They say the first two years of your marriage are called the “honeymoon” years. These are the years where everything is supposed to be total bliss. Everything is awesome as both of you reside on cloud nine—you are unceasingly happy as you are in each other’s continual presence, you never have any major disagreements, you make passionate love all the time—marriage is just…easy! And then reality slowly settles in after that. Well, if you’re like me and Elly, we seemingly skipped the honeymoon years. Sure we had some good times, but marriage was hard from the get-go!
On December 29th, Elly and I celebrated our 10 year wedding anniversary. Over the last few days, I’ve been reflecting on all the things I’ve learned throughout our marriage. Despite the hard times, I think I can say that we’re both happier in our marriage than we’ve previously been and are happy with the direction that our marriage is heading. We’re still on the journey and I don’t claim that our marriage is perfect or that we perfectly apply the lessons I discuss below, but I am certain that we’ve improved in all the areas below and it has taken a lot of time for us to learn these lessons. One thing we both have in common is that we don’t want to be satisfied with a mediocre marriage. We want to have a thriving relationship. We’ve read a lot of books and attended several marriage conferences, and still, we don’t have it all down; but by the grace of God, we’ll keep getting better little by little. Pursuing a healthy marriage is probably the most daring thing you’ll ever do. It’s by far been the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But it is also extremely rewarding! My prayer is that as you read, you’ll find something that resonates with you that you’ll be able to apply to your marriage. (These are in no particular order.)
1. God will use your marriage to show you how selfish you really are.
This is something I pretty much realized right away. When I was single, I only had to worry about myself and I could do whatever I wanted—I could eat what I wanted, when I wanted, where I wanted; I could go wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted; I could buy whatever I wanted. I was the only person I needed to consult to make most of my decisions. That all changed when I married Elly. My time no longer belonged just to me, nor did my money. To have to consider this other person—my wife—was a totally new experience and God used it to show me just how selfish I really am. Marriage puts you in a position where you are forced to practice putting the needs of others before your own. We’re going through a book in our Sunday school class called Sacred Marriage by Gary Thomas. His whole premise is that God’s purpose in marriage is not make us happy—it’s to make us holy! The older I get, the more I believe that God’s entire purpose for all the events in our life is to draw us to Himself, and if we’re Christian, to make us like Christ (see Philippians 2). I think marriage is one of the greatest tools He uses to accomplish this.
2. Depend on God for your happiness, not your spouse.
You must learn that your spouse is not the source of your happiness and to not depend on your spouse to make you happy. This was hard for me and Elly, because (like many young couples, I’m sure) we had unrealistic expectations coming into marriage—unrealistic expectations about how much time we’d get to spend together, how we’d communicate, how we’d resolve conflict, what our roles around the house would be, how much sex we would have, etc. And I think to some degree we all come into marriage with these expectations and assume that our spouse will meet these expectations and we’ll be happy. But Elly and I both found out quickly that neither of us are perfect and eventually one of us will let the other down. So to base our happiness on how well our spouse meets our expectations, or even our “needs,” is a trap. Practically speaking, what we’ve found is that if we focus on being obedient to God—treating our spouse as God would have us—its much easier to remain happy when personal expectations or needs aren’t met because you’re focusing on serving your spouse instead of focusing on yourself. And if you’re in this position, pray that God will help you to find joy in the midst of serving your spouse even when your needs go unmet. It probably won’t happen over night, but God will be faithful.
We’ve both struggled with this during our marriage. From my perspective, when it felt like Elly was relying on me to make her happy, it put a lot of pressure on me because I felt like there wasn’t any room for error. If I did the slightest thing wrong, it seemed to have a major effect on Elly’s attitude and thus our marriage.
I remember one point in our marriage where I had built up quite a bit of resentment towards Elly because I felt like she wasn’t meeting my needs. At that point, I honestly didn’t know if our marriage was ever going to get better. For sure, I was being selfish and had become wrapped up in my own needs. And while Elly knew we were struggling, I’m not sure she realized just how much resentment I had built up. I felt like she was so focused on herself and how unhappy she was that she couldn’t see how much my needs weren’t being met! (Seriously, how conceited is that!!!)
