This past year my husband, Mark, and I celebrated our 21st anniversary. During those 21 years, we tripped over many truths about life—and sidestepped a few more. Kind of like Dick Van Dyke and his pesky ottoman.
We had a lot going against us back in 1975. We were 20 years old with 2 years of college remaining, and we had never lived on our own. We came from different backgrounds: Mark grew up on meat and potatoes while I was used to hamburger-surprise casserole. He preferred water-skiing on a steamy lake over my hiking in the cool mountains. But we had 2 key things going for us: determination and our Christian faith. We were committed to each other and to our growing relationship with God.
Determination is solid. Tough. It goes beyond high hopes and sweet endearments. It's the bedrock of a lasting marriage. Although love is essential, it's somewhat ethereal—like trying to capture your breath on a cold day. But when love's intertwined with determination and deep Christian faith, it becomes strong.
Yet just because we were both determined to make our marriage work doesn't mean I didn't want to grab Mark in a headlock a few times. (And vice versa.) But over the years, we've discovered ten truths of a lasting marriage:
1. You say tomato, I say tomahto. When we were first married, we thought it was necessary to like the same things. With innocent accommodation, I tried pan-fried chicken and Mark tried chicken 'a la king. I tried to watch basketball (such squeaky shoes!) and he tried to watch black-and-white movies (such gorgeous shoes!).
It was done with the best of intentions but with mixed results—I learned to like pan-fried chicken and he learned to tolerate recipes that were 'a la this and that. But as we stopped trying so hard to blend our individual tastes into one, we learned there are advantages to not liking the same things. I never have to worry about Mark snarfing up my rhubarb pie, and he never has to worry about me taking a bite of his pumpkin.
And our horizons have been suitably broadened. Because of me, he's experienced the excitement of live theater. And because of him, I've learned to sing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" during the seventh-inning stretch.
Our differences don't diminish our life together. They enhance it.
2. Nobody's perfect. Hosea 2:19 reminds us of our wedding vows: "I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion." But because we're human beings, strong emotions also come with that pledge. Just because you promised to love, honor, and perhaps pick up his socks doesn't mean you don't sometimes feel like stuffing a sock in his mouth. But as the angry feelings come, remember to let them go until you can talk to your spouse without yelling. Think what it would be like to see the sun sparkle across a mantle of newly fallen snow and not have his arm to tug . . . or to wake up on your birthday and not have him there to roll over, squeeze your hand, and say, "Happy birthday, hon."
3. Don't sweat the small stuff. Mark never hangs up his towel. He puts his feet on the glass-topped coffee table. I rarely close a cabinet door (I like to leave a trail where I've been) and I never completely finish a can of Diet Coke. We've tried to change and occasionally, when we remember to work harder at pleasing each other, I close the cabinet doors and he takes his feet off the coffee table when I enter the room. But by remembering God's wise words in Ephesians 4:2, "Be patient, bearing with one another in love," we generally allow each other those foibles. They're not important.
What's important is that Mark brings me carnations for no reason other than he loves me. And I make a point of telling him there's no one else in the entire world I'd rather be with. Moments like those overshadow soggy towels and wasted Coke.
4. Me, myself and . . . we. When I used to turn to God for help during an argument, my prayers could be summarized in two words: "Help me!" I'd burden God with the details of how wrong Mark was and whine about how unfair it was I had to struggle through such stressful times. But as I grew in spiritual maturity, I discovered the humbling fact that I'm not always right. The truth is, God loves both of us, and—now for the real shocker—he isn't necessarily on my side.
With some reluctance, I accepted this. And my prayers changed. Instead of "Help me!", they evolved into "Help us." And he did. Our arguments became shorter when I stopped focusing on how to win and started focusing on how to serve God and my spouse.
5. Consider the consequences. If I don't watch out, my mouth tends to spew all sorts of stray words into the air before I've logged them in. Sometimes the effect is harmless but at other times the words cut like a dagger. And dagger wounds heal very slowly.
It's like I've told my kids when they babble on about something, "Just because it pops into your head doesn't mean it should pop out of your mouth."
That's good advice I've needed to apply. Ten seconds is usually all it takes to think ahead to the consequences of my words. What will happen if I say this? Those blessed seconds can save hours—and days—of nursing open wounds.
