This week, Mrs. dabrotha and I celebrated 13 years of marriage. And while the number 13 may be a bad omen for some, in the life of a marriage it’s just long enough to have learned a few things. My marriage looks remarkably different than it did at year 3, 5 or even 10, and by the grace of God will look even sweeter as the years unfold.
Both Mrs. dabrotha and I (okay, so her name is Jean) come from divorced households, so many of the things that I’ve learned and included on this list have come from simply figuring it out as I go along. Other items on this list come from couples whose marriages I greatly admire and respect. These folks have imparted great wisdom to us over the years that has proven to be invaluable. This list in no certain order, and some items may rank higher on your individual list than others. I’ve tried to keep my explanations and comments on each item to a minimum, and I’m sure much more could be said about each one.
1. You have to have an anchor. When I asked my future mother-in-law for her daughter’s hand in marriage (yes I’m old-fashioned), she very wisely told me that we had to have an anchor. She then explained to me that love is an emotion, and emotions can come and go. Love can’t be a solid anchor because sometimes when you’re married, you don’t always feel like you love your spouse. She told me that love flows from your anchor, and the anchor should be something outside of you both. Love, especially as it is commonly understood, isn’t always enough.
This is perhaps the best early advice that I received, and I try to pass it along as often as I can. For Jean and me, our anchor is our faith and belief in Christ; it is the objective standard that we measure everything else by. This obviously isn’t everyone’s anchor, but I’m certain that every marriage needs something objective that is outside of themselves that they can draw from. Jean and I don’t have a perfect marriage by any means, but we do have a pretty good North Star to guide us when we need a course correction.
2. Love is not quid pro quo. My understanding of what love is has evolved from what Jean does for me, to what I want to be and do for her. It’s not that both aren’t true, but in my more immature understanding of what love meant, it was all about what Jean did for me and how she made me feel. At first I loved that she supported me in my goal of becoming a professional musician, that she gave me time to record, play clubs, be alone (I’m a huge introvert), and that she seemed to be excited about my myriad ideas and pursuits. I also loved her because she was the first woman I ever trusted.
I’ve now come to understand that I love my wife because I desire to serve her and support her in her efforts to become the woman and mother she want’s to be. I love her because I’m learning to be patient, kind, gentle, forgiving, hopeful and faithful; not rude, irritable, or resentful. I love her because I’m willing to lay down my life for her. If my love for Jean were contingent on what she did for me, what would happen (or has happened) when she was not doing these things is that I would withhold my love from her. Serving her has made me love her more. The lesson I’ve learned is that love is not about you, it’s always about the other person.
3. Marry someone who shares your values, life vision, mission and direction. Before we were married, Jean and I had lots of conversations about the type of family we wanted to have, the things that we valued, the lifestyle we wanted, and the overall vision for our lives together. We obviously didn’t know what we didn’t know, so our goals and vision have been tweaked and refined somewhat over the years.
Despite the curve balls life has thrown at us, I’ve been very fortunate to have a partner with whom I generally have a complimentary vision. Obviously everything doesn’t always overlap, and we continue to learn how to work out the details on areas where we disagree. This has given us great opportunities to grow. I know plenty of couples who are night and day in their approach to parenting, finances, values, family activities, faith and other areas. Unfortunately, all of these couples are somehow on the rocks.
4. Marry someone who supports your dreams. I really hit the jackpot on this one. One of the ways that my wife loves and serves me is that she not only allows me time to pursue my dreams and passions, she actively supports and affirms them. She understands that she married an artist. More importantly however, she is by far more relational and intuitive than I am, and understands that a person has to have a place to give from to be a healthy giver. As such, she knows that certain things feed my spirit, so she routinely is generous with allowing ‘me time’.
Admittedly, this hasn’t always been reciprocated. But in my defense, women are like mazes where all of the walls continually change. (Thanks John Mayer for that brilliant illustration!). Jean loves the outdoors, mountains and wide open spaces; and this tender-foot city slicker has been a bit slow to oblige. I’ve learned to like camping, and we’ve had some great times in the last few years. I am also learning to study her more (see #11). As I do, I notice more of the dreams that she has that she doesn’t always openly share, and I’m also learning how to support them. As we approach the next season of our lives, I can’t wait to knock her socks off with what’s up my sleeve.