I know that she spent a lot of time praying about this and working on it and I will tell you that it was very noticeable once she finally stopped relying on me to make her happy. It seemed like a switch had magically been flipped. Around the same time, I made reservations for us to attend a Family Life marriage conference called Weekend to Remember. Elly’s mom came to town to watch the kids for a weekend while we headed down to Dallas for a weekend getaway. We had been to one of these before, but I naively thought we didn’t really need it. This time was different and I realized there was some major repair needed to our marriage. It ended up being just what we needed to set us on the path to healing.
Lest you think I’m blaming our marriage struggles on Elly, I’m not. There were plenty of areas where I was failing her, but let me tell you that when Elly began relying more on God for her happiness, it freed me to change. It felt like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders and inspired me to change as well. So in this way, I give her the credit for the fact that our marriage is much better than it used to be. She reached that point of change before I did.
3. Don’t expect physical intimacy in the bedroom if there hasn’t been emotional intimacy outside the bedroom.
This one is mainly for the guys. As men, we are much more visually stimulated than women and it is much easier for us to compartmentalize emotion. We can have a big fight with our wife and be ready to have sex 15 minutes later (maybe not even that long!). But it’s taken me a long time to realize that women don’t work the same way. As Elly says, she can’t just “flip a switch.” She needs to feel an emotional connection before she’s ever ready to connect physically. So I’ve had to learn that if we haven’t spent any quality time together or had any quality conversation lately, the odds of her being in the mood for physical intimacy are pretty much zero, zilch, nada! So plan ahead and make time to connect with your wife. She has a need for emotional intimacy just like we have a need for physical intimacy. So to ask her to fill your need without being willing to fill hers is unfair and will not produce long term happiness in the bedroom.
Now for the ladies, let me add this—don’t assume your husband is sitting down and having a conversation with you just because he wants to make love to you. Also, communicate your need for conversation and emotional connection. Men don’t have the same need as you do and we get busy and sometimes forget to make this a priority. So don’t get mad at your husband and expect him to be able to read your mind. If it’s been a while, let him know when you’re feeling in need for a date or for emotional intimacy. I’m sure he’ll appreciate the reminder and be happy to spend time with you.
4. Don’t take everything so personally.
When one of us hurts the other’s feelings, it’s amazing how we can subconsciously assume he or she did it on purpose. This took us yeeeaaarrrss to learn (emphasis on the years!). Remember that the enemy is not interested in us having a healthy marriage. He’s going to do whatever he can to create enmity between us. The vast majority of the time when Elly hurts my feelings or when I hurt her feelings, its by accident. Nowadays, we’ve learned to tell when something is wrong with the other and one of our first questions besides “are you okay?,” is generally, “did I do something to hurt your feelings?,” or “are you mad at me?” Sometimes its something I did and sometimes it isn’t, but one of the keys to quicker conflict resolution is learning to assume that my wife does not do anything intentionally to hurt my feelings. Again, it has taken years to get to the point where this is our default belief rather than the alternative—because Satan will certainly try to convince us otherwise. We heard this from several different marriage conferences we’ve been to over the years and it has made a huge difference. One key we’ve found is to combat the subconscious belief by asking the question outright, “do you think I did that intentionally to hurt you?” and then talk things out from there. It’s been a game-changer for us.
5. Lighten up.
Life can be really stressful sometimes. Our marriage has had plenty of good and plenty of bad. And especially in the bad times, try not to be so serious all the time. Find more ways to add humor into your marriage and don’t take yourself so seriously either. This partly relates to the last lesson because when you realize that stuff is just going to happen and that your spouse will mess up, give grace and try responding with humor instead of criticism.
6. Learn to communicate in your spouse’s love language.
This one is super important. Read Gary Chapman’s book, The Five Love Languages and learn what your spouse’s love languages are. After reading the book, discuss it with your spouse, and then re-read it occasionally, or at the least the sections that talk about your spouse’s love languages. I had read this book before getting married, but I read it in a different light after getting married. It takes time to sink in. My default is to love Elly in the ways I like to be loved—acts of service and physical touch. So it is very easy for me to come home and do the dishes or help clean up, or give Elly a back rub. And those are all great things, but they don’t mean as much to her as when I want to sit down and just talk with her about her day or what she’s been reading and learning about. She feels more loved when I do that than when I do the previous things (although I think doing the dishes for her is climbing her list! 🙂 And doing the things that make your spouse feel loved will end up paying dividends in your marriage!
