A lot of things can happen in the space of twenty years. Five presidents could serve in office. A child could be raised and sent off to college. Fashion styles could change multiple times and then circle back around again. Wars could be fought and won and the names and boundaries of a country could change. A song popular today will in twenty years be considered a classic.
This month marks my twentieth wedding anniversary. I was twenty-one when I married, a week after graduating college. It seems like yesterday and at the same time, it seems like a lifetime ago. A lot has happened these past twenty years. We've bought and sold houses. We've pursued degrees, certifications, and licenses. We've traveled, had children, changed jobs, started new career paths, and accumulated a lot of stuff. We've had wonderful times and hard seasons. We've had conflicts and losses. We've faced things we didn't think we would survive. But twenty years later, we are still here.
There are many enlightening things people have written about marriage. I don't have anything to add to what's already been said. Today I just have a few thoughts about things I've learned about marriage, myself, and life over the last twenty years. Twenty thoughts to be exact and in no particular order.
1. Marriage is a gift: There are countless marriage books on the market giving advice and strategies for making marriage good, strong, and lasting. I've ready many of them. I'm even trained to do marriage counseling. There are certainly factors that make a marriage healthier and factors that make it unhealthy. There are things we can do to strengthen a marriage and things we can do to weaken it. But in the end, a good marriage is a gift of grace from God, the maker and sustainer of all things. Apart from him and his work in our lives, we can't make a marriage work on our own. This is true of all areas of life, and as I've seen, especially in marriage.
2. Marriage is hard: One of the best pieces of marriage advice I ever received was from an older woman, a friend of the family. I was newly engaged and dreaming about the wedding when she said to me, "You'll always love your husband but there will be times when you don't like him at all." At the time, I couldn't even imagine it. I was young and starry eyed. I shrugged it off but never forgot it. A few years later, her comment came back to me and I finally understood what she meant. The truth is that marriage is hard. Very hard. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Two sinful people trying to do life together is always hard. You love your spouse but there will be times when you just don't like him. Because Christ loved us first, and through his work in us, we can love our spouses through those hard seasons.
3. Marriage will change you: We often go into marriage with expectations of things we hope will change in our spouses. I know I thought that somehow my cooking would inspire my husband to like vegetables. Boy was I wrong! More often than not, what changes in marriage is yourself. God has used and is still using marriage to refine and shape me more into the image of Christ. As Tim Keller wrote in Meaning of Marriage: "Marriage shows you a realistic, unflattering picture of who you are and then takes you by the scruff of the neck and forces you to pay attention to it." (p. 140).
4. Your spouse will change: While spouses don't often change because of our direct intention and desire to change them (i.e. my hope that my cooking would change my husband's aversion to vegetables), they do change as God transforms them. And God will often include us in working out that change. We have to expect that our spouses will change throughout our years of marriage. Your spouse will not be the same person they were when you got married. God is at work, sanctifying and transforming them. This work requires change. Sometimes the process is slow, difficult, and even painful. The in-between stages are often downright ugly. The same is true in your own sanctification. The wonderful thing is that we get to change together, alongside our spouses.
5. Children change everything: It's true, marriage changes with children. Both in wonderful ways and in challenging ways. Though parenting is hard and tiring and sometimes painful, we've found that parenting has forced us to need and rely on each other. Parenting, in many ways, unites us together. It causes us to use our respective strengths, to strategize together, and bounce ideas off of each other. We have to work together to figure out this thing called parenting. It's a joy and gift to have a partner in that work.
6. Yet, some things stay the same: While many things change in a marriage, some things stay the same. No matter how many times I've pointed out the location of the laundry basket, clothes still end up on the floor, next to the laundry basket, or on top of it. But rarely in it. The same is true for me. I'm sure my husband wonders why I still refuse to put air in my own tires and always ask him to do it.
7. Christ must be the center: We sang the hymn Be Thou My Vision at our wedding ceremony twenty years ago. When we chose the hymn, how little did I know how important having Christ as our vision would be! Christ must be the center of marriage for it to thrive. He must be first. After all, marriage is a reflection of the relationship between Christ and his church. We can't reflect to a watching world who Christ is and what he has done if he is not central.
8. Christ must be first in my own heart: Not only does Christ need to be the center of a marriage, he must also be first in our individual hearts. When we love Christ first and foremost, we are then able to love our spouse. As Tim Keller wrote in Meaning of Marriage: "The simple fact is that only if I love Jesus more than my wife will I be able to serve her needs ahead of my own. Only if my emotional tank is filled with love from God will I be able to be patient, faithful, tender, and open with my wife when things are not going well in life or in the relationship. And the more joy I get from my relationship with Christ, the more I can share that joy with my wife and family." (p.124).
9. Marriage requires time: Life is busy. There are many demands pulling at us from all sides. It's easy to get wrapped up in work, family, and other responsibilities and put marriage last. But like any relationship, to keep it healthy, we have to invest time in our marriages. When our oldest was a month old we went out on a date. To be honest, we had to force ourselves. It was hard to leave our little guy behind. We made a commitment then to have a regular date night. These days, it's harder to get a real date night but we enjoy taking walks together in our neighborhood. Time together doesn't have to cost anything, it's the quality time together that matters most. In fact, we love our walks together just as much as dinner and a movie.
