On a thirteen hour road trip this weekend to the Jersey shore for a friend’s wedding, my wife and I spent some time listening to Mark Driscoll’s series, Real Marriage, and talking about some of the things we’ve learned in the seven years we’ve been man and wife.
The question arose, somewhere along those outstretched highways, What would you have said to yourself seven years ago when we first got married? We came up with seven lessons, one for each year of marriage, that God has continued to teach us.
1. Cultivate your friendship. Maybe one of the best points Mark Driscoll makes in his teaching series is that marriage is about friendship—sharing oneness, intimacy, and living “face to face.” Do stuff together, take time away, laugh, talk, ask questions, get coffee by yourselves. It’s so easy to let life set the tone for your marriage, and what you end up with is a hurried, busy, disconnected relationship. You can never spend too much time and effort cultivating your friendship with your husband or wife. Whenever possible, do things together. Be a friend first.
2. Be more gracious with the other person. One of the amazing things, as I look back at our relationship across those seven years, is that we’ve both sinned against each other in some painstaking ways. We’ve also done stupid things and at other times just dropped the ball in ignorance. But as we see more of our own personal sin, seek forgiveness, and experience God’s redemptive purposes through the Cross of Christ, it makes both of us realize how much more gracious we should be with our spouse while they struggle and sin. The reality of our own sin, combined with the encounter of grace, helps us not be so critical with the other person, not so demanding, not so indignant when they sin or fail. Be more gracious, because you’re going to need a lot of grace yourself.
3. Slow down. When we got married, we both had this drive to get every life goal accomplished in a year. A five-year plan seemed like a foreign concept, because if you could get it done in one year, why would you need that much time for a goal? So we crammed it all in. We got married, had three kids, moved across the country, completely uprooted, started over, bought a house, a new car, and more—all in the span of about five minutes.
That much change made for some tough living. We grew, God was faithful, but one lesson I’ve gleaned is that it’s okay to slow down. Be content with where you’re at. Set goals, but think longer term (which feels impossible at 20). Don’t expect to climb the corporate ladder in a year, be where your parents are after 25 years of marriage, or be in your dream job at 25. I’d tell myself to slow down.
4. Love is slow, and so is change. Tying in to the last point, love is slow. God’s love in changing us, and our love in watching change happen in our spouse’s life, is a slow process. Whereas we need to take the long view of change—like 10 years instead of one year—we often get trapped in the notion that every failure will be overcome in a short period of time. But if God saw fit to see Moses through 40 years of maturation in the desert, or if Joseph was in prison for almost 20 years learning humility and grace, then we too need to take the longer view of change. Your spouse isn’t going to change in a month, and neither are you, so be patient. Pray. Forbear.
5. Be distracted less and enjoy the relational moments before you. You know that look your wife gives you when she’s talking and you’ve got the iPhone in front of your face instead of listening. Or when your kid is blowing out his candles and you’re scrolling through your Twitter feed. Or when you’re lost in a book while your love sits silent in an unknown agony that’s easier to ignore than deal with directly. We are an easily distracted lot, which means we have to work hard to stay focused, enjoy the moment, and be face to face with our husband or wife. Turn the phone off or put it away. What’s happening on Facebook does not compare with the immortal soul sitting next to you. I’m still learning the importance of this lesson, but it’s a keeper: just soak in the moment, enjoy it, and be still. It’s okay. Just enjoy it.
6. Start with and stay with “me.” One of the greatest challenges of marital life together is to focus more on their sin than your own. That’s what sin does—it blinds you to your own problems and magnifies others’. So whenever there’s conflict, whenever it isn’t how you wish it was, start with you. Examine your motives, and assume that they aren’t pure. And when you do go through the process of change, stay focused on what your roles and responsibilities are, not theirs. You are your worst problem. You are responsible for changing you. Not them.
7. Don’t wait to get help. We’ve learned that you can sometimes go years in a bad rhythm of life, years neglecting issues and areas of conflict, until you wake up to a hot mess of a relationship. If you get to a point where you can’t make progress, and it’s not getting better, don’t wait to get help. Seek a godly couple out, talk to your pastor or elders. Whatever you’ve got to do to stop sin and move toward peace, even if it’s cutting off your hyperbolic head, then do it. It’s gonna mean confessing sins you’d rather have kept hidden (1 John 1:9). It’s gonna mean pain before peace. But it’s better to feel the pain of life-saving surgery than it is to die slowly of relational gangrene. Get help. That’s why the church, the Body of Jesus, is there. You need them.