Things 20 years of Marriage have taught me…

Will Crawford —  June 30, 2011
1) The more you know yourselves the more you can love each other.
2) Know your differences, embrace them and use them for each other’s benefit.
3) Laugh Often…
4) Set priorities and build your life around them…not the other way around.
5) Be who you are and not who you think you are supposed to be.
6) Invite your spouse into your sexuality.
7) Be willing to Apologize, Often!
8. Rely on God.
This past Wednesday was my wife’s and my 20th anniversary. To me it seemed like a really big deal and something that I had been counting down to for the past few years. Much of that perspective may have come from the fact that my own experience with marriage growing up wasn’t that positive. My parent divorced when I was six and frankly that made me more than a little terrified to get married myself. I knew and had lived, first hand, the scars and the pain that divorce causes and I did not want to go through that experience again. I also knew that statistically, the odds were stacked against me. Children from divorced homes are much more likely to have marriages end in divorced than those from non-divorced homes. So this was a landmark for me and a time to reflect on how we made it to this milestone. Let me say right up front our longevity has been by God’s grace, without a doubt! While my wife is near perfect, I am far from it and without God’s grace my wife would have gotten rid of me a long time ago. (See I have learned a thing or two : )
So here are a few other things I think have helped in our marriage and helped us reach this point. I’m going to be pretty honest with you here. Our marriage has been anything but perfect and over the years both of us have, at times, wondered if we would survive. But these are some of the things that I have noticed have made a difference and the kinds of things I share with couples who come to me looking for advice before they get married or couples who come to me with marriages that are struggling.
1)  The more you know yourselves the more you can love each other
Some people know very little about themselves, how they are wired, what their personalities are, or how events in their lives have affected them. Do yourself and your spouse a favor and take the time to ask yourself “Who am I, how am I wired, how has my background impacted me?” if you don’t have the answers to this no else ever will! Understanding yourself is one of the most important spiritual and marital activities you can pursue. Church Father St. Augustine prayed, “Grant, Lord that I may know myself that I may know thee.” John Calvin, one of the Fathers of the reformation, said this, “There is no deep knowing of God without a deep knowing of self and no deep knowing of self without a deep knowing of God.” If growth in our relationship with God is dependent upon knowing ourselves how much more is it necessary for knowing and loving our spouse! I can only truly exhibit understanding and sensitivity to my wife when I understand the areas where the greatest differences in our personalities and experiences exist. One of the greatest gifts you can give your spouse is to have a clear knowledge of who you are. Closely connected to this point is the next…
2)  Know your differences, embrace them and use them for each other’s benefit.
Typically the place where we find differences in a couple we also find some of their greatest strengths. Have you ever noticed that some of the very things that attracted you to your spouse when you were dating, can be the very things that drive you crazy once you are married?! The characteristic of spontaneity that you loved about that person, when you were dating, now years later drives you crazy because they won’t follow the plan. The characteristic of stability, well grounded, and practical seemed so comforting when you were dating but later in marriage feels like a wet blanket to all your great ideas and dreams. (Yes these are personal examples)
Embracing these differences and using them for each other’s benefits can be challenging. Especially since you first have to be humble enough to say you need those very characteristics in your life that sometimes have driven you crazy. How you apply this may be very easy to see in some areas and more difficult to see in others. For example, if one of you is clearly better than the other at handling and organizing your home finances, then let that person lead in that area. It will be for your mutual benefit. Other areas are a little trickier to see and implement. My personality is pretty no-nonsense and more on the analytical side. My wife is far more compassionate, gracious and feeling towards situations. I can’t tell you how many times she has given me advice, from her perspective, in a difficult people situation. I have not always appreciated that advice. I’d rather have her tell me she thinks I am handling things perfectly. But I have to admit, that when I’ve been humble enough to follow her advice, it has helped those situations be resolved in a much more positive way than would have occurred had I done it my way. When you know and embrace your differences you can use them to each other’s benefit.
3)  Laugh Often
I’d have to say some of my favorite memories over the past twenty years have been the times just before falling to sleep at night or just getting up in the morning that my wife and I, reflecting on something that has place in our day, have laughed so hard we could barely catch a breathe. Often it will be about something one of our kids said that day or how they responded to our correction. It might be about a silly and insignificant thing that led up to a big blow up between us. Later, as we reflect on the source of such a large disagreement, we can’t help but laugh at the stupidity with which we sometimes act.
Sometimes we have laughed at a stressful time in our lives. Maybe a time when things were not going right and the future looked quite dim. At those moments something said in ‘black humor’, would just break both of us up laughing and gave us perspective that life would be okay and we will get through this difficult time. I remember one time we were looking for a new place to live while I was in seminary. It had been a whirlwind trip and as we were heading home talking about the house we had put an offer on, I mentioned to my wife how I wasn’t sure we were going to be able to handle the avocado green appliances. My wife laughed and said they were almond color. I was certain she was wrong and because I’m not color blind, I knew that wasn’t the reason for the discrepancy. All the way home, during that 16 hour drive, we tried to prove to the other why we felt we were right about the color. Days later we asked for some pictures to be sent of the house and there it was in full, living color for all to see the almond color appliances! I’m still not sure how I got it so wrong but even to this day we laugh about how adamantly I argued my position, wrongly. Laughter is great medicine in marriage so use it liberally!

