Today, Stacey and I are celebrating 10 years of marriage. A decade! We already celebrated back in June with a trip to Hawaii (summary: I recommend it). This feels like such a big milestone, while at the same time it seems like we’re just getting started. I am so thankful for the wife I have, the relationship we share, and the life we are building. It’s not perfect (no relationship is), but I have learned so much and been loved even more. She extends truckloads of grace and patience, and hopefully, I’ve been able to serve and love her as well. I can’t imagine the last decade without her. And I can’t wait for the next ten, twenty, thirty years.
Shortly before we moved back to Indiana from Oklahoma, someone at work pulled me aside and said this: “I have a few secret mentors – people who don’t know they are teaching me about life, but I watch and learn from them. You and Stacey are some of my secret mentors. I look at you and your marriage, and I’ve learned so much. Thank you for loving each other well, for having joy that shows through even when you don’t realize other people are watching.” That blew me away. It’s probably the greatest encouragement and compliment I’ve ever received. And there’s no way I would have ever thought anyone could learn that much from us just by watching.
If you have the time and interest, here are eleven takeaways I have from our first ten years of marriage. We haven’t perfected marriage (though there is a running joke about how I think we have). There are definitely things I’m forgetting or have left out, but these are few major lessons and reflections I see when I look back over the last 3600+ days together.
(The short version is this: strive to love sacrificially, serve at every opportunity you can, actively listen and engage in meaningful conversation regularly, give more than you think you can and then give some more.)
1. Learn how your spouse thinks, communicates, and makes decisions
Everyone has a unique perspective and process for navigating life. Some of the biggest challenges we had in the first five years of marriage stemmed from our inability to see the world through each other’s eyes. It wasn’t until six or seven years in that we started to really understand each other, largely by way of Myers-Briggs, StrengthsFinders, and EQi. These are just tools, yes, but they have helped us begin to understand how we are wired, how we take in and process information, how we make decisions, what we value in relationships, and what we’re not that great at doing when left on our own. Stacey is a concrete thinker, a planner, action-oriented, and an internal processor. Knowing this helps me communicate in a way she can more easily understand and process. I can anticipate her need to plan ahead and give her time to make decisions. Knowing all of this has and continues to increase the quality of our day-to-day interactions.
2. Learn how you think, communicate, and make decisions
In some ways, it’s actually easier to learn how your spouse thinks, communicates, and makes decisions — because it’s new and external, you can approach it somewhat objectively (though not placing a value judgement on how or why someone else does something can be difficult). When it comes to our own habits and behavior, we are not even remotely objective. We’ve never known any other way of doing things, so unknowingly we assume we are doing things the right and only way to do them.
Get outside of yourself and really understand your wiring. See where you have weaknesses, but also learn how you can leverage your strengths and natural tendencies to engage with the other person and improve your relationship. I’m a strong feeler who goes on intuition more than anything, and I’m often too empathetic to what other people might need or want. Knowing this helps me avoid pitfalls and get out of my own way more often. It helps Stacey anticipate and adjust to my whims and gut feelings.
3. Let people you trust see into and speak into your relationship
We have been so fortunate to have many different couples speak into our marriage. In “marriage mentor group” environments, we have been paired up with older couples who are decades ahead of us. Early on in our marriage especially, Stacey and I were better at talking about our relationship (good, bad, and ugly) in the presence of others. We’ve also been a part of at least one church small group where we were able to be really transparent and honest about our relationship (and others in the group did the same). Several couples who weren’t part of formal groups also became important relationships for us to learn from, observe, and ask questions.
One of the most powerful aspects of letting others see into your relationship is how they can essentially hold up a mirror and help you both see things you aren’t able to. If I’m being defensive and short with Stacey in a disagreement, I’m only going to get more defensive if she points it out. But when a trusted friend said to me, “Hey, you’re cutting her off and just reacting out of frustration,” it may have stung and been a little embarrassing, but I was able to hear it in the heat of the moment and actually listen to what Stacey had to say. I think I can safely say that our relationship would either have grown very little, or maybe even failed, had we not let others speak into our marriage.
4. Think about what your relationship needs more than what you need
This is a newer perspective I’ve been trying to maintain. And I’m going to quote at length from a book, As For Me and My House by Walter Wangerin. His central idea is to think of your relationship as a receiver of your focus and efforts. In part, this neutralizes any temptation to turn your partner into your competition within the relationship itself.
