Call me wacky, but I am convinced that any person with two reasonably healthy legs could run a marathon. Yes, I mean the 26.2-mile foot race. I didn't say everybody could win it—or even place in the top half of the field—but everybody could run one. Really. The difference between those who will and those who won't (like me), however, is simply two things: decision and discipline. One must decide that one wants to run a marathon and then ravenously commit to training. And a major component of that commitment is to give much of that all-precious commodity: time.
As a marital therapist and educator, one of the most frequent issues I deal with is couples who, at best, feel like roommates, and, at worst, no longer believe they are "in love." "The passion is gone" and "I don't know who you are anymore" are common laments. For many of you in this reading audience, you may feel you that you are neither headed for the therapist's office nor toward being "out of love" (especially since, if you are a frequent reader of MP, you know that love is a commitment and therefore a choice). But you may still sense that your marriage is less passionate than it once was and that there are times when you and your mate feel like the proverbial ships passing in the night.
If you desire to re-ignite the passion or stoke the marital fires so they burn brighter each day of your marriage, you can do that the same way the marathon runner does: with decision and discipline. You must decide that you want a passionate marriage and then you must commit to doing the things that will bring that type of marriage about. And one of the vital, life-giving disciplines needed to create that environment is the same one our runner needs to get ready for the race: making time to train. Without the time, it just won't happen.
Normally, after couples hear those last two lines about time, I receive a series of eye-rolls, head-shakes, and groans. In our multi-sport teams, multi-church activities, multi-tasking culture, time is as valuable as diamonds. Couples believe that finding "extra" time "just to be together" is about as likely as walking out in the backyard and finding a one-carat gemstone. Frankly, I would agree—if it were just about "finding" time. But successful athletes don't find it; they make it. And they don't let anything get in the way of keeping that commitment to spend time training.
So, before we can discuss "how" to find time together, you must first decide that you are going to spend time together. I know that sounds overly simplistic, but this is where so many couples falter. To keep from failing before you get out of the gate, you must commit to spending time together no matter what. Just as a house does not clean itself and a checkbook doesn't automatically balance, nor does a marriage remain passionate and a husband and a wife stay connected if they do not give and make the time to be together. Period.
If that is the marriage you want, then before you read any further, I implore you and your spouse to hold hands, look each other in the eye, and say, "Babe, let's run a marathon; let's commit to making time to be together." Write it down; date it. Now, let's make it happen.
One of the vital things you must do after deciding to spend time together is commit to protecting that time from all invaders and marauders, which include the phone, work, household chores, and yes, the children. As you are training yourselves to spend time together, you must train the kids, as well. My wife, Amy, and I have instilled in our children what we call the "Three B Rule." If she and I are having some "connecting time," the kids can only interrupt us if someone is bleeding, someone is broken, or something is burning. Beyond that, they must wait to talk to us. We won't take any phone calls, we don't want what the guy at the door is selling, and the kids can entertain themselves and resolve their own conflicts. Really. This idea may make a marathon look easy, but it can be done.
For those of you without children, the task of making time can still be difficult. Since the wedding is over, you may be more inclined to take the marriage for granted while focusing on careers, a house, or hobbies. The earlier you start training to spend regular time together, the easier and more effective you will be when future stealers of your couple time arrive.
Now, you've decided to make time to be together and to protect it from all intrusion; what's next?
Let me offer ten tips for making time together:
- Mark your calendar with a specific time. You must set this up just like a business or dentist appointment. If you just say, "Let's spend some time together tonight," those great time-thwarters such as the stacks of mail, laundry, and dishes will rob you.
- Make one day a week your calendar time. This is a time when you plan your together times for the week. It can be simply ten to fifteen minutes to arrange calendars, but it is where you write down when you will connect during the coming week. Sunday nights work well.
- Plan different types of time. There needs to be time simply talking about our days, time for conflict resolution, and fun only times (dates, cuddles, walks) that we protect from any type of conflict.
- Implement a set of rules like the Three B's. Turn off cell phones, pagers, and TVs. If your kids are old enough, talk to them about what Mom and Dad are going to do. It will teach them much for their own future marriages as well as give them security in yours.
- Find a specific place. In the winter, my wife and I like sitting in front of the fireplace; in the summer, it's on the deck (both times while the kids clean the kitchen). Bedrooms can be a good place to talk but I encourage you to not let the bedroom become a place of conflict resolution; it should be a place of intimate connecting. The symbolism is important.
- Establish goals. Answer, "Why do we want to spend time together?" From that, you realize that you really do want the same thing—a fun, emotionally intimate marriage.
