This week, Bill and I celebrate 17 years of marriage. 17 years. It seems like such a long time and yet just this week a precious couple we know celebrated 41 years! And my parents celebrate 46 years in a couple of months! I’ll be honest, there was a point in my life when I wondered if I’d ever make it to 17 years. My first marriage ended after only 4 1/2 years. I wasn’t sure if/when I’d get married again and the divorce rates for second marriages are higher than for first marriages. So each year at this point, seems like a true win.
It feels like a win because there have been some years, some seasons, that were really hard and I wondered how we would make it. Over time (and with personal and marriage therapy) and with a generous outpouring of God’s grace, I’ve learned some things about loving another person, loving myself, and loving God. These lessons (and again, personal and marriage therapy and God’s grace) have carried us through these 17 years.
In honor of our 17th anniversary, here are 17 lessons I’ve learned about marriage. I hope they might give you encouragement, hope, and wisdom.
- Pray. Pray for your spouse. Pray for your marriage. It seems a little cliche to say it, yet it is so important. Many years ago I was talking to a pastor about Bill and he said “You aren’t his Holy Spirit. It is not your job to change Bill. You can pray for the Holy Spirit to do what only the Holy Spirit can do.” I have remembered and practiced this advice since that conversation. (Note: the situation in question that day with the pastor – the Holy Spirit did indeed do what only the Holy Spirit can do.)
- Do your own work. And I’m not talking about paid work or work around the house. I’m talking about internal/emotional/personal growth work. Bill can’t make me a better person and I can’t make him a better person. We each have to do our own work toward growth, healing, and maturity.
- Think of your marriage as a separate, third entity. My best friend helped me understand this concept. One day she told me “I’m not on your side. I’m not on Bill’s side. I’m on your marriage’s side.” Framing my thinking and decision making by thinking about what is best for my marriage (and not just me) has helped navigate some tricky and difficult situations.
- Own your own stuff. And I don’t mean actual items. Owning your own stuff means taking responsibility for the things you’ve said, choices you’ve made, and actions you’ve taken. Stop blaming and deflecting and own it. In many ways, owning your own stuff is connected to doing your own work. Be responsible for you.
- Laugh together. I’ve had to learn this lesson over and over. I’m not the funny one in our marriage. Laughter has broken through tense moments (Bill has this weird knack for whipping out the Ric Flair “whoo” at all the wrong yet right moments). Laughter has helped us reconnect after difficult days/weeks/months (thank you Holderness Family and John Crist). Laughter helps on get back on the same page. This is our real life experience and it is what medical experts say too.
- Cry together. Too often, even in marriage, we hide our true emotions from others. It is really important to share the hard emotions with your spouse. Taking the chance to be vulnerable and cry with Bill gives him the opportunity to show me he can be a safe, soft, trustworthy place for me to fall apart. It goes the other way too. In some ways, the times we’ve cried together have done more to make our marriage strong than laughing together has.
- Have time apart. We need time for ourselves and time with friends. We need safe, healthy relationships outside of our marriage. We have friends we share (individuals and couples) and friends that are just ours. These friendships give us support and encouragement and fun. We are better people and a better couple because we have time away from each other to nurture our friendships.
- Have adventure together. Too often, Bill and I have gotten bogged down by the daily humdrum of family life. We get caught up in schedules and budgets and chores and kids’ needs. When this happens, we often find ourselves grumpy and arguing and disconnected. Some type of adventure gets us out of the routine. A hike at a new place. A camping trip. An activity we’ve never done. Even a drive through a new city or a walk through an unexplored part of town. Even small adventures shake us back into who we are.
- Know what the tripwires are and where they most often lurk. The thing about tripwires is that you often don’t see them unless you are looking for them. And if you are looking for them, it means you are in a situation or environment where they are likely to be hiding. For me and Bill, one tripwire has to do with how we approach projects. I’m a big picture thinker and I want to get it done (and not always with the most attention to detail). Bill is very detail oriented with projects, wants it done right, and seems to take forever (from my perspective at least). While these perspectives are complimentary and actually can pair well together, they seem to trip us up when we work on a project together. We know the situation the tripwires are most likely to hide, so now we know to look for them before we blow up.
- Have sex talks more than you think you need to. And I don’t mean locker room talk and dirty jokes (hey, unless that is your thing). I mean honest, vulnerable conversation about what you learned (or didn’t learn) about sex growing up, your views about sex, what is and isn’t ok to share with friends about your sex life, personal and family histories of sexual abuse, what you like and don’t like, what you’ve always wanted to try and where the hard stops are, when you feel uncomfortable and when you feel at ease, what really turns you on and what really turns you off. Talk about it all and keep talking. Sometimes the conversations are hard and sometimes they are really uncomfortable. The more we’ve talked about sex, the better our sex life has gotten. Sex is a good gift from God and meant to be an enjoyable means of connection in marriage.
