On Marriage, Part 2: Thoughts on Staying Married


(Photo of Long Road by Sean Hudgins)

In Part 1, I shared a few thoughts on whom to marry.  Here I’m going to describe the most important things Kim and I have learned about staying married.  To paraphrase one of our favorite movie quotes:

“Marriage is hard work, highness; anyone who says differently is selling something.

If you’re reading this, I’m going to assume that:

You’re married.

Or you’re reading this to get some ideas about out how it works.

Or you want to catch me in inconsistencies–be gone, haters! thank you for your concern with my integrity.

In any case, here we go.  If you have responses or thoughts in general about marriage, by all means, share them.

#1  The other person is more important than the conflict.  No matter the conflict.  Always.

When people fight, they fight to win.  How often do you enter an argument seeking to be, or even open to be, proven wrong?  But it’s a minuscule step from “I’m right” to “Whatever it takes to prove I’m right.”  The moment that I forget Kim is more important than our disagreement, I become willing to win by any means necessary.  This conflict is temporary and our relationship is permanent.  We don’t always speak as kindly to each other as we should, but each of us always tries to keep at the forefront that the issue isn’t so important compared with our marriage.

When people ask, this is the one suggestion I always make, whether I’m sitting with a couple who appear on the verge of ending their marriage or I’m chatting with a new friend after ultimate.  The problem with this advice is that almost everyone things they take it–until the fight comes.  A very newly married couple was having some bumps in their first year.  I’d been part of their wedding and had been close friends with each of them before they met.  When the husband told me they were struggling and having a lot of conflict, I emphasized how central it is to hold the other person higher than the things they were fighting about.

“Oh, yeah, totally.”

Two days later, when we went hiking together, he told me that things had gotten ugly again.

“Really?  What was it over?”

“How to decorate the Christmas tree.”

And I’m not just mocking them–we’ve all taken our stand on a hill that simply does not matter and acted willing to die there.  Ask me about silk flowers sometime.

So let me break this down as clearly as I can:  The person you married is, and must be, more important to you than the conflict you are having.*  That means how they feel coming out of the disagreement is more important than whether they saw you were right in the end or that you got the last word.  It means that sometimes, I might have to give up being acknowledged as right, even when I’m right.  When we cross lines of what we’re willing to say to our spouse, we have broken down that barrier and it becomes easy to say that bad thing next time…and worse.

If you’re like me, you won’t always feel this.  You’ll have times when you’re angry, or you can’t believe how stubborn your spouse is, or it just seems so honest-to-goodness obvious that what you’re saying is right, you’ll be tempted to up the ante in order to make that point.  “If I could just get her to see…”  That’s dangerous territory.  You’re already doing the math between how much you value her or him and how badly you want to make this point.  Losing an argument is better than damaging your marriage.

I think this means both how hard we’re willing to bring the conflict and how long we’re willing to hold onto it.  If you never raise your voice but also hold out that you are right and give the cold shoulder–or even just the slight impression of righteous indignation or noblesse oblige–you’re still trying to win the argument and doing so at the cost of your partner.  Passive aggressive fighting isn’t better.

Pyrrhic victories are especially worthless in marriage.

#2 The purpose of marriage is not for Kim to make me happy nor for me to make her happy. The purpose of marriage is for Kim and me to learn to love each other.

If you’ve been married any length of time, obviously you know that your spouse does not exist solely to make you happy.  But it’s a paradigm shift, I think, when we grasp that it’s not about “You complete me” but “How can I love you today?”  Love is not an emotion, it’s an action verb, a decision to act.  I don’t always feel like looking for ways I can love Kim better.  I don’t even always feel like complying with the simple requests she makes of me.  But “feel” turns out to be a lousy criteria for love.

Ironic, isn’t it?  All this discussion of “I think I love her,” all these songs about “true love,” “endless love,” and “hot love,” and the multitude of romantic movies depicting how we fall in love, but the feeling of love has about 3% to do with staying married.**  And that 3% comes as a result of choices that we make regardless of  feelings involved.  In fact, the most crucial decisions we make to stay married, we make in spite of some of the feelings involved.

