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Training for the Long Haul

Marriage is a lot like running a marathon—but the rewards are even better.

Any athlete will tell you that the glamour event of Olympics track and field is the 100-meter sprint. Just watch these runners at the starting line—they strut like peacocks, showing off their muscles; pulling faces; mugging for the cameras; getting ready to explode from the blocks for 10 seconds or so of amazing effort. Nearly everyone can name a great sprinter or two—Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis, Linford Christie.

Now, how many truly great marathon runners can you name? Not so many, I'll bet.

Although the 100-meter sprinters get the glory, they're useless at any distance over 400 meters and almost certainly couldn't run a marathon, despite being extremely fit. Professional athletes will all tell you that the people they really admire aren't the sprinters—they're the marathon runners.

One of the main reasons sprinters won't run a marathon is that they just can't wrap their minds around running 26 miles in one go. The thought terrifies and defeats them before they even attempt it.

When I began running, I started doing just a few miles. Running a marathon seemed inconceivable. But I thought I might be able to work up to a 10k race. The day I finished my first 10k I thought, I can't believe I did it! How on earth does anyone turn right around and run more than four times more? I had a 10k mentality, so that's all my mind would accept.

Later on I raised my target to a half-marathon, and all too soon the big day arrived. I ran the race and as I crossed the line, guess what I was thinking? Thank goodness I reached the finish line. How on earth does anyone turn right around and run this all over again? Impossible! This time I had a half-marathon mentality.

When I eventually ran my first marathon, I stood at the starting line thinking, 26.2 miles. Not 10k. Not 13.1 miles. Not even 20 miles. I'd made up my mind that I was going to run 26.2 miles and not a single yard less! It was difficult; my whole body wanted to stop—many times. But I'd made up my mind, so there was no option but to keep going until I succeeded.

Developing a marathon mentality

Why do so many marriages fail? Quite simply, couples start their married life with a sprinter's mentality and when the reality of the commitment hits them, they bail. They aren't thinking marathon—they're thinking sprint. They're thinking, Glamour and glory, when they need to think, Guts and graft.

The marathon runner doesn't stop running when he gets a stitch in his side—even though he may really want to. He doesn't give up because of a few blisters. Most don't even give up when they pull a muscle; they run on through the pain. And when the runner is on the final stretch, the sense of accomplishment is almost overwhelming. Much more so than a simple sprint. Yet many people give up before experiencing the glory.

In my last marathon I was really suffering around the 20 mile mark when two guys stepped to the side of the road and held up a banner. It read, "Pain lasts but for a moment; glory for a lifetime!" Reading that infused me with fresh energy, and I finished the marathon in my best-ever time. And the glory of the final stretch was as sweet as ever!

Secrets for a marathon marriage

Many couples mistakenly believe that if you love someone, marriage will be easy.

Every couple who's achieved a healthy longevity in their marriage has recognized that there are times of pain when they want to give up, when they even think they don't love each other anymore. But they don't quit. Why? Because they've developed the "marathon mentality"—in which pain doesn't divert a true marathon runner from his or her goal.

Don't be a sprinter—develop a marathon mentality and get set for a great race. Here are some secrets that marathon-marriage couples have discovered.

Pain isn't always a bad thing

While nobody likes pain, it's there for a purpose. A marathon is one of the supreme tests of endurance that average people can undertake. We can learn to acknowledge the pain, and while taking steps to minimize it, we can still run on.

One of the greatest acts of heroism I've witnessed was during an Olympic marathon when the Tanzanian representative fell, badly injuring himself. He got up and struggled on in obvious pain while all the other runners passed him. Although it must have been demoralizing, he refused to give up. He struggled on and entered the stadium with only a few people left in the stands to cheer him home. He finished the race with blood pouring from his leg wound just as they were taking down the finishing line. A television reporter asked why he hadn't given up after falling so badly. He replied, "My country did not send me here to start a race. They sent me to finish a race!" Too many of us start the race but are not so committed to finishing.

It's important to admit to feeling under pressure and ask your spouse for help. If you don't, the pain you feel elsewhere will inevitably come out in your marriage.