- Learn to trust each other’s gut feelings. There are multiple instances when Bill or I have just “had a feeling” that turned our stomach or wouldn’t leave us. Sometimes it has been a safety issue (like not letting our middle school boys go into a bathroom alone) and sometimes it has been related to a decision (like saying yes to a particular job offer). As we’ve learned to trust our own and each other’s gut feelings, we’ve learned to really use the strengths of the other to fill in the gaps in our marriage and make Team Mares stronger. This trust comes with time and work and communication.
- Let it gooooo, let it goooo! (Did you sing it like I did as I typed it?!) Seriously, some stuff you just have to let go. Bill likes his t-shirts folded a certain way. I tried for years to fold his laundry for him and would get mad when he’d redo everything I’d just done. So I stopped. Now when I fold clothes, Bill’s clothes get set aside and he folds them himself. I’m not mad about it. I don’t spend my time or energy on it. I just let it go. And before it seems like I’m a saint, Bill has to let stuff go too. It used to drive him nuts that I would leave half drank cups of hot turned cold tea with the tea bag in it on the end table or night stand. These days, he just collects them up and puts them in the sink. He let it go.
- Figure out how to have date nights. When the kids were little, sometimes it meant scraping together money for a babysitter and finding a cheap or free activity in town. Sometimes it meant putting kids to bed early and having a date at home night. As the kids got older and involved in activities, sometimes our date would be a walk around the sports field while they practiced. Since we have a wide age range of kids, when the oldest ones were responsible enough, sometimes we’d sneak out for a really late movie after all the littles were in bed (and just suck it up the next morning with and extra cup of coffee or can of Coke). These days, date nights are easier since the kids are all old enough to be at home unsupervised for a bit, but finding a free night is hard! Whatever the season of life you might be in, figure out how to have some time for just you two. The goal is that long after the kids are out of the house, the spouse will still be around. The marriage has to be a priority.
- Combine money. I know this one is controversial and many people will disagree. In all but very few situations (like if one spouse comes into the marriage as a gajillionaire or in situations where addiction or significant mental illness is present), his money and her money needs to become our money when you get married. Joint accounts. Joint budget. Joint bills. Joint decisions. Both spouses have access to all accounts. Fully combined finances shares power, decreases opportunity for secrets, and tangibly shares responsibility for providing and caring for home and family. Sure, one spouse may be more gifted or knowledgeable in the actual tasks of family finances and that is ok. Combined money makes spouses communicate and work together toward common priorities and goals.
- Get help. Marriage counseling seems to be such a taboo topic. It shouldn’t be. Sure, it might be a hail Mary play to try and save a marriage that seems beyond repair. It might be a way to heal from some really hard thing that happened. Marriage counseling can also be a tool for deeper connection, a safe space to unpack difficult feelings, a judgement free zone to discuss hard things, and a means for learning more skills to keep your marriage strong for the long haul. You might go to counseling during a season of high stress, major transitions, or big decisions. Marriage counseling is one of the best decisions Bill and I have made together.
- Communicate. Learn how your spouse hears things best and speak their language. For example, Bill has some short term memory issues from a couple of bad concussions back in the day. If I need him to pick up grocery items on the way home, I need to call him and talk to him about it, then when I know he has gotten closer to the grocery store (he has a long commute), I text him the list. If I do just one of those things, he’s likely to forget. Bill also really dislikes digital calendars, so we still keep a paper calendar and a dry erase calendar in the kitchen. Bill has learned that when I’m stressed or tired or overwhelmed, I don’t want some long story about the background and the why, I just want the important facts, the bullet points. As we have learned how to communicate – and WHEN to communicate – Bill and I have found that we argue less and understand more. Communication is such an important skill in marriage and we don’t just naturally know how to do it well. We all have to work at it.
- Indulge your spouse once and awhile. This will look different for every couple based on personalities, resources, and season of life. There were times when indulging each other meant saying yes to the fancy coffee or the “good toilet paper” (those were the really lean years). Indulging your spouse means giving them an opportunity to simply enjoy something for the sake of enjoyment! Be the one to say yes, to spoil them sometimes, to do that special thing or give that special gift. Be the person who pays attention to what makes your spouse smile and light up and giggle and be the one to bring that delight into their life. Your marriage will thank you.
These lessons are some of the things I’ve learned through experience. In 17 years, Bill and I have weathered two moves, adding 6 children to our family, a debt-free journey, being on WIC and food stamps, 2 kids graduating high school, 20 different jobs between us, my journey through seminary and ordination, several private family struggles (which aren’t open for internet disclosure), 3 grandparent deaths, about 6 car accidents, the planning and execution of a 16 day family camping trip with 8 of us in a 30′ travel trailer, 17 years of NASCAR racing travel (9 of those in the exhausting Cup Series), countless sports practices and events, 6 different public schools with our kids, and more dead fish than we can count. Plus the normal stuff of life. It has never been easy and yet by the grace of God and lots of hard work, here we still are. And truthfully, we are better today than we ever have been (again, God’s grace and therapy).
Bill’s lesson to add: Don’t draw lines in the sand. Leave you and your spouse wiggle room in situations because you never know what may happen.
For those who have been married more than 17 years, what lessons would you add?