In just three weeks, Carrie and I will celebrate 25 years of marriage. It’s been a great journey; I’d do it again in a heartbeat, but there have been struggles, too. I’ve learned a lot. So far, I’ve shared some of the things I’ve learned in the following articles:
Carrie and I had a long engagement (over a year and a half). I wouldn’t recommend that. During that period, I received so much advice from so many sources: Ministers at my church, friends in my dorm, a guy at the gym, even a random salesman at Payless Shoes. Looking back, most of the advice I can still remember turned out to be utterly useless or downright wrong. It figures; many of the people who had the strongest opinions about marriage had never actually been married.
At the risk of making the same mistake those overly confident advice-givers made, I’d like to share with you the things I would say to an engaged couple before their big day. Twenty-five years in, these are some of the essential lessons I’ve learned:
Choose your battles wisely. If you’ve read these articles so far, perhaps you’ve been frustrated by a pattern in them: None of them deal with how to change your spouse. There’s a reason for that. Trying to change your spouse doesn’t work. Instead, it makes both of you miserable. But there are times when you must take a stand. No one is perfect, and no matter who you marry, there will be annoying habits, personality quirks and weird physical stuff that you discover after the “I do.” He snores like an overweight Grizzly bear; she picks lint out of her toes on the couch; He likes to use the bathroom with the door open; she squeezes the toothpaste from the middle instead of the bottom; he yells at the TV during football games; she takes too long to get ready in the mornings. If you nag your spouse about everything you find annoying, you will be fighting constantly. Instead, choose to accept them as they are, but determine the few things you simply can’t live with: “I can handle the fact that she doesn’t like Mexican food, but I can’t have her talking about my mom that way.” “I’ll learn to live with dirty underwear on the bedroom floor, but his sarcastic comments are really starting to hurt.” Then, don’t wait until you’ve HAD ENOUGH!!! Instead, sit down with your spouse when you’re completely calm. In fact, pray about it beforehand to make sure your emotions are in check and he/she is receptive. Then just share how much you love them, but this is something you wish they would work on, for you. Ask them if there’s anything you could work on, while we’re on the subject. Don’t expect this to be easy, especially early on. But as you grow in love for each other, you’ll learn how to do this without overreacting. And you’ll both be happier for it.
Leave your parents (and everyone else) out of it. The story of the first marriage in Scripture ends with these words: Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife…(Genesis 2:24). Of course, these days most people have long since moved out of mom and dad’s house by the time they get married. But the point is still the same. From now on, this is your most important human relationship. Don’t do anything to make your spouse feel they come in second to your parents or anyone else. Of course, you still need your extended family and other friends. If your spouse tries to keep you from them, that’s not love; you need to take a stand (see the point above). But your first loyalty is to the one you married. When he/she makes you angry, don’t tell your family or friends. Don’t make things awkward between your spouse and his in-laws. The exception, of course, is if there’s abuse. In that case, you MUST tell someone…and get out of the house immediately. And don’t criticize your spouse’s family or close friends. If your spouse is angry at them, let him/her vent. But don’t put your spouse in the position of having to choose between defending those closest to them, or agreeing with you.
Get help when you need it. On the other hand, most marriages need help at times. There are fantastically talented, wise and empathetic men and women whose calling in life is to help couples walk through their difficulties. I’m so glad we have a counselor on site at my church; He has helped so many individuals and couples. For years, there was a stigma about counseling of any kind. Fortunately, people are beginning to realize their mental and relational health is just as important as their physical health. You wouldn’t try to “tough out” a broken arm, and you shouldn’t expect deep disagreements in your marriage to magically work themselves out, either. Spend the money, take the time, humble yourself, and get some help. And don’t wait until you’ve got your bags packed and the divorce attorney on hold; sit down with a counselor when your issues are fresh.