Telling your spouse, “I don’t love you” is the same as telling your spouse, “I can’t be bothered to do the right thing,” “I’m selfish and I matter more to me than you do.”  Or, as Gary Thomas puts it in Sacred Marriage:

“One of the cruelest and most self-condemning remarks I’ve ever heard is the one that men often use when they leave their wives for another woman: ‘The truth is, I’ve never loved you.’  This is meant to be an attack on the wife—saying in effect, ‘The truth is, I’ve never found you lovable.’  But put in a Christian context, it’s a confession of the man’s utter failure to be a Christian.  If he hasn’t loved his wife, it is not his wife’s fault, but his.  Jesus calls us to love even the unlovable—even our enemies!—so a man who says ‘I’ve never loved you’ is a man who is saying essentially this: ‘I’ve never acted like a Christian’.”

If we base our marriages on “happy,” then when we’re not feeling happy, we seek to get our mate to make us more happy, to change for us, and to do a better job (damn it).

Honestly, if I’m not happy, that’s usually about a hundred different things, and it isn’t Kim’s job to fix it.  Neither is that a cue for me to stop loving her.  The classic standoff in marriage is when both people are unhappy and pull back from serving and loving because neither feels the other is “meeting my needs.”  But if I’m committed to loving Kim, period, then feeling unhappy–even if Kim isn’t treating me so well, even if her behavior is directly related to my unhappiness–is no reason to stop loving her.  In fact, that becomes the most important time to keep making choices to love her.

#3 Only one person gets to go crazy (or hit the wall) at a time.

This is obviously not a hard and fast rule, because you can’t always comply.  But it really helps.  Give the other person space to lose it once in a while, trusting that you will get your turn.  We learned this after our son, Isaac, died.  Sometimes the biggest, most sacrificial act of love you can muster is to hold it together so that your lover can fall apart.  Generally, somebody has to keep a hand on the wheel because the car’s still rolling.

It’s also a huge comfort and safety to know that, should you hit that state, you have the space to bounce off the walls.  I can’t tell you how many times this principle has helped us through what felt like impossible times.

If it strikes you as funny that this is in my top five thoughts about marriage, I must tell you that I doubt we would have survived all the crises we’ve endured if we hadn’t grasped this one.  In a sense, it’s another way of saying “we must serve each other, even in our worst days”  When the hardest times come, it’s so easy to blame your spouse.  You’re angry, you’re grieving, the person closest is the easiest target and the easiest scapegoat.  The percentage of marriages that end in divorce after the death of a child is terrifyingly high–as if it isn’t life-shattering enough to bury a son or daughter.

But we all have days when it just isn’t working, when we can’t hold it together.  That looks different on some people than others.  Sometimes it’s a lot more than “days.”  Being a team together means taking up the slack for each other on those days…or even longer.

#4 Assume the best.  Give the benefit of the doubt.  Do unto the other as you would want to be done unto.

Living together for a number of years, we discover that there are things that merely annoy us, things that truly irritate us, and things that drive us batshit.  Kim is very sensitive to chewing noises (it’s a condition) so I do my best never to chew aloud in her presence, which space I define as “within a small movie theater.”  I have so many things Kim has adapted to it’s hard to pick just one, but because I am very critical of myself, I do not do well having my attention called to something I already know I screwed up. In the vernacular, Kim doesn’t say “I told you so.”  I cannot remember the last time she did.

Unless you are in a negative cycle of trying to get on each others nerves, you probably believe that your own intentions are generally positive.  Are they?  Only you know.  If you can believe that about yourself–and let’s face it, we all have conflicted motives, all the time–then you can also choose to believe the best of your spouse.  It’s unfair to give yourself grace–“I just raised my voice because it’s been such a bad week,” or worse, “I was just reacting to you”–while seeking strict justice for your partner.  I have heard so many stories of small disagreements that fed on blame and defensiveness and grew until they were threats to the relationship.