Proverbs 29:11 says, "A fool gives full vent to his anger, but a wise man keeps himself under control." Don't be a fool. Shut your mouth.
6. Balance each other. We have three kids. Three glorious, messy, loud, snugly kids. We both work. He coaches, I sing. The garage needs cleaning, the refrigerator needs excavating, and the windows need washing. If we allow it to (and we occasionally do), life could smother us like a wool blanket on an August day.
But when I have one of my crying days—when the fact we're out of peanut butter can turn on the waterworks—Mark's mood is up. He's not "in your face" jolly; he just doesn't let me mope. I do the same for him.
Balance comes into play in another way. Over the years, each of us has teetered on the edge of some pretty harebrained ideas. Or one of us has been tempted to blow money on something we didn't need. (Do we really need a gas grill with three cooking levels?) Most of the time the sane partner cools the heels of the frenzied partner and yanks him or her back to earth.
I can't imagine what would happen if we abandoned our commonsense at the same time. Doubtless, we'd have far less money in the bank and a bigger pile of gadgets and gewgaws stuffed into the corners of the garage awaiting the next yard sale.
7. Plan. We've come a long way since our $75-per-month apartment where we could vacuum the entire place without unplugging the cord . . . where our freezer was so small we had to choose between meat or ice cream (it wasn't that hard a choice). But we didn't go from A to Z in one jump. We discussed our dreams. We made plans that were attainable. From an apartment to a 1,200-square-foot home and beyond. Half the fun of the goal is getting there—and talking about it. Praying about it. Remember, you're not doing it alone: "In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps" (Proverbs 16:9).
God is waiting to be consulted on all the decisions of our lives—quitting or taking a job, moving to a new city, or having children. In marriage, three heads are definitely better than one: husband, wife, and God.
8. Don't butt in. Kids bring you closer together. But kids can also tear you apart. Chances are you've heard your child say, "But, Mom, Dad said I could!"
Unfortunately we fell for this ploy more than once until we compared notes and I discovered Dad had said no such thing. That's when we developed a new strategy. At the first sounds of "But, Mom, Dad said—" I say, "Ask him again." (Their frustrated look gives me a certain wave of satisfaction.)
Many an argument about child-rearing has been quelled by our unwritten rule of "what's mine is mine, so don't butt in." Translated, it means if Carson's room is a pit and I ground him from watching television for three days (which gives him all kinds of time to clean it, of course), my husband can't cancel the punishment. And if Mark gives Emily permission to go to a movie and she calls from the theater and wants to go to McDonald's too, I refer the call to him.
It's all part of saving face and keeping the joint walls of authority strong.
And remember, the very best child-rearing/marriage manual around is the Bible. If you keep your relationship right with God, you have a better chance of keeping it right with your family.
9. Let's make a deal. Mark and I are even-up in many departments. When we graduated from college with degrees in architecture, our grade-point averages were equal—to within one 1,000th of a gradepoint (he still reminds me his was higher). Mark is merciless at Monopoly, but I beat him in Scrabble. The point is, we like things to be equal and fair, so we're always quick to make a deal.
"I'll clean the kitchen if you'll vacuum."
"I'll take the kids to the movie if you'll pick them up."
It's worked well. Everyone wins. And because our everyday life is generally balanced, it stands out when one of us decides to go beyond "the deal." Sometimes, for no reason at all (except I think he's cute), I'll clear off Mark's desk and do the filing he detests. And for no reason at all (except he thinks I'm God's gift), we'll go to a movie that doesn't have a car chase or multiple explosions. The most satisfactory deal is the one that's weighed in the other person's favor.
As Romans 12:10 says, "Honor one another above yourselves."
10. We're number one. We didn't choose our parents, our siblings, our aunts and uncles. And our kids didn't choose us. The only kin I've ever chosen was Mark. And he chose me. Our parents will pass away. Our precious children will grow up and move on. But Mark and I are in it for life. Proverbs 3:3 says, "Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart."
We have an ever-after philosophy. The marriage vows are not traditional hokum. The ceremony has endured for so long because the words are lasting. " . . . For better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish till death us do part."
I do. We do. And with the Lord's help, that takes us a long way toward keeping our commitment.
Nancy Moser is a writer and speaker who lives in Kansas.
Copyright © 1996 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.