Three Lessons from 29 Years of Marriage

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Kim and I have been together 34 years now and married for 29. Writing about my experience with relationships always feels a little like an heir to a fortune telling you how to get rich. “Uhhh…you’re sure you should be taking credit for that?” Getting advice on how to get yourself born into a wealthy family or suggestions from me on how to meet, fall in love with, and marry someone like Kim would be equally useful, especially considering I fell in love at first sight. On the other hand, do you really want advice from Kim on how to find someone difficult?

I can, however, tell you what I’ve learned. Many years ago, when I was tutoring kids on how to take the SAT, the guy who owned the business explained, “You can’t give them your ability; you don’t get to take the test for them. You’re only helping when you offer them what they can take in with them.”

The first lesson is very simple. Kim and I observed long ago that long-term relationships need to work only for the people in them. We’ve seen happy couples whose mode of interacting makes us shudder. We could see clearly they loved each other, yet we’d never speak to each other–even in a fight–the way they talk casually. But their marriage doesn’t have to work for us, and telling them they’re doing it wrong because they don’t do them like we do us is simply bad advice.

Therefore, do not look at other couples, even happy ones, and concern yourselves that your relationship doens’t look like theirs. Your relationship has to work for you and no one else. This also extends to resisting any temptation to envy others or deciding your relationship needs fixing based on theirs looking better. You have no idea what goes on within their relationship–consider what percentage you can actually see. By now, I’ve seen too many relationships end that I would have sworn were sound and happy. Some turned out to be abusive.

By all means, if you can extrapolate principles that you will believe will help strengthen your relationship, go for it. But every relationship, certainly every marriage, is its own unique balance. We just have to make ours work for us. That’s enough challenge.

Change happens. You can embrace it or fight it. This sounds simple, the kind of thing about which, as teens, we would have said, “Duh.” But I don’t think choosing to embrace change is easy. In fact, dealing with change may prove the hardest thing you’ll face. It has been for us.

For one thing, most people initially resist change. Don’t believe me? Talk to any pastor who has ever tried to make any change in any church.

I think rolling with change can be even trickier when we like our lives. We sometimes forget that our commitment is not to maintaining or preserving this life but to loving our partner. They aren’t the same thing; sometimes they become opposites. Often, relationships end because one person wants to grow and the other person takes a stand on “But I like us the way we are.” Of course, it rarely looks so clearcut from the inside.

In my little pastoral mind I’m seeing people nodding like this is obvious. Okay, how can I say this gently? When I’ve done pastoral counseling, I describe issues that I can one hundred percent guarantee the couple will face and struggle with, and sometimes they both nod as if of course they know exactly what I’m talking about…then three years later I get a call out of the blue: “Holy shirt, this is horrible! Is this what you meant?”

Change is that Kim has decided she loves paddleboarding and cross-country skiing and (indoor) rock climbing, now that we don’t have small children who require all her time and energy. I can say, “Hey, wait, I’m the sporty one, you haven’t been active like this before!” Or, when she suggests “Let’s buy you one!” I can learn to paddleboard…and be grateful I’m included in the change.

I went with the latter.

Again, “duh,” right? That’s minor change. Like a level 1 challenge.

We have a son, Rowan, who is transgender. We love him like the sun, the moon, and the stars–and the mountains, because Kim and I especially love mountains (and not as much the ocean, at least not the being-in-it part). Neither Kim nor I anticipated that we would have a transgender child. But we do. That’s what I mean by “change.”

Now if you’re reading this and thinking, “Oh, that kind of change can’t/won’t happen to me,” I’d say here are the choices, A)Stop reading now and find someone who will confirm how you believe life will go for you, B)pray for us and then, maybe, for yourself, C)Wake up and smell the coffee,* as we also loved to say, way back when we also thought we knew exactly what the Map of Life looked like and how we’d traverse it.

In all seriousness and setting aside my sarcasm for a moment, when you commit to a long-term relationship, you commit to the other person, not to a certain life. Kim immediately became an affirming, outspoken advocate for the LGBTQIA community. At least, it looked immediate to me because I was still catching up. I can be a little slow. Her change required that either I change or we would have a hell of a lot of friction and conflict.

I’m talking about change at the beliefs level. But this is just an example. I’m really talking about changes bigger than you anticipated when you said your version of “I do.”

I will tell you that we came through this change together. We talked a lot. We let our heads spin with each other. Rowan came out to us and we could see pretty quickly that we weren’t going to fit in the evangelical community so well anymore (and then 2016 happened, with all its consequences, and that seemed increasingly moot, anyway). We concluded, as I hope anyone in a comparable situation will conclude, that God gave us Rowan–praise God!–we love our kid unconditionally, and we’re all on this wild ride together.

I mean this in the nicest way possible, but I don’t care if people disagree with us on our “position” regarding our child. For those who disagree, I’d love for them, if they can, to stop and consider that when one has a child one doesn’t have a “position,” one has a relationship. But to be clear, I’m sharing this as an example of a big change we’ve navigated together, even bigger than learning to paddleboard…though I did almost drown my first time out; we’ll save that story for another time. If this example makes you uncomfortable, well, see, that’s what deep change does. Change usually comes with cost. Sometimes, we can’t anticipate or even imagine what that cost will be.