- Protect, protect, protect. Too many clients leave my office vowing to spend time (at least three thirty-minute couple times over the next week) only to return seven days later without having done it once. They let other things invade. Instead of training to run, they ate Twinkies.
- Drop defensiveness. Research has shown that couples in conflict are more prone to interpret their mate's comments and actions in a negative way, even when their mate meant them as neutral or even positive. Believe the best about your partner; remember, you both want the same thing—a good marriage.
- Be realistic. Saying you will spend time together seven days a week will frustrate you and eventually cause you to give up. There should be a brief "How are you?" connection everyday, but as far as carving out twenty to thirty minutes to share your heart, three to four days per week is more realistic.
- Don't give up. Keep working to make it happen. A marathoner has to get over the soreness and get into a routine, but once established, it is easier to keep the training going.
And Then What?
By this point, some of you may be saying, "Okay, we want to spend time together, but what do we do? What do we talk about?"
It is important to remember that our conversations with our mates should regularly have a past-present-and-future perspective. If you think about it, when you decided to marry your spouse, you most likely had spent a great deal of time talking about your pasts, which helped endear you to each other, and you had discussed the future, at least enough to picture a long and happy life together. When we get hung up in only discussing the day-to-day activities of life with each other, we have lost two dimensions that caused us to feel connected to each other. Furthermore, we must remember that our desire and our need is to be emotionally intimate with our mate. If we have dwindled to the sole dimension of day-to-day sharing, and even that sharing is void of emotion, then feeling like passing ships is no surprise.
Therefore, we should regularly be making time to discuss today questions such as: How are you really doing? How did your day at work/with the kids affect you? What decisions are you struggling with? What relationships are giving you strength? Which ones are draining you? How can I encourage you? How can I pray for you? What is God teaching you lately?
We should also take frequent trips into the past to answer questions such as: What special memories do you have of Easter and Christmas? What is your favorite memory of church as a kid? What is an embarrassing moment that you have never shared with anybody? What is your fondest, unrealized childhood dream? Who was your favorite relative as a child? Why? How did your family of origin handle anger? Love? Disagreement? Physical affection? What are some of the Polaroid moments of your past, those significant, frozen-in-your-mind pictures?
Finally, look toward tomorrow. Research has shown that couples who describe their marriages as "extremely satisfying" have some type of shared meaning built into their relationship; they see their marriage as having a purpose larger than any one individual. They see "we" as more important than "me." As such, they can visualize a future together where couple and emotional growth is inevitable. They can still dream together. Therefore, ask questions such as: If we did not have any financial constraints, where would we like to go, what would we like to do, where would we live? If they one day put a tombstone on our marriage, what do we want the epitaph to be? What do we want to be doing together five years from now? Ten? Twenty? What are some of our premarital dreams that we have yet to fulfill? What are we going to do about them?
And then take it to the level of a truly meaningful, God-honoring marriage and ask: What do you feel God is calling us to as a couple, even though it would feel like a big risk? What are three things we can do over the next three months to increase the intimacy in our marriage? What are some topics we have been avoiding that we need to discuss and resolve? What does God think about our financial management? Our sexual relationship? If God were sitting here talking with us, what would he say we needed to talk about?
For those of you still feeling this can never happen, you are most likely caught in a whirlwind schedule that is controlling you more than you are controlling it. If you decide to train for a great marriage, you must realize that for this to happen, other things will have to go. You must decide your priorities. If a great marriage is one of them, you will have to make time to be together; other things will have to go—or wait.
One day when Jesus was teaching about marriage, parents were trying to bring their children close just to have him touch them. Jesus' disciples, believing the Master had more important things to do, were stopping the children from coming. When Jesus saw this happening, he became angry and reprimanded his disciples. He told them, "The Kingdom of God belongs to such as these" (Mark 10:14). The disciples thought Jesus was too busy to be bothered by kids; Christ reminded them how important they were (and he had just reminded them how important marriage was; see Mark 10:1-12).
Children are important, and they do take time. Life is important, and it takes time. God has given you a marriage, and keeping connected with your mate is very important—and it takes time as well. If you are too busy to spend time with your mate, then you are too busy. Christ rebuked his disciples for mixed up priorities; we must ask if he would rebuke us as well.
Twenty-six miles is a long way to run. But it starts with one step on one day; and then doing it again the next day. Decision and discipline. Making time. It can be done. And having an intimate, fulfilling marriage is a greater accomplishment than running a marathon any day.
Dr. Tim A. Gardner is author of Sacred Sex (WaterBrook) and Director of The Marriage Education and Policy Center at the Indiana Family Institute (an affiliate of Focus on the Family).
2001 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.