7. Focus on changing yourself and not your spouse.
This one is a hard one. We all have a tendency to judge ourselves based on our intentions and judge others based on their actions. Consequently, its easier to find fault in others than in ourselves and we often fall into the trap of self-deception. Probably the best book I’ve read on this topic is Leadership and Self-Deception. It’s written in story form and the authors did an amazing job at helping me realize how self-deceived I was. For the first several years of our marriage, I wanted to blame most of our problems on Elly. I didn’t think she was solely to blame, but I did think she was mostly to blame. If we’re all honest, I think most would probably agree with that sentiment. But can you really quantify the blame for a struggling marriage? In some cases, perhaps, but most of the time, I’d venture to say that both parties are equally to blame. But the point here is not who is to blame. The point is that you can’t fix a problem for which you don’t take responsibility. If something is my fault, I can fix it. I can’t control Elly and I can’t “fix” her, but I do have control over myself—my attitudes and my actions. So I’ve learned that regardless of who is to blame, I’m going to focus on the aspects I can control and try to improve them and let God worry about the rest.
8. Sexy is more of an attitude than a look.
This one is more for the ladies. I obviously can’t speak for all guys here, but I hope that all the guys out there will agree. This probably isn’t something you’ve never heard before, but I’m going to reiterate it here. Sexy is more of an attitude than a look.
Neither of our bodies are the same as when we got married 10 years ago. Things change. I don’t have the same time to workout as I did when we were TINKS (two-incomes-no-kids) and Elly has birthed 3 children. Don’t misinterpret this—we’re simply just not as fit as we used to be. But Elly is still beautiful and I’m every bit as physically attracted to her as I was when we started dating over 11 years ago. Like many women, staying home with 3 kids—trying to maintain order, homeschooling, changing poopy diapers, cooking, cleaning, etc.—doesn’t do anything to help Elly feel more attractive. But her own self-perceptions don’t change the reality of my physical attraction for her. So my point is this, ladies—don’t assume that just because you don’t feel attractive or sexy that your husband thinks that as well. Maybe the next time you’re feeling down about how you look, remember (and focus on) how attractive your husband finds you.
For you husbands out there, make sure to tell your wife frequently how beautiful she is. If you’re like me, I think it way more often than I say it, and I still don’t say it enough, but I’m trying to be more intentional about this.
9. When working through conflict, error on the side of not saying something that will be hurtful to your spouse and that you will regret saying.
Elly and I have had plenty of conflict throughout the last 10 years, but I can honestly say that I have never said one thing to her during an argument that I regret. I have never said anything mean and I’ve never said anything hurtful. Don’t misunderstand me—I have certainly shared how I felt I had been wronged or how my feelings had been hurt and I have shared criticisms, but never in a mean or hurtful manner. There’s never been any name calling and there’s never been any cursing. Even when I’ve been the most upset, I’ve been careful to choose my words and if I couldn’t find a way to voice my perspective without being hurtful or making unfair accusations, I’ve kept my mouth shut. (By the way, I can’t think of anything mean or hurtful Elly has said to me either.)
I have a history of being verbally made fun of when I was younger, so I’m well aware that words can leave scars. The phrase, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is a flat-out lie. In fact, the very opposite is true. Your physical body can heal from a myriad of wounds and leave no signs of injury, but our words have tremendous power to injure and cause lasting damage. So if you can’t find the right words to say in the midst of disagreement, better to say nothing than to regret saying the wrong thing.
So there you have it—9 different lessons I’ve learned throughout the last 10 years of marriage. It’s not an exhaustive list, but I felt like these were all major lessons. If something didn’t make sense, feel free to let me know. Or if there’s a lesson you’ve learned in your own marriage, leave it in the comments. Thanks for reading!