5. Never, I mean never, go to bed angry. There have been books upon books written on this subject, and my thoughts are very meager by comparison. That being said, this is very sound advice. Be the first to apologize, admit wrong, and move on. That emotional distance created between you can become a breeding ground for all manner of problems that you don’t want and that could have been avoided. If you have a history of sweeping things under the rug, keeping score, or having the center of the bed feel like the Grand Canyon, this may take time to develop.This is a great example of where we have done well at getting sound advice and wise counsel from our mentors.
One of the things that we do (which we stumbled upon accidentally) is fighting fair. By this I mean that our arguments or skirmishes are most often about the issue at hand. For example, we never bring in how one person didn’t put the cap back on the toothpaste if we’re ‘discussing’ why one of us spent more money than budgeted in a given area. We also try to avoid talking about things that could be contentious or stressful before we say goodnight. There have been relatively few times we have gone to bed angry, one only once where we spent the night apart because of an argument.
6. Know when to shut up. If you wanna say that one last thing in an argument, SHUT UP! This is related #5 but important enough to be stated separately. If you are tempted to exact that last pound of flesh when you are angry, hurt, or frustrated with your spouse, DON’T!! This applies to both husbands and wives. Even when you feel like you’ll spontaneously combust if you don’t say what’s on your mind, just be quiet. Getting in that especially harsh last word may feel good momentarily, but you’re essentially dropping napalm on the one you love. Choose your words carefully; some things simply can’t be taken back.
7. You can’t change the things about your spouse that you don’t like. When Jean and I were first married, one of our friends who had been married for a few years told us that it takes about 5 years to realize that the things you don’t like about your spouse you can’t change. This is absolutely true. There are areas that will evolve over time, but a persons fundamental temperament basically will remain in tact. Some things seem to just be hard-wired into a person, or we simply do not have a strong enough desire to change. Assess the static areas, accept them and move on. You’ll be much happier for it.
8. Have a date night and keep it sacred. The people I know who have successful marriages have a closely guarded date night. Date night gives you a chance to reconnect if you are like most married couples and default to weekly utilitarian language about groceries, what happened with the kids at school or who has to be taken to basketball and tae kwon do practice.
Date night is also a good time to remember that you had a life and a romance before the children, jobs and the mortgage. After you’ve been married for a few years, those memories can slip dimly into the rear view if you’re not careful. Some examples of our date nights include shopping for things for the house (Pier 1 and World Market make great outings), dinner and/or a movie, dancing, catching a live band, poetry readings, going out for coffee, double dates, going to the bookstore (with four children, we sometimes just love the concurrent silence), or even enjoying an at home date with a good bottle wine and desert after the kids go to bed. If you have young children and no babysitter, you may have to get creative. The monotonous parts of life can have a way of zapping the passion, joy and anticipation right out of a relationship.
Take care to always show your spouse the things that captivated you about them in the first place. Otherwise the environment can be ripe for wandering affections; be they visual, emotional, or physical. So no matter if you get dressed up for an elegant night out at a white tablecloth restaurant, go dancing, or just go to the local coffeehouse, date nights are a great investment and time well spent. Consider date night as your weekly deposit into First Fidelity Bank and Trust.
9. Don’t let your wife buy mom pants. Seriously. If you have children, make sure your wife feels like a woman first, a wife second, then a mother. After all, you likely fell in love with your wife because of her mystique. Every woman has something that is irresistible about her that her husband discovers when they’re courting. A woman can very easily lose themselves into the labyrinth of motherhood. With four children, it can become very easy for Jean and I to look at each other solely through the lens of our role in the family unit. But when we look past the laundry, dishes, spring cleaning and braces for the kids, we remember that the person on the other side of the bed wants to be pursued and looked at as a romantic partner. Frequent ‘I love yous’ and spontaneous affirmations of support and affection go a long way.
