Twenty Lessons Learned in Twenty Years of Marriage
One of my favorite parts of being married to a pastor is the opportunity to do pre-marital counseling for young couples preparing to spend the rest of their lives together. I love it, because it gives my husband and I the chance to share how God has been faithful in our marriage and it forces us to evaluate our own relationship and look for any areas that we might need to work on.
Today we are celebrating twenty years of marriage and while it seems like these years have passed in a flash, I am aware that this is a significant accomplishment in a society that is rampant with divorce and broken relationships.
What makes a marriage last? And an even better question—what makes a marriage great? Here are some lessons my husband and I have learned along the way that has allowed us to fall more in love with each other through the years.
1. Marry your best friend. Before Dave and I started dating, we spent hours talking and getting to know each other. By the time he told me he liked me and wanted to pursue a relationship, we already knew all that we needed to know about each other to have a relationship that would last. We knew that we genuinely enjoyed being together. Our conversations were stimulating, so we anticipated the next time we could talk together. We weren’t trying to impress each other, because we understood that we needed to be real with one another if we wanted a relationship that would last. He had become my favorite person, so when I walked down the aisle, I knew I wanted to be by his side for the rest of our lives.
2. Hold expectations loosely. Unfair or unmet expectations in a relationship can be the biggest source of angst and frustration. If you expect your husband to bring you flowers, but that is not his thing, you will be frequently disappointed. But when you let go of expecting your husband to be _________________ (fill in the blank), you are able to see how he does show love and you learn to appreciate those gestures even more than the flowers or gifts.
This has been a big one for me and honestly still one that I struggle with on occasion. But I have learned to communicate clearly if something is important to me (he can’t see my thoughts after all!) and I have also learned to be grateful for the myriad of ways he shows love to me and to our family.
3. Get used to disappointment. Coupled with holding expectations loosely is understanding that life is full of disappointments. Life is not ours to control which means it will probably rain when you want sunshine and someone will get sick at the most inconvenient time. If you expect life to work perfectly, than you will constantly be flirting with discontent and dissatisfaction. Both of these feelings can lead to broken relationships if they are not dealt with.
When you are willing to go with the flow when disappointment creeps in, you will find beauty and joy even in the worst situations and as a result, you will be drawn closer together in your relationship rather than being torn apart.
4. Have separate interests. Couples often make the mistake of thinking that in order to have a great relationship, they need to enjoy everything that their spouse enjoys. The opposite is true. It’s in pursuing personal interests that shared interests are even more enjoyable. We are all unique individuals. God has designed us that way for a purpose. When we are living out our own purposes, we are able to appreciate and celebrate our spouses interests as well.
5. Celebrate your spouse’s interests. There are many interests that my husband has that I do not understand. He enjoys computer coding and has learned different computer languages. He gets excited when he can rewire a circuit (okay, I concede. I cannot even speak intelligently about the things he is passionate about!). But what I love is that he gets excited about these things and while I don’t understand most of what he shares about these particular passions, I am always drawn to the passion in his voice and the excitement in his eyes and as a result, I want to encourage those passions! He loves that I encourage him to pursue his interests AND he loves that I have interests of my own (even though he doesn’t always understand my interests either!), because we are both growing in knowledge and in passion. We are not waiting for the other person to fulfill the need we all have for purposeful living.
6. Marriage is not dependent, but interdependent. This is a big one. Contrary to a popular opinion, love is not meant to complete you. When Dave and I got married, I had learned already that I needed to hold him with open hands. He has a lung condition that while it is not life threatening, it has taught us that life is but a breath and it is not ours to control. So while we are dependent on each other to a point, it is not the dependence of our identity, our security or our wholeness. Those things can only be found in Christ. What we have found is that when we allow Christ to be our refuge and strength, we are able to depend on one another in a healthy way.
7. Allow difficulties to bring you closer together. Dave and I have faced several hard and even devastating life events through the years, but each one has pulled us closer together. I believe the reason for this is that we have never judged one another for the way we have dealt with grief or loss, but we have also been able to challenge each other to walk through difficulty and not become a victim of grief.