Yes, she knows that using that tone gets to you.  Assuming the worst means immediately going on the counterattack.  Giving the benefit of the doubt allows for the possibility that she forgot…or that she’s had a bad week.  And you know how that feels.  If a bad week is a legit reason for me, I need to extend that equally.  In fact, I need to look for other explanations than “You know that bugs me.”  I need to begin my response with empathy.

“Grant that I may not so much seek to be understood as to understand,” Saint Francis included in his prayer,   “Understand me!” is a very different sentiment than, “Help me to understand you.”

I want grace.  I want my moodiness to be allowed for, my forgetfulness not to be regarded as a measure of my love, and my few shining moments to be taken as the standard of my good intentions.

Kim wants grace.  I want to assume the best of her and read her tone, cues, and actions through the lens that she loves me and seeks to love me, however it might feel or appear in the moment.  I guarantee, responding with understanding and empathy instead of jumping straight to accusation and hostility, especially when she hits my raw nerves, will prevent untold fights before they start.

One more thing: as soon as you can, laugh about it.  Laugh about how you screwed up.  Laugh at your own foibles and tease each other about how silly it all is.  Not with a mean spirit, but with the grace that laughter brings.  Kim and I had a miscommunication today and ended up a little frustrated with each other–and tonight we laughed and explained and apologized and added it to our own private language of references.  From now on, it won’t be a sore point but another joke we can remember together.

#5 Remember, and demonstrate, that your spouse is God’s best gift to you.

(If reading that made you sneer or start in on your litany of wounds, you likely need to read the third part of this series, healing a damaged marriage.)

Kim compiled a list on Facebook of “twenty-three reasons she said, ‘Yes.'”  Let’s be honest, she could easily come up with “twenty-three reasons she might have had second thoughts,” or “twenty-three if-she’d-known-then-what-she-knows-now.”  But she didn’t.  And she doesn’t.

There were several on her list that made me smile that one smile and have to swallow hard.  One was:

“I never have to wonder if you think I’m the best thing that ever happened to you.”

That’s a choice.  Kim is the best thing that ever happened to me. But I can choose to see and recognize that, or I can look around and wonder if I could have done better.  I can criticize or manipulate her to try to make her more like my idealized perfect wife, or I can let her know, every day, that God has shown me extravagance beyond belief because she married me.

The issue here is not whether your marital partner lives up to what you hoped for; the issue is whether you have eyes to see what God has given you.

Much like #4, Assuming the Best, this is Seeing the Best.  It means consistently recognizing and affirming your husband or wife’s strengths.  It means not taking the good things for granted.  It means the way your spouse challenges you, even the way your spouse requires more of you than you necessary feel like giving, is helping you to become the truest, most alive you possible.

Jesus teaches that we are to become servants to each other.  Having someone I can care for, who puts up with my imperfect efforts to love and affirms my smallest steps in the right direction makes that possible in my life.  Kim literally is the best thing that has happened to me, both for how she serves me and how I get to serve her, how she gives her life to me and how I get to give my life for her.  Plus, I could write a whole post about how amazing she is–oh, wait.  I did.

You can write your version of that blog post, too.  If it’s not immediately evident to you–and I hope it is–ask God to give you eyes to see your wife or husband.  We choose to love, we choose to give grace and the benefit of the doubt, and oh so much, we choose to appreciate and affirm the strengths and uniqueness of our marital partners.

There’s a lot more to say, of course.  Sex, for example, and raising children. But I think I’ll save those for another post.

I’m praying these might help some of you.  I’m guessing you have your own you could offer, as well.  By all means, please do.

*The exception to this is the threat of danger or abuse (physical or emotional) against you or your children.  If that is happening, you don’t need to win the argument, you need to get to safety.

** Before you write me off as “a man who just doesn’t understand feelings,” you should know that in general I’m more emotional than my wife, I’m an ENFP on the Myers-Briggs (so very intuitive and feeling oriented) and I’m actually really into the feelings of love–Kim will always say that I’m the romantic in our relationship.

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