Fellas, it’s not always about physical intimacy. You must touch her mind and heart before you touch her body. I’ve heard it said that when it comes to physical intimacy, men are like microwaves and women are like crockpots. Romance sometimes takes time to simmer. As I’ve said, I continue to get better at studying my wife and making her feel like a woman first. Wives are equally guilty of this however, and it is important for wives to see their husbands as they are seen in their jobs, career pursuits or other areas outside the home.
Both women and men want to feel desired, cherished and respected by their partner. I know couples that have been married for forty years that still flirt with each other. That’s a great model to follow. Pursue each other.
10. Be a cheerleader. People soar when they know you believe in them. Make sure that you support your spouse. A husband’s frequent failure is when he goes into problem-solving mode with his wife instead of being a sympathetic ear or the person who offers that much needed encouragement or backup. Jean has fantastic ideas, and I when I hear them I sometimes get ahead of myself and morph into logic-man to deliver a step by step method to convert her idea into my version of reality. Sometimes she loves that, but it’s not always what she wants.
As a former college athlete, my wife is a formidable and tenacious woman. Because of this I sometimes miss when just she needs me back her up after a hard day with clients or kids, wants me to listen to an idea or just needs me to say “honey I believe in you.” I’ve learned that I need to be a cheerleader and not always the problem-solver. I’m sure I’m not the only husband that has learned this lesson.
11. Be a student of your wife. My good friend Mark took up an equestrian hobby because of his wife’s love of horses. Decades later, he has developed an equal passion for it and demonstrates fanatical love of his wife by just being excited about what she’s excited about. They take several riding trips a year, and have frequent weekend getaways with their ‘horse friends’. His wife Deb always returns refreshed and with a special gleam in her eye because Mark has payed attention and studied her enough to know how to specifically pour himself into her. In this and other areas, Mark has become an avid student of his wife and it is clear that he is all about her. Pastor and author C.J. Mahaney has a weekly ritual of writing down what he’s studied about his wife during the previous week.
Husbands like this who have reached the level of Jedi Knight have also taught this lowly Padawan Learner (yes, I’m a Star Wars nut and proud of it!) that studying my wife is important. There are times when I’m very good at this, but the general pattern is to go in fits and starts. I was even reminded recently (today) of an area in which I missed paying attention to my wife. I’m still a little challenged in this area at times, and it sometimes seems like I need to be on the husband short bus. I have learned however the importance of paying attention, and I’m becoming a better student of my wife.
12. Know where you’re going. As the head and leader of your family, you absolutely have to know which direction you’re leading your family. Make sure that your spouse is in agreement with the direction and try not to leave everyone else in the dust. Jean loves when I lead from a clear vision and plan. She also graciously lets me know when she doesn’t want to be drug along for the ride. I have to also make sure that I don’t give her ‘idea fatigue’. Being married to an entrepreneur is not easy, so I’m learning the value of not sharing all of my ideas making sure that Jean and the kids have emotional security and stability.
I’ve also learned that trying to follow all of my ideas and pursuits limit my focus and my effectiveness. Jean generally like the results when I stick to the plan and she loves the freedom that comes with knowing where we’re going. I’ve learned that the person who is leading with no following is only out taking a walk.
13. Laugh…OFTEN! Jean and I frequently have great belly laughs together, sometimes lasting for days. They’re generally over inside jokes or things that are just random silliness. I’ve discovered that there are few things that make me feel more connected to Jean than laughter. We both love Katt Williams and comedy films (although she doesn’t get Richard Pryor-grounds for divorce in some homes) and often curl up on the couch with popcorn and a good laugh flick. She sometimes says that I have the sense of humor of a 7th grader, but nonetheless we share huge laughs.
Like many marriages and young families, there have been plenty of not-so-funny things in our life worthy of tears, but the moments of laughter have brought a wonderful togetherness. As we’ve built a life together, a lot of funny things have happened that are either funny in the moment or hysterical in hindsight. Some of our best family times have been when Jean and I are laughing about something and the hilarity spreads to the kids. There have been many a night where we’ve laughed for hours. We’ve discovered the widely known secret that life is short, and we’re learning to enjoy it much more.
Please leave a comment. I’d also love to hear what marriage has taught you. Cheers!