4)  Set priorities and build your life around them…not the other way around

Often I meet couples who will come to me after several years of marriage, struggling. Life, as a married couple, has not turned out how they wanted it to be and they are disillusioned by what their lives have now become. Now I realize that unexpected things happen to all of us. Things that are truly out of our control. But more times than not, the issue isn’t circumstances that are out of our control but rather because they have never set priorities for their lives together. ‘Life’ has taken over and now they are doing little more than responding to it. Life has a tendency to happen. It is like a current that can carry us places we don’t want to go.
Priorities, agreed upon together, can be the boat in that current, which allows a couple the ability to move in the direction they feel, is important. Let me give you a personal example. Before we even got married, my wife and I talked about how important we felt it was that one parent stay home and focus their energies around raising the children. For us this was a priority. That means that from the time we started having children we would be forced to live on one salary if we were to keep that priority. I have heard some people say it is impossible to do this today. For some people that is true however for many others having two salaries isn’t out of necessity but out of a desire to have the lifestyle two salaries provides. Often that isn’t a choice or a priority that the couple has made. It is just something that happened and a lifestyle they got use to before having children and they can’t imagine doing life with less. This is a case of life directing the couple instead of allowing their priorities to direct them and then living life accordingly.
Our lifestyle is certainly affected by our priorities. Personally, we have never had new or fancy vehicles and until recent years we only had one. We’ve lived for years with multiple children in single bedrooms. Our kids have never had the best of anything, but they also don’t suffer. We aren’t a family who takes big vacations. And my kids will likely have to work hard for scholarship and money to go to college. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t feel hard done by at all. We are blessed beyond what we deserve. I’m only saying we have tried to live by our priorities and make the choices in life that match those priorities, instead of allow life to dictate how we will live.

5)  Be who you are and not who you think you are supposed to be.

I think all of us come to marriage with a set of preconceived ideas of who it is we should be or what we think our marriages are supposed to look like. Those images come from all sorts of places…it might be the image of our parent’s marriage that we are trying to duplicate, it might be a marriage we have seen on TV (does anyone still try to have a marriage like Ward and June Cleaver?), it might be the image of a famous marriage we see in our society. Whatever the case, you aren’t them so stop trying to be! It is great to have marriage ‘role models’ but the fact is you and your spouse will never be them. Why? Because as a couple, you are uniquely and wonderfully created by God and your marriage will reflect that when it is healthy. Each one of us comes to marriage with a unique personality and wiring. We come with different backgrounds and experiences, be they good or bad. I have often said to couples that one of the challenges in marriage is to find out what each other thinks and believes on important issues and then look at your differences as just that, differences. One’s not better than the other they are just different. Identify those differences, take the best that each has to bring to that area of your marriage and then decide how you as a couple will do things. Take the best you have to bring to the relationship and create a new norm… a new way of doing things, problem solving, and parenting kids etc that is a reflection of the best of both of you. This doesn’t need to be a ‘who wins and who loses’ thing but ‘how do we create the best of us?’ And here is the key – stop comparing yourselves to the ideals in your mind! Personally, I think this is one of the most beautiful things about the marriage relationship; no two is the same, each one is unique and each one is created by the melding of two people creating something new and something special through their union as a couple. Don’t give that up to try to be a cheap copy of someone else!

6.) Invite your spouse into your sexuality.