You have realized a common purpose together; that you are both committed to the nurturing, not of oneself and not of one’s partner, but of this third being, the Relationship; and that together you seek the wisest ways to do so— and you do them. Serving this Relationship, neither partner has to feel that change was imposed upon you; rather, each of you offers your various talents and the best of yourselves to the Relationship. This becomes a willing offering, never fearing that your spouse is “getting more than he deserves.” Why? Because both of you benefit in the Relationship’s good health.
5. Give yourselves time to get better at important things you might be bad at
Everyone tells you how important communication is in a relationship. And they are right. But you have to give yourself time to get better at it. Maybe other couples don’t struggle with communication on – but eventually, you’ll run into a brick wall, too.
I think Stacey was probably in despair early on, because of how bad we were at talking with each other. She was used to living with female roommates who would talk through the details of each day. Every day. This was not my experience heading into marriage. So expectations were off from the start (for both of us). I was watching TV and sort of listening to her, or staring at my computer (lovingly referred to as “the conflict box” for the first few years) when she wanted to have a serious conversation. In the first year, there were so many times I didn’t have the capacity to hold a conversation for more than five minutes, before I’d either stonewall or sabotage our talk because I didn’t know how to handle my emotions, her emotions, or solve the problem at hand.
Over time, with lots of failure, lots of advice, and intentional effort, we’ve gotten better at it. Recently, we talked for 2+ hours without any distractions, tears, or slammed doors. Maybe there are some marriages where you do that every single day and have since day one – but that has not been our experience. We had to build the muscles and the habits of active listening, empathic listening, and defusing emotions for the sake of the conversation. Communication is crucial for a healthy relationship – but have realistic expectations early on and give yourself time to build the muscles and (good) habits.
6. Know that a neglected love language is worse for the person who isn’t getting their “bucket filled”
Stacey’s primary love language is quality time. Which, for the record, doesn’t necessarily mean sitting on the couch watching a movie. So when she doesn’t get enough quality time (when her “bucket” isn’t getting filled up), it feels worse for her than it would for me – because that’s not my primary love language. Think of it this way: for someone who doesn’t have quality time as a love language, not getting enough quality time might feel like skipping breakfast. Yeah, it’s probably not wise, but you put your head down and get by until lunch. For someone who does have quality time as a love language, not getting enough quality time feels more like skipping out on all three meals in a day. Bottom line: it may not seem like a big deal if you’re not filling up their bucket, but that’s probably because it’s not your love language. This is where selflessness has to be the driver, otherwise it simply won’t make logical sense to you.
7. Disengagement is probably the biggest threat; it creeps up and is hard to detect
I love this quote from Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly:
“Disengagement triggers shame and our greatest fears—the fears of being abandoned, unworthy, and unlovable. What can make this covert betrayal so much more dangerous than something like a lie or an affair is that we can’t point to the source of our pain—there’s no event, no obvious evidence of brokenness. It can feel crazy-making.”
When we were in Oklahoma, our whole family drove to work together – Stacey and I were both working at LifeChurch and the boys had on-site daycare (it was great!). At the end of the day, I usually wouldn’t talk much, share anything about my day, and I had a fairly short fuse. Stacey often worried that I was upset with her or didn’t want to be around the family – but really, I needed time to transition out of work mode and into family mode. It wasn’t a switch I knew how to flip easily. Over time, she began to resent our drives home because it made her feel disconnected and unloved. It was a dull feeling that something was wrong, but she couldn’t point to a particular event, day, or statement that made her feel that way. It built up over time, and I was simply disengaged.
I had to learn how to communicate that I cared, I wanted to be present, to find even little ways to share my day – which in turn communicated that I did want her to be a part of my day-to-day life. I needed a little bit of down time, but without being selfish so that she wouldn’t be left to interpret vague circumstances as potentially threatening disengagement in our relationship. Another quote that describes this perfectly:
“…unless they learn to play a duet in the same key, to the same rhythm unless their lives finally achieve mutuality – a slow process of disengagement will wedge them apart, first secretly, psychologically, and then openly and miserably.” Wangerin, As for Me and My House
8. Recognize that selfishness drives a lot (all?) of your frustration
Especially as we’ve grown our family, I’ve seen that I get most frustrated (even angry) when I’m not getting what I want. Sounds like a three-year-old, right? How about thirty-three. So many times I don’t even realize I have expectations – what I want my night to look like, what the family will have to eat on a road trip, what time we’ll leave for dinner with friends. Because, again, we’re not used to thinking about the way we think, process, and make decisions. Marriage brings this to the forefront, even more so when you have kids. The more I able to do these two things, the less frustration I experience. First, try to make your expectations conscious at the very least, and verbalized whenever possible. It’s the unmet expectations we don’t recognize (realistic or not) that can do the most damage. Second, measure how much value you’d realistically put on whatever it is you are getting frustrated about. I’m misquoting somewhere here, but ask yourself, “Will this matter in 5 minutes, 5 days, 5 years?” That can help you get perspective on the importance or value of the situation or decision.
