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Unsolicited Marital Advice from a Twenty-Year Veteran

The ringbearer from my wedding got married this weekend. Nothing makes me feel old like the 5-year-old from my wedding taking his own bride. It was a beautiful ceremony with some fun moments that made their ceremony uniquely theirs. I’m praying blessings over them as they begin their lives together.

Sitting through their wedding with tears in my eyes (yes, I cry at weddings), I couldn’t help but think of our wedding and the years we’ve spent together since. In May, we’ll celebrate our twentieth anniversary, a milestone in the marriage department. Considering most marriages that end in divorce happen around year 8, it feels like an accomplishment to make it this far. It’s common at bridal showers to be asked to give one piece of advice to the newlyweds. I thought for this occasion I’d share a few things I’ve learned in twenty years of marriage.

But first, a disclaimer. I have some lovely friends who have experienced the heartbreak of divorce. I’ve held their tears on my shoulder and shared in their heartache. Lots of things lead to divorce. The number one reason we’ve made it this far is God’s extreme blessing on us. We couldn’t have done this alone. With that in mind, these pieces of advice come from my own experience. As they say on Twitter, YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary).

There’s no such thing as a 50/50 marriage. This tops my list. If you’re expecting a 50/50 split in anything, you’ll be disappointed. Some days you’ll give 80%, and some days you’ll give 10%. Depending on the season, you may feel like you give more or less to the relationship and the work of the home than your spouse. Talk about it. Find ways to even out the workload a little if needed. As long as you feel the shift from time to time so no one pulls the full load all the time, you’ll do just fine.

You are partners, team members, cohorts in this marriage. You lit the unity candle. You are one. You have to both want this thing to work. It’s not a one-sided effort. If your spouse has a flat tire, you have a flat tire. Maybe your role in that is to call roadside assistance. Maybe it’s to run their errands for them or take care of supper while they deal with it. Maybe it’s to pull the jack and spare from the back and change the tire. Maybe it’s not a flat tire. Maybe it’s an illness, a difficult work situation, a dream that needs pursuing. My husband rolled quarters he’d saved to give me extra spending money for a writing conference I was attending. I helped him search for jobs when it was time for a change. Support each other, even if it means listening and not fixing. (That’s a hard one for me.) Protect your spouse and take care of them.

Do the little things. My husband loves the first glass from a fresh jug of tea. From time to time, I make sure to pour that first cup and take it to him. Not because he expects it, but because he doesn’t. He knows I love tulips. Most every February he’ll stop by the grocery store and pick up a vase of my favorites to bring home to me. Such tiny things that say “I see you. I remember what you like. I love you.” The surprises don’t have to be every day or every week but make a point to remind them you love them, especially during the hard days of marriage.

Marriage is hard even when you are in love with your spouse. My older sister and I got married the same summer. My twin sister broke up with her then-boyfriend not long after. (We were all elated because we knew he was not “the one.” God sent “the one” a couple of years later.) In a conversation with my sister a year maybe into married life, I told her marriage was hard when you’re absolutely in love with your spouse, I can’t image how hard it would be to manage marriage with someone you don’t love. Make sure you love the one you’re marrying and make sure they love you too.

The baby and toddler years are some of the hardest years you’ll face. Imagine this, you’ve not had a full night’s sleep in, oh, three years, and you’re trying to keep some little people alive. Add in the pressures most parents deal with to choose the right daycare or find a way to be home more or pay attention to whether or not those little people are meeting milestones. It’s hard to remember to take care of your partner when it feels like an every-man-for-himself lifestyle. Those years will pass. It will get easier. To be fair, we are just now entering the teenage years, so I'll let you know later if I still believe the baby and toddler years are the hardest.

Take a date night. We’re not very good at this, especially when our kids were younger. We maybe left the kids with my parents a couple of times a year so we could go out together. A few of those times, we picked up take-out, watched a movie on the couch, and were asleep by 9 p.m. We were much more likely to go out to lunch together during the week. We would talk about the kids, work, vacations, whatever topic came up, but it was always nice to do something just the two of us. Don’t feel guilty about it. Invest in your marriage, even if it’s a cup of coffee on the patio during nap time.

Marriage doesn’t live up to Hollywood’s sexy hype. And that’s okay. Know it going in. A few weeks ago I had a medical procedure. My husband drove me to the appointment and waited to drive me home. I was a bit unsteady after the anesthesia. As the nurse walked me out she asked, “Do you trust him to get you to the car?” My reply, “Absolutely.” This man walked beside me while I hobbled on crutches for four months, then helped me learn to walk and drive again. I would put my life in his hands because I know he would give his life to take care of me and our kids. I hope he knows I’d do the same for him. In eight days at the beginning of the year, we lost three family friends. One was a particularly hard, unexpected hit. We were both grieving. We woke up in the middle of the night and without saying a word clasped our hands together in the bed. And I thought, “this is love.” He’s the one I reach out to when I’m hurting. Hollywood doesn’t show those parts, but that’s true love. Holding on to one another through the hard.

You will fight, but that doesn’t mean the marriage is over. Everyone handles conflict differently. I personally hate it. I will avoid conflict at all costs. My husband doesn’t really like it either. That means conflict can build until we have one, maybe two, big arguments a year. That’s not necessarily healthy, I know. What it’s taught me is to expect it, and to know we’ll get through it. Over the years we’ve found out how to resolve things, and how to talk about what’s really bothering us. Maybe you’ll find a healthier strategy. Just know two people living together are going to argue. You have become one, but you still have two different pasts and experiences and personalities.

Know the mountains you’ll die on. This phrase is often used with kids, but it applies to marriage as well. When our son was little I bought the cutest romper. My husband refused to allow him to wear it because it wasn’t very masculine. We argued. Neither of us wanted to back down. Looking back, it was a stupid argument and probably stemmed from #5 and #8 above. In the midst of the disagreement, I asked myself if I wanted to look back and admit we’d gotten divorced over a romper I bought at a consignment sale. My answer was a resounding no. It wasn’t the mountain I was willing to die on.

Don’t let your friend’s divorce become your divorce. It’s gut-wrenching to watch your friend go through a divorce. It’s even more gut-wrenching when you’re friends with both people, and you aren’t sure who will get custody of your friendship when this thing finally shakes out. My husband and I had to decide early on that we couldn’t let our friends’ divorce become our divorce. Sometimes that meant not discussing what we thought about the situation and not passing judgment on the other person even when we wanted to. We were there for our friends when they needed us, but we also had to put our spouse and our marriage first.

Tired of my rambling thoughts yet? Well, you’re in luck. That’s all the advice I can think of for now. I may have more later. As I said, we’re only celebrating this milestone year by God’s grace and mercy. We’ve both done plenty of dumb, selfish stuff over the last twenty years that would tank other relationships.

We do have the privilege of coming from a long line of strong marriages. All of our grandparents and both our parents reached the 50-year mark (with the exception of Josh’s grandfather who passed away before his marriage reached that mark). None of our aunts, uncles, first cousins or siblings have experienced a divorce. I don’t know of many families who have that kind of legacy.

I’m not a marriage counselor. You can probably employ all this advice and come out with a very different result, but it’s worked for us over the last twenty years. Maybe you’ll find a nugget in there that’ll help you strengthen your own marriage.


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