Kim and I just celebrated our anniversary! Naturally, it got me thinking about marriage, what I’ve learned through this journey, and what might be worth sharing. I thought it would be one post, but by the time I got to the end and Kim chipped in, it had become a three-part series.
I don’t have anything new or earth-shattering to say about marriage. But I will say that all my thoughts are tested, at least by us. This is a very different discussion for single folks considering marriage (tomorrow or someday) versus married people looking at their relationship. So Part 1 is a few thoughts on deciding whom you would choose to marry–assuming they’ll have you–Part 2 is what we’ve learned to be the most important things in making our marriage work, and Part 3 will be some suggestions when you’re marriage has hit the rocks.
I’ve been married twenty-three years last Saturday. We’ve been in this relationship for twenty-eight years. I’m not the foremost authority on marriage, but we’re pretty good at it, by which I mean we like each other a lot, we love each other, we get along, and we still enjoy each other’s company. We’ve survived the death of a son, a miscarriage, raising a daughter with severe health issues, about fourteen moves, living in one of the biggest cities in the U.S.*, living at 9,600 feet, living with in-laws, living with three kids in a small apartment, and living in the country with a compost toilet and off-the-grid power…and for the past five years we’ve lived in a developing nation, the last two in a poor barrio. We’re raising four kids, one of whom has started college. (Sounds exhausting when I list it!)
So those are our credentials, as you’d put them on a resume. But the real work, our actual accomplishment, is simply working through everything that has come our way, together.
If you’re not married, this is the time to hear Kim’s advice: “A good marriage is the best, but not being married is better than a bad marriage with the wrong person.” Believe her, we’ve seen both.
- Marry up.
I don’t mean wealth or family connections. Find someone amazing who, to quote an old movie, “makes you want to be a better man” or woman. Don’t marry someone who is less than your equal. Don’t marry someone because they make you feel superior. Don’t marry someone because they look up to you, admire you, flatter you, or even want you.
When a person makes you feel good about yourself it can seem a lot like being in love, especially if you’ve struggled with self-esteem. I have a close friend who did this. It was an ego boost, he felt like the hero…but that got old. She was far less mature than he was, and she became more and more clingy and desperate as that become apparent, which devolved into irrational jealousy. They divorced. He is now married to a strong, smart, confident woman–in other words, someone his equal…or so.
A crucial consideration here: People who are depressed, whether caused by external events and the inevitable grief cycle or internal struggles (I know how that feels) function at a lower level. That’s what depression does. This is a bad time to choose a mate, because while functioning at a lower level, someone may appear an equal or even a person who can stretch you–“Whoa, they get out of bed in the morning!”–but when you return to your true normal, you realize that the person is not able to challenge you or even keep up. One of the worst collapses of a marriage we’ve experienced happened due to this (how I learned the lesson, obviously). In this case, you’ve GOT to listen to the people in your life you trust to help you discern. Also, not making major life decisions when in acute depression is sound strategy. Please trust me on that.
In my life, marrying up has meant that I’ve married a highly competent woman who supports me but refuses to be my groupie, who loves me but won’t coddle me, and who is, ahem, more mature than I am. Please don’t tell her I said that. Kim is also passionate about her relationship with God, which challenges me never to become complacent.
Marry someone who is going to stretch you, every day, to become the most incredible version of you imaginable. “The glory of God is a human being fully alive,” St. Iranaeus wrote. Marry the man or woman who can challenge you to be that. Marry the woman or man who believes in you and can see that for you.
Marry the person for whom you won’t settle for anything less.
2. Marry someone with whom you laugh. Marry someone whose company you enjoy, because if you have a long, healthy marriage–the kind you’re hoping for–you’re going to experience a lot of that company. When you see people in their fifties who are still married but can’t stand each other, you get how crucial this one is. When you hear in counseling, “I can’t stand the sight of him/her,” you take seriously that this is non-negotiable.
You must distinguish enjoying someone’s company from someone you want to have sex with, or enjoy having sex with. That’s a great part of marriage, but not a substitute for straight-up compatibility. We need to be compatible with our spouses on a number of levels. Kim and I have concluded this–laughing together, wanting to hang out, preferring their company to pretty much anyone else’s–is the most crucial for keeping a a loving marriage.
I believe enjoying being with each other is more important than having interests in common. Interests change. People get older, find new interests, find people with whom they have more in common. Do you like the person you’re marrying? Is this the person whose dishes you want to wash for the rest of your life? Our marriage has survived and grown stronger through that daunting list above because we have laughed the whole way, when things are happy and fun, and, even more crucially, when they really aren’t.