8. Dream together. While both partners are unique individuals, it is crucial to have shared purposes and dreams. We call our list “Dayedreams” and on that list are separate and joint dreams we have for our lives. It’s part of being best friends. Having places that you want to visit together or experiences that you want to share keeps a relationship exciting.
9. When life hands you lemons, make lemonade. This is the antidote to disappointment or hardship. Make the most of every situation. When we found out I lost our first baby, our almost immediate response was to plan a trip to Hawaii. Early on in my pregnancy friends had invited us to join them while they vacationed on the Big Island, but we had to say no because I would have been seven months pregnant. That remains one of the best decisions we have ever made and I am so grateful for a husband who is willing to “make lemonade” with me.
10. Fight well. The more different you are as individuals, the more you will have potential for arguments. Rather than trying hard not to fight, it’s important to figure out how to disagree with the purpose of resolution. If you allow disagreements to simmer in an attempt to keep the peace, you will eventually blow. It’s better to express frustrations and work through them together.
The difficulty and challenge here is that this requires humility and submission. It requires an ability to admit wrong. And it requires a commitment on both sides to fight for unity and love in the relationship. This is tough, because you can’t make the other person demonstrate all of these qualities—you can’t even demonstrate them yourself without God working through you! But this should be the goal of every married couple, to fight well by pursuing unity and love.
11. Love God with all of your heart. If I were sharing lessons learned by order of importance, this one would be number one. Love for one another can only be as strong and deep as our love for God. The more we love Him, the better we are able to love others. So in order to love my husband well, I must pursue knowledge of God and to allow Him to transform me.
One of the greatest gifts my husband gives me is unconditional love. He knows my faults, my failures, and my sins more intimately than anyone else (except maybe my children who are privy to my failings on a daily basis!), yet he loves me. It’s pretty incredible really. But I am able to recognize the significance of that love because I have learned of the unfailing love that Christ has for me that while I was still a sinner, Christ died for me. (Romans 5:8) And I desire to love Dave with that same love. Unconditional. Unfailing. Always and forever.
12. When you are both pursuing Christ, you will be drawn closer together. It’s inevitable and it is sweet. Marry someone who wants to know Jesus. It is the best gift to give to one another. I have been dwelling on this verse all year, since “light” is my one word for the year- “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” 1 John 1:7 (ESV) I can speak for the veracity of this verse, because I have seen the evidence of this in my marriage. As Dave and I have both pursued a relationship with Christ separately, we have been drawn into deeper fellowship with one another. We have also learned that we don’t have to be afraid of confessing our sins to each other. When there is the assurance of forgiveness and change on the other side of that confession, there is no fear.
13. Have fun together. Life is tough and it is good to take it seriously and to live with mutual intention. But because it is tough, it is equally important to be deliberate about having fun together. For us, this looks like picking TV shows that we watch together. Or cooking a meal together. Or playing Dutch Blitz with friends. Or going out for coffee. Or discussing a great book. Find the ways that you have fun together and make them a priority.
14. Don’t compare your relationship with any other couple. This is a danger zone for so many of us and it has the potential to ruin relationships. Every single couple has challenges that they face, but often you only see the great parts of relationships. Don’t compare your reality with someone else’s highlight reel. Every marriage will look different because it is made up of unique individuals. It’s not supposed to look like anyone else! The grass is NOT greener on the other side.
15. Understand that marriages go through seasons. Job changes, new babies, issues with kids, elderly parents and loss of loved ones can have huge effects on a marriage. Knowing that these things might cause distance in your relationship is important, because then you can figure out ways to reconnect without becoming bitter against the other person. Maybe they didn’t respond the way you expected them to or they weren’t there for you in the way you needed them to be. Don’t make the mistake of holding this against them. Instead, allow it to drive you to deeper discussions on what you need from one another.
16. You’re marrying a sinner. Dave will often say this at weddings he officiates and people laugh, but it’s such an important lesson to understand! You are not marrying a perfect person (neither are they!). You are both going to mess up, but when you know this, you can offer forgiveness and grace. You shouldn’t be surprised when the other person messes up, but by being a safe place where your spouse can confess sin, you can be part of the redemption process that God is working in each one of us. And rather than that sin driving a wedge between you, it can draw you closer together.
