Luke and Tina sat across from me and my wife and asked the question: “What’s your best piece of advice for marriage?” They were fresh out of college and their wedding was fast-approaching. Their question is a common one, but it’s also a tough one. We get it a lot from members in our small group who are newlyweds or when we do pre-marital counseling, like we were with Luke and Tina.
I wish I could give a quick, simple answer. But I can’t.
In fact, I find it better to sometimes talk about what something ISN’T instead of what it IS. Here’s what I mean: marriages are made up of two, unique sinners that have their struggles. The “best piece of advice” for one couple, might not be what another needs to hear. BUT, I think if we talk about those things that can destroy marriages — what marriages should avoid — those are more universal principles that can help all marriages.
That’s how I want to answer the question.
So as my wife and I have counseled others, walked through marriages that suffered from infidelity, and sought counsel for our own relationship, here are the three things that I think you should avoid with fervor in your marriage.
I recently heard someone call selfishness the “mother problem.” It’s so true. And it’s backed by the Bible: “Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.” Every is a strong word, but it’s there for a reason.
Dennis and Barbara Rainey from the well-respected marriage organization Family Life put it like this: “Selfishness is possibly the most dangerous threat to oneness in marriage. It affects how we talk to each other, how we divide responsibilities in the home, how we resolve conflicts, and even how we spend our time.”
This has been so true in my marriage. Recently, after a very busy week of work, I wanted to take the weekend “for myself.” I wasn’t looking to be a hermit, but I did treat the weekend like I “deserved” some “me time.” Of course, I didn’t communicate any of this (in a healthy way) to my wife. I just started acting like it. So when she asked me to do some projects around the house, I quickly became annoyed: “I’ve been working hard all week,” I told myself. “It’s only fair that I get to do what I want.” Needless to say, it wasn’t soon before an argument ensued.
You know what the conclusion was? I was being selfish. What if my wife took the same approach? She had been working hard all week, too. What if she just decided to have “me time,” didn’t communicate with me, and walked around entitled all weekend? I don’t think I have to answer that question.
In other words, if my marriage is like a bucket and my wife and I are both pouring ourselves into that bucket, we’ll always have water. We won’t be thirsty. But if we’re both taking from that bucket, the water runs dry quickly and dehydration sets in. And likewise, if one person is pouring water in, and the other is taking water out, you never get a full bucket.
Don’t let marriage dehydration set in. By modeling Christ’s sacrificial love and constantly looking for ways to serve, you’ll find quickly that you’re getting a lot more joy and a lot more “me time” than if you approach it in an entitled way.
One of the most beautiful moments in my marriage happened four years ago when I confided in my wife about something I had been needing to tell her for seven years. It was tough, there were tears, and there was pain. But by the end of the night, she told me something that still makes me emotional: “I forgive you.”
Chelsea Cameron has said (and I paraphrase) that we are never more like Christ than when we are forgiving. That was true that night with me and my wife.
Let me add this: Forgiveness is not just a set of words. Forgiveness isn’t as much something you say, but rather something you live out. My wife’s forgiveness didn’t begin and end that night. She has proved to me, in ways I could never imagine, that she forgives me. And even when I continue to mess up in many areas of my life, she lives out Luke 17:3-4.
Why? Because unforgiveness is an internal destroyer. Unforgiveness does more damage to you than it does to others. Sure, it still affects those around you, but the internal destruction is far more devastating than the external.
“One way to lose heaven is to hold fast to an unforgiving spirit and so prove that we have never been indwelt by the Spirit of Christ,” says John Piper.
Paul Tripp talks about how unforgiveness is a dark, evil tool that we use to turn people into “debtors” and demand what is owed to us.
“This is nasty stuff. It is a relational lifestyle driven by ugly selfishness,” he says. “It is motivated by what we want, what we think we need, and by what we feel. It has nothing to do with a desire to please God with the way we live with one another, and it surely has nothing to do with what it means to love others in the midst of their struggle to live God’s way in this broken world.”
What kind of life is that?
There’s a fairy tale in Christian circles that I think needs to be destroyed. It’s a lie. And it’s a lie that a lot of us fathers are guilty of telling our daughters. It involves convincing our children that there is “the one” out there. In fact, we tell them to make a list of all the characteristics this “one” should and will possess. And then we tell them to wait for that person, and when they find the person that checks all those boxes, you’ve found your soulmate.
It’s a downright, destructive lie. I’ve talked about this before in-depth. Here’s why it’s destructive: Because it creates a set of expectations that are impossible to live up to. And those expectations can ruin a marriage, especially when they are unspoken.
Your husband or wife is not and will never be a perfect person. The world has only ever seen one of those, and He doesn’t share your last name. And according to Liz Wann, the Devil uses these unmet expectations to drive a wedge between you and your spouse:
Satan wants us to think marriage is about fulfilling our unmet needs and desires, living the dream sold in romance novels, checking off a box, or finally getting our lives together. He’s slowly, gently rocking us into an apathetic sleep, so that we’ll settle for less. We must wake up and see how our unrealistic expectations set the bar way too low. Our desires are too small when we place ultimate hope in our husband or marriage itself. Our expectations should rise as God uses our unmet expectations — and the resulting disappointment and hurt — to drive us to himself. Marriage is a road that brings us to the greater destination: God himself.
Here’s the irony: These expectations can also take the form of unrealistic standards we set for ourselves.
Dennis Rainey calls these expectations “phantoms” and warns: “Phantoms are an unattainable standard by which we measure our performances, abilities, looks and characters, and they can derail marriages.”
He continues: “Within your mind you have a picture of how you should act as a husband or wife, father or mother. And chances are this image is so perfect, so idyllic, that it is completely unattainable.”
You know what you should expect in marriage? That it’s going to be hard. That you’re going to have to fight for it. That God is going to use it to refine you, transform the world, and bring Him glory. And through that process you find something so much better than temporary happiness, you find joy.
These three things are just as prevalent in seasoned marriages as they are in new ones. In fact, I think sometimes it’s the couples that have been together for a while that can be more susceptible to letting these marriage-killers creep in. But here’s the good news: Even if they’ve taken over your marriage, even if you have dubbed your marriage lifeless, there is still hope! It’s never too late to make a decision to change. There are resources out there to help you.
You will go through droughts in your marriage. But that’s normal. It’s really about what you do to find the water that’s important.
“If the old fairy-tale ending ‘They lived happily ever after’ is taken to mean ‘They felt for the next fifty years exactly as they felt the day before they were married,’ then it says what probably never was nor ever would be true, and would be highly undesirable if it were,” C.S. Lewis writes.
“Love […] is not merely a feeling. It is a deep unity, maintained by the will and deliberately strengthened by habit; reinforced by (in Christian marriages) the grace which both partners ask, and receive, from God.”
That’s the kind of love that Christ modeled and that can save a marriage.