If a couple acknowledges that there will be times of pain, then they'll be better able to cope when it happens.

When we feel pain in our relationship, we can stop and analyze why we're feeling that particular pain. Early in my marriage, one of the things I'd do when I felt pain in my relationship was to throw money at it. My wife and I would take a vacation, go for a nice meal, buy some clothes. I tried to buy off our pain, hoping it would disappear. The problem was that it didn't make the issue disappear long term. It only put a bandage over a wound.

When there's pain in marriage, that's a great opportunity to talk with your mate to get to the source of an issue.

Displaced pain can lead to trouble

Tell your spouse when you feel under pressure. Your spouse isn't a mind reader. So often we can be under pressure at work, only to come home and take it out on our partner. This is called displacing the pain.

One of the things I had to learn when I came home after a difficult day at work was to say to my wife, "I had a bad day and I'm feeling stressed and tired." At first it felt like a confession of weakness, and it wasn't easy to admit that sometimes I wasn't coping as well as I'd like to pretend. When I confessed as much to my wife, almost every time she was able to understand and take a bit more of the household pressure for a short time.

On other occasions, after a difficult day of dealing with young children, my wife would sometimes take out her frustrations on me. If I failed to recognize this was happening, the result would be a full-blown argument over pain that had been displaced.

It's important to admit to feeling under pressure and ask your spouse for help. If you don't, the pain you feel elsewhere will inevitably come out in your marriage.

You're married—it's okay to share the difficult things with your spouse. Perhaps you've felt you had to be strong and support your spouse, and so when you feel pain, you pretend it isn't sore. Do you shut out your mate, telling him or her that you can cope?

Why not just admit that you're finding something difficult and ask for support? It might be the very thing that draws you together.

Pain isn't a signal that your marriage is over

When I'm running a marathon, I keep reminding myself that pain is a totally natural and expected part of the race. I don't give up at the first twinge, or even at severe pain. I battle through it. Of course,

I have to put up with some pain if I want to finish the race.

As Christians we forget that Jesus told us that in this life we will have trouble (John 16:33). But too many Christians forget the eternal importance of our race—which includes our marriage. Instead, when some couples hit bumps or pain, they split up, citing "irreconcilable differences" as the cause. What they're really saying is that they encountered a bit of pain and just gave up!

If you never learn how to put up with pain, every relationship you enter into will head down the same path. Pain isn't the end—it's a sign that something needs to be done. In fact, the presence of pain can be a turning point to better things, if you let it.

Pain can't be the focus of your race

Whatever you focus on will begin to define who you are. If all you can see are the bad things in your marriage, it won't be long until your marriage accurately reflects your focus.

In a marathon, if I keep thinking about how painful it is, there's a big temptation to give up. So I try to focus on more pleasant things—the scenery, the joy of running, the anticipation of finishing, other runners (especially those dressed in silly outfits), anything to divert my attention from the pain. It's amazing how often the pain is actually more mental than physical.

The same is true in marriage. Instead of focusing on the annoying habit, such as a spouse's snoring or struggle keeping the checkbook balanced, focus on your partner's great sense of humor or his willingness always to switch off the lights, or any of a hundred other endearing qualities. It's amazing how trivial the irritations become when we remove them from the center of our thoughts.

Try this simple exercise. Take a small coin and hold it at arm's length between your finger and thumb. Does it block much of the view behind it? No, obviously, it doesn't.

Now bring the coin closer to one eye and close the other eye. What happens? It blocks your view almost completely. It's only a small coin but it can completely obliterate your view, if you let it.

You can forget all the tremendous blessings you have together and focus on the one fault until it takes over and dominates your thinking.

Make sure that the thing you think is causing you pain is actually as bad as you're making out. Have you just become so used to whining about something that it's come to dominate your thinking unnecessarily? Don't let a small pain obliterate your view of a great marriage.

Billy Milton, a freelance author, lives in Great Britain. Adapted from the e-book, Building a Marathon Marriage. www.themarriagesite.com

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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