This week Sarah and I retreated to northern Michigan to celebrate our 10th anniversary. It is so cliche to say, “It feels like we have always been together and yet it feels like it hasn’t be 10 years!” but it is totally true. I feel blessed to be married to my best friend, and to learn and experience everything life has to offer with her. We aren’t doing this marriage thing perfectly, but if I may humbly brag, I think we are doing it pretty well.
In celebration of 10 years, here are 10 things we have learned.
1. Learn to Fight Fair.
Everybody wants to have the marriage that knows only cuddles, kisses, and smiles. There’s even a good chance you will have that marriage for the first three days of your honeymoon. But after that you will fight. Sorry to burst your bubble. It is going to happen. It isn’t the end of the world. It is probably even a good thing to do every now and again. It lets the other person know where you are on an issue. It means you are emotionally invested in the relationship. It means you are being real. Fighting isn’t the problem. How we fight is what matters. Too often when we fight, our emotions go up unchecked and our ability to be a caring, rational human being goes down.
This is when we say things we don’t mean or we act in a way that betrays who we want to be.
Don’t try and learn how to not fight. That’s impossible. Just learn to fight fair.
2. Learn Your Dance.
I’m not talking about the waltz or the tango. Although that would be awesome too. I’m talking about the dance you do when you talk about the stuff you always talk about. You know that conversation you have with your spouse about that issue you always talk about? You know how the conversation always goes the same way? You bring it up and then five minutes into the conversation they shut down. Then you get mad because they shut down and raise your voice. That makes them upset so then they bring up something totally unrelated to the original topic. A fight breaks out and nothing gets resolved and now you are just biding your time until the next time you bring up the topic.
That’s your dance.
Sarah and I learned about this from our good friends Jim Herrington and Trisha Taylor and it has been so helpful. Learn how you dance as a couple. Learn your steps in the dance. This is the first steps to learning a new dance and having new conversations.
***For fun: This was the song for our first dance. Our friends Jonathan and Candi sang it at our reception, and then, as a surprise to Sarah, I asked them to record this for our anniversary.
3. Wash Your Hands.
Seriously. I never knew how often I was supposed to wash my hands until I got married. I thought washing them after using the bathroom and before meals was enough. Not even close.
I thought hand sanitizer was a good substitute. I was wrong.
Wash your filthy hands.
4. Be Present.
This is something both Sarah and I have had to learn over the last couple of years. With the advent of iPhones and iPads we found ourselves together at the end of the day, but not present to each other. That’s a big difference, and it is one that took us a while to see how it was affecting our relationship. Distance crept in despite the fact that we were physically close to each other with all the time in the world to connect.
We now stay off of social media for 24 hours once during the week. This is much harder on me than on her, but it is worth it. I also don’t think it is something that all couples need to do, but I do believe you need to figure out how to be present to your spouse.
5. Spiritual Leadership Goes Both Ways.
I will probably take a lot of grief for this, but let me explain. Both Sarah and I grew up with the understanding that men need to be the spiritual leaders of the household. But both of us had different expectations about what that meant. At the same time, I was questioning the whole thing because my beliefs around men and women in roles of spiritual leadership were changing.
For a number of years, Sarah and I “danced” (see Lesson #2) around her wanting me to take a more significant lead in our relationship spiritually. This frustrated me because I didn’t know what she really meant, nor was I sure what that looked like? Is it just initiating a bible study and praying together? Or is more than that?
Two years ago we went on a marriage retreat called Missional Marriage. During that retreat we had this conversation at which point Sarah more accurately described what she meant when she said, “I want to feel like we are partners in ministry.” That I get! When she asked me to lead her spiritually what she was really asking was for me to invite her to participate in the ministry I was doing. Funny thing, this is what I wanted too!
One more point on this topic. In the last 10 years, there has been times when I need Sarah to lead me spiritually. It can be exhausting to always be the leader, especially when you are spiritually dry. Telling men they need to be the leader reinforces the idea that men can never be weak, never be lacking, and never in need. It took me a long time to learn to ask for what I need and doing so has been unbelievably life giving.
