A Few Things Young People Should Know About Marriage (pt.1) – Unexpected Traits To Look For In A Spouse

I’ve spent a lot of time this past year around young 20 somethings – which has been both a joy and privilege.  So much energy. So much potential.  Because of that, I’ve been thinking…if I had the first part of my youth and marriage to do over again, what do I know now that would have been helpful to have known then?

Dancing With My Jeff

Dancing With My Jeff

After 18 years of marriage (and I realize that I’m just getting started at being married), I am finding that there are many things that would have been helpful for someone to have brought up in conversation waaaaay back then.   Stubborn and foolish as I was, it might not have changed anything I did or choices I made along the way, but…and here is a big truth…with knowledge comes choice…and the freedom to make different, hopefully better choices.  I would love for young people to learn to make wise, godly choices concerning how they will structure their married lives, because I can’t think of any area with more potential to bless or harm them in the coming years.  My campus minister told me while I was in college, “Marriage can be the closest thing to heaven on earth, or the closest thing to hell on earth.” True dat.   My prayer is that the young people I know would have more of the “heaven”-like experience.

In light of this, I am continuing my annual tradition of writing about marriage and relationships on the blog around this time of year. (Links to the last post from the other series are “Healthy Marriage Practices” and Marriage Predictors.)  They have consistently been among the most highly read things I’ve written. Ever. Seems y’all love the topic of love.

Yet, I was this close to skipping this series this year.  Because…if you’ve followed this blog or my adventures at all for the last few years…well…after living with a sick husband, managing lots of life transitions…the actual experience of marriage has been so exhausting that the thought of writing about it just seemed overwhelming.  Let me clarify… my experience with marriage and Jeff hasn’t been negative, mind you.  On this side of all we’ve been through, I am more married and in love with my husband than ever before.  Which I guess is ultimately why I am back writing this series this year.  Because a good marriage is worth the work.  It is one of God’s sweetest gifts to us.

So, here are the first of some of my thoughts on what I think young folks should know about marriage:

1. Who you marry in your 20’s isn’t the same person you will be married to in your 40’s, even though it is physically the same person.  I’ve said before that over the course of our marriage, my husband has probably been married to at least 4 or 5 different women.  All of them were me of course, but I’ve changed so much over the years, it is sort of like he gets a new wife every so often.  We all change and grow over the years.  Life happens.  Stuff happens.  And while much of the core of who we are in our youth follows us for a lifetime, often, that core can act like a pedestal on which the real artwork to be created later, sits. Hopefully the progression is a positive one, with your spouse becoming more kind, gentle, unselfish and committed to Jesus and to you.  Hopefully, every year, your home is characterized by deeper wisdom, growing friendships and healthier and clearer communication.  But we’ve all seen that this isn’t necessarily a given.  In fact, in some circles, it isn’t even common enough to call it the norm.  So, if you know going in that both you and your spouse will grow into a related, but different self after a few decades of life, what are some things to keep in mind at the start of your marriage?

2. When choosing a spouse, look for someone who knows how to find and isn’t afraid to ask for help. (and learn to do this for yourself) One of the endearingly optimistic qualities of young people is that they are convinced they are invincible.  And maybe immortal.  And possibly the exception to the bad things that can happen.  Many of the darker realities of life around them…depression, bankruptcy, broken hearts, addictions, bitter marriages or divorce…they assume those things happen to other people.  The reality is however, no one knows what life will throw at them.   And since no one is omniscient or omnipotent, at times we will run into circumstances we don’t understand or know how to handle.  These can be the things that change us – for better or for worse, depending on what we do with them.  One of the great thing about being human though, is that someone else has already walked through whatever we will go through.  We don’t have to be alone.  If we can find those people who have survived and thrived in spite of pain… and pick their brain, opening ourselves and all our insecurities up to them, we can learn what they know.  The key is we have to ask for help.  If we are proud, or passive, or convinced things will just work out, then we will never know more than we know.  Which honestly, isn’t very much.  Trust me, you want to be married to someone who knows how to access the wisdom around them – and isn’t afraid to do so.  Learning the practice of knowing how to find and ask for help…is like putting a big safety net around your relationship.

3. When looking for a spouse, look for someone who is courageous.  (and learn to cultivate the quality in yourself) Being married doesn’t mean you know what will happen to you.  It just means you know who your travel buddy through life will be.  And on the journey, it takes courage to look at who you are, or who you are becoming, and ask for help if you see you need it.  It takes courage to listen to the constructive criticism of someone who loves you, or to be receptive to a cry for help from your spouse that threatens your “normal”.  It takes courage to admit you are wrong and be willing to change.  It takes courage to not run from pain when everything in you wants to get out of there.  It takes courage to try things you’ve never done before, know you will fail when you start, but to keep at it because you know it will eventually bless you and your family.  It takes courage to allow Jesus to show you just how deeply messed up you are on the inside and then to say to Him, “Do whatever it takes, whatever You want, to bring healing, to make me more like You.” Courage is a really really important characteristic you want in your spouse.  Learning to cultivate it in your youth can reap tremendous blessings in your later life.

While many women think they want the hunky soldier type, the better husband is the guy with the character to fall on the grenade.

Looking For The Entrance and Exit Ramps – (Healthy Marriage Practices pt. 7)

Much of marriage is about patterns, about routine, about the”normal” way we go about life and relating – most often, without thinking about it. Sometimes our patterns and routines and “normal” isn’t very healthy. Or, what started out healthy may need adjustment as circumstances change…as personalities naturally drift over the course of the years…as stressors limit emotional availability or escalate tension. Over the years, husbands and wives fall into ruts regarding how they talk to each other, how they show affection, how they problem solve, how they move through life together, etc. Sometimes it works well. Sometimes not so much.

