It often happens this way.
Peter and I are asked to speak on the subject of marriage, and our own relationship comes under particular attack.
Sometimes it comes in the form of a full frontal assault, a crisis beyond our control. But more often the enemy sends in stealth bombers—our own poor choices, rogue emotions, and ill-timed words.
Just a few Friday nights ago we met at a Starbucks. I was coming from home; Peter was coming from work. And we rendezvoused for a quick cup of coffee on our way to a marriage retreat where we would be teaching from Genesis 1-3 and the sultry Song of Solomon. “God’s Plan for Marriage.”
We had only an hour before we had to get to the church—only an hour to catch up on all the business of the week. So I opened with a tactical question: “Have you taken care of ____?”
And he answered: “No, I thought that you ____.”
To which I replied: “Why do you always ____?”
And he countered: “You just assume _____.”
And so on. And so forth. A skirmish ensued.
In the meantime, Peter’s coffee went cold on the counter, and the barista—who noticed our “conversation”—took pity and remade his drink without even being asked. If that’s not humbling…
By the grace of God, we pulled out of that nosedive, and we enjoyed sharing that weekend what we’ve learned about marriage—from our successes and our failures, and more importantly from the Word of God.
So, here are a few things that we recommended at that retreat, a few of the principles that we keep coming back to, a few of the simple truths that have made a profound difference for us…
- Establish a shared vision.
Together compose a statement that articulates what your relationship and your family are about. Then memorize that paragraph. Post it in a prominent place. And use it to give clarity to the choices you make. Only allow into your lives those things that help keep you on course.
- Spend time together.
In too many of our modern marriages, spouses’ lives barely overlap. We run and pull in different directions, and we wonder why we “drift apart.” So prioritize family dinners and date nights. Schedule weekend getaways, as well as simple early morning powwows and prayer over hot cups of coffee. Put these “together times” on the calendar and protect them.
- Connect on the soul level.
Not every conversation should be about the logistics of life—the bills and the home repairs and the carpool for the kids. So in your time together, be sure to dig deeper. Share dreams and fears, goals and what you’re grateful for.
- See your spouse as an ally.
Your marriage will come under attack. Don’t be caught off guard. And when the pressure mounts, don’t train your weapons on one another—as we are often tempted to do. Rather, join forces to defeat your foes, overcome your obstacles, and solve your problems, working side-by-side toward a mutual victory.
- Leave father and mother.
It’s still an important piece of the puzzle—this creation of a new family unit, where loyalty to one’s spouse now supersedes devotion to one’s parents, or any other human being for that matter. So loosen your grip on those old loyalties.
- Build a stronghold.
Construct a fortress around your relationship—brick by brick, stone by stone. Text messages. Kind deeds. Loving looks. Quick hugs. Daily do little things that strengthen and build up your bond.
- Consider yourselves “one.”
Love making is so much more than what happens behind closed doors. It is a union of hearts and minds. It says, I am yours, and you are mine. It puts the “we” before the “me.”
- Create a safe place.
Encourage vulnerability by being trustworthy and respectful. This is God’s ideal—marriage as a place where we can fully know and be fully known, a place where we are mutually accepted just as we are, a safe space where both parties can live and heal and grow.
- Banish shame.
We all experience shame—that intense feeling that we are unworthy of love. And we are all hesitant to talk about it. However, the less we talk about it, the more control it has. So we must work hard to heal the hurts that live at shame’s roots—our own and our partner’s. So stock up on these antidotes for shame and apply them liberally to your marriage: grace and acceptance and empathy and truth…
- Speak truth.
Deception creeps into our relationships in many forms—when we misrepresent reality, when we cover up our mistakes, when we say “I’m fine” even if we really aren’t. But such lies undermine love. Instead, shine the light of truth—the truth about who we are, who God is, and how we are loved.
- Don’t hide.
It’s a tale as old as time, our tendency to put up walls. Adam and Eve covered themselves with leaves and hid in the hedges when God came to call. They hid from Him, but they also hid from one another. And we hide too—not so much with foliage, but no less effectively—when we fashion a façade, when we cover up our needs, when we self-medicate our pain, when we distract ourselves with other things, when we withdraw. So step out from behind the shrubs.
- Avoid the blame game.
We like to lob blame indiscriminately in all directions. Our spouse made us feel ____. It was our parents’ fault. Our boss is a bear. Our friends told us to do it. If only our children hadn’t done that. But instead of casting blame, we need to own our stuff. Admit our faults. And accept responsibility for the choices we make.
- Learn to talk about your triggers.
“Triggering” happens when we experience a disproportionate emotional response to a certain situation. Our spouse leaves dirty dishes in the sink, and we feel enormous frustration. Our spouse forgets to call us, and we feel exceeding fear. The current circumstances poke an old and unhealed hurt, and we bring all of that prior pain into the present. This is probably the principle that has made the most profound difference in our marriage—the ability press pause on the emotional swell and to say, “I feel triggered and this is why…”
- Practice a positive self-image.
Self-loathing affects not only our view of self, it also pushes other people away. When we despise ourselves, it’s impossible to love others fully or to allow them to fully love us. The bride in the Song of Songs called herself “a rose of Sharon and a lily of the valley.” She expressed a confidence and poise that was undoubtedly attractive to her lover and invited intimacy. She brought herself fully to the relationship, and so should we.
- Be a student of your spouse.
Never grow tired of learning what makes your lover tick. Human beings constantly grow and change, so we ought not fall into complacency or passivity. We ought not imagine that we know everything there is to know. Rather, keep discovering and then discover some more.
- Speak plenty of praise.
The lover in the Song of Solomon calls the maiden, “Most beautiful among women”—then he adds that she is like his mare among the chariots of Pharaoh. Her cheeks are like ornaments and her eyes are like doves. She responds and calls him an apple tree. And back and forth, they express their admiration for one another in these marvelously metaphorical ways. Our praise will undoubtedly be a bit different. Calling your spouse a horse or a tree is not necessarily recommended. But the principle remains the same. Be each other’s biggest fan—in private and in public.
- Press through in conversation.
Don’t abandon a discussion when it gets difficult. Rather, keep communicating until you come to some kind of peace or restoration or consensus. Getting there requires that we speak with gentleness. Ask questions to gain clarity. And listen for understanding.
- Keep short accounts.
The number one killer of a marriage is contempt. Contempt happens when we descend beyond anger and into disgust. Contempt holds power. It says, “I’m okay, but you are not.” Contempt condemns. And the best way to ensure that contempt never takes root in our relationships is to practice fast forgiveness and to give grace. Over and over again. Seventy times seven.
- Celebrate your differences.
God created each of us to be distinct, and He delights in our diversity. He gave you and your spouse each unique gifts and perspectives and personalities. And He deemed this to be “good.” So don’t let the differences get you down or drive a wedge. Instead, see them as your collective strength and capitalize on them.
- Love with the passion with which you, too, have been loved.
God created you and pursued you. Jesus Christ came for you and died to set you free. When you bask in the love that your Lord and Savior has for you, it will undoubtedly spill out to those you love as well. It will drive you to love in a similarly persistent and passionate way and to a supernatural effect.