A Few Things Young People Should Know About Marriage (pt.4) – The First Turn Is Really, Really Important

In some ways, a marriage is a lot like taking a long road trip with a friend.  You both are trying to get somewhere (hopefully the same place) and you’ve committed to doing it together.  In light of this, there is a truth about something road trips and marriage have in common that I’d like to discuss.

The first turn is really, really important. 

I live in Atlanta, which is a city dominated by interstates.  I-75 runs through it, north to south. I-85 runs through it, DSC06986northwest to southwest.  I-20 runs through it east to west.  Depending which interstate I get on and in which direction (which is the first turn in my trip), this determines a lot about where I will go. It limits a lot about where I will not go. That first turn forms the framework on which I will reach, or not reach my destination. The following turns are just the details, fleshing out whatever overall direction the first turn determined.  If I want to go to New York, I’d better not get on 1-20, because I’ll never get there.  Or, after moving in the wrong direction for a while, I’ll have to course correct…which is never fun.  Or easy.

In a like manner,  there are some important turns you can make early in your marriage that have a tremendous impact on the direction you both will take.  They can either turn you towards things like maturity, wholeness, greater affection and trust, healthy communication and more oneness…or not.

In light of this, what are some really good ‘first turns’ young couples can make?

9. Take the first year to really concentrate on learning how to be married.  That first year of marriage can be a really tender, sensitive time, when possibilities are open that may not come around again.  There is never another season of life where you are more open to change, to really hearing what your spouse is saying regarding their needs and preferences, to be willing to accommodate the other, to be willing to learn.  As time goes on, patterns get set, routines established, normal is defined.  Once these things are in place, change is much harder and often more painful. This means the first year of marriage is a special window of opportunity to craft and shape things in your marriage.  My advice?  If you don’t have to, don’t fill up your schedule with other, less important things.  Keep your evenings and weekends free to play, make love and talk.  Make lots of fun memories together.  Don’t commit to a lot of church or social activities – as good as these may be in another season of life.   Try to meet up with other couples in the same season of life and talk.  Try to meet up with other older, healthy couples in the next season of life and pick their brains.  While it is true that you can always go back and fix things later, it is so much easier to build something right the first time as opposed to having to repair it down the road.

10. An important first turn is learning how to talk to one another.  One the reasons sex is such an important part of marriage is in how it forces a young couple to learn to talk about incredibly intimate and personal things.  “I like this. I would like to try this. I need this. I am not comfortable with that. Are you ok? This is stirring up stress in me, could we slow down or stop and talk about this? etc. ”  Is there anything more awkward? Yet, is there anything more important to the longterm happiness and health of a couple’s intimacy? What a great skill for two people who have committed to do life together to learn!  And I’m not just talking about sex here anymore.  I am talking about the skill and art of learning to communicate about things of the heart.  Ask any couple who have been married for longer than 2 minutes how important communication is, and they will probably fall all over themselves emphasizing this.  For two people to navigate all the challenges, changes, pain, emotions, crises, joys, with another…you have to learn to talk. To listen. To engage.  One of the most important things a young couple can spend the first season of life together learning is how to do this well.  How to let the other know how they feel, when a subject is getting too emotional for them to continue healthily, how to say things like  “I’m sorry,” and “I love you,” and “Help,” and “Stop,” – and how not to say those things in the way you want to say it, but in the way they are able to hear it.  No one knows what life will throw at them as time goes on.  But if you can build a relationship that contains the tools to communicate and problem-solve…the likelihood is higher that you can work through whatever comes your way.  Young people…please, spend a lot of your first year of marriage learning to talk and listen to each other.  (and making love to each other…which is material for another post:) It is a turn that leads you to good places in your relationship. And it is a turn that is so much easier to make early on as opposed to later.

Previous posts in this series:

The Importance of Peripheral Relationships

The Importance of Knowing What’s On The Inside

Looking For Unexpected Traits In A Spouse

A Few Things Young People Should Know About Marriage (pt.3) – Healthy Peripheral Relationships Make All The Difference

(This is part 3 in my series discussing a few things young people should know about marriage.  Part one on unexpected traits to look for in a spouse is here,  and part two on the importance of what is inside of a person is here.)

