Today, I celebrated 21 years of marriage to Vanessa and have much cause to give thanks to God for an extraordinary journey of life and love with the person I promised to "love, comfort, honour and sustain...forsaking all others, [and] be faithful to as long as [we] both shall live."
It is easy to recite these words in a moment during a wedding ceremony but much harder to live them out for a lifetime throughout a marriage. Our marriage has had moments when we have been far from loving towards each other, times when our words have not been very honouring and occasions when our resources or priorities have been barely sustaining. Yet, despite these challenging times, somehow, the commitment we made to each other 21 years ago has kept us faithful to these promises, forsaking anything and anyone that would threaten our relationship.
How is this possible in a time when there has been a seismic shift in attitude towards the pattern and permanence of marriage and in a culture where divorce rates are at an all time high?
Twenty one years of marriage does not make us experts nor does it give us immunity to the challenges of an unknown future, but it has provided us with a real time laboratory to learn and apply some principles that have helped us along our journey. While there is so much we have yet to discover and so much we still get wrong, maybe there is something from our journey so far that might empower another couple to go the distance.
So, for what it's worth, here are our top 10 relationship principles that have helped us in our marriage:
1. Divorce is not an option!
This is not a denial of reality or a judgement on divorce, but a conscious decision we made as we prepared to be married. Maybe, we were young and naive, but taking divorce off the table before we encountered any real problems gave us two options when we did - sort it out or stay miserable! It is crazy how much this simplistic determination has helped us to deal with some of the toughest of times. When tempted to deny, blame or avoid, knowing that neither of us is going to walk away gives us the space and security to find a solution.
2. Never let the sun go down on your anger
This biblical wisdom from Ephesians 4:26 has protected us from allowing resentment and bitterness to infest our relationship. When applied, it is impossible to stay angry! That doesn't always mean disagreements are solved in a day, but it does mean that we can go to bed with the right attitude to work towards a resolution the next day.
3. Always admit when you are wrong and never be too proud to say sorry
I learned this lesson at high school when a year level coordinator I didn't care for much coached me into returning to the classroom to apologise for my behaviour in front of my peers. This humbling experience has served me in every personal and professional relationship since. As a husband, father and leader of a church, being willing to admit my mistakes and say sorry for my part in any conflict has been the single most powerful contributor to resolving relationship issues.
4. Set clear relationship boundaries
In our roles as church leaders we spend a lot of time interacting with people of the opposite sex, however, we never do this alone or without each others knowledge! There is a vulnerability that exists when people with unmet physical, emotional, intellectual or spiritual needs make a connection with someone who seems to understand them better than their partner. We have seen way too many innocent relationships that start for all the right reasons cause irreparable damage to marriages because they develop for all the wrong reasons.
5. Trust your partners instincts
As a guy who values relationships with other people and enjoys open and friendly conversation, I am often clueless to signs of 'over friendly' or flirtatious behavour. I used to dismiss my wife's radar as insecurity, however, her instincts have proven to be more right than wrong. And even, on the rare occasion, she is wrong, why would I want to interact with another woman in a way that risks eroding the foundation of trust in our relationship? This is one place where "forsaking all others" should not be ignored.
6. Schedule time with each other
We seem to be living in an increasingly time poor society, where there are so many demands on our time. Our children, busy schedules, driven natures and mission focus has taught us the hard way that we need to be very intentional about scheduling time to nurture our relationship with each other. This may sound a bit clinical, but we have discovered that unless we plan to do something as simple as going out for a coffee together or seeing a movie, it often doesn't happen.
7. Spend time alone
As much as spending time together is crucial for a marriage, it is as equally important to spend time alone or with friends doing the stuff you love. I love cycling and photography, Vanessa loves scrap booking and shopping. When we invest time in these activities our energy and tolerance levels are higher than when we don't. It almost feels counter-intuitive in a marriage relationship, but when we look after ourselves we are far better equipped to look after each other.
8. Know what fills each others tank
Bringing the last two principles together, we have learned how important it is to discover what energises each other and to make sure that this input exceeds our output. Pastor Wayne Cordeiro gave a powerful lesson at a Willow Creek Leadership Summit where he taught and illustrated this idea with a tank that needs to be constantly filled so it doesn't run empty by the things that drain it. If we continually allow our tank to drain, without knowing what fills it, and run on empty long enough, we put ourselves at serious risk of being emotionally, physically or spiritually depleted, leaving nothing left for our marriage.
9. Have an aligned faith journey
As a Christian couple we have centred our marriage on Jesus Christ who is the foundation of our faith experience. I have often drawn a simple triangle for other Christian couples (the same diagram could be applied to any faith perspective) putting a cross at the apex of the triangle to represent Jesus and each others name at the opposite corners of the base to illustrate the importance of having an aligned faith journey. The distance between each other along the base of the triangle decreases when we are both focused on Jesus and are moving in the same direction closer towards Him on our faith journey. If one of us goes off course, no matter how close the other may be moving towards Christ, the gap between each other increases. For a marriage to remain centred on Jesus Christ, it is so important to grow together and stay aligned in our journey of faith.
10. Pray together!
There is a saying that asserts, "A family (couple) that prays together, stays together." It is true!