17. Figure out how your spouse gives and receives love. If you haven’t read “The Five Love Languages” by Gary Chapman, I would highly recommend it. If you don’t know how your spouse receives love, you might think that you are doing everything possible to show love and then be frustrated that they’re not getting it. And all the while, you’re missing the thing that actually makes them feel loved. When we were first married, I thought that gifts were my primary love language, but over time, I have realized that I long for quality time and words of affirmation. Gifts are special and appreciated, but are not as important to me (I think part of that goes back to the “holding expectations loosely” lesson!). For Dave, he appreciates acts of service. Knowing this can save you lots of frustration. If you desire to love well and to be loved well, you need to understand the best way to do this for your spouse.
18. Sometimes you need to let the sun go down on your wrath. Ephesians 4:26 commands us not to let the sun go down on our anger and I do not want to disagree with scripture, so stick with me. When you are angry with someone, you are not supposed to sin in your anger against them (also in this verse). If you are allowing your anger to cause your thoughts to turn into bitterness against them or if your anger is causing you to gossip about your spouse, then you are sinning against them, so the point of this verse is to make sure you are not allowing sin to grow in your heart. In other words, don’t allow too much time to pass before you make it right.
But there are times in marriage when you think you are angry at your spouse, but really you are just exhausted and need to sleep. We learned this early in our marriage. We had an argument over something that we have both forgotten what the actual issue was and Dave had learned that I needed space in those times, so even though he prefers to talk about things right away, he gave me time away. He waited and waited and finally came to our room to check on me and I had fallen asleep! We were able to laugh about it and discovered that we no longer had anything to argue about. There are legitimate times when arguments need to be discussed, but there are other times when it really is just something you need to personally get right with the Lord. Learn to know the difference!
Dave has also learned in our marriage to remind me not to make rash decisions or to make major decisions when I am emotional. There are times when I need to wait on making decisions until I can think about them rationally and I am so grateful for a husband who is able to recognize this in me and challenge me when he sees my emotions getting the best of me. Sometimes you just need to sleep on those emotions and see how you feel in the morning!
19. Be intentional about making time for each other. Some couples do this by setting aside a weekly date night. I think this is a wonderful thing, but it hasn’t worked well for us. Dave and I are both spontaneous people, so we struggle with planning ahead. What has worked for us is to have lots of things we enjoy doing together and then do one of those every single day. Intentional time doesn’t have to be grand or expensive. It can be watching a show together or talking while you do meal preparation. Find simple, daily ways to connect with each other if you are the spontaneous sort. And if you are more of a planner, plan those date nights and make sure you follow through.
It’s a sweet thing to get to our 20th anniversary and have so many special memories and inside jokes that only we understand. Our son told us about playing a game on a playground with friends and as he talked, we were reminded about the first time we noticed each other as twenty-year-olds. We were playing on a playground with friends and discovered that we were both playful and competitive in a fun way. I was able to tell my son that that was when I started falling in love with his Daddy. He couldn’t believe that we played on a playground at the age of twenty, but I hope he will be able to have those kinds of stories to pass on to his kids too!
20. Never stop working on loving well. Romans 12:10 says that we are to outdo one another in showing honor. I love this challenge. When both spouses are seeking to outdo each other, not in a competitive way, but genuinely seeking the best for the other person, there will be an intimacy and a joy in marriage. We should never stop growing in our love for each other.
To my dear husband,
Thank you for loving me so well and for consistently pointing me to Jesus. Our life together has been truly joyous—even our difficulties have served to change us and draw us closer to each other and I am so grateful for this. I can’t imagine going through life with anyone other than you and I am so incredibly blessed that God brought you into my life. Thank you for pursuing your own passions and for supporting me in mine. Thank you for all of the adventures we have gone on together and for the quiet moments sitting by a campfire that have been equally wonderful. You are a treasure to me and I am so glad that I get to call you mine.
Happy 20th anniversary! Here’s to the next twenty and beyond.
All my love,