I’ve set up this series of posts about things I wish young people knew about marriage by presenting the truth that who you marry in your twenties isn’t necessarily who you will be married to in your 40’s (even if it is physically the same person).  Hopefully, this is a wonderful thing…that you and your spouse, if Jesus is involved, grow up over the years you have together.  You become more of who He has made you to be.  More kind, more loving, more patient, more willing to sacrifice for the other…etc.  You learn new skills that make being married better.  More satisfying.  While this isn’t always the case, it is a beautiful thing when it happens.

But it also means that periodically, a marriage has the opportunity to reset. (I wrote more about this phenomenon here.)  I’ve said before that I think my long-suffering husband has been married to 4-5 different women during our marriage.  (I’ve been a newlywed, a high school science teacher, a stay-at-home mom of babies, a missionary, etc) While all of them were me, every new season of personal transformation has initiated a learning curve and adjustment period for us both as we have settled into our new normal.  These transition times can be filled with danger – or possibilities for growth, depending on what you do with them.  Being aware of, paying attention to and figuring out how to navigate these changes is a vital, and often under-taught skill! When you are dating and in the early years of your marriage, there can be windows of opportunity that hold the potential to be a wonderful blessing to you both as you age and grow.

Here are some ways to lean into those windows of opportunity:

7. The time when you and your husband/wife jointly need friends/mentors/counselors is not the time to go looking for them. You need to do this long before you need them.  Few people are ready to begin relationships with needy people or those in crisis, and for good reason.  We aren’t always ready to invest lots of energy and emotional capital into people we hardly know, or that may cost us something.  But, we gladly do this for and with people we love, have known for years and are relationally connected to. One of the things I’ve learned this past season of life, with our family being in such need, is that our friends and those who help guide us – those relationships are gold.  Had I tried to go looking for friends and mentors like that in the middle of our crisis time…let’s just say, it would not have gone well.  I have had several moments along the way where I know I was just unbelievably needy (and probably rather pitiful).  I am so grateful for our friends who dropped what they were doing to come alongside us and not only walk with us, but carry us when we couldn’t take care of ourselves.  These are the people who brought food, babysat, did yard work and dishes. Who hugged and cried, listened and loved, praying all along the way.   Then, there were the wiser, older people I was able to call and talk with when I had no idea what to do.  I am so grateful these relationships were in place long before I needed them.  The help and care they were able to so lovingly share was only possible because of the years of investment we made in each others lives earlier on, when we weren’t in crisis.  My advice to young people? Spend a lot of your time and energy in this early season of life growing your relational network, whatever that looks like for you.  (And since relationships are two-way, learn to be a giving friend for others also.) You have more time, energy and relational bandwidth in your youth than you ever will again.  Be wise in how you use it!  Friends are among God’s greatest gifts to us – yet so few of us put much thought into cultivating them well.  This can be a great blessing to your marriage – proactively protecting you from the challenges that life will eventually throw at you, and that are surmountable with help.

8. As an individual, find someone who has navigated a few of these seasons of life well.  And do whatever it takes to get some of their time.  Here is something I know to be true – there is nothing new under the sun.  There is no marital challenge before me that someone else hasn’t experienced.  That means, there are those out there who know how to do whatever it is I need to learn how to do – or at least there are those out there who can offer ideas and lines of thought I’ve not considered.   One of the most fruitful practices I’ve incorporated into my life has been the intentional seeking out of wisdom.  Of course, this practice isn’t novel.  It goes by many names – mentoring,

I've been blessed over the years with many special women who've loved and cheered me on.  I wish that for every other young woman out there.

I’ve been blessed over the years with several wise and special women who’ve loved and cheered me on. I wish that for every other young woman out there.

discipleship, counseling, spiritual friendship, spiritual direction, etc.   But it often seems so under-practiced that at times, I am alarmed.  Sometimes young people are arrogant and don’t think they need help.  More often, they are afraid or don’t know how to ask for another to join them in the process.  And sometimes, most of the time actually, I think the fault lies with older people…with those who should and could help but don’t.  Shame on us.  They/we don’t create those places where generations can cross and interact.   They don’t make space in their schedules to find and love on those young people in their spheres of influence.  They don’t think they have anything to offer, so they don’t try.  May I encourage you? As an individual, try like crazy to find a mentor or older friend.  Access their wisdom.  Ask questions.  Invite them to ask questions of you. And then please, learn to do and be this for the young people who come behind you.  We can create pockets of relationally healthy people and marriages in a culture where this is not the norm, if we learn to practice this with and for each other.

