My wife and I are celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary this week. At this point in my marital career, I think I could qualify as a “grizzled veteran.”  Like everyone’s marriage, we’ve had trials and joys, but God has been gracious and good to us. As Ashley and I are celebrating 25 years of Job-like endurance on her part, I feel like we’ve both learned a lot. I made the first, great decision by marrying over my head (you ever notice how men say that all the time, but women never do? What’s that all about, guys?) In addition to that keystone decision, as I’ve reflected, there are at least five takeaways that jump right out from our life together. None of them are magic, and you’ve probably heard most of them before, but here they are, in no particular order (except number one):

  1. Be in God’s Word. That’s the most important thing I’ve got. Ash and I aren’t really “couple devotional” kind of people. We’ve never quite been able to pull off the side-by-side Bible study thing, because our mornings are so crazy. I know a lot of couples who do, and it’s awesome. But, we are both in God’s Word daily, letting the Holy Spirit use it to mold and shape us. Marriage is a counterintuitive undertaking: you give when your impulse is to take; you don’t say anything when your impulse is to say the first thing you’re thinking, that really dumb thing that’s going to get you in a ton of trouble; you step in when you want to check out. The only way you can do those things consistently is through the Holy Spirit’s power and through marinating in God’s Word.
  2. It’s not good to be a “stuffer” or an “exploder.” There are two primary ways that people deal with their anger, neither is good in the extreme. Your family sees it manifested in you more often than most. People tend to be “stuffers”- they clam up when they’re angry and don’t talk about what’s bothering them, or they’re “exploders”- emotionally, and sometimes angrily, vomiting on the subject of their anger until it’s out of their system, at which point they’re fine, while the other person is left dealing with the aftermath of the storm. Neither extreme is good. Exploders hurt people, and stuffers exasperate them. I was an “exploder”, Ash was a “stuffer.” I would blow up in anger, which would cause her to clam up. I would think we were through arguing because she wouldn’t say anything (rookie mistake), and she would quietly resent me. This was a horrible combination, fraught with marital danger. Only when the Holy Spirit taught me to calmly talk through how I feel, and gently entice my wife’s feelings out of her, did we ever really have a shot at healthy conflict resolution. We’re certainly not perfect, but we’re definitely better at it now. Jesus helped us both move toward the middle.
  3. Take a “time out.” While I’m talking about conflict, a great gift a friend gave me was the idea of using the “time out.” I used to misread verses like, “don’t let the sun go down on your anger,” and thought I had to just hang in on arguments with my wife, no matter how long they lasted, until they were resolved. As the night wore on and we became more fatigued, the arguments would just get more childish and intense. Until I learned to just take a time out. To walk away. Go take a walk around the block. Go get gas in your car. Work out at the gym. I found that, if I walked away for a minute, that precious time would allow the Holy Spirit to work on my heart, while He worked on her heart, too. He would almost always show me how I was acting like an idiot, and I could come back and apologize, which always opened the door to resolution and forgiveness. The “time out” is relational gold.
  4. Protect date night. When our kids were little, this was really hard, but by the time they reached middle school, we realized that Wednesday nights meant church youth group for them, and a weekly dinner for two for us. This was a huge revelation. And, so, date night began. We had an opportunity one night a week to connect, compare calendars, share our lives, plan for the future, and just realize what we love about each other. Date night became sacred. I wish we hadn’t waited so long. You should try it. Just don’t go to Don Juan’s, because that’s where we do date night, and I need to talk to my wife and not you (you get it).
  5. Never let the kids split you up. There are times in your marriage when you’ll be at home, and your spouse will have absolutely had it with your kids, and your spouse will say something that is utter nonsense. You know it, and deep down, he or she knows it, too. “Praise in public, rebuke in private,” works with employees, and with spouses, too. A quiet hallway conference, outside the hearing of your children– “Honey, did you really mean to threaten to sell our children to Somali pirates just now? Could we maybe come back with a little more productive way to get them to mind us?”– is far more respectful to both your spouse and your children than calling him or her out on the spot. Keep up a united front in your house. Here’s another classic example, based on actual, frequent exchanges in our house:
    “Mom, can I have such-and-such?”
    “Did you ask Daddy?”
    “Yes.”
    “Well, what did he say?”
    “He said ‘no’.”
    “Well, then, honey, I guess the answer is ‘no’.”

The primary human relationship in your life is the woman or man you married. The more your kids see that, the better off they are in their future relationships, and the more stability they feel in your home.

I have many more (for instance, men with too much time and/or too much money on their hands usually get themselves in trouble, and it’s much better for a man to go through life very busy, very tired, yet relatively undistracted by temptation, whether they’re 15 or 51), but space limitations keep me from saying much more.

Your spouse is probably a great husband or wife, but he or she is a horrible god. If you put all your hopes, dreams, expectations, happiness, and need for security in them, they will let you down and you will be crushed.  Or, you’ll jump ship to the next spouse-god, who will fail to fulfill your unrealistic expectations all over again. Conversely, if you put all those needs in Jesus, it will free you up to love and serve your spouse with a servant’s heart, which is a great step towards all God created marriage to be, in all its beautiful, tragic, persevering, magnificent glory.

Jay Ferguson, PhD writes regularly on his blog, The Head and The Heart.