10. Prayer is the most important thing you can do for your marriage: Do you desire to see something change in your marriage? Pray about it. Often, we try to make change happen. We try to force the things we want to see take place. Instead, we need to turn to God, seeking his wisdom, help, grace, and strength to live out our marriages to his glory. Pray together. Pray for each other. Never stop praying.
11. Maintain friendship: Friendship is essential in marriage. And as you get older, it's even more important. When your children grow up and move out on their own, it will be just the two of you. You need that friendship with your spouse to journey through those seasons together. There are times when my husband and I have gotten so wrapped up in the lives of our children we've forgotten about our own friendship. Taking the time to laugh together, enjoy one another's company, and even finding common interests goes a long way to maintaining that friendship.
12. Time flies by: Too often, I look ahead to the future. I want to push through the challenges I'm in right now and look forward to tomorrow rather than experiencing and enjoying the gift of today. But times goes by so fast. Twenty years has gone in the blink of an eye. My mother-in-law was about my age when she lost her husband in an accident. My husband was thirteen. I learned from her and from my husband the importance of not taking the time we have with our loved ones for granted. We always say "I love you" before he leaves for work, at the end of the day, and multiple times in between. Lets live without regrets, say the things we need to say today, and not wait for tomorrow because it's not guaranteed.
13. Where are you headed?: Marriages need goals and direction. They need to have a place they are headed or they will just circle around and around. I've learned that it is important to have common goals for your marriage and family. Talk about them often. Evaluate them. Work toward them. What are the goals you have for your children? What goals do you have financially, relationally, spiritually?
14. Communication: It's easy to assume that our spouse hears and understands the message behind the message we give them. More often than not, they don't. It's important to be clear. Communicating effectively is a skill we all need but few know how to do. Learning to voice our thoughts, feelings, hurts, and conflicts in a God honoring way is crucial to a healthy relationship. Many conflicts in marriage stem from deep patterns of poor communication. And often over little things that build up day in and day out over a period of time. Marriage is worth the effort in learning to communicate.
15. We need friends that encourage marriage, not tear it down: Do you have people in your life who encourage you in your marriage? We need friends like that. We don't need friends who listen to us complain about our husbands and then tell us we are right or who take turns comparing stories about who has the most frustrating spouse. We need friends who speak Biblical truth and point us to Christ. When we were first married, we had several older couples pour into our marriage with godly wisdom.
16. Our spouses often show us love in different ways than we expect: We are all different and give and receive love differently. This was a hard lesson for me to learn. My pastor had to tell me once that my husband does love me and was in fact showing me his love, it was just in a different way than I expected. Learning this lesson opened my eyes to see things in a whole new way.
17. Money is a big issue in marriage: You don't realize it before you get married but money is a huge issue in a marriage. Often one person is a spender and the other a saver. But sometimes, both are spenders or both savers. Regardless, how money is used can be a huge area of conflict. It's important to have open communication about money, to discuss expectations, and work together on making decisions in its use. Sometimes that means exploring together what each other's experiences with money was like growing up. We take those experiences with us into marriage. For example, if we were used to getting whatever we wanted whenever we wanted in our family of origin, we might expect to live the same way once we are married. The problem is, our finances might not support that. The good news is that there are many excellent resources out there on financial management for couples.
18. Getting wise counsel is always a good idea: It's scary to think about inviting other people into the chaos and conflicts of marriage but sometimes it is necessary. We should never be ashamed to ask to for help. God has placed believers in the community of faith because we were never meant to do life on our own. My husband and I have found great help and encouragement from our pastors over the years.
19. The world doesn't want your marriage to thrive or survive: There are many obstacles to a successful marriage. Our own sin is a huge one. But the world is also against you. Beware of its influence and the subtle ways it tries to get you to fail.
20. We complement one another's strengths and weaknesses: In my house, I am the finder and seeker of all lost things. Keys, wallets, phones—you name it. My husband is prone to lose things and I am the one he turns to for help. I complement him in this way. I in turn am horrible in emergencies. I freeze. I am helpless and don't know what to do. My husband is at his best in an emergency. He knows just what to do and does it with ease and calm. The longer we are married, the more I see how we complement each other and I rejoice in our differences. As Paul Tripp wrote in What Did You Expect?: "One way God establishes beauty is by putting things that are different next to each other. Isn’t this exactly what God does in marriage? He puts very different people next to each other. This is how he establishes the beauty of a marriage. The moon would not be so striking if it hung in a white sky; in the same way, the striking beauty of a marriage is when two very different people learn to celebrate and benefit from their differences and to be protected from their weaknesses by being sheltered by the other’s strength.”
When I first started writing this list, I wasn't sure if I could make it to twenty. But by the time I got to the end, I had to delete things from the list to keep it at twenty! Did anything on the list resonate with you? What would you add?