3. Marry someone who knows how to forgive–and learn yourself!
My saddest experience of premarital counseling was with a couple who said, “We can’t imagine getting into a fight!” I should have said right then, “I can’t do your wedding.” I tried hard to help them grasp reality, I met with them nine times, but they got married still ga-ga in love…and divorced within five years. Brutally. I’m still sad about that and think about how I failed and how I might have done better by them. Here’s what I’m saying: if you haven’t experienced–and worked through–conflict together, and I mean real conflict, you aren’t ready to get married.
“So, Mike, we’re supposed to manufacture a fight so we can prove we’re ready?”
Well, if you are yet to have a serious disagreement, I have to ask if you are still twitterpated. Falling in love rocks. I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. But, by itself, it’s no basis for getting married because it doesn’t prove compatibility. Personally, I think it’s God’s trick to get us started serving the other person, so that we can develop that life habit. “Of course, I would love to clean up that cat vomit for you!” we say when we’re starry-eyed and hovering six inches off the ground.
No, don’t create a conflict. But do learn about your own style of conflict resolution, especially what might be unhealthy–Avoidance? Silence? Shouting? Pouting? Punishing?–and the style of your partner. What patterns have you both seen from your families?
If you can’t forgive, you shouldn’t get married. I couldn’t mean that more. If you marry someone who doesn’t forgive, you are committing to a life of misery. Yes, I feel strongly about this one. Therefore, don’t assume, “We get along really well now and of course we’ll be able to forgive each other.” If you haven’t truly worked through some major disagreement(s), you don’t know yet if you get along. Almost anyone can get along when things go smoothly, especially when you throw in mutual attraction.
So yeah, maybe pick a fight just to find out. 😉 Or better yet, plan a wedding together. That did it for us!
4. Marry someone who shares your beliefs.
This can sound very arrogant when expressed as, “You aren’t good enough to marry me.”
Christians talk a lot about not marrying non-Christians. But being a Christian is not about being superior (please forgive us for conveying that) it’s about coming to believe in God’s desire to give grace and my need for it.
Here’s the thing, though: If one of you believes God speaks and that life decisions should be based on hearing that voice while the other believes Santa Claus, God and the leprechaun from the Lucky Charms commercials are all roughly the same level of real, you’re signing up for some problems. I’ve seen it work when people have significantly different beliefs. But I’ve seen it not work a lot.
That’s anecdotal evidence, I know. But Kim and I were talking today–while celebrating this anniversary of ours floating in a lake in the crater of a volcano, as a matter of fact–about how people have very different ideas of how they want the world to be. I’m not one who believes we make our own reality. But we all kind of try to force the world to be what we expect of it, one way or another.
For example, a world in which grace is the bottom line means that we love because God loves us, we forgive because God forgives us, we believe other people can change because we know we have been changed. Transformed. Redeemed. Pulled out of the quicksand pit into which we’d thrown ourselves.
So that’s the common ground of believing in God’s grace. If you believe grace is amazing because it saved a wretch exactly like you, then that’s the world you seek to bring about. Your marriage will be part of pursuing that world. You love your partner not simply because it makes you happy, or even because he or she is lovable, but because you believe God is love. God’s love for you becomes your love for your husband or wife. That’s the only way I can keep my vows. It’s really ALL grace.
I’m not a legalist–okay, I try very hard not to be a legalist and I want you to tell me when I am–so I don’t think a couple’s beliefs as Christians must match up perfectly in every detail, and likewise two people of of any other belief system (and we all have belief systems, including atheists and agnostics). But the core understanding of how the world works and our place in it? Having that compatible helps so much when we commit to journeying together til death do us part.
I can say with certainty, Kim and I would not still be married if we didn’t both believe in extending and receiving grace. I’ll look at that more in Part 2.
Of course, there are so many other considerations. My experience of premarital counseling is that I may share a ton of solid, life-tested wisdom, but until you’re in the situation yourself, most of it doesn’t make sense yet. I have had the same people say, “Why are you making such a big deal of this” before their wedding and “I wish you’d talked about that more” six months in. We’re all like that. We need the framework on which we can hang it.
I hope this helps, or gives you something to discuss, or provides grounds for the intervention you’ll have with your friend. If you have thoughts or responses, let me hear ’em!
*We lived in Greater Los Angeles, never in L.A. proper, but coming from a small, rural town, it always felt like one big sprawl of a city.