 

A Few Things Young People Should Know About Marriage (pt.2) – It’s What’s On The Inside

(My series on marriage continues…pt 1 here.)

When you marry someone, you marry all of them. Not just their body, but their character as well.  This means, there might just be potentially destructive things inside of them – memories, wounding, character weaknesses, lies, self-protecting behaviors, sins, addictions or addictive tendencies, negative family patterns, lie-based beliefs or unhealthy communication styles.  And you are marrying all of that too.  Since no one can hide their inner selves forever, these traits will almost certainly show themselves at some point during your marriage.  Of course there are positive things inside each of us as well, but my experience has been that the positive things aren’t buried.  Instead, they are grown through the years by intentional effort.  In other words, they aren’t a surprise, and almost no one hides them.  The negative however…well, we all know we try to hide that stuff until we just can’t anymore.  This means, they usually show themselves in the middle of a mess, when we, or our circumstances are out of our control, and our filters are down.  Which makes the internal potentially very, very dangerous.  And it makes knowing what is inside of us very, very important.  Imagine walking into the middle of a minefield (which is sort what marriage is) and having no idea where the mines are.  You are always one step away from not just ruining your day, but your life. This is what it can be like, marrying someone with internal hidden “mines” waiting to get triggered.

Let me preface some of this by saying, having darkness inside of us doesn’t disqualify us from marriage.  If that were the case, no one would be married.  We are all twisted compilations of woundedness and dysfunction.  My point is that, because of the reality of the potential dangers in our inner world, before you get married, or early on in your marriage,  it is a good idea to…

4. Date in such a way that you get to really know who they are and something of what might be inside of their heart. We all know that much of our dating practices are deceptive.  We wear our best clothes, put on our best manners, give more thoughtful gifts, hide our crazy relatives, sacrifice sleep to help, etc.  It’s a game we all play and it isn’t without its charming merits.  But, what would it look like if young people who think they might marry each other, said something like, “Because we should both know as much as we can about what we might be getting into, I am willing to do a few things that enable us both to see something of what might lie inside each of us.  (Counseling, sitting with older, wiser couples, taking tests, reading and studying together, etc) And I commit that, when (not if) we find things that hold destructive potential, I won’t hide them and I’ll begin working on them now, before we go any further.” Yes, I know. This sounds really weird.  And probably unrealistic.  But I promise you, there are a bunch of 40 something married folk who are cheering from the sidelines, “Do it! Do it! Do it!” Because it can be a rather terrifying experience, after you are married a while, to see something unexpected and potentially destructive pop out of your spouse that you had no idea was there.  I’ve previously written about what this can look like here. And since I’ve already gone to places you might be uncomfortable with, let me just go ahead and push it a bit.

5. Invest in professional pre-marriage counseling. Or invest in preventative, proactive counseling to build a stronger marriage, especially before problems arise.  In an ideal world, older, relationally healthy couples would voluntarily meet with, love on and teach younger couples how to be married well.  In reality however, we all know it is hard to find a marriage mentor.  (Don’t quit looking though! There are some out there.  If you find a couple like this, thank Jesus for this blessing, and then learn to be that to younger couples later.) Fortunately, there is a wonderful profession out there with people who not only study the institution of marriage, family, emotional health and how to integrate their spirituality with it all, but they have done a lot of personal work in this area and have wisdom to offer.  They are called professional counselors and marriage and family therapists.  Pr. 4:5-7 says, “Get wisdom, get understanding; do not forget my words or swerve from them.  Do not forsake wisdom, and she will protect you; love her, and she will watch over you.  Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding.” We invest in our cars, our homes, our retirements, etc.  That which is important to us, we don’t leave sitting out in the rain, trusting it won’t rust or decay.  We pay attention to it and spend money to maintain it.  Why would our marriages be any different?  Invest in it.  With the help of those who know what they are doing.  And don’t be afraid to pay for it if you have to. There is something very helpful about sitting with a non-involved third-party, someone who can lead conversations, ask probing questions, moderate conflict and create an environment for couples to talk about things that may never come up if not brought up very intentionally.