Children die. We lose best friends, or best friends drop us, and we develop new ones…or don’t. People get hit by drunk drivers and lose the use of their legs. We change careers. Our parents get cancer or develop alzheimers. Our faith in God, even our understanding of God, moves in different directions. Big, overwhelming, sometimes earth-shattering changes happen to us and those change us. I don’t believe we can foresee or prepare for a lot of these changes. They are the tectonic plates of life shifting under our feet.

But we can learn to hold hands during the earthquakes. We can accept and embrace change in our partner and become aware of how we’re tempted to hunker down and resist change in them or in our lives together–or in ourselves, which will be another blog post. We learn and remind ourselves, when the earth starts shaking, that we’ve been through this before and it doesn’t mean the world is going to end…even though it may feel like it will. And we’ll have a lot of broken glass to sweep up afterward.

One final note on this: it’s terribly easy to want to blame someone when life goes topsy-turvy. The person who is right next to us more often than anyone else is a terribly convenient choice for that scapegoat, especially if we’ve allowed ourselves to compile a list of grievances already. Some changes are hard but turn out great, while others just suck, beginning to end. But we don’t avoid change by taking out our anger (and really, our fear) on someone we love. Often we don’t recognize that’s what we’re doing–or we convince ourselves we’re justified in doing so. A tip-off for me is that when I’m veering this way, I pray less, because deep down I know Jesus will dispel my justification. We need self-awareness and self-honesty to resist falling into blame.

I know, this isn’t buy-your-lover-more-chocolates, put-gas-in-their-car advice. I probably gave that when I’d been married ten years; it’s still good advice, especialy if you both like chocolate, not just you. I don’t enjoy avocados and I buy them for Kim frequently. The small things definitely count, and in fact I’d say they count double when life gets harder, even if you don’t hear a “thank you” every time. Or any time.

That leads us to point three. Kim and I have been through some bad times together and we’ve been unhappy with each other for some long stretches.** This gets old. It can wear you down. I can see–I could see–how from this point one starts feeling justified in treating the other person less kindly, speaking with less consideration, invoking the Not-So-Golden Rule: Do to others as you feel they are doing to you. “Well, if you’re going to be like that…”

Scorekeeping in marriage is bad. Really, don’t. Once two people both commit to that course of action and the Not-Golden standard, things can deteriorate rapidly. Healing likely will require some combination of reconciliation, prayer, forgiveness, and counseling. It’s not hopeless, but it’s definitely serious.

BUT having said that, it’s stinking hard not to go down that road. I’m not judging people who decide they’ve had enough.*** I’m simply sharing what I’ve learned about choosing to stay together.

Again, I’ll let Kim share in another post what she’s learned, but through our rough times I got much better at letting go of slights and offenses, and at bearing down to serve Kim in ways that make her feel loved. Sometimes with my teeth gritted. The most crucial thing is that I had to love her in practical ways–i.e. ways she feels loved–because I love her, not to get her to be nicer or treat me better or anything else. Otherwise, it simply becomes a more complex form of scorekeeping.

I’m not suggesting this will heal everything. I’m saying I learned that, for us, this is the make-or-break of weathering the stretches when you start to ask yourself, “Do I even want this if all I’m looking forward to is more of the same?” It’s one thing to choose not to keep score and hold grudges–and that’s good!–but it’s another to keep acting lovingly toward the other person when you feel like holding grudges.

Truthfully, this is the advice I can give closing in on 30 years that I would not have understood before, much less been able to offer. Being both romantic and optimistic, I might have rolled my eyes at some of this, because I “knew” that would never be us. Life and marriage have this in common: they’re both humbling. If they aren’t, you might be doing something wrong.

I don’t know if these will strike you as remedial or advanced lessons. They’re what we’ve learned through some of the most challenging times in our lives, so they don’t feel basic to us. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you they’ve been do-or-die for us. I’ll let you know what I’ve got after the next twenty-nine years.

*I know some of you are thinking, “That doesn’t sound like such a huge change.” Just know I love you, you give me hope, and I’m catching up.

**You’ll hear “don’t let the sun go down on your anger” (Ephesians 4:26) as a solution for all conflict. YES, definitely do all you can to forgive, especially if you are holding grudges. But this verse can be used as an oversimplification, as if you can settle massive differences simply by deciding not to be petty. Sometimes the difference runs deeper than simple anger.

***I always want to be painstakingly clear: if you are being abused in your relationship, I am not telling you to endure it or be nicer in hope that the other person will change. I implore you to take whatever step you can to get yourself and any children to safety. Contact me if I can help in any way.

3 thoughts on “Three Lessons from 29 Years of Marriage

  1. Sherry

    Hi, I liked your writing a lot and think bob n I have been married about 28 years! I often agree with you but don’t often tell you. I am still agreeing with you for the most part. And I like the way you use words!

    • Thanks, Sherry!
      ~We don’t need to agree on everything to be friends. I really appreciate that you read my words. When you comment, that’s a bonus.
      And congrats on 28 years!
      God bless, Sherry!

  2. Steve Murdock

    Cannot agree with you more! All very good observations (from good, long and solid experience) and great advice for newlyweds and “older” weds. As I was reading, heading into your third point, I kept hearing the words, “Just love her.” Words I repeat to myself in those challenging times, those periods of disconnect or disagreement and when I’m simply at a loss of “what should I do?” “Just love her” in a way she knows you love her. You nailed it when I got to that third point – bingo. Great stuff, Mike!

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