This goes far beyond having good marital sex which seems to be what most people try to address in this area. Inviting your spouse into your sexuality is more the intimacy of true transparency in the area of how you are wired, tempted and even dysfunctional, sexually. Without a doubt this gets very personal but there is no person who should know the details of who we are sexually more than your spouse. I believe with all my heart, that the greatest protection against marital infidelity is the openness of our ‘inside stuff’ with our spouse. Often that ‘inside stuff’ will touch on, if not be completely entwined with, our sexuality. I am like most men, I grew up with unhealthy thoughts and exposures to sex. That, along with just my maleness, means there is often stuff going on inside of me which makes me vulnerable to going places and doing things that are not honoring to my marital vows or my relationship with God. There are some out there who will say the best way to deal with this type of temptation is to put filters on all your visual portals, to set up accountability partners or to try to just ignore those thoughts and cravings. Those things may be, and are in many cases, helpful but I don’t think they get to the heart of the issue nearly as well as opening up to your wife and letting her know where you are at. She is, without a doubt, the best protection you have against temptation. By letting her into those struggles she knows where you are really at and how you really are doing. This allows her to help both meet your needs but also know your secrets. I have heard it said that the power of addiction is in the keeping of the secret. If I desire to remain true and faithful to my marriage I need to continually be revealing my ‘secret’ or that hidden part of my sexuality to her.
This is true for women as well. We, as men, need to be invited and step into our wives sexuality as. This is not a place most of us men want to go. Primarily because for women sexuality is so closely connected to emotional issues and this is a place most of us men aren’t so strong or comfortable. However, if we step into that area and listen to how our wives feel inside, if we will be sensitive to her insecurities and to what she feels in her sexuality, we can help to protect her as well and help her become more whole in that area of her life. In today’s society, vulnerability in our sexuality with our spouse is a crucial element to a lasting marriage.
7)  Be willing to apologize often
Someone once said, “Marriage is the perfect union of two imperfect people.” I don’t think that could be truer. No matter how hard you try you will hurt, upset and offend your spouse. It’s great when that happens and you realize what a bonehead you’ve been and immediately apologize and make it right. But this becomes a whole lot harder when you feel like you are ‘in the right’ or even justified by what you’ve said or done. The problem with apologies is that they have to be sincere to be of any value. A simple ‘Sorry’ won’t work especially if you are apologizing for an offense you’ve done numerous times! In this case the apology seems trite and disingenuous.
So how do we handle this in marriage? Here are a couple of thoughts… First keep short records of each other’s wrongs. It can be very tempting to hold onto something our spouse has done that hurt you and then to use it later as leverage in a subsequent argument. Or you might even try to use it to protect yourself the next time you do something wrong. “I know but you did this to me…remember?” I have never seen either of these approaches effective for building a strong relationship! Instead do your best to keep short records of each other’s offenses…If you are the offending party – sincerely apologize (include in the apology what you will change so that it most likely won’t happen again)….If you are the offended party express how the offense has made you feel, graciously receive that apology and move on. Many of the issues we as married couples scrap about aren’t that big, so as much as possible, don’t make them bigger than they are.
Second, from time to time, it will likely be necessary to open up the files you have on each other and sort through what’s there. This is a very intense process that will require a significant amount of time and emotional energy. Over time it is just natural for us to pack away certain amounts of issues and hurts that have been inflicted on us by our spouses. Remember ‘marriage is the perfect union of two imperfect people’ and no one knows that imperfection better than the person who is closest to us. Let me add that these file opening sessions are not likely things you can plan for, they just seem to happen (usually after an especially bad disagreement) and you will just need to put your other plans on hold and step into it. I can remember one of these times in our marriage (yes there has been more than one). I don’t remember what lead up to this conversation but I clearly recall my wife and I being in an emotionally gut wrenching conversation on the back deck of our second home. She began to share with me not so much specifics of things I had done wrong, but more how my general, constant offenses had affected her over time. Her honesty broke my heart as I tried to understand how I had hurt her. Very quickly both of us were unpacking our own emotional baggage as we sought to try to understand and love each other in our imperfections. There were a lot of tears that day from both of us and when it was all done there was a deep sense of forgiveness, a fresh commitment and a new start in our marriage. I can’t imagine where our marriage would be if we didn’t have those times where the files are cleaned out and our love and commitment to one another is renewed. Un-forgiveness, bitterness, and resentment are poison to a marriage. You can handle a bit of it but little by little over time it builds to the point where it becomes fatal. Therefore, deal with it often and fully.
8.)  Rely on God
Maybe one of my favorite verses, in the bible, on relationships is a verse that speaks about the makeup of close friendships. That verse is in Ecclesiastes 4:12. It says, “A cord of three stands is not quickly broken”. God has blessed, my wife and I, with four daughters so, even though I don’t know much about how to do hair, there as some basic hairdos I have to know. I can do a pretty good ponytail and I at least know how to braid hair (though I probably wouldn’t send them to school with one of the braids I make). One of the things that amazed me about a braid is that when you look at it, it looks like two stands of hair twisted together. However, in reality, a braid is actually three stands of hair that only looks like two. The third one is essential for holding it all together. I believe the same is true in marriage. Marriages look like they are made up of two people but, those that are built on God, have a third strand that helps to hold them together.
I have tried to summarize here some simple, yet important, keys to a lasting marriage. But, in all honesty, I must end here the same way I started; without the guidance and grace of God, in our lives, none of these other things will likely be enough. In fact the only reason, I believe, we have learned any of these things is because of Him. He has shown these things to us. He has opened our hearts to one another when they have grown cold and calloused with hurt. I have spent so much time during these twenty years asking God to give me wisdom to know, understand, and love my wife. I have asked him to renew my love for her and to see her as the gift He has always desired her to be in my life. I’ve also asked that I would be what she needs me to be as her husband (that prayer doesn’t seem to get answered as much as I would like : ). I believe that those moments when our hearts are turned back towards each other it has been an answer to those prayers.
It is possible for us to choose to try and do marriage all on our own strength. To, in essence, do what feels right and seems right to us. That reminds me of how pilots are told to always trust their gauges, when flying a plane, over how they feel or what their bodies are telling them to do. Apparently, a pilot who flies a plane based what his body and equilibrium tells him to do, stands at great risk of crashing the plane. The gauges don’t lie. If a pilot follows them he will fly the plane safely. We can do the same with our marriage. We can do it our way and simply act and respond out of our hurt and frustrations, or we can choose to seek direction and strength from God. In this way then, we are choosing to love, forgive, and extend grace to one another beyond our own ability to give. Proverbs 3:5-6 says “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make you paths straight.” Sounds to me like some good gauges to follow.