving marriages – is the presence of marriage mentors in one’s life. And the practice of asking for help, opinions and stories that encourage and teach is an incredibly smart thing to do.

Right after Jeff and I married, we had the chance to sit with a couple who had been married almost 75 years. Yes, I said that right. In true South Georgia style, they were married very young and were now very old, still holding hands as they rocked together on their farm. So Jeff and I tried to seize the moment and asked them what advice they might give a couple who had been married for a few weeks. They said something that has stuck with us since.

With a strong country accent they said emphatically, “No matter what, just keep on talking. When you quit talking to each other, you quit solving problems. So talk a lot.”

Communication. Wisdom. From someone who knew. Priceless. And it was trustworthy because they had so obviously worked this truth out in their 7 decades of marriage.

I would encourage any young couple out there reading this to plan your own Tour de Marriage. Find a few couples in your circles who seem to be doing marriage well. Ask for some of their time. Ask questions. Ask them to ask you questions and to share things you don’t even know to ask. Listen really well. And then take what they say as the basis for intentional conversations between the two of you going forward. And put their advice to practice early in your marriage – building it right the first time instead of having to repair something later.

This practice predicts very good things for married couples.

Here is a link to my friend’s website if you want to read about someone making a difference in a difficult place.  Vine City  http://www.vinecity.blogspot.com/

Marriage Predictors pt. 1

So, I just passed 16, count ’em, 16 years of marriage this fall! And the universal consensus is that I got a good one in Jeff. He is a wonderful husband and I am so grateful we are still best friends, still in love and still have lots of dreams of things we want to do and accomplish together as long as God gives us breath.

My man and me having fun in Gatlinburg last year.

While I would in no way claim to be an expert on marriage, I am nonetheless an experienced married person. And like most married people, I have opinions. (If there are any of you married-more than 25+ years reading this, please try not to chuckle.)

Surprisingly though, my thoughts aren’t centering around what practices and behaviors married people should incorporate into their lives. Instead,  because Jeff and I are passionate university student workers, I am thinking about what still-dating, engaged or recently-married couples can do in order to grow the type of marriage they want. In other words, my thoughts on marriage are something like this, “It is easier to build something right the first time then to try and repair it later.”

I read the book Blink by Malcolm Gladwell a while back. Fascinating read. He studied and wrote about a particular researcher who claimed he could predict within 10 minutes of meeting a couple, with astounding statistical accuracy, whether or not their marriage would end in divorce. In other words, there are clues, noticeable ones too that predict relational trajectory: where a couple will end up.  I found the concept to be fascinating, as Jeff and I both have seen couples together and can pretty much instantly tell something of the quality of their relationship. You can too I suspect.

So I want to write a few blog entries in the coming weeks about what I’ll call “marriage predictors” – those character qualities, behavior patterns and practices that young couples integrate into their marriage, either on purpose or accident. And like road signs, they tell us all where the relationship is heading. They predict trajectory. Either to greater intimacy, trust, friendship, affection, commitment, togetherness, mutual sanctification and spiritual maturity – or to separation, whether physically or emotionally. There are lots of couples out there who might still live under the same roof and might even share the same bed, but who are already single people again in their hearts. I find this incredibly sad.

I hope you will come along and contribute to the discussion.