My husband and I were married the day after our college graduations. It was a warm day in early May, the sky bottle blue and the church lush with the fragrance of lilacs. We had cut them the night before, a last-minute offering from neighbors and friends because lilacs are my favorite flower and they were so perfectly, gorgeously in bloom. The whole day was a riot for the senses: startlingly white clouds flocked the sky, family and friends laughed and danced, and in the midst of it all, my new husband held my trembling hand tight in his own.
We were babies. Twenty-one and twenty-two, skinny and awkward with still-blemished teenage skin and absolutely no idea what we were getting ourselves into.
We were ridiculously in love. Still are, in fact, though the last twenty years have taken us to places we never imagined possible on that bright day in May nearly two decades ago. Grad school and first jobs. A move to a different country. Four miscarriages, two births, three adoptions. It has been a wild ride filled with mountaintop experiences that assure us God lingers just outside of reach, and valleys so low we can understand the lament of David’s darkest psalms.
When I look back, I want to cheer for those sweet kids. We may have been naïve and idealistic, but we had the courage to say what might be the most powerful words to ever cross our lips: “I do.” Yet, I also wish I could impart a little wisdom and save my inexperienced self a lot of grief.
Marriage is not easy, and that might be the understatement of the century. It is hard work and heartache, late nights and crippling doubts. It is growing and changing and then looking up from the shell of your own chrysalis to realize that your spouse is transforming, too. In a vacuum, marriage is a struggle. But in the real world, where we must balance jobs and family, disaster, and the inevitable anguish and joy that will mark our lives, it is a wonder that any marriage lasts at all.
I still consider Aaron and myself relative newbies to this marriage thing. I know many people who have been married for much longer than we have. But in the years that we have been together, the storms we have weathered and the journeys we have walked (sometimes crawled) have taught me some things about facing trials that I wish I could share with my twenty-one-year-old self. When change comes—and it will—what are some things couples can do to survive the transition intact?
Don’t look back (in regret). Fond memories and family stories are beautiful and necessary, but sometimes when we look back we do so with a sense of loss or disappointment. “If only” is a dangerous phrase that encourages regret and breeds discontent as we paint what might have been with broad, rosy strokes. If only we had taken that job. If only we had moved. If only we hadn’t miscarried or said no or said yes. Dwelling in the past as we imagine life as it could have been does us no favors. We are standing exactly where we are at precisely this moment for a reason, so let us flip the narrative and start asking “What if?” What if God is moving in this? What if our heartbreak is for his glory? What if he is making beauty from the ashes of the pain we have experienced? Refuse to entertain the demon of “if only,” and it will keep us facing forward, anticipating all that is to come.
Be kind to one another. As months and then years start to peel off the calendar, it is easy to take our spouses for granted. They become fixtures in our lives instead of living, breathing, feeling people with their own hopes and fears. It may seem inevitable that we give our best selves to coworkers and friends and strangers, and then run roughshod over the person we love the most. We reason that they can take it. They know who we really are, how we really feel. But manhandling our spouses (in any interpretation of the word) slowly erodes the foundation that we have (hopefully) worked so hard to build. When something catastrophic happens or our families enter a new season and life is pared down and raw, couples who are unkind to each other may find themselves knee-deep in resentment and distrust. How can we trust our hearts to someone who doesn’t treat them with tenderness and respect? Be unfailingly kind to your spouse. Bring your wife coffee in bed, tell your husband he still takes your breath away. Open doors for each other, speak thoughtfully, serve with a willing heart. Each gentle moment is a deposit that will one day be cashed in full.
Touch each other. It is no secret that human beings need touch. We are healthier, happier, more socially connected, and feel greater levels of self-confidence and contentment when our need for physical touch is met. Psychologists have termed severe lack of physical contact as “skin hunger” or “touch hunger,” and this deprivation has little to do with sex. Rather, we all need to have meaningful, physical contact with people on a regular basis or it can have profound emotional, social, and even physical consequences. I don’t believe the importance of physical contact (sexual and non-sexual) can be overstated for a healthy, stable marriage. Newlyweds may be shocked to learn that sometimes spouses can go days without any sort of meaningful physical contact. Life is busy, the kids are demanding, and our jobs keep us tied up in knots. Little things can be easily overlooked. But if we want to be ready to weather the storms that will undoubtedly come our way, one way we can prepare ourselves is by having a healthy relationship through touch. Hugs and kisses, of course, but also hand holding and a quick shoulder rub. Instead of sitting in opposite chairs cuddle up together on the couch. Make a point of touching your husband or wife multiple times a day. This tangible connection strengthens our bond with our spouses and undergirds a deeper emotional and spiritual connection. It reminds our bodies and our souls that we are not alone—no matter what we face.
Understand differences are not faults. When life takes us by surprise, it is only natural to believe that the way we personally handle the trauma is the “right” way. If we are in tears and our spouse is stoic, he or she must be unfeeling. (Conversely, we may believe that tears are ridiculous and emotional, and our spouse needs to suck it up and get over it.) This works with any emotion and every situation. Something that riles us up but only elicits a shrug from our partner just makes us angrier. If we delight in something but our partner isn’t quite as moved, we’re disappointed. And often their reaction to any given situation is not just different, it’s wrong. We want someone to commiserate with. Someone who “gets us” (sometimes going as far as to try and match compatible personalities on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and put our faith in “armchair philosophy” instead of the infinite knowledge of a loving God). We often long for someone to sit in the corner and pout with us, but God in his wisdom put people in our lives to temper us. Our spouse may not be playing the devil’s advocate in any given situation; he or she may be an incredible gift the Lord is giving us to complement our personalities and help both of us endure a difficult situation. Genesis 2:24 says it in this way: “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” (Emphasis mine.) Do we believe that? That we are one flesh, whole and united and complementary? If we are not experiencing that sort of unity, maybe the fault is not in our spouse, but in ourselves. Don’t believe the lie that says there is a right and wrong way to approach life’s big trials. We were made for each other, and we just might be better together—differences and all.
Pray. For each other. With each other. For things big and small. We tend to underestimate the power of prayer and the impact it can have on our lives and relationships, but no self-help book, internet article, or counseling session could be as powerful as the Living God working in our hearts. Years ago, my husband started praying a seven-word prayer. He prayed it every morning when he got up and every night before he went to bed. Sometimes he prayed it in the middle of the day or when he was facing temptation. God answered his prayer because I believe it was the sort of prayer Jesus had in mind when he said: “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it shall be done for you.” (John 15:7) Aaron’s prayer? Give me eyes only for my wife. It wasn’t an ask for riches or fame. It wasn’t selfish or vain. My husband’s prayer was an earnest plea for a strong marriage, a heart of integrity, an abiding love for the girl he married all those years ago. I am not the same person I was back then—not by a long shot. But we fix our eyes on each other, we commit again and again to this broken, imperfect relationship, and we keep praying for more. More grace, more understanding. More of Jesus in our lives and in our family and in our marriage. I believe heart and soul that God is waiting to answer our prayers for emotional health and wholeness, unity and enduring love with a resounding “yes!”
Maybe weathering the storms of marriage isn’t about how well we prepare for disaster; maybe it’s about how well we love on the quiet days. How we speak and touch and love and pray when life is calm. Eugene Peterson says discipleship is a “long obedience in the same direction.” Perhaps the same can be said about marriage. And every step of the journey counts.