6. Look for a spouse who is learning the spiritual practice of transparency and openness with others.  (and learn to practice this for yourself) This can take a lot of different forms and names.  Some people join accountability groups.  Others have Bible study groups.  Some have mentors, spiritual directors, counselors, spiritual friends, pastors, etc.  The central idea is that they understand a vital part of their spiritual development is to open themselves up to others in honesty and authenticity.  They invite someone else to look at their inner world, their dark stuff, and speak to it or offer guidance around it. Telling our stories and being known by others is a vital part of our spiritual growth.  You want to be married to someone who is walking this path.   Because one day, if you do marriage authentically and deeply and don’t run from the pain, an issue, problem, crisis will arise in your marriage or lives. And it will require you and your spouse to do some soul-searching.  It will require you both to open some very personal and probably very scary things about yourselves to others.  And it will be terrifying if the first time you have to do this is when you are in pain and afraid and in crisis.  It is worth it as a young person to spend a little time learning how to do this, so that, when you really need to do it, you already know how to do it.

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.

Shared Positive Memories – (Healthy Marriage Practices pt. 6)

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Dad sitting on a cactus in the Jena botanical garden. We laugh. Every time.

Jeff and I are like most couples – we have stories. Lots of them. Well, maybe not lots of them. I guess we only really have a few. But we repeat them over and over. And over. Especially our funny ones. We repeat them to each other, to our kids and anyone unfortunate enough to find themselves at the Davis dinner table. And we usually laugh. Every. Time. Some days we sort of think God put us here for comic relief.

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Back in Europe, when our lives involved wearing backpacks everywhere.

In fact, our 5 year old has gotten in to the habit – and when she and I spend time together, she invariably asks me to tell her “the story of how she was born”…or the story of how one of her siblings was born. Because childbirth in our family seems to involve lots of laughter – in addition to all the…um…pain…Our birth stories involve Wal-mart parking lots, Harry Potter novels, swedish meatballs, star trek transporter beams, German nurses having a throw down in front of me, looking out an open window to the pedestrians about 3o feet away while actually delivering…but I digress. You should come have dinner with us sometime to get the full stories. Even our 5 year old knows how much fun it can be.

I think this represents a good and healthy marriage (and family) practice: shared positive memories. We practice our stories. We tell them often. And we laugh. Every. Time. We own them in our hearts. And we are trying to share our family stories with our kids. Sort of like an initiation to the team. We don’t have a secret handshake. We have stories we tell and share.

Motherhood and Ministry

Jeffrey’s first day of school in Germany, with his sisters. The story of their years in German schools often comes up at our dinner table.

In fact, over the years, I’ve become a bit of a photographer of some of our more humorous moments. I enjoy the visual that reminds us of something we loved together. Every year at Christmas, all the kids get a small, simple photo album of them in the past year. To remind them of how they’ve grown, how loved they are, the special events they lived through, to prompt storytelling at bedtime.

And every time we tell our stories, I am reminded of how much history I share with Jeff, how many good and memorable times we’ve had, how much we’ve overcome together, how intertwined our lives are. It turns my heart towards him. And his toward mine.

It seems to me that couples who have turned a dark corner, who are heading down a dangerous downhill slide from which it is difficult to pull out, don’t seem to remember much of anything positive about their spouse, or the years they’ve spent together. All that they’ve invested in each other and shared through the years gets filed under ‘unfunny, sad, discouraging, or not-happy”. Couples that look at each other and can’t remember why it is they are together are in a dangerous place indeed.

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Abby’s first bite of a bratwurst. A happy day for us all! And a story we love to tell!

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‘Cause, you know, we are on an adventure together.

So Jeff and I practice remembering why we are together and why we love each other and why our future looks brighter than our past. We rehearse our stories with each other. And with anyone who ends up sharing a meal with us.

This is a practice that produces beautiful things for a couple and a marriage.

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.