9. Recognize and celebrate the things you do well and enjoy sharing
There are things that you do well as a couple that others don’t. Things you do with little effort. You almost certainly have at least one common interest (and despite what a counselor one told us, going to bed at the same time does not count). This isn’t about comparing yourselves to other couples, but about thankfulness for the things that you do well or enjoy together as a couple.
Maybe you’re great at communicating. Or maybe you have a healthy sex life. Or you are able to stay out of debt and are financially generous. Those three areas are often provide the biggest issues in a marriage. So if you’re knocking it out of the park in any of them, celebrate! If not one of these three, find other things unique to your relationship that are good, steady, healthy. What’s something we do well? For starters, we’ll never get tired of playing “name that tune” to ’90s songs in the living room after the kids are in bed. (I also use to be able to pull out a killer [read: terrible] Bill Cosby impression that would induce laughter no matter the situation – but that’s no longer an option, is it?)
10. Put boundaries and routines in place to protect and cultivate the relationship you want
The pace and chaos of our lives today can distract and deflate our relationships gradually and without notice. So know where you weaknesses are, know where you are susceptible. (Faking strength is pointless, by the way.)
- Maybe it’s getting sucked into your smartphone for hours: set some ground rules for limiting screen time in the evening. Put your phones in a drawer in the bedroom and commit to a few unbroken hours without them each day.
- Maybe it’s spending too much money: set a budget (my friend Alex does a great review of two online budgeting tools) and review it together on a regular basis. Use Google Wallet or a Simple card as a digital “envelope” for discretionary spending. Do whatever is going to help you do today what you want to benefit from in a year.
- Maybe it’s neglecting family for the sake of work: let your boss/co-workers know when you will be offline each night for family time. And then don’t let anything distract from that priority. To paraphrase Andy Stanley, someone is going to replace you in your job someday. You’re the only dad to your kids there will ever be. Let that help you set your priorities.
- Maybe it’s sexual or emotional temptations: be a transparent and gracious partner for starters, then decide who you will or won’t have lunch with (if you’re tempted to be emotionally intimate with someone you shouldn’t be). Setup up X3 Watch. Find an accountability partner or couple that won’t judge you for whatever it is you are struggling with, but will help you find healing as you strive to maintain integrity and purity.
- More than anything else, seek God together. Not sure what that looks like? Check out “From This Day Forward” from LifeChurch.tv. An amazing, practical, honest look at five commitments to fail-proof your marriage. We have a magnet from this series on our fridge still. We still don’t pray with each other regularly, but it’s something we both want to do together.
11. Give thanks to God for everything you have
All things considered, we’ve had a great first ten years of marriage. We have a growing, active relationship based on our love for God, a mutual extension of grace and patience, and people in our lives that want to see our relationship thrive. We have three amazing kids. We’ve moved 5 times, owned three houses, lived in two states, and even had a dog for a few years. The only debt we have is our house and one car. There is no way I could have guessed this is what our first ten years would be like – and early on, I wasn’t sure I had what it takes to make for a healthy marriage. So we celebrate. Even in the darkest, stormiest moments, thankfulness can be the anchor that steadies the ship.
Marriage is also holy. In part, it’s purpose is to purify us and help us both become more like Jesus. So I take the hard, the bad, and the ugly right along with the great, the easy, and the beautiful. It requires sacrifice, humility, failure, and brokenness. Ultimately, I know God is doing a work in and through our marriage, to make us more like Jesus.
Bonus Footnote: I’m not a fan of the fatalistic marriage advice most men dish around to each other. “Just learn how to say, ‘I’m sorry, I was wrong, you were right.'” Do we need to apologize? Yes. Are we wrong, often? Probably. But that “advice” and picture of marriage comes across as defeated, passive, disengaged, and helpless. How about advice like this: strive to love sacrificially, serve at every opportunity you can, actively listen and engage in meaningful conversation regularly, give more than you think you can and then give some more. When we move beyond the simple stereotypes and broad strokes most people jokingly paint their relationship with, we can learn how to engage with the real person that makes up the other half of our relationship and build a deep, meaningful, holy, and God-glorifying marriage that points to the grace and faithfulness of God himself.