6. You Need Friends Outside Your Marriage.
The myth is that your spouse will satisfy all your needs for love and companionship. That’s ridiculous. It is also a huge amount of pressure to put on someone you love. Expecting that much out of one person will crush them. So don’t do it. Make sure you have good friends outside of your marriage. Cultivate those relationships and allow your spouse to spend time with those who meet their needs. It is good for them and it is good for you.
7. Be Willing to Change.
Before marriage, everyone is told, “Don’t try and change your spouse.” That’s good advice. Trying to change your spouse will go badly for you. But the truth is, marriage will change you.
Both Sarah and I have changed a lot because of the other person. Before we were married, my apartment was a mess and I was the guy who planned youth group on the way to youth group. If I was flying by the seat of my pants it meant I was more organized than normal. Sarah is completely opposite of that. Two days after we got engaged, she had a wedding binder filled with tabs and dividers and color coded what-cha-ma-call-its. We are not two peas in a pod.
Ten years later I am the guy who has his sermon done by Tuesday. I dislike disorder in the house and will often start picking up crap lying around before she does. That alone shows you that she has relaxed and learned to take things as they come much better than she used to. Before we got married Sarah was a full-fledged city girl whose idea of camping was a Motel 6. Now she has been backpacking in Montana, Maine, and Nova Scotia. She has also shot a porcupine. The country and the girl are becoming one.
Marriage changes us. And that’s okay. Be open to it. Embrace it. For Sarah and I, it has made us both much more balanced individuals.
8. Learn What Your Spouse Needs, Not What You Think They Need (or Learn What You Really Need).
After college I had been told many times that pride and arrogance were flaws in my character. I knew it was true, but yet it felt odd to hear that because deep down I knew I was filled with self-doubt and insecurity. Sarah, knowing that others thought I could be arrogant, and seeing arrogance in me, took it upon herself to be my personal bubble-popper. When my head would get too big, she would pop my bubble. When suspected my pride might latch on to something, she would bring me back to reality. There were many times where I would come home on Sunday morning talking about how good I felt about the sermon and how people had been impacted and then she would tell me all the things that were wrong with it.
On the one hand, I knew what she was doing and I appreciated her helping me with pride. On the other hand, I began to resent it every time she did it. She very rarely complimented me and I needed that from her.
But I didn’t know that was what I needed.
I’ve since learned that my pride and arrogance were rooted in insecurity and fear. I didn’t need my bubble popped, I needed someone who I loved and trusted to affirm me. Once I learned this about myself, I asked Sarah for what I needed. It has made all the difference in the world for me and for our relationship.
Right now we are staying at a bed and breakfast in northern Michigan without our son. We did this last year for our anniversary also. We will probably do it again.
We go on dates regularly. Without our son.
When I get home from work, my son is often the first one to greet me when I walk in the door. I give him a hug, ask him one or two questions about the day, and then go and find Sarah. We then tell him that “mommy and daddy need to talk” and ask him to leave us alone for a couple of minutes.
It isn’t that we don’t like our son. It’s that we need to make time for each other. We also think it is good for him to see us making time for each other, so we don’t hide the fact that we need to take time for us to be alone.
10. Marriage Won’t Teach You Everything
Not everything I have learned in the last 10 years has been in the space of our marriage. In fact, some of the most important things I have learned about myself and about relationships has been outside my marriage. Sure, I have taken those learnings into my marriage and it has made an incredible impact. But not everything I have learned about myself or about relationships or about God has occurred in my marriage. You have not arrived when you get married. Marriage does not “complete you” or make you whole. To think it does, negates the truth that countless people will not get married and are whole.
That isn’t to say that marriage isn’t a gift or isn’t something special. It absolutely is. Today we are celebrating the gift that it is to the both of us. But there is a whole world that happens outside of marriage that married and unmarried people participate in. Don’t miss out on it. And don’t be afraid to learn from it.
Those are things I’ve learned after 10 years of marriage. What have you learned through yours?