We’ve all had the experience of getting lost in thought while driving and all of a sudden “waking up” and realizing you are somewhere you didn’t plan on going with no idea of how you got there. Doing this while driving is one thing, but doing it while married…how would you like to wake up in the middle of a marital crisis? And no idea how you got there…Yikes! (Yet this is how it usually happens…)

Highways and marriages are similar in that both are going somewhere. Both have natural entrance and exit points, those locations where it is appropriate and easy to get on or get off  in order to change directions, take a break  or begin a new journey.  (I am not talking about places where you can leave the marriage – but places where the marriage can change trajectory and direction. I am writing from the perspective that death is the intended end to a marriage.) Also, while navigating both highways and marriages, it is scarily easy to not pay attention to what you are doing.

A new job, babies, a move, school starts, seasonal changes, health concerns, vacations, buying a house, starting or ending a hobby, finding a new church…All of these are a part of life and all of these mean schedules, priorities and structures change. These can be tremendous opportunities, doors to walk through and shake things up, to alter your direction before arriving at an unwanted destination.

Entrance and exit ramps are transition points. Those places and events where you set your life for acceleration or deceleration. Places to talk. To evaluate. To plan. To do something new. To stop something old.  They are all over the place in life and marriage. If we are looking for them. And open to the possibility that different might be needed.

What if married couples were aware of where their entrance and exit ramps are? What if they planned margins of time within those places to … talk. To communicate with each other and ask really simple but important questions. And to agree to be really honest. To listen really well. Without getting defensive and making excuses. And to do something with what you learn about the other.

How are you doing right now? Really? 

How do you feel our marriage is going? Are you happy with it? Are there things you want to change? Are there things you wish I knew? Are there things you wish I would stop or start doing?

Is there anything I can do to help you more right now, to be more tuned into your world, your needs and the things that are important to you?

Do you feel loved and appreciated? If not, how can I speak my love in your language so you hear it more clearly?

Is there something you are worried about? Afraid of? Enjoying? Use some emotional words and tell me about your heart.

You can come up with even more great discussion starting questions on your own. Google. Books. And, if you are interested in your spouse, your marriage, some questions should just naturally present themselves.

The key is you have to create the space to ask. To listen. To be honest. It can keep you from waking up in an unhealthy marriage with no idea of how it got so sick.

Setting Your Spouse Up For Success – (Healthy Marriage Practices pt. 5)

“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.”

Unfortunately, this proverb has a lot of truth to it. If you have ever seen a woman wronged by a man, a woman who decides to indulge her anger, who gives full vent to the desire for revenge, a woman with no verbal or emotional self-control… it isn’t pretty.

When people are hurt, as marriage inevitably does to all of us, a unique tension arises. We are entitled to express how we feel. We should communicate clearly what is going on inside of us. It is ok to get angry and  tell your spouse how their actions have impacted you.  Healthy marriage requires honest communication, even when the emotions you need to express are passionate, painful or very vulnerable ones. It is the only way to work things through with a hope of repairing them.

But…

There comes a point when in our hurt and woundedness, we cross over from constructive emotional venting, to something else. Something destructive. Our actions are not helpful in any sense of the word, but are aimed at hurting and destroying the other person. We begin sabotaging our spouse. We give them no chance at succeeding in the marriage.

The problem with this however is that you are married to that person. It is sort of like being on a transatlantic flight and getting so angry with your seat mate that you open the window. The breeze may feel good for moment, but it isn’t going to end well.

Here is a powerful truth about marriage – it is in my best interest for my spouse to succeed. At everything he does. I especially want him to succeed at our marriage. Because when he fails, the results land in my lap.

Here are some questions that demands an answer for those who want their marriage to not only survive, but deepen and strengthen through the years : “How can I help my husband become the godly man both Jesus and I want him to become?” “How can I encourage his success at whatever he is called to do?” “How can I be the type of wife he wants to turn to and not away from when things get difficult?” “How can I be a source of strength for him, someone he is always grateful for and not something he has to overcome as he walks the path God has called him to?”

Or how about these questions…”What is it like to be married to me?” Or, “Am I easy to lead and love, or a pain in the rear?” “Am I part of the solution or part of the problem?” “Am I asking Him to do things in our marriage that I’m not willing to do myself?” Maybe these questions deserve their own blog post.

A careful reading of the book of Job has some powerful words for the Christian wife. In the first two chapters, Satan is given permission to take away everything of value in Job’s life, to make him suffer as much as possible so that he might turn on God. And Satan is ruthless. He takes Job’s things, his family, his standing in the community and eventually his health.

But there is an interesting verse that pops up in the midst of all this suffering. In Job 2:10 we read, “His wife said to him, “Are you still holding on to your integrity? Curse God and die!”

And I wonder…what is his wife still doing there? Satan, in seeking the deepest way to wound Job, chooses to leave his wife, knowing that she would be much more harm to him alive than dead. Ouch.

One of my prayers for myself is that I never be like Job’s wife. Oh how I hope my presence wouldn’t be a curse to my husband!

Proverbs 31:12 has a good word for wives, “She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life.”

I don’t and have never claimed to be a marriage expert – I am just a married person. I don’t know all the different ways a spouse can screw up and hurt his/her mate, deeply, permanently. I don’t know how long it is ok to be angry for whatever it is they have done, or where the boundaries are of healthy vs. destructive emoting. But I do know that at the end of the day, I am not responsible for my husband’s actions. I responsible for mine. I am responsible for my choices and my responses and my actions leading to the success or failure of my marriage. I am responsible for grading the approach my husband makes on his way to our marriage – I make it uphill or downhill for him.

I want my marriage to succeed, I want my husband to succeed. It is worth some time to think about what this idea looks like in reality.

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.

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.