Find role models. Reading books and blogs, attending marriage enrichment events are all fine. But they aren’t as effective as spending time around a couple that has figured out some things that still have you and your spouse stumped. Look for couples that really seem to love each other, and do whatever you can to hang out with them. This is why it’s so helpful to not only be active in a church, but to be part of a small group in that church. What better place to meet good “couple friends?” And don’t restrict this to couples your age. Find a husband and wife who’ve been married for decades, the kind who seem to always want to be together. Ask them if they’d like to meet for dinner sometime, so you can hear the story of how they got together, and what they’ve learned so far. My bet is they’d be thrilled…and you’d have a great time. (There’s a better than average chance they’ll pick up the check, too. But don’t quote me on that.)
Avoid money mistakes. This could be a blog post–actually an entire book–of its own, but I’m not the guy to write it. What I know about finance is very little. But here’s what has worked for Carrie and me:
–Tithe faithfully. It’s counter-intuitive, but if we give 10% of what we make to God (as His people have been doing for centuries) it actually reduces our financial stress. It helps us realize our money and possessions actually belong to Him; it makes His Kingdom our focus (For where your treasure is, your heart will be also); and He has promised to provide for us if we obey Him in this.
–Keep your finances together. I’m sure there are convincing arguments for maintaining separate bank accounts. But I’ve never heard one that convinced me. There shouldn’t be secrets in your relationship, not even (especially) when it comes to money.
–Set some boundaries, and stick to them. For instance, “Neither of us will spend more than $______ on any purchase without consulting the other first.” Sticker-shock is not good for your marital health.
–Decide from the start who pays the bills, and let them do their thing. I would say, “Set a budget and stick to it.” But then I would be a hypocrite. We’ve never actually done that. I know we’d be better off financially if we had; but this much we’ve done: We gave Carrie the job of overseeing our finances (between the two of us, she’s far better at accounting, management, and, for lack of a better term, “adulting.”). Every month, she pays all our bills, including our credit card balances. Only then do we know how much we have to play with. That has brought us great peace, even when we were making very little.
Pray for each other daily. This one should be obvious, but I know it’s not. And I don’t mean “pray that God would straighten out your spouse and make them into the person you need them to be.” I mean pray for your spouse to have peace and joy in life. Pray about whatever stresses them out. Pray that they would become the person GOD wants them to be. And pray that God would help you encourage them in that direction.
Avoid porn. I cannot overstate this: Pornography is killing marriages. I cannot tell you how many Christian men I’ve met in the past ten years who are addicted to porn. In fact, I’ve had that conversation so many times, when a man asks to speak to me privately, I expect it to be about that. I’ve read studies that indicate porn use is rising among women, too. None of this should surprise us. It’s so accessible these days, and our culture says it’s harmless fun. I disagree. It is inherently disrespectful to the humanity and dignity of women, warping your relationships with every female in your life. It creates sexual expectations that no actual relationship can fulfill. And it is ruthlessly addictive. Avoid it like the plague that it is. If it’s already part of your life, deal with it now. Call me if you need help.
Team up on your kids. It’s funny; I can remember a time when I was practically a parenting expert. Then our first child was born, and I wondered where all that knowledge went. If you think building a strong marriage is hard, wait until you have kids. Parenting is rewarding indeed, but it is also very humbling. If your marriage is struggling, adding a child into the mix can be the final straw. Even if your marriage is solid, if you and your spouse aren’t on the same page in your parenting philosophies, a good relationship can be strained in a hurry. Communicate with each other. Back each other up; don’t fight in front of your kids. Present a united front. Carrie and I have a weekly breakfast together, and we’ve spent many of those breakfasts going over “parent strategy.” We’ve made our share of mistakes, but we’ve stuck together so far.
Pray for your own faithfulness. I adore my wife. She is so much more than I deserve. And I would rather die a violent, agonizing death this instant than be unfaithful to her. When I think of the betrayal she would feel, and how it would devastate my children, and how it would hurt our church, and what it would do to people to whom I’ve ministered through the years… Yet at the same time, I dare not think I am incapable of adultery. I’ve known too many good men, many of them ministers, who have stumbled in this way. So I pray often that God’s Holy Spirit would guard my heart. The fruit of the Spirit is faithfulness, after all (Galatians 5:25-27). There are other “moral fences” I set up to protect our marriage, but it starts with prayer. I would encourage you to do the same.
So those are the most practical lessons I’ve learned. What can you add to the list?